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Adventure by Foot, Coach, and Ship
By Michal Strutin
May 29, 2023
Stagecoach in mountainous pine forest

THE CHARACTERS IN MY FICTION travel about in their world. Could it be because I like to travel? Absolutely. Travel runs through my fiction because travel is not static: anything can happen. That’s part of the thrill travel holds for me personally. And that sense of unpredictability adds dynamism to a story line. I want readers to delight in the places my characters travel to and the adventures they have getting there, whether by foot, camel, or sailing ship. My stories are wedded to journeys potent with sights, scents, and sounds that enhance drama and, hopefully, carry readers off, even if only in their imaginations. Only in their imaginations? That’s the place to be when you’re reading.

 

I took this picture of Niqarot Canyon in May 2023. It lies within an enormous canyon and is where Hur and Hadad made a pact.

In Judging Noa: a Fight for Women’s Rights in the Turmoil of the Exodus, Noa’s husband Hur travels into Maktesh Ramon—often called the Grand Canyon of Israel—with Hadad, a Midianite with whom he discovers common concerns. They encounter a leopard as they wander among the canyon’s sinuous, soaring walls. Or do they? Are their imaginations playing tricks on them? Their harrowing night creates a bond and advances the story.

Travel can also add mood and emotion. In Book 1 of the Late Renaissance mystery trilogy I am working on, my two sleuths must travel from Venice to Vienna on a primitive coach road that winds through shadowy coniferous forests over the Alps. In the 1500s, most European coach roads were primitive and harbored highwaymen—a perfect setup for fear and tension. One evening, their coach had to skirt the shores of Worthersee, a serpentine lake shrouded in mists. The town at the head of the lake was—and still is—known as the Ford of Lament because people believed demons haunted the waters; more opportunities for fear and tension.

 

1935 fire in the Galata District of Istanbul

Besides dynamism and mood, travel adds a bigger picture of the world that my protagonists inhabit, from the social milieu to international affairs. Diego, on his first view of Istanbul, notices countless burnt buildings in various stages of reconstruction as he and his mentor walk through the merchants’ district on their way to lodgings. When Diego asks what happened, Jacob, his mentor, tells him of the Great Fire of 1569. Jacob says that wood taken from Ukraine and Bulgaria is plentiful and cheap, and fires are common. Why? He explains one reason: during the summer cooking eggplants in plenty of oil was common. The oil caught fire and neighborhoods burned. They were called “the fried eggplant months.” Jacob further says that wood is as plentiful and cheap as the slaves Ottoman soldiers purchase in their annual expedition to those same regions. Thus, a walk through Istanbul’s merchants’ district provides glimpses of history and geography.

Putting my protagonists in motion allows me to add all sorts of passing sights, scents, and sounds that can give readers a potent sense of place. A sense of place adds richness and depth to any story, but may be especially critical to historical tales where a picture of the past may be obscure.

 

A carrack, the main type of merchant ship in the 16th century.

The sleuths in my trilogy sail to ports around the Mediterranean in service of their main work: selling woolens. This allows me to picture life on large, three-masted sailing ships, which were the major means of commercial transport in sixteenth-century Europe.

Their sea journeys include pirates looting for the King of Spain; the measured rotations of constellations in the night sky; and loading sacks of currents at the island port of Zante in the Ionian Sea. (Sun-Maid still labels its currents as “Zante Currents.”) Because I’m concerned with accuracy, I took a short, group trip on a historical sailing ship and viscerally learned the rigors of what it takes to “Heave Ho!” I did not try eating weevil-riddled hardtack.

 

Venice at night. In the 16th century, Venice streets were lit only by candle-lanterns.

As my sleuths walk through Venice by day, the plot causes them to engage with businessmen in the printers district and in woolens warehouses as well as grand ladies in wealthy mansions—places both distinct and diverse. At night, on their way to a rendezvous, they encounter prostitutes looking for a mark and sailors singing bawdy songs on the Venice docks. Fast snapshots that add life and color as the action moves forward.

Travel always provides the opportunity of a sideshow as the main plot and subplots unfold. Sometimes an incident while traveling highjacks the plot. Sometimes, the writer does not know the highjack will happen…until it does.

Michal Strutin

Written by Michal Strutin

Judging Noa: a Fight for Women’s Rights in the Turmoil of the Exodus is Michal Strutin’s debut novel. She is now working on a mystery series set in the Late Renaissance. Michal’s award-winning nonfiction focuses on natural and cultural history and travel. Her eight nonfiction books include Places of Grace: the Natural Landscapes of the American Midwest with photographer Gary Irving; Discovering Natural Israel, a high-spirited discovery of flora, fauna, and people; Florida State Parks: a Complete Recreation Guide; and History Hikes of the Smokies.

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