Following I 70 With a Writer’s Notebook in Hand


Baltimore, where I live, is at the beginning of Interstate 70. Every time we drive along that stretch of the highway, we pass the mileage sign. I look and I wonder what it would be like to just start out and go to those far-away places on the sign.

Now I’m doing it. I’m off on a road trip across the USA with my daughter and granddaughter, following I 70 most of the way. I’ve been across the US more than once, but not on this route.

When I travel I always have a small notebook with me. Writers do that. You never know what adventures you will run into on the way. Sometimes even the smallest thing sparks the imagination.

My imagination was dampened our first day out, though. We followed I 70 through the mountains in Maryland and Pennsylvania in the driving rain. Sometimes it was blinding. I had the first shift as driver. There were times I couldn’t see beyond the hood of our car. Now that I am away from it, I wonder how that experience could become a story or part of a story. It was pretty scary. The gray of the sky, rain hurling at the windshield like thousands of nails, trucks sending a spray of water at us. Did they do that on purpose? Probably not, but what if they did? Imagination is at work again. I suspect that one day that blinding rain will show up in in some story.

I was eager to get to Indianapolis, Indiana where we planned to stay overnight. It made an insanely long day, especially with the slow-down through the rain. But when my daughter found that we could stay at the Crown Plaza built in the old Union Station, Indianapolis we decided to go for it. They have 26 old Pullman train cars divided into bedrooms. There is a private train car in the third book of The Last Crystal Trilogy. It is attached to the Santa Fe Chief—that was when the Chief was THE train to take from Chicago to LA.

The outside of our train car.

People can still do that—buy a train car and have it fixed up to specification. I saw lots of pictures of private train cars and floor plans for private cars when I did research for the book. But spending the night in half of a car turned into a hotel room sounded like an exciting prospect. Imagination is important, but so is real experience. I wasn’t disappointed! There were lounge chairs and two large beds and a bath. It was cozy, but with just enough room for the three of us. There were plaster cast statues to spark the imagination, too. You could almost see the crowds bustling to get on board. Or, as in this picture taken by my daughter, three mischiefs trying to hitch a ride on top of the train.

Day 1 and my notebook is full of ideas.

Where did you get the idea?

“Where did you get the idea for the book?” This is one of the questions Mrs. Schmidt’s class wanted to know. It’s a good question. Where do ideas come from?

Writing is different for every writer. Many writers say you should write from experience. You write from who you are. I don’t see how a writer can do anything else. Even those things you imagine come from your experience of imagining and wondering. An imagined experience is filtered through your life-experience. Somebody else, with very different experiences might imagine the same thing very differently.

The trilogy started years ago when my daughter was a toddler. I’m a grandmother now, so that shows you how long the ideas incubated. We were visiting family in California. An uncle told us that his father worked for the railroad. His grandparents lived in California, so he and his brother used to take the train all the way from Missouri to California every summer by themselves.

I got to thinking about what kind of mischief you could get into when you’re eight or eleven or twelve and riding on a train without a parent or somebody to look after you. Sometime later I happened to read a newspaper article about private railroad cars. People can buy or lease their own car and have it all fixed up for luxury traveling. So what if you’re a kid exploring the train and you accidentally got into a private car?

Now here is the beginning of a story. Two ideas from very different experiences are connected. But I had a question.  Who might they run into?  What might happen to them? I began imagining a quest. Then it seemed wrong to have two boys and no girls, so I decided there would be two girls as well. Book three in the trilogy was off to a start, even though I didn’t know it was book three.

Experiences, questions, and curiosity are the stuff that help to build a story. I’ll talk more about the ideas in another post. Maybe you have a question or an idea to share.