Reading on the Road


This month, Redbud took to the high seas. By which I mean, Arshia and I were both fortunate enough to be able to travel internationally for a few weeks. Arshia visited Portugal, while I boarded a fifteen-hour flight for an adventure in India. 

I brought two books with me and purchased a third in a bookstore in Bombay. I was careful when curating these tomes; I didn’t just snatch the ones that I’ve been dying to read all summer and stuff them in my suitcase. Instead, I did research on the best English-language books that take place in India, and made sure to bring those along. 

Why? For me, one of the greatest joys when traveling is to read a book that takes place in the country or city that I’m visiting. I love to stumble on references to squares or restaurants or streets that I’ve recently encountered myself; I love to meet characters whose lives revolve around the places where I’m wandering; I love to learn the history of the country I’m visiting, or add more texture to my understanding of daily life there. 

Here was my India reading list: 

Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie: a historical tour-de-force, a whirlwind tour through Indian history and geography in the decades after Independence and Partition. 

The Hungry Tide, by Amitav Ghosh: a book about adventures in the Sundarbans, a maze of jungly waterways in East India. 

The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy: stunning prose, intriguing structure, beautiful, sad story, plus an excellent look at Kerala, one of the states that I visited on my trip. Definitely my favorite of these three. 

My love for reading books while traveling makes me reflect on the importance of setting in a novel or short story (setting can be defined as place, culture, social class, historical time period, time of year, weather conditions--anything that adds to the milieu). Some authors don’t focus on this aspect of fiction; Sally Rooney, for example, whose work has taken the literary world by storm this year, doles out her setting details in tiny drips. Although her work takes place in Ireland in the 21st century, it could probably be transported to any contemporary place that has universities and class tensions. The advantage of this kind of setting-less fiction is that it leaves the reader free to focus on other aspects: the characters, their tensions, the plot and dialogue. Perhaps setting-light work has a better chance of passing into timelessness, since without the baggage of setting details, readers from any time and place can easily immerse themselves. 

However, I’m a setting-focused reader and writer. I do think that although you might lose some readers when committing wholeheartedly to a milieu, you can also gain so much by loading your story with sensory details about a culture and place. For me, reading scratches the same itch as traveling: transportation to a different place and culture, transforming my understanding of other people’s lives. Finding people I can relate to, or not, in a very different world.

So, if you yourself are a setting-focused writer, how can you integrate this element of fiction into your own work without it feeling forced or clunky? Here’s an exercise I shared with my students at the three-day intensive workshop at Quail Ridge Books last month:

Character is inextricably intertwined with setting. Instead of describing something that anyone would notice, describe something that only your character would notice. Or only someone in your character’s mental state would notice. Or only someone in your character’s predicament would notice.

Try these two exercises:

  1. Florida: Describe Florida from the perspective of a woman who’s from New York City, has been forced to move to Florida because of work, and hates it there. Then describe it from the point of view of someone who is visiting on vacation, hates the cold, and longs to move there. 

  2. Sit in the living room or kitchen of your house. Describe it from the perspective of:

  • Someone who just lost their job

  • Someone who is being chased by zombies and needs to barricade the room for their own protection

  • Someone who just got engaged

Are you working on a story set in a particular milieu? How are you going about integrating the setting details? 

Alternately, do you have a reading list for a particular destination, whether it’s international or within the United States? Let us know in the comments!