19 March 2024

Stolen Opportunities

     Pre-pandemic, my traveling companion and I visited Italy. We journeyed with another couple. I'll call them P and D. On a jaunt to the Amalfi Coast, we took the Circumvesuviana. It sounded cool. The train departs from Naples and hugs Vesuvius, the volcano that destroyed Pompeii. The Circumvesuviana passes by that ancient Roman city. It treks along the Amalfi Coast before arriving at Sorrento, with its sheer cliffs and colorful villas. I carried a notepad. A few of my notes follow.

    The train trip reads better in the guidebooks. The Circumvesuviana functions as a commuter railway. Our train was graffiti-splashed, chugged slowly, stopped frequently, and was crowded. If you want to try something that isn't touristy, ride the Circumvesuviana.

Jensen, Public Domain, Wikimedia

    While we stood in the Naples station waiting for the opportunity to board, P, the husband, told us that he'd just foiled a pickpocket. I followed his outstretched arm, pointing toward a man scurrying to the far end of the station, casting wayward glances in our direction. 

    We boarded the train. P had served in the US Navy and had sailed out of Naples on occasion. He remembered a restaurant he'd eaten at in Sorrento. We found it. The place stood dimly lit and mysterious. We were traveling out of season, I'll add. Few tourists were visiting in January. Lots of places proved uncrowded, dark, and mysterious. 

    We ended this side trip at Pompeii. I entered the ancient site with a certain trepidation. I'd heard about and seen pictures of these ruins for my entire life. Would the place live up to my expectations? Pompeii did. 

    An exotic-sounding train trip, an ancient Roman city, and a town on the gorgeous Amalfi coast cloaked in just a hint of mystery. What could a writer possibly do with that?

    As we zipped along on the ItaliaRail, the sleek, clean, fast national railway back to Rome, I flipped through the notes and began thinking about someday mining this little side trip. Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine graciously published the resulting story, "Sfortuna," in the March/April issue. 

    I love to set stories in the places I've visited. Writing a short story allows me to think back on the pleasant memories of a vacation. Exploring a new place with the mindset that I'll likely dip into this experience for a later story also heightens my observations. I take a five-sense inventory of a place. What stands out that I might tap into when I'm seated at my keyboard? The practice frequently enhances my experience of visiting. Hosts also seem to like seeing their vacation home used as the setting for a short story. Selfishly, if a published story gets me invited back, that's a double win for me. 

    I've frequently mined these experiences. I think of this as a subset of the writer's maxim, "Write what you know." In this case, the admonition is recast as, "Write what you think you know because you've visited for a very short time." 

    And I have to expand the maxim. I can't just write what I know. My stories would be too bland. I've been fortunate to have missed out on much of the soul-searing pain others might dredge for their stories. I've never been a POW in a fire-bombed city like Dresden. I'm not complaining or volunteering; I'm just reporting. 

    So where do you go when the pains in your life are the abundance of weeds in your front lawn and terrible luck when picking a grocery store checkout lane? How do you mine the commonplace to find exciting story material? 

    First, I need to recognize that my personal experience provides the only lens I've got to view what I'm trying to portray through words. 

    Second, I remember the micro-moments. We've all experienced times of heartache, loss, despair, grief, and sadness. Perhaps not on some grand scale, but we've all been there. I've seen the people around me have these emotions as well. My traveling companion expresses her feelings differently than I do. I can amplify that range of emotions to convey my character's thoughts and feelings. I can mine not only my vacations but also my personal history. I can squeeze what I need from the mundane. 

    Third, I hope I'm noticing the people around me. Having a ringside seat in the criminal justice system has allowed me to observe other people having bad days. I've seen their anger and disillusionment. I've also witnessed their sense of vindication. Finally, I've also seen their stupidity. It all helps when I'm trying to write. 

    But one doesn't need to have worked in jail to find emotions on display. Grocery store trips can demonstrate bits of bad behavior. We're all watching for those moments. To write is to be part voyeur. You're standing in the checkout line or sitting at a restaurant and not intentionally eavesdropping, but suddenly find yourself gifted with a phrase. For a moment, the meal is put on hold so that you can text yourself a message before you forget the gift you've just been given. 

    Lastly, I can look things up. Research is, in its own way, an enhancement of my personal experience. I'm going to the places I choose and looking for what I might find. On virtually any subject, the internet makes it possible to eavesdrop on someone somewhere reflecting on something. I can read or watch and filter what they report through my lens. 

    I've experienced nothing of what happened in "Sfortuna." Viewed differently, we've experienced it all. I sat down at my computer and imagined how it all came out. I'm thrilled that the kind folks at Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine liked the story. I hope that the readers do also. 

    How do you mine your experiences? What tips do you have for wringing the maximum literary value from the fortunes and misfortunes in your life?

Until next time. 


  1. I agree, Mark - write what you know, and research the rest. And observation will do wonders. Just sit and watch. Whenever I've been fortunate enough to be in a foreign country, or on vacation anywhere, I sit and watch the people around me, smell the air, look at how things done and make notes. I have so many notes...

  2. I love your line about I can't just write what I know - it would be too boring! How true, in my case. Yes, I've written entire novels based on my travels. The Italian Cure is one (a tour bus trip through central Italy.) I am researching every day right now for the 1920s series I'm writing. I think research keeps us fresh. I learn more from travel and research, and like Eve, I have so many notes...

  3. Elizabeth Dearborn19 March, 2024 23:15

    Bad behavior in the grocery store inspired my flash story "Frozen Meat," which appeared in the final B.O.U.L.D. anthology & won a small prize 😎


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>