February 1, 2018

Story Development through Travel and Inspiration — Guest: Kelly Maher

Airplane in blue sky with text: Exploring for Writing Inspiration

One common trait of writers is our attraction to shiny ideas. We’re often hit by the possibilities for our story or our characters (and then debate which way to go) while drafting. Or we might come up with an idea for a different story while drafting our main project. Or, or, or…

We can’t help it. We find inspiration everywhere—in things we read, things we hear, things we see, and things we dream.

The more we experience unique situations and are exposed to different possibilities, the more we find to inspire us. That’s one reason why travel can be very inspiring to authors.

Today, Kelly Maher joins us to share how plans for a trip to Northern Europe turned into inspiration for stories, characters, details, and marketing. Yet inspiration doesn’t always work out like we planned, so she’s also sharing tips for deciding when inspiration might lead us astray.

Please welcome Kelly Maher! *smile*


Finding Inspiration in Travel and
Finding Stories in Inspiration

by Kelly Maher

When Jami invited me to do a guest post, she suggested the topic of “when a book leads us to a big research project and new experiences.” I wrestled over this because the genesis of the discussion was me looking to do promo for my recently released novella, A Scandal in Scandinavia. While I would love to claim that I got the book idea and then decided to take the trip, it was the reverse.

Don’t get me wrong. I would love to one day take an international trip where the purpose is to do setting research for a story. I have a number of friends who have done this. Who wouldn’t like to be able to partially write off an international trip on their taxes as a business deduction?

Travel Can Lead to Story Ideas

However, my trip was in the planning stages for a while, as it was a birthday gift from my family. At the time, I was also working on releasing the first novel in my Capital Kisses series, The Bridesmaid and the Hurricane, which was my birthday present to myself.

I kind of tossed the planning for the trip into my mom’s lap, as she was accompanying me on it. It was when I came up for air after the release of Hurricane that I fully realized the possibilities of the trip and a writing project.

We were going to visit Northern European capital cities. Why not expand the Capital Kisses world a little?

Travel Can Lead to Marketing Opportunities

At this time, I was also exploring different marketing methods. One of the things I came across was to create an added value for newsletter subscribers.

Can travel inspire story or marketing ideas? Click To TweetAn example that spoke to me, and one I gravitate to as a reader, was an exclusive story. :LIGHTBULB: What if I sent out a new chapter of a novella every day I was on my trip and the story mirrored my itinerary?!? I could include pictures!!

Yeah…that didn’t happen. Part of it was the expectation I set for my newsletter subscribers that I would only send out no more than two newsletters a month.

The other part of it was that I wanted to draft the bulk of the story prior to leaving and shade in details from the trip as I came across them. I didn’t get the draft done in time.

Turns out I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to my writing. Well, making my stories as perfect as I’m capable of making them at the time I produce them.

Travel Can Lead to Story Details and Development

While I didn’t get the story drafted before I left, I did write enough that I was able to identify some points I wanted to pay attention to once I was on the trip. I also did some pre-trip scouting by visiting the websites of some of the attractions my tour would be visiting.

Thankfully, while the countries we visited do not have English as an official language, they receive a large number of English-speaking tourists, so many offer an English-language subdomain. These sites came in handy not only prior to the trip, but also after to refresh my memory when I was writing the latter half of the novella and revising it.

The other big research tool that I adore? Google Maps. Especially the Street View. Such a lifesaver when trying to describe the scenery.

But Should We Spin Off a Character?

Let’s talk for a bit on when, if, and how you should spin off a character for a side project.

The heroine for A Scandal in Scandanavia, Missy, is in no more than two chapters of The Bridesmaid and the Hurricane. She was prominent enough to be named, but said maybe one thing.

Should we run with spinoff ideas? Or are they a distraction? Click To TweetBut when I was casting about for who I could use for the spin off story, she immediately came to mind. She already existed as a character in the world, and the scene she was in was a pivotal moment for her as a person. I did consider creating a brand new character, but the continuity to the existing world was more important.

Even more imperative, Missy’s story is completely separate from the arc of the planned trilogy, so I could release it without worrying about spoilers for books that don’t exist yet.

We need to consider:

  • How tightly do the stories in the world you’ve created need to be?
  • Can you carve out a “slice of life” side story for previous characters?
  • Maybe there’s a sub-subplot that you haven’t had time to explore and doesn’t significantly impact the main plot in case someone misses the story, but adds richness for readers who do find it.

I’m now considering doing a series of novellas set in international capitals, but I’m also waiting for the right character to appear. I want to enrich my world, not water it down.

Are We Able to Write Spin-Off Novellas?

Another consideration needs to be, can you write novellas? Not everyone can. It takes skill to tell a satisfying story in a short amount of words.

Also, there will always be readers who want “more” of whatever. You have to be willing to accept that and move on.

I had intended for Scandal to be around 20,000 words. It ballooned by 50% into 30,000. Another reason why I didn’t finish the initial draft before the trip.

I’m glad I gave myself the extra time to make Scandal better. I want to present my best work possible for the first time, every time.

Lessons Learned

I learned a number of lessons from this experience. One is that while I love the idea of adding exclusive stories for newsletter subscribers, it may not be the right solution for me as an author at this point.

Another is that doing a spin-off story in my world that was only represented at this point by one novel and a short story helped me feel even more invested in building the world.

For many writers, me included, 2017 made it hard to make happy, entertaining words. By thinking of Scandal as “just a side project,” and therefore lessing the mental weight of it, I had more energy to deal with it.

Finally, writing a story set in locations I had recently visited gave me the chance to relive some of my experiences by looking through my pictures when trying to recall details for descriptive passages.

I cannot wait for the next time I can take an international trip and share it with my readers! I hope you’ll take the opportunity to consider international settings, and visit them in person or via research.


Kelly Maher is the author of contemporary romances that feature smart heroines, witty heroes, and settings that make you feel like you’re living there. A city girl at heart, Kelly currently lives in DC where she works as a librarian when not writing.

Kelly Maher travel shot

As seen above, her recent visit to the capital cities of Northern Europe included a stop at the Norwegian Royal Palace in Oslo.

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A Scandal in Scandinavia coverAbout A Scandal in Scandinavia:

Missy Karlsen’s dream trip is to focus on remaking herself, not start lusting after the first hot man she meets. Rik Scholz is doing an undercover job for his family’s company, so lustful thoughts of the beautiful but reserved American are not helpful.

A road trip through Scandinavia has both of them rethinking their positions. What are vacations for, if not for flings?

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Thank you, Kelly! Sometimes we learn more from convoluted experiences than straightforward ones, so it’s great to hear not only about the benefits of travel inspiration, but also about how we might want to prepare for the unexpected. *smile*

My favorite tip was that if we treat a writing idea as a side project, we might feel less stress while drafting. Sometimes less stress is exactly what we need.

However, as Kelly shared in her tips, things might not always work out as we plan. Speaking from personal experience, I know that writing novellas might be more difficult for us than writing novels.

So we might need to ask ourselves if our “side project” novella spin off works for our process. Or if we struggle with shorter formats, we might question whether our side project deserves a full novel (and debate how that would affect our publishing schedule with other books we have planned). Or we might decide the whole idea is a distraction.

There’s no right or wrong answer. But hopefully with the benefit of Kelly’s experience, we might better understand the pros and cons of letting our explorations of the world inspire our writing. *smile*

Has travel ever inspired your writing? What came first—did the travel inspire the idea, or did the idea inspire the travel? Do you have any other pros or cons to travel inspiration to share? Do you have other insights or advice about spinning off stories? Do you have any questions for Kelly?

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Clare O\'Beara
Clare O\'Beara

Well done! I certainly use trips as writing research. Take lots of photos – not ones with you in them!

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