I think a lot about out setting when I’m writing, visualizing characters walking down cobblestone streets, climbing castle walls, or leaping across Venetian gondolas. I don’t have to have been to a place to use it in a story, but it helps. I love incorporating all the sensory delights of a real location into my work: the rich colors of afternoon sunlight, the scent of olive trees after a rainfall, the echo of water lapping in stone canals, the taste of a freshly-baked pastry. It’s one of the reasons I love to travel.
But usually, I trip doesn’t start for me until I get to the destination. Flying itself holds no real allure; it’s just the price you pay to visit interesting places. A chatty pilot will occasionally try to break the tedium by announcing some landmark –“hello folks, this is your captain speaking. If you look off to your right side, you’ll see the bright lights of Ottumwa.” No offense to Ottumwa,it’s a delightful small town, but by the time I get my window shade up, those bright lights will have already vanished into the Iowa countryside.
Generally the view from above is nothing to write home about: grids of farm fields bisected by spidery roadways or endless expanses of water as you cross oceans. And that’s if there’s not a bank of clouds totally obscuring your view. It’s no wonder I while away the hours watching movies I’d never pay to see and wondering when the flight attendant will come by again offering another bag of pretzels.
That isn’t always the case. I was reminded that the sightseeing can start before the plane lands on a recent trip to Puerto Rico. As we flew over the Bahamas, the captain dutifully announced that Nassau was coming up on the left side. I was on the right, but wasn’t bothered, being too engrossed watching brilliant turquoise waters swirling around tiny spits of land. Currents wove intricate patterns out of the endless shades of blue. One broad area had a series of curved stripes that resembled the rib cage of some huge creature, like an aquatic paleontology dig uncovering a new species of dinosaur. A few miles on, we passed a series of interconnected islands that looked like giant sandy-colored leaves being chewed on by caterpillars. For once, I wished that my camera wasn’t firmly stowed in the overhead compartment.
As we passed back to open water, I recalled a few other instances of stellar siteseeing from the airplane window. A flight to Phoenix offered a spectacular view of the Grand Canyon. Even from thirty thousand feet, it is a sight to behold. On the return leg of my very first international flight, we landed at Kennedy airport and I remember being so pleased to see the Statue of Liberty and the twin towers. I’d made it safely home. Flying into The Netherlands one spring, I was amazed as we soared over the bulb fields, huge rectangular patches of scarlet red, bright yellow and deep purple as though the ground were drenched with acres of fresh paint.
Perhaps I’ve been too quick to write off the airplane ride as a source of material. Maybe next time I’ll avoid that movie and keep my nose pressed to the window. Who knows what treasure I might see. But I’m still going to keep an eye out for those pretzels.