Using Your Travel Hallucinations for Story Ideas

And then I dreamed all the flesh was stripped off my bones, and …

I’ve been back a couple of weeks after a month-long housesit on a tiny island in the Caribbean. This was a vivid place, strikingly beautiful, and we had adventures, thrills and stresses in our time there—and equally so in getting there and coming back. But memory and travel are the oddest things: I was looking at photos yesterday and was struck by how much I’d already forgotten. Not the broad strokes and major events that happened, but the telling details: the shape of the harbor (which we saw almost daily), the color of a restaurant we’d been to (and the flavor of dishes we ate), the curve of a street.

The details are the things that should fix a place in memory, so I’m troubled by their fog. But I want to talk about an ancillary fog that happens after travel. That’s the stunned sense of being back in a familiar place, but having it seem strange or slightly tilted—“off,” but not off enough to pin the quality of oddness down.

Pieces of my mind and body, even given a full week to account for jet lag (and the space/time continuum) were still on the island, and the person who arrived here claiming to be me seemed to have a fake driver’s license.

A Bike Ride Pulls the Brain’s Curtains Back

But let’s get to the details, as noted above. I often ride my bike—with delight—on weekends here, so my first weekend back, I was eager to take one of my local rides, which for stretches take me along the Santa Cruz County coast. When I paused for a breather at an ocean overlook, I saw a breaching whale, fairly close to the shore. Not that of an unusual sight in Santa Cruz, but still, a whale, wow!

I felt energized by that, and hopped back on with spark, but just minutes later, and completely unprompted, I saw in my mind’s eye a jarring scene of my brother’s death. That played out enough so that I was crying a little. (By the way, my brother’s fine.) Just so you know that I’m one happy-go-lucky guy, as I was approaching my house at the end of my ride, I had a fantasy that my cat had been poisoned.

She’s fine too.

Maybe I was tired? Indeed, I was panting like a blacksmith’s bellows as I was riding, because it had been six weeks or so since I’d tackled these hills, but I think it was more that I was feeling dislocated in some way, and my mind was just clicking through a slide wheel of images. But who knows?

Putting Your Writer’s Mind to Work

However, one of the best things about being a writer is to be gifted with story ideas, and to play with them. I probably won’t do anything with these three isolated “incidents” that happened on my ride, but after I got home, I made each of them into a storyline in my mind, where these dustups happen.

The whale sighting I turned into a science-fiction prompt, where sentient whales start to take revenge on all the years of us killing them, and they develop great killing skills themselves, grouping up to take down big shipping vessels, causing damaging coastal waves, taking hostages.

My brother’s death I made into a literary fiction piece, kind of like the great Marilynne Robinson’s Home, which has an estranged brother return to a family. Except in my tale, a brother causes another brother’s death and runs away, and the family is forever changed. And then he returns, and things go from lousy to really lousy. Bestseller, eh?

As for the cat poisoning, a cat being poisoned would be the opening scene for a murder mystery, where before a person is murdered, a lot of animals connected to the deceased’s household, including lizards, guinea pigs and birds, are individually poisoned. Before the poisoner turns to murdering one of his fellow humans. Dastardly!

Anyway, the peculiar gyrations of the mind are kind of like aerobics classes for writers. So there are some benefits to the odd frazzling that happens after traveling—it seeds your mind with stories.

Oh, if you like the story ideas, go for them. Combine all of them in the same novel: murder mystery, sci-fi literary masterpiece. You have my blessing.

A Song of Gratitude to the Freelancing Life

We biked to where Kilauea is spitting hot lava into the sea—Hawaii is reborn!

We biked to where Kilauea is spitting hot lava into the sea—Hawaii is reborn!

Well, my typing sounds better than my singing, so let’s go with this: This past Saturday, I returned from a month in Hawaii, having spent most of the time on Oahu and some on the Big Island. I don’t sleep on golden pillows, so how could Alice and I take off for (and more tellingly, pay for) a month on a tropical island? (And yes, there were mai tais.)

For the same reason we previously stayed for long periods in the Bahamas, Panama, Mexico and Hawaii once before: freelancing.

The freelancing life can often be a scramble, particularly if you do a fruit salad of contract work like I do. I do B2B and B2C copywriting, edit books (both fiction and non), write essays and journalistic pieces, and travel articles too. I’ve never been able to narrow my work to a niche—something that’s undoubtedly affected my income—because my interests are broad. My writing palette has too many colors, and I find that pleasing. More pleasing yet is that, with the glories of the Internet, my office travels with me. As does Alice’s with her.

Thus, when we read of a house-sitting opportunity on some golden isle, and the setting and the situation fits, we go for it. Most of the time we still work close to our regular schedules, using that Franklinesque early to bed, early to rise admonition. But we get to rise in places like Hawaii! And there’s plenty of time to play, in such places where the play is often plentiful.

Sometimes the Freelancing Life Offers No Gravy At All

But I don’t want to downplay the occasional downers of being a contract worker. You do have to deal with social isolation—if you have a water cooler, you’re usually the only person to lurk around it. Some freelancers I know like to go to coffee shops or other public places to work, but that’s never appealed to me. I like the silence, which gives me plenty of head space in which to fret. And I can always go from my Airstream office in the yard to pester Alice in the house when I need some companionship.

You also have to be comfortable with marketing yourself, and with rejection. I send out a lot of article pitches, and often don’t get a response. A long while back I used to steam about that, but really, what’s the point? I just send more pitches. I still don’t hear back from many, but I’d guess I’ve had at least 40 and maybe 50 paid articles published this year. Here’s one that was in the latest Writer’s Market on one of the themes of this piece, Writing From the Road.

You also have to be comfortable with fluctuating income. As I said, no golden pillows, but I do have socks. I’m not breaking any banks (or breaking into banks), but I’ve been doing this, with a short corporate-writing break, for 25 years, and I’m still here.

But Sometimes the Gravy Is Very Good

I first sketched out above some real benefits of a freelancing life, but here are a few more:

Control: for the most part, you get to choose for whom you work, and what you work on. Sure, freelancers sometimes take on projects that are dull or tedious, but you really do have the choice to say no. And to say yes!

Choice: speaking of choices, they are vast in the freelancing realm. You can work for large businesses and small, you can sell products from your website or a place like Etsy, you can work at 3am if you are a night creature, you can use your expertise to design an online course, you can write books in your downtime, you can take online courses to spruce up your old skills or learn new ones. Choice and control are kissing cousins, but having lots of each is positively positive.

Exercise: one of the choices I make is to exercise every work day. Might be a hike, might be a bike, might be a stroll on one of the many picturesque slough trails in our area. Or if the weather is lousy, a ride on the recumbent bike inside. Many people think that exercise is a tedious chore, but for me, so much the opposite: you get to move the legs, move the blood, see some sights, change your perspective. And maybe eat a larger lunch because you did all those things. I always look forward to the mid-day exercise break, and it’s something that most office workers don’t get a chance to easily do.

Naps: what’s better than a short nap after exercise and lunch? And better yet, on the orange plaid of our ’66 Airstream? I rarely actually go to sleep, but the 20–25 minutes of hazy glow make for a more focused afternoon.

So, freelancing: there might be a pimple or two, and some days the clouds race in, but most of the time, the face and the weather are fine.

Vin Scully and the Voice in Your Head

I must mention a delightful coincidence that came from the Hawaii trip: I got to hear Vin Scully, the legendary voice of the Dodgers, announce his last six games. In the 60s, growing up in Southern California, I was a baseball maniac. It’s not that I simply played baseball a lot (in the streets at home, in Little League, in public parks), but I read bunches of baseball biographies, memorized statistics—even the heights and weights of players. My brother and I would spend hours pitching a tennis ball to each other in our driveway against the back gate. (We used a tennis ball because I’d broken so many neighborhood windows with hardballs.)

I loved baseball, and more so because I heard a voice in my head while I played, declaring my glory on the field. The voice I heard was Vin Scully, the announcer for the Dodgers for SIXTY-SEVEN YEARS. Sixty-seven. Because I’d grown up with Vin, I thought all baseball announcers were like him: sunny, smooth, always ready with a story that no one had ever heard or told before. A great, boundless lover of the game, but never a “homer” for the Dodgers. It’s almost impossible to express what warmth and human connection came through the radio from this modest guy—he was baseball’s easy-spoken orator, an open-hearted genius behind the mic.

There’s a quote from the writer William Dean Howells about Mark Twain that says, “Emerson, Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes—I knew them all and all the rest of our sages, poets, seers, critics, humorists; they were like one another, and like other literary men; but Clemens was sole, incomparable, the Lincoln of our literature.” Vin Scully was the Lincoln of baseball announcing. It was a profound pleasure that I happened to be in Hawaii to listen to the last of his games, when since moving from Southern California forty years ago, I’d hardly heard him at all.

Vin, you lazy guy, you’re only 88, why not go a few more?

That was a gift from the freelancing life as well—Vinnie, wishing us all a pleasant evening, wherever we are, forever.

[Note: the gracious folks at Invoice2Go, who make simple-to-use invoicing applications for freelancers and the like, are going to excerpt some of this post on their site for a helpful infographic on freelancing tips. Check out their stuff if you have invoicing needs.]

Deadlines: The Sacred and the Profane

Only 55 years late sending in my jazz class homework—think the teacher will notice?

Only 55 years late sending in my jazz class homework—think the teacher will notice?

Around eight months ago, I saw a notice for a travel writing contest I wanted to enter, so I pulled the site’s URL icon on to my computer’s desktop. Being the tidy sort, my desktop isn’t very cluttered—there are usually only 8–10 items on it, a few related to work that’s current, and a few, like the travel writing contest, related to upcoming prospects or something I’m researching. Or something totally frivolous.

Because of that tidiness trait, I sweep the desktop clean of extraneous things fairly often, so I was regularly reminded—at the very least at some murky level of consciousness—that there was a contest deadline out there in the vague future. Hey, I still had seven months, right? Or was it six?

Even though I have been trying various productivity processes lately (“Get out of bed”), and I could have set an electronic alarm to insist I write the dang thing and get it submitted, I continued to check the link out every month or so and continued to think a bit more about what I’d write about.

Word Seeds Don’t Grow Without Water

Maybe two months ago, I wrote some notes, what I call “word seeds” for the contest essay, sort of scribbled writing prompts that can, even from a single word, provoke a paragraph or two and suggest a structure for an article. But I didn’t check the contest link itself, because, hey, I still had a few months, right? A month away, I did click the link to check the deadline again, and thought, “OK, plenty of time.”

No.

A couple of weeks ago, I clicked on the link, and saw that the article was due THAT DAY. I’d had that wily URL on my desktop for months and months, had patted my ideas for the piece into nice little mental cakes, but hadn’t written a sentence. But, like a shiv to the back, a deadline is very bracing. However, taking my barely germinated word seeds out of their box and growing a 1200-word tree in a few hours is gardening that’s usually beyond my pay scale.

Deadlines, the Bitter and the Sweet

Ahem, the deadline. Deadlines have always had a salutary effect on me, from way back in my college days, having spent four years on the college paper. Even when I’d had a long date with Jack Daniels—such a cute mustache!—the night before, I always made my deadlines. That has been the case for most of my professional life, unless I was in the hospital having a limb stitched back on. I’ve even become much more accomplished in getting pieces in before the deadline, which surprises me more than the publication.

This deadline was personal, not an assignment, but it was still fixed as a deadline in my mind. And I was embarrassed that I’d had it lurking for months, and guilty that I’d written nothing. (That old Catholic in me is always muttering in my subconscious.)

So, to it: I pulled together the convoluted pieces of my story, which is an account of the crazed experiences I’ve had driving in foreign countries (ever destroy your host’s car, anyone?). And wrote, for several hours, with a small break.

And lived.

What I can report is that I made the deadline, and that the article is serviceable—in other words, it’s a decent travel piece, though I doubt it’s a contest winner. But the contest outcome isn’t the point of this post. The point is that a hard deadline can throw ice cubes on your bare back when you’re sleeping, and that you can go from nekkid to clothed, article-wise, faster than you might imagine.

But next time, I’m setting a simple alarm: “Tom, article on nutzoid driving due in three weeks. Start it today.” I’ll keep the ice cubes for my cocktails.

Gravity Can’t Defeat Us (But My Handwriting Might)

In celebration of twaddle and inflamed sentences

In celebration of twaddle and inflamed sentences

If you’re an old crustacean like me, you might remember the heady days of Tang, the drink of the astronauts. Who cares if it was sugared vitamin water—John Glenn drank it! So did I, and I was often given to flights of fancy. That’s why when I first heard of the Fisher Space Pen in the 70s (a few orbits after their first manufacture), I wanted one. The astronauts used them!

And how could one not crave something that used gravity-defeating “thixotropic ink-semisolid …pressurized with nitrogen”? But I didn’t own a Fisher until sometime in the 90s, and slippery little capsule that it was, it disappeared on me. Probably floated off with some pixie dust from a passing comet.

But I finally have another, seen in the image above. They’ve fancied it up a bit since the original days, putting on an anti-gravity clip, but its ink still flows freely, space-bound or not. I’m combining it with another historical item, my first Moleskine notebook, on which I inscribed its first page a couple of writerly quotations. (Picasso and Hemingway scribbled in them; I can too.)

Flight from the Mainland
What’s prompted these new treasures? Flight from the mainland! My gal pal Alice and I are heading to the Big Island of Hawaii in two days, where we’ll be house-sitting in a little home at the very northern tip of the island. I haven’t done a lot of travel writing lately about new places, so I’m thrilled to get a chance to get to know an island that’s actively spewing hot gases and chunks, like many writers I admire.

One of those paradoxes: I very much like the physical act of writing, the texture of paper, the angling of the pen (or pencil), the variances of pressure from the hand and fingers, the roll of ink across the page. I love writing instruments, paper, bound volumes, calligraphy. But I have forever loathed the crimped, jagged splotchings of my own handwriting—no matter how slowly or carefully I try to form letters and words, they come out as an intestinal product, something that looks as though it should be covered up.

However, I’m delighted to think that I’ll have new promptings of sea, sky and soul to scrawl on about, so I’m looking forward to taking notes of island ventures. And I won’t have to wear any bulky helmet or pressurized suit.

About Those Quotes
Again, I did as best I could with penning those bits from esteemed writers to inaugurate my Moleskine, but you might not be able to read them. They are thus:

“Looking back, I imagine I was always writing. Twaddle it was too. But better far write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all.”
— Katherine Mansfield

“With sixty staring me in the face, I have developed inflammation of the sentence structure and a definite hardening of the paragraphs.”
— James Thurber

OK, off to the island. If I’m lucky, no coconut will drop on my noggin while I’m trying to think of the perfect metaphor for the big, blue Pacific.

You’re a Novel’s Character: Push the Conflict, Sí or No?

Terrace viewjpg

Evening over San Miguel de Allende, Minutes Before a Storm Busted Loose

Writers are reliant on conflict in their stories; something must be surmounted (or not), questioned, circumvented, abandoned, left to wither. So much of reader engagement is the revealing of the layers of resolve (or not) in a character as they push against existence, whether their challenge or their adversary is some part of themselves, an acknowledged enemy, a societal crack, an unseen force. How the characters engage with their nemeses (or not) and the consequences of that engagement are at the core of most novels, whether literary or commercial.

Sometimes it’s fun to imagine yourself as the character in one of your novels, tilting your lance at battlements, or perhaps at the laundry. Besides the difficult suspension of disbelief there, the problem with accurately envisioning yourself as a novel’s character is that much of your time might be spent with dealing with a balky mouse, wondering if that modest pain you have in a molar is a cavity, and facing that laundry. The challenge of the laundry must be met, but it’s not quite like Huck Finn sailing down the river to flee from those dunderheads trying to sivilize him.

That real-life stuff isn’t all that novelistic. As Elmore Leonard said of his work, “I try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” We all want to skip the laundry.

But when you travel to a place that you’ve never been before, particularly a place that is vivid, dramatic, and not that of your native land, the setting alone can provide an exotic backdrop or stage for a character’s choices. How do you behave there, where you’ve never been? How do others behave, walk, talk, gesture, argue, kiss? Since I’m house-sitting in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, an extraordinarily colorful city of deep history and picturesque sights, it’s easier to fantasize that I’m in a novel, perhaps one by Graham Greene, where a shady character’s gesture with a cigarette in a lively café implies there will be a mysterious death tonight. Or at least some exceptional margaritas.

A Character in a Balmy State of Suspension

Novels often go in pulses of dramatic action and lull, charges and retreats, tension and release. Last night, my character’s place in the exotic city was in the balmy state of suspension. My sweetheart Alice and I walked down the winding cobblestone roads from our place high above the city center to a nice hotel restaurant just off the main plaza. Alfresco dining in a bright courtyard filled with tall, fruited trees, flitting birds and beautiful stone arches supporting the second floor, all painted variants of a washed tangerine.

A great meal, with cognac after, since that’s what characters in novels do (or not). Because the hotel housed a nice tobacconist, and I was in Mexico, where where they don’t fear the corruption of Castro’s commies, I was able to buy a lovely little Habano cigar, a demitasse Montecristo. Up, up the winding cobblestones at dusk, big clouds gathering. Up, up the tight, treacherous third-floor inner staircase to the deck. Down, down on the deck swing. Stogie lit, check. Malbec accompaniment, check. Incredible view of the city below, lights beginning to twinkle, clouds roiling, check. La vida es buena.

And then, the unexpected conflict: winds suddenly whipping, and a blasting downburst of rain, orchestrated by sky-filling, snapping lightning and a cracking series of thunderclaps like a bomb going off. Flee! So, my character, smug in his full-bellied comfort, ended up smoking his coveted cigar in the first-floor courtyard, hunkered under a concrete garage overhang which steadily dripped down on his muttering head. But it was a Cuban—I had to finish it.

Later, back in the steamy house, I did enjoy the thought that my novelist didn’t want my character to get quite so comfortable. Where’s the narrative interest in that?

By the way, today I really did do the laundry. Sometimes the joke is on your character, sometimes it’s on you.

Packing a Travel Writer’s Suitcase

'you can take it with you' photo © 2008, kelly taylor - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

The best thing to relieve the daily drumbeat of deadlines, projects, and pressures is travel. Bust out of your current coma conjured by daily tasks like these: replace the pepper grinder, check on the termite inspection guarantee, and because an evil editor refuses to respond, send a follow-up to your follow-up on your query follow-up.

Instead, flip your flip-flops into a bag and head for balmy climes where your biggest decision is the choice of an over-hopped IPA or a gentlemanly session beer.

If only it were that easy.

Travel is a happy habanero for me, but my no-account bank account often demands that I mix a little biz with my pleasure. Thus, I’ll be going to the Florida Keys for 5 days at week’s end, and not long after that, to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico for 3 weeks. But I’ll be packing my tokens of the writer’s trade along with me: The Florida trip is all about the writing, since the trip is paid for by a Keys PR bureau looking to have a travel writer pen some lyrical lines about the loveliness of the Keys. The Mexico jaunt is a house-sitting gig, where my girlfriend Alice and I will be basically working our regular hours—and I do keep regular working hours, despite the roguish look of my soul patch—while trying to catch the flavorful San Miguel sights.

Less Wool, More Woolgathering

When Alice and I packed for a year in Micronesia, I made some colorful mistakes. The first one that comes to mind is the wool blanket I packed. Now I knew that the temperature on that island rarely went below 85, and the humidity usually hovered at 90 percent or so. But what if an asteroid hit the planet and plunged us into the next Ice Age? The flannel pajamas I brought would surely help with that too. Uh, no. The blanket and pajamas slept untouched in the closet until we returned.

But, even if I think I don’t really need a defibrillator in my carry-on, I do want to make sure I have the fundamentals for fun and get my writing done. So, for these upcoming trips, some essentials come to mind:

Suitcase
For the Florida trip, I can get away with a carry-on. It’s six days/five nights, and I don’t want to have to do any laundry, but I can still get six shirts in there, and mostly short-sleeved casual ones at that. It’s going to be around 90 in the daytime, so shorts are essential, and a bathing suit (with bow-tie) as well—one of the venues will require some snorkeling to properly write about. (See how demanding these trips are?). But Tevas and flip-flops will do the heavy leg lifting, with one pair of all-purpose shoes and decent Levis, plus a light windbreaker for the rain, which can happen this time of year. No black-tie events scheduled.

For Mexico, a checked bag, because more time = more packing room needed, and more time out in venues where it could possibly be dressy (and dressy for me is just a buttoned-down shirt and clean pants.) Plus, we might throw in a couple of pounds of our favorite coffee, which isn’t available there, though it’s a fairly big city, so most things are available. No wool blankets or flannel pajamas needed on either of these trips.

Computer backpack
I have a decent but aging computer backpack that has a padded compartment for the computer, and plenty of compartments for charging cables, chargers, a mouse, cell phone and other accessories. It’s not the type that screams “computer inside!” though an educated guess would pin that down, so I am careful in airports and the general surroundings where I put it down. It easily and securely slips over the handle of the carry-on or regular suitcase, so I can move easily when my luggage is my load.

Computer
I’ll take my Macbook Pro on both trips. I try and type up notes for travel writing or blogs on the day that I took them, and my handwriting is execrable, so I have to translate it as soon as possible. I also need to keep tabs on email, because I usually have some article queries circulating and works in progress, and I want to be able to answer swiftly. I’ll be uploading some stuff to Dropbox or iCloud beforehand and during these trips, to ensure that I have backups of current projects if I do drop my computer into the Atlantic.

Keyboard/Monitor
I won’t take an external keyboard or external monitor on the Florida trip, though I always use both at home: they make for better ergonomics and multi-window computing convenience. Too bulky for a carry-on though. I may be able to use the external that’s at the Mexico house. I did take a 22” external monitor to a two-month stint in the Bahamas, and I’m glad I did, but it was a hassle in transit, and I sold it there before I left. I might take an external keyboard to Mexico—I’m a much more efficient typist with one, and they don’t take up much space in a checked bag.

Mouse
Even though my Mac’s trackpad works fine, I’ll still take an external mouse, the wireless kind that work with a USB transceiver. Again, my writing flows more freely (fewer mouse droppings) when I use a mouse.

Camera
Even if you’re only a middlin’ photographer, sometimes the images you take while traveling are the ones that best accompany a trip, iStock be damned. Your shots might specifically illustrate the points or places you describe in your article, and your editor will want them (or at least want to take a look at them). Any decent digital snapshot camera of today can take quality photos if you have a adequate eye for interest and composition. I’m no National Geographic photographer, but I’ve had lots of my photos published with my articles. And the camera has to fit easily in a pants (or in this case, shorts) pocket.

iPad
I might be tweeting from some of the venues in Florida, so I will bring my mini-iPad with me. I don’t use a smartphone because I’m on the ding-dang computer 10 hours or more a day anyway, and I don’t want to be lured by the siren of incessant email and text and Net by a phone—ever. But the iPad is a good compromise, and a good way to check email on the go if necessary (more likely back in the hotel room if I’m too weary to boot a computer). I’m a doddering fool on its virtual keyboard, but can make do.

Digital recorder
I’m bringing a tiny digital recorder with me in case I want to speak notes into it rather than write them while I’m on the move. This might alarm some of my fellow travelers, but these are the days when people talk aloud into space while on the move—some of them are even speaking to human beings; others are communing with the cosmos.

Notepad
I’ll bring a pocket-sized notepad on each trip. I often scribble (mostly unintelligible) notes while I travel that can come in handy later, and you don’t have to rely on not fully reliable technology. You will have to rely on the technology of the pencil or pen, however. But sometimes even a single word—macaw!—can bring back the full import of a scene you want to write about later, and notepads are great for that.

Of course there are a number of other incidentals a travel writer’s suitcase could contain (a world globe with a six-foot stand, maybe a javelin), but listed are some core things a writer might think about (and possibly forget) when they are planning a trip. If you need a wool blanket, let me know.

PS I am bringing toothpaste, so feel comfortable sitting next to me if you see me.

Chocolate Kills (But What a Way to Go)

Chocolate

I love to write travel pieces, from tales based on exotic sojourns to tiny islands far, far away, to “wow, look what’s right in my backyard” articles. One of the travel article forms is the service piece, which is distinguished from the storytelling article by having a “news you can use” angle, often specifying a destination’s particular sights to be seen, restaurants, lodging prices and hours and locales for all.

Such a piece is my “Five Places for Getting to the Soul of Whiskey” article, published in the San Francisco Chronicle. (One does like good service when it comes to whiskey.) I’m mentioning the Chronicle article in this lineup because the Chronicle travel section presents another angle of article-writing math: they only accept pieces on spec. That means that they don’t assign articles as a result of your crafted query: they take a look at completed pieces, and then say yea or nay.

Which is my long-winded way of saying that I recently wrote another travel piece on spec for the Chronicle: “Five Bay Area Places to Get Killer Chocolate.” Even though I’d seen they’d done a chocolate roundup early last year, I thought mine was distinctive enough to re-whet the editor’s chocolate appetite. My mistake: writing on spec is always chancy (way more time involved than writing a query), and chancier still in this venue, because the Chronicle’s “Five Places” structure doesn’t easily lend itself to rewrite for another publication’s slant. So when the Chron editor said, “thanks but no thanks,” I pondered this article’s fate.

It’s often worth it to pursue rewriting or re-purposing articles—I’ve had articles reprinted in whole, or their rewritten variants published a number of times—but I decided to let this one go. But I had to give it some kind of a home, so let’s allow its velvety chocolate soul to rest here.

Five Bay Area Places to Get Killer Chocolate

Chocolate has morphed from a bitter beverage in Mayan shamanic circles to a sweeter infusion that delighted Europe’s elite to a connoisseur’s candy laced with chipotle and cognac. And it recently broke through the anti-fat, anti-sugar, anti-pleasure nutritional naysayers to now be thought of as a stroke suppressant, cholesterol cutter, diabetes deterrent and all-around good soul. Not a bad resume for a humble bean.
Whatever form the confection takes, there’s a simple reason that enthusiasts can’t seem to get enough: the stuff’s good—really good. Whether you like to slurp, gobble or even flip your chocolate with a spatula, the Bay Area has some choice offerings for the chocoholic.

Big Sur Bakery, Big Sur
The chocolate cake here is deep as a mystery, a buttery, luscious darkness that will have you tonguing the plate and longing for more. Pair it with the bracing espresso and swoon. (And it’s not always available—scarcity sharpens desire.)
47540 Highway 1, (831) 667-0520

Richard Donnelly Chocolates, Santa Cruz
When I lived on a tiny Micronesian island, I cried in pain because the Chinese and Japanese chocolate there was so bad. When a friend sent Richard Donnelly’s Brownie Mix, I wept for joy. These brownies are the chewy, dense, essential core of chocolate. Music for the mouth, with a lingering finish.
1509 Mission Street, (888) 685-1871

Vosges Chocolate, Bay Area Locations
I know, I know—bacon is the new black. We see it in cocktails, mayonnaise, even toothpaste. But Bacon Chocolate Chip Pancake Mix—delicious! Buttermilk pancake mix studded with hickory-smoked bacon enshrouded in sea-salted milk chocolate. You’ll flip the cakes and flip your lid.
Andronico’s, various Bay Area locations

Bittersweet Cafe, Oakland
A place that calls itself “The Chocolate Cafe” better deliver the goods. They have over 150 bars from all over the world and great coffee too, but what really sets them apart are their “drinking chocolates,” which come in three deadly and deep flavors. Whether you go for them hot or cold, these slurpables will coat your mouth in chocolate heaven.
5427 College Avenue, (510) 654-7159

CocoaBella, San Francisco
They dub themselves a “chocolate lifestyle shop,” and indeed the digs are nice. But they could be vending out of a broom closet and still have a steady customer stream, because they have the best chocolates selection around. All the good stuff from Belgium, Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, Canada and the United States. What’s really fun is to build your own custom box online. What’s more fun is when the box arrives.
2102 Union Street, (415) 931-6213

Einstein Should Have Warned Time Travelers About Motion Sickness

If you shop in Panama, these guys will help carry the groceries

Traveling to somewhere you’ve never been, especially when you stay for more than a few days, exerts odd temporal and spatial pressures on your consciousness. That Heraclitus quote about never being able to step twice in the same river is of a piece with what I’m talking about: your traveled self is not the same self untraveled. And extending upon that, the “home” you return to seems a little slippery too: I keep glancing around here like there’s a joke being played, like the walls of the house are hastily thrown up curtains with a corner out of plumb.

For three of the last nine months, my gal Alice and I have been living outside the US: a two-month stint in the Bahamas last fall, and now just back from a month in Panama. Among all the things that bit me in those thermal zones must have been an unbalance bug, because my thinking has been just a wee bit off since then. Nothing major: just the usual “Is the life I’m living real or just a series of disconnected contingencies?”

If This Life Isn’t Real, Would You Mind Adjusting the Sound Track?
Rack one up for the contingency corner. It’s not that I’ve ever doubted that our scraping skating on this little ice chip of a planet was held together by hand-tightened screws (and punctuated by pratfalls and whoopee cushion sounds), but going and living in other cultures, even insulated by the knowledge that you’ll return to your own, is oddly jarring. Or maybe it’s just that the literal jarring of crashing my host’s car into a high-grass-concealed curb and smashing the front suspension while there torqued my steaming cranium a mite.

To the point (god, man, finally—this ramble is wearing on me): I’ve begun to write some of the literal (and some merely mental) adventures that took place overseas, out of my alleged comfort zones, because if I continue to wait, I fear that whatever lies and distortions I do distill in that writing might not bear even a shadowy relationship to fact. The fish-out-of-water story—when the gaspings of the fish are sharply rendered—can still provoke interest. It’s just odd to come back and have the home water taste just a little weird.

Godspeed Brother Ray
Ray Bradbury died this past Tuesday, at 91. If you have read his writing (and by golly you should), you know he was a fine, imaginative storyteller. If you have read of him discussing his writing, you know he was an enthusiastic advocate for the work, for getting after it every day, and every day discovering what the work can pull out of you, and what you can pull out of it. See you later, Ray. I’ll bet the green dudes on Mars are raising a glass of something potent in your honor this week too.

How to Unsuccessfully Try to Convince Readers That You’re Suffering

Digging the local brew at Tippy's, a fine institution of learning and scholarship

They do say travel is broadening. I’ve found it can also be narrowing. I lost 15 pounds in my first six weeks of my year in Micronesia, mostly because we didn’t understand how to shop on our island, with its scattered roadside stands, few stores (none of which resembled the supermarkets my suburban upbringing inured me to), the oddity of some of the local foods (i.e., dog), and gastro-tremblings from the water.

If you know me, my losing 15 pounds meant that I then weighed about as much as a pair of socks. I do have big feet, but still …. But once we adjusted, and learned how to island-shop, there were wonders at the table, mostly from succulent lobster at $2.00 a pound, and yellowfin tuna at fifty cents a pound. (I never inquired about the price of dog.) And when I say “adjusted,” I meant we learned to relax and go with the weirdness of things, and in many quarters, to truly appreciate the weirdness.

That suburban upbringing I alluded to—that was the condition that needed broadening, and broaden it did. Though I might thin out again here: a half-gallon of milk is $6.00, a box of cereal is $7. Maybe I’ll be eating my socks, since I don’t really need them here.

“Here” is the island of Eleuthera, in the Bahamas, where Alice and I are house-sitting for a couple of months. Eleuthera is one of the Bahamas’ “out islands,” meaning it’s not one of the glitzy resort islands, like Nassau. Even though it’s 110 miles long, there are less than 8,000 people here, which is about the number that lived on Kosrae, the Micronesian island where we lived a few years ago.

No, Really, I’ll Be Working
Eleuthera bears some tropical kinship to Kosrae, in that they share warm, azure waters, hot sun, warm, damp air, coral reefs, and that certain languor that seems native to islands. This isn’t a vacation for us: we’re going to be toiling at the keyboard as usual, though more sweatily; however, being able to take a mid-afternoon dip in the nearby shimmering waters will remind us that this world isn’t like our own. It is amazing to be sleeping so close to the sea again, with that big, blue womb’s encyclopedia of sounds—whispering, churning, crashing, slurping, whooshing—rolling over us in the night, since there isn’t any reason to close a window here.

Except for the gigantic insects. And the mosquitoes. And the snake we saw on the walkway yesterday. All those hermit crabs. And those crazy, charming curly-tailed lizards that are everywhere. The profusion of local wildlife also reminds me of Micronesia, detailed in a “travel surprises” piece I wrote for the L.A. Times: surprise, there’s a spider bigger than a spaniel in the living room! (One does adjust: one never goes in the living room again.)

So, my intention is to write a number of travel pieces while I’m here, and soak up some local culture. (That means rum.) I’m going to write some more about the travel-writing process in times to come. In the meantime, I’ll try to see where that beetle dragged off my briefcase…