The Roads Less Traveled

When I need to recharge the creative batteries I go to a part of my metropolitan area that I have never been to before and either walk or drive for several blocks, dictating notes about what and who I see. I started doing this several years ago, when my two sons were in short pants. One Christmas break I had pretty much broken the bank while assisting Santa Claus and, as will happen with children between the ages of 5 and 40, they were bored and looking for something to do. I don’t know why or how I thought of it, but I suggested that I would take them down some streets that they had been past frequently, but never been down. I also offered to take them, if possible, into buildings they had seen, but never entered. We had a lot of fun doing it. We went to recording studios and old hotels and down streets that had houses that had been built in the 1870s, where people had lived and died and procreated and slept and waken thousands of times over decades, their lives strange and unfamiliar layers that others would later walk upon. And I started imagining what had happened in each one, to this teenaged girl or that widowed husband or those families for whom the term “living in quiet desperation” had undoubtedly be coined.
My sons are older and have lives of their own but I still take those walks and make those drives when the page is blank and the well seems empty.  A few months ago I noticed a small house set back off a street, between a twelve-unit apartment building and a duplex, like a small child trying to unobtrusively hide behind two much bigger siblings. The house has apparently been there for a while — the auditor’s office lists its date of construction as “old” — and looks to surely be haunted.  It figures prominently in a project I’m working on. There are others buildings and people like that house, full of stories, just waiting to be opened and read. There are storerooms without signs that are barred with new locks during the day and where parking lots fill at odd hours of the night. And there are people who were someone’s son or daughter who sit, reliably as the USNO Master Clock, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee on benches and in alleys, some of whom know secrets that would curl your hair, if you were but to ask.
Each person, each building, is a book, some humdrum and common, others almost — almost — beyond imagination. Do you look? Do you ask? Have you ever opened a door not your own and been surprised by what you found? Or asked a stranger a question and been shocked by the answer? All of the stories will never be told, but many are there for the asking.

10 thoughts on “The Roads Less Traveled

  1. Good idea. I’ve certainly had ideas come to me when intentionally planning to visit places, but just hopping in the car and going someplace different to see what happens hadn’t occurred to me. That’s what happens when you get too locked down in the mundane daily routine, I guess.

    I’ll have to try it. I know just the place in our town to start, too.

  2. Back in my acting days, late 70s in New York, I used to hang out in Times Square. You should have seen it in those days! (I sound like Burt Lancaster in Atlantic City). I just people watched. In fact, walking anywhere in NYC is a cornucopia of plot and character material. There was a guy, off his meds, who danced in the street and called himself “Disco Freddy.” A quarter century later, he ends up in my novel Try Darkness.

    It’s a little harder in L.A. I have to work to get somewhere else and get out of the car. I do enjoy going downtown by subway (yeah, we have a subway now, humbly defined). I have my zombie lawyer with an office on Broadway, between 3d and 4th Street, just so I force myself to do research “by walking around.”

  3. An interesting way to scene scout. When I lived abroad I used to wonder around cities for hours, just to see what’s what. Found a lot of hidden gems. Helped me think up general story ideas too.

    A bit off topic, I was wondering if anyone could give me some advice. Last week, I received a partial request for my latest MS. I happily sent it off and received a lightning quick response for revisions. No guarantee of a full request or for representation after they’re done though. Has anyone ever heard of anything like this on a partial? Not sure what to do.

  4. I do that all the time. I get of the main roads and search the side streets and alleys. I currently live and work out of a monolith built in 1888.

    It is a constant work in progress and remodeling is only a dream. My only goal is to stay ahead of the deterioration.

    On the third floor I discovered 1912 Socialist Party campaign posters petrified into the ancient plaster. One of the spaces had been the office of the local Socialist Party. Another had steamship time tables embedded in the plaster.

    I go upstairs where the height and thick brick walls drowns out all sound of my town and just listen to all the life and stories the old building contains.

    I love it, but sure wish the roof didn’t leak . . .


  5. I’m married to my Hero as you’ve heard me say before. Carl is a Frontiersman and I’m sure would have been happy to be born in Daniel Boone’s era.

    He’s constantly dragging me hither-and-yon.

    What’s amazing about that little fact is I see characters everywhere, and meet people with interesting stories, and I feed my imagination from all the little side-trips we take.

    My last two novels are rich with characters we lived with when we lived in Vermont – both the people, the setting, and the wild animals. I love it that you guys do that too.

    Carl collects and sells antiques now, and Terri Lynn he would love it that you spent that time reading those relics you found in your house.

    Inspiration’s all over.

    I’m not sure about the answer to Anonymous’ question about the revisions on the partial – anyone else?

  6. BK, good luck. It goes without saying that some of the most interesting places in a city are ones where you don’t want to leave your car. I recommend going to those areas early to mid-morning, before the corner hustle starts.

    James, when I lived in San Francisco in 1973, there was a guy who sat on Market Street at all hours of the day and night. He was blind, and sat with a large, old appearing book spread across his lap. The book was not in Braille, but was written in what appeared to be arabic characters. He would trace them with his fingers and “read” out loud. I wrote an early story — a very bad one — about how his reading was keeping the Apocalypse at bay. If he stopped, that was it. Game over.

    Anon: I am taking it that your submission was to an agent, who requested three chapters, or something to that effect, and then came back asking for revisions of what you had submitted. Apparently they saw something promising in your submission but didnt’ feel that you were quite “there” yet, and want to see if you can take it up a further step. Of course, they’re not under any obligation to represent you, even if you do the revisions, but they seem to at least still be interested in you, which in itself is a plum these days. To answer your specific question, I’ve heard of these situations occurring, but they don’t come along every day.

    Terri, when you talk about staying ahead of deterioration, you just described my day to day existence! Physically and mentally. Good luck with that building. Two friends of mine just bought an old building in New Orleans and are restoring it, so I can kind of imagine what you are going through.

    Paula, Carl sounds like a keeper. In many ways. But you knew that already. You could probably do a series around him! I bet he has some great stories.

    Happy exploring, one and all!

  7. Fantastic idea. Like James, it brings me back to acting class days… 🙂 I find the doors on the Queen Mary particularly captivating – more so after reading the ship’s haunted tales!

  8. August, I first got started with this by wandering around New Orleans (not always a good idea!). Even pre-Katrina, there were quite a few abandoned houses and buildings with nefarious goings-on taking place. One book I refer to even to this day when I don’t have the time or inclination to get out is HAUNTER OF RUINS: The Photography of Clarence John Laughlin. It is apparently out of print but your local library should have a copy. Laughlin had a talent for finding deserted buildings, dressing them up just a bit, and making them unsettling. Lots to write about there.

  9. Great post, Joe. What a clever way to get the juices going.

    During summers in NY I used to lay on a towel down by the shore with a pen and pad under hand. With eyes closed, I would write down the snippets of conversations I’d hear from folks walking the beach.

    To my surprise, I heard this familiar voice talking to another say, “Whaddaya kiddin’ me?” I broke out in laughter because I recognized the voice as an acquaintance who I had always heard speak w/a Brittish accent. He didn’t know I was there and he was talking in his true voice: down-home Bronx.

  10. Kathleen, I LOVE dipping into adjoining conversations. My wife and I were having dinner one night at a Mexican Restaurant that happened to have a Margarita happy hour going on. There was a table of six well-toasted ladies at the table adjoining ours, and they were having an uproarious time discussing their first Brazilian waxes and the reactions of their significant others to the same. I choked root beer up my nose at least twice that night.

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