The Protagonist’s Trip: Solo Travel For the Author

by Gray Cargill on July 24, 2013

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I don’t know about you, but I’ve always wondered how mystery writers do their research to get all the details “just right” for their stories. Surely they can’t have traveled to all the places they write about and surely they can’t have personally experienced all the things their protagonists do in the book, right? Well, you might be surprised. Today’s post by my friend, mystery writer Kristen Elise, gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the travel research of one author and why she feels solo travel is essential for a writer. You may find some of her points resonate with your reasons for solo travel, too–as a blogger, I know I did.


Being arrested in Naples wouldn’t be so bad if the two totally awesome Naples castles were still in use as prisons. Instead, Castel dell’ Ovo and Castel Nuovo are paid tourist attractions, and a tourist under arrest in Naples is transported to a boring police station. I know this from personal experience.

It all started with a bus ride. I had been on the bus legally, or so I thought, because I had purchased a ticket. So when two transit cops passing through started checking tickets, I showed them my ticket and expected them to leave me alone.

But they didn’t leave me alone. Instead, they started motioning back and forth between my face and my ticket while yelling at me. I tried to ask them in my broken Itali-English what the problem was, but they just continued to yell at me in Italian as if repeating themselves was going to teach me the language right then and there.

Eventually, one of them took out a pen and a notepad and wrote: 75€.

Now, I understood. I owed them money. Quite a bit of it, frankly, for a poor graduate student who had just eaten nothing but spaghetti for an entire year in order to take her first vacation to Italy.

I started to argue with them. I told them I didn’t have 75 Euro. They asked for my passport, and I told them I didn’t have it on me. They hauled me off the bus by the shirt and dragged me to an ATM, where I told them I didn’t have my ATM card. So they hauled me to the police station–which just happened to be across the street from where we were standing.

Suddenly, there were not two, but dozens of cops yelling at me in Italian. Still trying to teach me the language, I assumed. Eventually, a kindly passerby came by and translated. It was then that I learned what I’d done wrong. Evidently, I had failed to notice the bright yellow ticket validation machine on the overly crowded bus. The kindly passerby yelled at the cops for a while in Italian–while telling me in English to “look pathetic”–and eventually they let me go.

That was when I realized the importance of travel to an author. Travel gives us the stories to write about. And traveling solo is imperative. Here are three reasons why:


The Itinerary

Travel to an author is never a vacation. It is an all-out mission to research and write. The questions an author has to answer in order to flesh out a story are often completely bizarre and random for anyone else.

I had written a 40 page, single-spaced, color-coded (seven colors) itinerary in 8-point font for my trip to Italy. I had such critical research items on the agenda as “note the exact travel time between top of Mount Vesuvius and Solfatara crater,” “find the plumbing pipe with L. Pisonis’ name engraved in the underwater archeological park,” and “find out why the Villa dei Papiri isn’t on the map of Herculaneum ruins.”

Can you imagine if I’d been traveling with a friend? I’d pity the poor soul following along with me on these quests. And I certainly couldn’t waste my own precious research and writing time on someone else’s unnecessary stops, like bathroom breaks and sleep.

Of course, when my itinerary was totally derailed by being arrested, I was more than a little bit annoyed. But the incident ended up almost verbatim in my novel, which certainly made it a valuable derailment. Which brings me to Point Number 2.


The Derailment

The self-imposed derailment provides another strong argument for solo travel as an author. You never know when an idea will strike that leads you to spend a ridiculous amount of time in a totally random spot.

In Naples, I experienced an afternoon of self-imposed derailment in one of my (usually) least favorite places on earth – at the mall. When I stepped into the Galleria Umberto, a plot line crystallized in my mind, like the crystalline network of glass that makes up the mall’s ceiling. So I had to sit down and start writing for a while. A long while.

I guess this is where I would encourage one of those bathroom breaks to the unfortunate travel companion. (“Take your time!”) But really, it’s better to just not have anyone else along at this point.

And not having anyone else along also gives you the freedom to morph into the solo protagonist.

Kris Elise

The Solo Protagonist

Later, I went to Egypt to research the rest of my book. I had already outlined enough of the plot to know my protagonist would be solo in Egypt. So I climbed into character and traveled in her shoes.

This was how I learned some of the priceless tidbits that I never could have learned except through a solo travel experience, tidbits that would later make their way into my story: The way the entire city of Cairo notices a solo, light-haired woman on the street. The subdued, intrigued looks and comments (by locals and tourists alike) that follow a blue-eyed, solo woman in hijab. The way it smells when you’re changing clothes in 110 degree heat in a bathroom stall, and the gentle rocking of a cabin for one on an overnight train.

As a side benefit, traveling solo not only offered the authentic experience that I could draw upon in my book, but it also permitted me to conduct a number of research-related experiments without the embarrassment of a travel companion knowing about them (see aforementioned clothes-changing in bathroom stall.)

One of the biggest drawbacks to solo travel (in my opinion) is the loneliness – the feeling of wanting someone to share your experiences with. But I have found that when I’m traveling solo for the purpose of writing and writing-related research, the loneliness completely disappears. Instead, it is replaced by excitement, a sense of adventure, and the feeling that I’m on a quest. Because I know that I will share these travels, after all, and I can’t wait to see what stories I’ll have to tell.

About the Author

Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope. She lives in San Diego, California, with her husband, stepson, and three canine children. Please visit her websites at and The Vesuvius Isotope is available in both print ( and and e-book formats ( for Kindle, for Nook, for Kobo reader.)

The Vesuvius IsotopeAbout The Vesuvius Isotope:

When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that increasingly pervaded his behavior in recent weeks. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the esoteric life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague, introducing it into the twenty-first century.


Melissa July 26, 2013 at 7:08 am

Hi, Kris. The more excuses to travel, the better.

Kris July 25, 2013 at 8:56 pm

Melissa, good point, but I think in my case it was both: I traveled to Italy and got the idea for the story, and then the story led me to Egypt to research the rest of the book. Two more excuses for travel right there, in case you needed more 🙂

Melissa July 25, 2013 at 8:38 am

Some travel and are then inspired to write a novel. Others, like Kristen Elise, are inspired to write a novel set in far-away places and therefore travel. Either way, the result is adventure and a great story. Loved reading this post.

Kris July 24, 2013 at 10:31 am

Thanks Rob, yeah, I would be torture to follow around as I run to keep up with those 40-page travel itineraries. Glad you enjoyed the post!

RobRob July 24, 2013 at 8:24 am

I can only imagine the torture traveling companions would have to endure. Heck, I get sighs and eye rolls just stopping to take a few pictures! But for me, what Kristen described sounds like adventure! For a lot of us, that’s one of the reasons we travel in the first place. Great post! I’m glad she shared her experiences with us.

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