One of the coolest things about writing a story set in Morocco was that I had to go there to do research for the second book in my trilogy, Blood Passage. Poor me, right? I love to travel, but this trip was especially meaningful because the country is now so intrinsically linked to a story and characters I love. It was a surreal experience imagining my characters running through the souks of Marrakech and sleeping in the Sahara while I was doing those things myself.
My story is about jinn (genies, Djinn) and Morocco has a lot of jinn lore. It seemed like the perfect place to set my book. This was confirmed when my driver to the Sahara, Moustafa, told me personal stories of jinn sightings. What can I say? It’s a magical country. There was no way I could have done this authentically by simply reading and doing Internet research. When you travel to a new country, it gets in your bones. My favorite scenes of the book are set in places that were magical to me: the Sahara, riads (Moroccan guesthouses), the souks. I have a lot of favorite scenes that take place in a cave, too. For that, I traveled to Virginia, which, while I was in the cave, was just as exotic as Morocco.
One of the greatest advantages of travelling to the set of your novel is that, while there, the story will begin to take shape out of its natural surroundings. Before I went to Morocco, I was banging my head against my desk, stuck on the plot, the setting, the characters. It was a nightmare. But as soon as I got back from Morocco, the story flowed out of me. That’s not to say it was easy by any means, but the creative blocks had been eliminated. I think this is, in large part, due to the sensory details of Morocco. I could hear the call to prayer in Marrakech or the way the sand blows against a tent in the Sahara (you should put that on your bucket list: it is the single coolest thing I’ve ever done). I could smell the food, see the women who did henna in the Djemaa el-Fna, the main square in Marrakech. To me, Morocco had become a real, living breathing entity.
One of my mentors often talks about being in the moment when you’re writing. This basically means going deep into character and story, rather than just focusing on basic details or telling the reader information. For example, if you have a character crying you have to be her in that moment, feeling the depth of her pain. Then write it. We’ll call it method writing.
I could feel the coolness of Saharan sand at night as she brushed her fingers through it. I could taste the Moroccan mint tea with her and enjoy the elaborate tea ceremony accompanied with it. Whatever she did, I had done—with the exception of fighting magical creatures. I had to use my imagination for that.
By travelling to Morocco, I was better able to get into Nalia’s skin. I put my protagonist through hell in this book, which means I put myself through hell. Worth it. I think one of the reasons I was able to be in the trenches with her was that I knew physically where she was. I could feel the coolness of Saharan sand at night as she brushed her fingers through it. I could taste the Moroccan mint tea with her and enjoy the elaborate tea ceremony accompanied with it. Whatever she did, I had done—with the exception of fighting magical creatures. I had to use my imagination for that.
A final note: I think if you can’t travel to the place you’re writing about, you might want to consider not working on that story until you have the ability. (Unless, of course, you’re creating a made-up land — then you can only go there in your head). It’s about being authentic and honoring the culture your story is wrapped up in, whether that’s Morocco or Los Angeles or Timbuktu. But, even more, it gives the story a chance to be as good as it can be. There’s just something magical that happens when you put yourself where your characters are. Writing a book is a journey, both literally and figuratively. So grab your passport and laptop and get travelling— happy trails!
Blood Passage will be release March 1 by Balzer + Bray.