Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Five Tips for Writing (or Traveling) on a Train

I’m sure many of you have heard of Amtrak’s free writers’ retreat or even applied for it. While I haven’t applied, I recently rode from Chicago to Washington DC and back on an Amtrak train to take a family vacation. The train rides were the most productive parts of the trip for writing, but it’s not always easy to actually write on a train. Here are a few pieces of advice if you want to try writing on a train:

1.    Decide your budget, retreat time, and sleeping requirements in advance. – Longer trips mean more writing time, right? Not necessarily. If your trip is overnight, then you may find yourself in a car with quiet time. During this time, the overhead lights are off, and noise is discouraged. I think you’re still allowed to have your personal overhead light and equipment on, but you will need to sleep sometime. Can you sleep sitting up? If you’re in coach, you may have to. (If you can find two empty seats, then you can stretch out--or curl up. You are allowed to sleep in the observation car, but there are more distractions there too.) Sleeping cars are much more expensive. If you’d rather not sleep on the train, then you either need to choose a shorter trip or stay overnight at your destination before returning home. If you do want to sleep on the train, it may be helpful to bring your own pillow and blanket, as well as a sleeping mask and/or earplugs. You can buy them on the train if you forget them, but why not save money if you can?

2.    Decide what to bring.-- You can bring a laptop onto the train without any problems. (Checking in and boarding a train is much easier than a plane.) Even in coach, you’ll have outlets available, though not all trains provide Wi-Fi. (On the route we took, Internet signals were intermittent, since part of the time we rode through mountains and tunnels.) The train can be rocky at times, so it might not be a good choice for you if you write by hand. Snacks and bottled water are available on the train, but they can be expensive, so think ahead and bring your own if possible.  You can check bags and bring on two carry-ons per person.  If you’re traveling overnight, make sure to put hygiene items in a carry-on. It’s not a pleasant feeling to go for a long time without brushing your teeth.

3.    Feel free to move around if necessary.—Because you do need to eat, visit the bathroom, and take some breaks. After the conductor has checked your ticket, you’re free to move about the train. The seats are wider, and you have more legroom than you do if you’re on a plane. You can hang out in the observation car or visit the café. It may be a bit disconcerting to pass from car to car while the train is moving, but it’s safer than it appears. Be prepared to steady yourself as you walk around, though.

4.    Be prepared to deal with distractions.—Even if you think depriving yourself of Internet access for a few hours will help you write, there are still conversations by other passengers, official announcements (you don’t want to miss your stop or your dinner reservation!), and unexpected stops that may distract you. Plus, depending on when and where you travel, you may want to watch the scenery. (I wrote this in the observation car and was lucky enough to see a rainbow.) Know what’s going to interfere with your writing and plan accordingly. That could mean bringing earplugs or earbuds or even shutting your curtain.  Oh, yeah, and if you’re traveling with a child or children, they can be distracting too, even if they’re well-behaved.

5.    Consider using the trip as research.—Perhaps you can combine the travel with a stop at a setting you want to experience first-hand. Or perhaps you want to get into the mindset of your characters as they journey from one place to another. Even people-watching on the train or in the station can give you ideas for characters. Remember, sometimes writers need to retreat for a while to write (or to stop and take pictures of their stuffed traveling companions), but you can’t retreat from life permanently.

Have you ever taken a train trip? If so, did you find it useful writing time? Do you have any questions about train travel? Please post in the comments. If you can’t sign in to comment, you can always e-mail me too.

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