Let’s Write a Novel: Creating Your Characters

Welcome to my first series! I’m excited to start sharing some of the tips, tricks, and systems I use when I’m designing a story, as well as my process for writing, editing, dealing with deadlines and writers, block, and anything else you could want to know.

I know many of you are probably thinking, “Why should we listen to you? You’ve never even been published!” You’re only partially correct. I have actually been published – a couple of times, in fact. I have stories and poems in various literary journals. And I have some self-published books laying around my apartment. That’s not what’s important.

What’s important is that I have written millions of words in the 13 years since I started writing. I have two separate degrees, one in creative writing, one in literature. I’ve spent the last 13 years dedicated to my writing. I never stopped – not even in university, when I really should have stopped. I spend nearly all of my free time daydreaming about the worlds that I’ve built. Creating lives for my characters, giving them depth.

My point being – people always say write about what you know. So I thought I’d write about what I know best – writing. You can feel free to ignore my advice. Hell, most of it might not even work for you. I’ve found in my life that writing is not a one-size-fits-all kind of art.

Everyone will tell you the “right” way to write. Don’t read your work before you’ve finished. Always write in the same place, at the same time. Never write in the same place – write when inspiration strikes. Don’t edit as you write. Do edit as you write. Don’t write from beginning to end, start where you’re most interested. Do write from beginning to end, or you’ll lose interest in the boring parts and never finish. Don’t write in 1st person. Don’t write in 2nd person. Don’t write in 3rd person.

Guys, writing is an art. I think people forget that because it’s not as “obvious” as some other forms of art, like painting or pottery. Or even poetry. But it’s still an art, and writers are artists. We have to be inspired, have dedication, work, and hone our craft, just like any other artist. And just like any other artist – not every style of writing is going to be the same.

This is all to say – if you’re a writer – experiment! Do what works for you! Write weird stuff that you enjoy. Write boring stuff you don’t enjoy. Do what you need to do to discover your style and voice. Everyone will tell you what it should be – but only you can know what it is.

Finding Your Main Character

Writing about only designing and developing characters is a little tricky for me. I usually design characters at the same time I’m working on the plot of a new story – I find them to be linked in my mind. However, if I wrote about that whole process, this blog post would end up the length of a book, and I don’t think anyone wants to sit down and read all of that right now. So I’ve divided these up into several different blog posts. And since you can’t have a story without good characters, this seemed like the natural place to start!

Let’s start with the obvious question: who is your main character? Where do they come from? What’s their gender? Sexual orientation? Race? How do those things inform their personality?

Honestly, I don’t have a lot of advice when it comes to choosing the main character. Usually, when I come up with a story idea, the idea comes with a half-formed main character when it hits me. So I don’t normally have to do the work of designing a character from scratch to fit the story. But I can walk you through some of the questions I ask myself when I’m determining my Main Character’s (MC) personality.

  1. Where did MC grow up?
  2. Who are their parents? What is their relationship? How does the relationship with the MC’s parents affect their personality?
  3. Was their hometown big? Small?
  4. Who was MC’s best friend growing up? Are they still friends now? If not, what happened?
  5. Are they still in their hometown when the story starts? If not, why did they leave?
  6. What are the MC’s skills? How were they developed? Are they natural gifts, or did the MC have to work for them?
  7. How does the conflict of the story personally affect the MC? What’s at stake for them?
  8. What is the MC’s life goal? Where do the see themselves in the future? Not where do you see them, where do they want to be? Those aren’t always the same thing.
  9. How does the MC get wrapped into the conflict of the story?

Names are Hard

Admission time: I’m not good with names. Honestly – you would think someone with a creative mind like mine would do a better job naming their characters. But no I am somehow terrible at it.

But enough of my complaints! Clearly, if it was really that much of a problem, I would have stopped writing long ago. I’ve found solutions.

When I was younger, I used to just make up names – particularly when it came to fantasy worlds. That worked… some of the time. There are several names I designed that I still like to this day. But many of them haven’t made the revision cut as I’ve revisited old stories again.

These days, I tend to use name generators to give me ideas. Sometimes I pick a name and change it to something else. Sometimes I change letters around to create a more unique-sounding name. Sometimes I use exactly what is generated.  It really depends on the character.

On that note – there’s a reason this is the second point in this post. I always design some of the character’s background before I choose a name. I find that having some personality in my head makes it easier to decide on a name that really fits my character.

Sometimes the name comes with the character when I design them. Sometimes, those names are quite cliche. But in my experience, it’s pointless to try to fight those names – they stick, no matter how hard I try.

But anyway, here are the generators I use:

Behind the Name: I like this generator because you can select what nationalities you want to target, tell it to use common or uncommon names, or tell it to generator just a ridiculous number of names in a row.

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I usually choose all categories so I can get a lot of different names. I also use the ‘First name and 3 middle names’ category just so I can get a lot of names to choose from. Then I generate!

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As you can see, you can get some pretty unique names using this generator – which is my goal. I don’t want to get the same names over and over again. Plus, it even works for fantasy lands. If I were looking for a fantasy name, I would take the first name that generated and adapt it.

Teimurazi = Temuiraz

Sounds like a villain to me. See how easy that was? Plus, I could use any of the other names generated for other characters, or even the same one if I was looking for a first or last name. Plus, as you can see in the upper corner – if I didn’t like any of those names, I can simply hit “regenerate” and continue my search.

Another good generator I use is Fantasy Name Generator. I love this one because – unlike the last one – it generates just a ton of options. Not only does it have sub-categories for every type of fantasy, sci-fi, etc kind of story you could possibly want to write – it also generates 10 names at a time when you use it. I’m not going to include screencaps because there’s just so much information on the website – you should just go check it out yourself!

The Supporting Cast

I would argue that your supporting characters are just as important to design as your MC. If you have a great MC and boring SCs, people aren’t going to want to read your story. Sorry, that’s the honest truth. So make sure you put in the work when you’re creating your supporting cast! Here are some archetypes to think about when you’re designing your story:

The Antagonist

This is always my first stop after I’ve created my main character. Who is the villain of the story? What drives them? What’s their story – how did they become evil? Are they unapologetically evil, or do they believe themselves to be doing good? Does their evilness come from their ambition, or from a desire to do good (and a belief that the only way to do good is through evil means?). These are all important questions.

I tend to design my antagonists just as thoroughly as I design my main characters, and apply the same set of rigorous questions to them. I encourage you to do this – no one wants a flat antagonist. Readers want to know what makes them tick, and why they do what they do. They want to know what threat they pose to the MC, and why.

Note: The villain is so important to the story that I’m going to dedicate a future article to designing your villain. Stay tuned!

The Love Interest

I don’t always have a love interest for my MC – sometimes my MC is a strong independent woman who don’t need no man. BUT I’m also a hopeless romantic, and I love a good slow-burn romance. So I do often find myself designing the perfect love interest for my MC. Here are the questions I typically ask about my Love Interests:

  1. Where did they meet the MC?
  2. Who fell for who first?
  3. When was/will be their first fight?
  4. Why is the LI in love with the MC?
  5. Why is the MC in love with the LI?
  6. What makes them a good couple?
  7. Is their relationship healthy?
  8. Who confessed their feelings first?
  9. What does their love story have to do with the main conflict of the story?
  10. Does their relationship last, or is it doomed to fail?

I also spend time on the questions I also ask of the MC – where did they grow up? Who was their best friend? How does the conflict of the story affect them? Etc.

The Partner in Crime

This is my favorite archetype of Supporting Character. You can also call this one the “Best Friend” or “Sidekick” but I like this name better. This is the ride-or-die character. The one that’s inseparable from the MC. These are often some of my favorite characters in stories – think Sam Gamgee in the Lord of the Rings, or Ron Weasley in Harry Potter. You get the idea.

I love these characters because they’re often loyal to a fault – which is awesome in a friend. When I’m designing this kind of character, I usually ask myself these questions:

  1. When and where did they meet the MC?
  2. Did they become friends immediately, or was there a time when they didn’t like each other?
  3. Do they ever fight? If so, about what?
  4. What do they do for fun?
  5. How do they bond?
  6. How did the friend get wrapped into the MC’s conflict?
  7. How do they affect the plot? Are they a catalyst? Do they betray the MC? If so, do they come back? When?

It’s important to figure out how your characters affect the plot of the story – or the character development of the MC. If they do neither, readers will wonder why they’re in the story at all.

Other Types

This is by no means an exhaustive list of character types – just the ones I find myself using often, or that I consider the most important. But there are dozens of other character archetypes you can pull from when you’re designing your characters. Or just skim it for inspiration – that’s what I do!

Riley-Style Writing Tip!

Here’s a trick I use when designing my characters:

Before I design the full plot of the story, I sit down with a pen and notebook and write down all the information I know about my characters. I start from the beginning – where they grew up, then I write down everything I know happened to them up until the story begins. That way I feel as though I really know my characters before I start to write. Plus, it helps me weave their backstory into the narrative in a more meaningful way.

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Above is an example. I chose a two-page spread in my notebook – which is pretty rare, usually, my character backgrounds stretch 4+ pages once I finish them. The only ones that end up this short are the backgrounds of my MCs – as so much of their story is told in the actual plot. So this is just the background of what happens to get them to the main plot of the story.

Character Design

I’m not going to lie – character design is actually one of my favorite parts of creating a new story. To actually nail down what my characters look like really brings them alive.

I also find it to be one of the most challenging aspects of character creation – because if I’m not careful, my characters all end up looking the same. Even in my head – I’m not sure why, but sometimes when I describe my characters, they just end up looking the same when I picture them. Which is why I usually take the time to sit down and draw my characters when I’m designing them.

It doesn’t have to be a fancy drawing by any means – just a sketch to give me an idea of what they look like, what they wear, what their expressions are… something tangible.

20190328_120503Sometimes I can sketch my characters right the first time – take this sketch for example. This moody boy came out in one sketch, and I knew immediately that I’d done him justice. From his brooding to the jewelry he wears, to the cigarette he smokes – his personality and his features were perfect.

Now, I don’t always have such luck. Sometimes I fill my notebooks with sketch upon sketch of the same character, unable to quite capture them.

Anymore, I took a good long look at my internal image of the character at that point – because I often find, when I can’t picture my character correctly, it means that I’m not picturing the correct race for the character.

Take for example this guy over here. Forgive my messy sketching – I don’t usually plan to show these to people, but I wanted to use some examples.20190328_113818

I thought sketching someone with blue hair would make him super recognizable, no matter how I drew him. But, to my frustration, I filled up page after page of sketches of him that just weren’t… quite right. I tried different styles of art – more cartoony, less cartoony, anime, and more. Nothing worked.

So finally I complain to my roommate, showing her my sketches of him. And she says, “You know, I always picture him as Asian.”

And there it was – the missing piece. I immediately sketched this – and though the sketch itself is messy, I could tell I’d done him justice this time. Finally.

I have no idea how long it would have taken me to figure that out if I hadn’t disliked my sketches so much – I may have written the entire book without figuring it out. I wouldn’t have liked that at all – especially since the book in question is a romance, which requires a fair amount of character description throughout.

20190328_120526Another good example of this is this character: it took me several rounds of sketching to realize that I wasn’t getting her race right. This one came after the boy above, so I was more aware of it this time. I had an idea that I had her race wrong when I was describing her in the text of the book – I just couldn’t nail down the words. So I returned to my sketchbook. It took me a while to get to this.

You have to understand, it’s not that I didn’t like the other sketches. Take a look at the one below:

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That was supposed to be the same character, and I liked the sketch itself a lot. But the way she looked just… wasn’t right.

The point of all of this being, spend time getting to know your characters as you’re designing them. If you’re not an artist, you probably won’t want to sit down and try to draw them. But spend some time describing them through text – I think it can have the same effect. How do you describe them? Does that description sound right? What does their hair look like? Skin tone? Height? Weight? Complexion? Build? What are their favorite clothes to wear?

The more time you spend getting to know your character, the better they’ll turn out. I promise.

And Have Fun!

I know I just gave you a lot of information to process – as well as some new tools and some awkward-looking pictures of my characters. I just want to take a moment to reiterate – no one writes like this if they don’t find it fun. So make sure you have fun! That’s why I spend so much time designing and drawing my characters. I love to do it.

The tricks I use may not work for you. As I said at the beginning of this post – writing is not a one-size-fits-all kind of art. You have to experiment and find out what systems work best for you.

On that note – please share them! I’m always looking for new ways to play with my characters and plots. How do you design your characters? What questions do you ask about them? Do you use character creation sheets? Do you draw your characters? I’d love to hear more about your systems as well, so please leave a comment and share!

So How Are Those Goals Going, Anyway?

Despite the radio silence here on my website, my progress toward my goals this year has actually been quite steady. I told myself that this was my year to really buckle down and do the work – and that’s what I’ve been doing. Keeping my nose to the grindstone, filling my spare time, and trying to also maintain a social life.

I’d be lying if I said it was easy. In many ways, I feel busier than I’ve ever been. I have that feeling I had in college. Whenever I have free time, I feel as if I should be doing something else. Writing. Art. Reading. Working out.

I know that sounds stressful and depressing – but honestly, I actually prefer that kind of feeling as opposed to

Writing

writing

I’ve really been trying to buckle down and write as close to every day as I can. There are some screenshots below of my progress so far. I’m using a tracker called Write Track, which is completely free.

As you can see from my screenshots – I definitely don’t manage to actually sit down and write every day. Since I work on the same laptopeeeeee that I write on, sometimes after I do a full day of work, I just don’t want to sit down at my desk again and write.

Those days, I give myself a bit of a pass. One of the things I’ve been working on teaching myself this year is the art of self-love and self-forgiveness. I miss a day of writing? That’s okay, I can make up some words another day. Miss a day at the gym? It’s all right, it doesn’t mean I’ve given up on fitness. Eat unhealthily? That’s okay, tomorrow you’ll do better. I find that if I give myself some grace and kindness, I’m less likely to quit. Whereas if I’m hard on myself for missing a day, I want to stop almost immediately. Not to mention, it’s just better for my mental health to have a loving edge toward myself, rather than a hard one.

But, anyway! Let’s check on my goal progress.

My overall word count is going well. Though I don’t write every day, I do tend to write more than my daily count when I sit down to write. I usually average around 1,000 words or more a day when I actually write, as you can see from my February word count.

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Clearly, I had problems writing every day. Well, I should say – I had issues recording my writing every day. Sometimes I just forget to mark where I started writing, or I just forget to update my count. I don’t think that was the case here – I honestly think that the 17th – 24th I just didn’t write. It happens. I don’t lose sleep over it. The point is that I’m still working on developing the habit. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

But let’s take a look at the days that I did write. Almost every day I wrote in February I wrote 2,000+ words in the day. There was one day I wrote over 7,000 words. Those days really help make up for the ones that I don’t get to my laptop. The point of setting my goal of 200,000 words in a year was to learn to do the work. If that means I don’t write every single day, but I still reach the goal in my timeframe, so be it.

So now let’s take a look at my overall word count so far this year:

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NOTE: This doesn’t include today’s writing since I haven’t updated my count for today yet. Okay, let’s take a look.

As you can see, I’m pretty far ahead of my goal progress. This was my plan. I know I can write a lot in a short period of time, so I buckled down in January and cranked out as many words as I possibly could to get ahead of the game. In the month of January, I wrote 30,949 words (which, fun fact, is my average for each NaNoWriMo except for the time I wrote 90,000 words – that was an outlier and should not be counted).

If you can do math (and you can) you’re probably saying, “But wait a minute there Miss Writes-A-Lot, that means you’ve only written another 30,000 words since January!” You’re right, That’s why I worked so hard in January, because I knew I would start to slow down. (Full disclosure – I wrote this article before the end of April as I was trying to get ahead on my blogging. So who knows how many words I will have actually written by April 1st? Just kidding, I know, its 69,278).

I’m still pretty far ahead of the Expected Progress Bar. For those curious, as of today, March 24th, 2019, in order to reach my goal by December 31st, my expected progress is 43,333 words. I’m trying to still stay ahead of the bar in case I run into any more dry spells.

All in All: Am I Satisfied?

I absolutely am satisfied with my progress. It’s nice to have a measure of just how many words I’ve written this year. I find it motivating to be so far ahead of my goal. I want to see how quickly I can reach my goal, and how much I can surpass it by the end of the year.

I’m still working on building the habits, but I’m doing the work. That’s all I can really ask for.

Health

I feel good about the stride s I’ve made toward prioritizing my health. I got a gym membership at Xperience Fitness which is a cheap-but-good gym near me. I go three times a week in the morning and work out for 30 minutes to an hour those days.

I’ve made some discoveries. I’d made a lot of excuses as to why I couldn’t join a gym before. A lot of them revolved around my asthma – I was embarrassed to work out when I knew I would have an asthma attack. I thought people would judge me for being out of shape when in reality I just couldn’t breathe.

But the more I’ve gone to the gym, the less I’ve had problems with my asthma. I thought it was going to take a lot of doing to get to the point where I could do a set of weights, or run for 30 minutes without having an asthma attack. Turns out I was wrong.

Disclaimer: I’m not saying that people who have asthma are whiners, or that asthma can’t be a legitimate worry when working out. This is purely my experience.

After one week at the gym, I stopped having problems with my asthma. I have no idea what sparked that change, but I’m glad it happened. Now, I can push myself as hard as I need to in the gym without feeling like I’m drowning.

Of course, this doesn’t mean working out is easy for me now. It’s not by any means. But it’s less terrible than it was before.

As far as goals – I don’t actually own a scale. So I don’t know how much weight I’ve lost so far on my health journey. But I also know that I have lost weight. The reason I know? I had to replace all of my pants because they were suddenly too loose. That’s right, I’ve dropped a pants size so far this year.

In the interest of being transparent – which is what I’m trying to do here – I’ll give you a rundown of what I’ve done to achieve my health goal. My roommate and I attempted Whole30 and stopped after 17 days, when she realized that a health condition of hers was being aggravated by the restrictive diet. I could have continued on my own, but quite honestly – I didn’t want to. I am very much a foodie, and while I did find some recipes that were tasty, most I found to be bland and boring. Because they were bland, I didn’t want to eat, and then I got grouchy and tired because I wasn’t eating enough.

That’s all to say, I’ve figured out how to adjust my diet to be more healthy. Have I been doing it well since I stopped Whole30? No, but I’m going to start again. I’m cutting back on sugary foods – soda, coffee, sweets – and eating out less. This is partially for my health and partially for my wallet.

All in All: Am I Satisfied?

Absolutely. I’m proud of myself for the progress I’ve made. It may not be perfect, but I’m still working hard and I think I can give myself credit for it. I’m still developing all the habits – there are occasionally still mornings where I choose to sleep instead of work out. But those will come with time an dedication.

I also intend to buy a scale soon so I can actually find out how much I’ve lost.

Books

All right, admission:

I haven’t finished a book yet this year. It’s now April, I should be starting my fourth book in-keeping with my goal. And I haven’t. Finished. One.

I also figured out why I didn’t finish any books last year, either. I read a LOT of my own writing.

Does that sound vain? Probably. But I’ve been writing for 13 years. I have quite a library built up. I read my own work for inspiration, reflection, and editorial purposes. I also read because… well, no one knows my tastes like I do.

So I’ve read thousands of words this year. It’s just that I haven’t read much that I haven’t written myself (and articles online, of course).

All and All: Am I Satisfied?

No, not really… I don’t really know what to change when it comes to my reading habits. I always intend to sit down and read but in reality, I have so many other things to do, I just forget. And then suddenly it’s April and I should have read 3 whole books and I haven’t read any.

I don’t really have a plan for what to do to achieve my goal… I’ll keep you guys updated if I come up with a plan. I’m just going to try to read some short books to catch up whenever I have the time (which is never).

Coming Soon!

Good news for those of you who actually enjoy reading my blog. There’s more coming!

Newsletter

That’s right, I’m hoping to roll out a newsletter in the next several months! You can look to find updates on my story, personal anecdotes, pictures, hints, and hacks. This will still be a little while coming as I want to get into the habit of regularly publishing articles before I roll it out. Still, I’m excited to share more of my life with you all!

New Series!

I’ve brainstormed enough blog topics to publish one article a week for the rest of this year. Actually, well into next year as well.

I took away my best excuse. “I don’t have any ideas for blog posts!” Not anymore. I have over 50 blog ideas, with titles and details, written in a spreadsheet. I have publishing dates assigned, and several series planned. Here’s a sneak peek!

Adulting is Hard: a crash course on how to be a real adult from one who learned the hard way. I’ll be talking about budgeting when you have no money, how to grocery shop on a tight budget, what to do when your car breaks down for the first time, keeping your place clean, how to find your first apartment, tips on living with roommates, a simple checklist of essential furniture and household supplies for your first home, the best way to do laundry, and learning how to be healthy when you’re broke.

Creating a Story: I figured if you’re always told to “write what you know,” then I’d better start writing about what I know best: writing! This series will touch on the basics of developing a good story. How to design a compelling character, creating character development, finding a good antagonist and conflict for your story, designing a full plot arc, then, finally, actually sitting down to write the story. And, of course, the all-important editing.

Writing Fantasy: There’s a lot that goes into creating a compelling fantasy world that people don’t really think about. In this series I’m going to touch on building a believable fantasy world, creating new fantasy races and their rules, dealing with creatures and magic, as well as the basics of language and spells.

Misc. Lifestyle and Religion: The rest of my planned posts for this year are mostly miscellaneous, and branch across several topics, but I still think they’re going to be fun to write, and hopefully fun to read. Here are SOME of the posts I have planned:

  • What Queer Eye has Taught me About Self Care and Confidence
  • I Walked Away From Christianity for Two Years. Here’s Why I Came Back
  • Brainstorming Tips and Tricks From Your Local Creative Mind
  • Why Christian Lonely-Shame, and Why We Should Stop
  • What Happened When I Konmari’d All My Belongings

Those are the first series I have planned! I’m excited to get started. I feel like I finally know what I want to say and how to say it, so now I just have to sit down and do the work. And that’s what this year is all about, anyway!

Leave a comment down below with what series or post you’re most excited to read! I’d love to hear from you!

Fare Finders: Best Sites for Cheap Travel

From the moment that I first told people that I was going to start traveling all the time, I got one question from everyone:

“How are you going to pay for it?”

That’s a good question. Logically, a 21-year-old writer a year and a half out of college shouldn’t be able to afford traveling the way that I do.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m lucky – since I can work from anywhere traveling around isn’t a challenge for me. But the answer that all I need to work is my laptop and an internet connection didn’t seem to placate the people who kept asking this question.

There’s a perception out there that traveling is expensive. That you need to have some money saved up to travel at all. And while it’s true that traveling can be pricy – that assumption is simply incorrect.

There are a ton of ways to save money while you’re traveling – even traveling in a group. Of course, as someone who always travels alone, it’s far cheaper for me than for people paying for an entire family. But there are still ways to keep things cheap.

The problem is, people are used to luxury travel. Well, if you’re traveling on a budget, it’s not always luxurious. In fact, it’s very rarely luxurious.

But I’m not traveling for the luxury. I’m traveling for the experience. As long as I can afford it, I don’t need to be comfortable to travel.

Deciding where I travel is a process for me – because when I decide where I’m going, I have to compare the prices of transportation. How much does it cost to stay? Then I create a budget with whatever is left over for my bills and – of course – food and activities.

So, I have a myriad of websites and apps that I use to help me plan my trips. Without these, I wouldn’t be able to manage my finances nearly as well – and certainly less efficiently.

Transportation:

The one that people are more curious about is transportation. How can I afford to pay for transportation from place to place? Flying is expensive, after all.

Yeah, that’s true. But I very rarely fly. It’s usually only if I’m traveling a long distance all at once, or all of my other options turned out to be the same price – which has happened before, but rarely.

Mostly, I take buses. There are several bus services that run really cheaply – even if you buy last minute. Of course, it pays to know where to look for deals.

Ground Transport

I normally use a website called Wanderu to book my bus trips. It’s my choice because it lists prices across several different bus companies – and trains, so you’ll know that you’re getting the best deal for where you’re going.

I also use another site called Go To Bus if I suspect that there’s a better deal – or if I can’t find a direct bus from one destination to another. Since they use different services, they sometimes have different lines. So, I make sure to do some double-checking before I make my final purchase.

For trains, I mostly just stick to Amtrak.com and just play around with the dates and times until I find a good deal. This can be annoying and time-consuming. But since traveling on a train is generally more comfortable – in my opinion – than most other forms of long-distance travel, it’s generally worth the hassle.

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, some of the bus sites that I use will compare rates with Amtrak, so you can use those to ensure you’re getting a good deal as well.

Air Transport

When it comes to flying – as I said – I don’t often fly because it’s just not cost effective unless you’re hopping coasts, islands, or countries. And I try not to do that, because it’s much cheaper – and it’s also more fun, in my opinion.

It’s more of a challenge to plan bus rides across the country, seeing what the cheapest possibilities are. Planning it this way makes me add places I may not have even considered before to my itinerary – and sometimes unplanned stops are the best stops.

But, when I do fly, I usually check my fares on Kayak. I like using it because – as someone who rarely travels with exact dates – I like that they have flexible departure options.

And, like the other websites I use, it checks fare prices across different airlines. Not to mention it gives you information on legroom, baggage, layover, airports, etc.

Honorable Mention:

I also follow a blog called the Thrifty Traveler – which is always promoting flight deals. I keep an eye on their blog so that if a really good deal pops up (and it does, from time to time) I’m ready to pounce on it and change my plans if necessary.

Lodging:

The most important part of planning where to go is to find where you’re going to stay. I may be adventurous – but if I have my way, I won’t ever sleep on the street. That’s a no-go for me. So usually when I start deciding where to go, I start looking at hostels.

Hostels are my favorite part of traveling, hands down. That may surprise my friends who know me – but I really enjoy brushing elbows with other travelers the way that you can in a hostel.

It’s a unique experience – and I deeply enjoy it. It’s not really comfortable – in fact, it’s very rarely comfortable.

I’m not a picky person. I can put in earplugs or headphones, pull a hood over my eyes, and fall asleep. And once I’m asleep, I stay that way. So staying in a dorm-style room like in a hostel doesn’t bother me in the slightest. But I’ve heard that it can be annoying.

Sidenote: You also see some really… unique things when you stay in a hostel. I spent a fair amount of time trading weird stories with some of my friends I made while staying in Philadelphia. So be aware that sometimes, you may see things that you weren’t expecting…

I normally use hostelworld.com to find places to stay, as you can search by place to find good prices, as well as see the location of each hostel on a map. I’ll also use hostels.com to cross check prices.

If you can’t find hostels in your destination on those sites, you can do a quick Google search. Sometimes cities don’t have hostels. Sometimes they’re just not listed on the other websites. It doesn’t hurt to check.

Now, if you’re really on a tight budget, there are some cities that can be unmanageable. For example, in America: New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and many others, hostels can be an upwards of 40 USD a night.

For people who aren’t familiar with hostels – in other countries, hostels are closer to 10 USD per night – or less. Some countries it can be less than 5 USD.

Other Options:

I’m a stubborn person. So, looking at cities that are pricy like that doesn’t stop me from planning to go. Step number one is usually to figure out if I have friends in the area that might let me crash with them.

I’m lucky – I have friends and family all over the country, so usually, I can find someone to stay with if I look hard enough.

But I know not everyone has the same network as I do – and I don’t have connections everywhere. So if I’m looking at a tight budget, I often check up on Couch Surfing.

Couch Surfing can be a little weird at times. You are, quite literally, sleeping in a stranger’s house, after all.

But as long as you know what you’re doing, it can be just as safe as staying in a hostel. And it’s free! Yep, that’s the best part about it. Couch Surfing isn’t an exchange of money – it’s an exchange of knowledge.

You can update your profile with things you know how to do and are willing to teach, and you and your hosts teach each other things while you’re there.

You can also offer to help with chores, cook meals, or whatever else. It’s completely up to you. I highly recommend it for the traveler on a tight budget.

Be careful, but as long as you take precautions, you’ll do just fine.

Wait, That’s It?

That’s the secret, friends. I’m very careful with my budget and look for the best possible deals. I’m not picky about where I stay (though I’m careful), and I’m willing to make sacrifices to achieve what I want.

That’s how I make it work. It’s not easy – nor should it be. I wake up every day to a new adventure and I love every minute of it.

If any of you are thinking about taking a trip in the near future, I encourage you to bookmark those websites to help you find the best deals you possibly can.

In a future post, I’ll talk about how exactly I manage my budget each month to ensure that I can afford everything, on top of saving. But for now, I think that’s enough.

I always welcome comments and suggestions if you know of some travel sites that I don’t! ***Header image credit: Shutterstock***

When a 4 Hour Trip Takes 8…

Everyone who travels will tell you – you get into your fair share of trouble while you’re at it. I don’t know what about traveling long-term tempts fate so much, but when you’re on the road for a while, interesting things are bound to happen. And if you’ve been reading my previous posts, you’ll know that I’ve already had my fair share of difficulties. But, as any good traveler, I tend to go into any situation ready for the unexpected.

Sometimes there’s no preparing for it.

When you ride on a bus – particularly between major cities – you expect delays. It’s part of the gig. It’s one of the cheapest ways to travel, so it’s really not surprising that there are sometimes problems. Traffic happens. Accidents happens. Buses break down. So, I tend to expect some delays when I ride on a bus – no matter where I’m going.

I don’t expect my bus to turn around, though.

So, here’s the story: my friend and travel buddy Jackie and I were on our way back from New York (the second time), and we decided to take a bus. It’s only about a four-hour trip, and it’s easily the cheapest (and least stressful) way to manage the trip. Getting even the cheapest Amtrak tickets are usually about 3-4 times as much as a bus ticket. So, for the traveler on a budget, it’s the logical choice.

Our bus left New York City at 12:30 PM, and was scheduled to have us in Washington D.C. by 5:00 PM the same day – counting time that we spent at a rest stop in New Jersey. I don’t know why, but it was a fairly empty bus. There was one person per every pair of seats, and still some open pairs afterwards. Jackie sat one seat in front of me, which allowed me to put my computer on the seat next to me and lean against the window while I worked I generally make sure I have at least an hour’s wiggle room when planning to take a bus – or really any form of transportation – anywhere. Because it seems like any type of long-distance ride has some form of complication when I’m on it.

(The last time I rode Amtrak, the train I was supposed to get on was 12 hours late. And one of the last times I flew the plane was delayed because the flight attendants couldn’t get the door to close – which is sort of important when it comes to flying.)

So, I figured we’d probably be back in D.C. anywhere between 5 PM and 6:30 PM. Jackie and I could take the Metro back to my aunt and uncle’s and get dinner at a reasonable time.

And we were actually making pretty good time. I kept an eye on our projected arrival time as we traveled using Google Maps – it tends to be fairly accurate – and we were projected to arrive in D.C. around 6:15 PM with traffic. We had our pit stop in New Jersey, right at the border into Delaware. The bus driver made all of us get off the bus so he could refuel. We were given very clear instructions:

  • Be back in fifteen minutes.
  • The bus will be right here.
  • If you’re not here, we’re leaving without you.

That’s the way buses work. You are responsible for getting yourself on and off the bus on time. If you get left behind, it’s really your fault. I’d never been on a bus with people who were stupid enough to get left behind at a gas station. Most of us are self-aware, and know that if we got left behind, we’d be pretty much screwed, as we all had places to be.

So, we all get back onto the bus – 25 minutes after we got off. We actually ended up having a longer rest break than planned. Which was fine with me – I enjoyed being able to stand and pace for a little while. I got some food and stretched a little bit. The bus picked us back up, we all boarded, and we headed off again.

Fast forward an hour. It’s about 4:15 PM and we have a projection to arrive in D.C. about two hours after that. Not amazing time, but for rush hour into Washington on a Friday, it’s really not bad. So I was happy.

Then the driver comes on the intercom.

“Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen. Uh, when we took our rest stop, we left some people behind. So, I have been – I have been ordered to turn around and go back for them.”

Stunned silence. The woman in the seat across the row from me looks over at me. “This is a joke. Right?”

I don’t know why she thought I would know. But I was pretty sure it was not a joke.

Jackie sends me a text as soon as the intercom turns off: Idiots. I can’t help but agree. I had so many questions:

  1. How do you miss getting back on your bus when it takes a 10 minute longer stop than planned?
  2. Why did it take them an hour to get us to turn around?
  3. How could the bus company prioritize those few people – who could have taken the next bus a couple hours later – over all of us, who were on time, and all had places to be in the evening?

Luckily one of the people sitting near me took the initiative to call the bus company immediately. Apparently, we were informed, we had left not one person behind, but five. And the company felt that the most compassionate thing to do would be to turn around for them. And while I respect the business for sticking to their values – after hearing everyone around me complain about what they were missing – I had to disagree. The most human thing to do would have been to get us to D.C. in some semblance of on time. What if one of us had been going somewhere really important? A funeral? A hospital to visit a dying friend or relative? What if we were trying to catch a plane or train? A delay of another 1.5 hours would ruin all those plans.

The people around me all started to talk – you could call it bonding, if you would like. The girl sitting across the aisle from me is a teacher, and she was going to D.C. to meet up with some friends to take a mini-vacation before school starts again. She’d been expected at a dinner at 7:15 PM, and now we weren’t going to get in until 8:00 PM.

The boys sitting two rows in front of me are DJs, and because of the delay they missed part of a gig at a club in D.C. Both of them were pretty easy-going people, and only looked a little disappointed, but accepted the delay.

The girl sitting in front of the teacher was on her way to a music festival in Baltimore for the weekend and would miss her ride there. She also hadn’t eaten all day, and now was resigned to being stuck on a bus for another 4 hours before she could get food. I – luckily – had a couple of spare granola bars, and I gave a couple to her to help her, but I doubt it did very much.

I was angry, I’m not going to lie. Not because I was delayed myself – no, that didn’t matter. I had things to do (like write blog posts that are long past due). But because these 5 people felt entitled to make the bus turn around when it was their own fault that they missed it.

Anecdote: My much kinder, and more compassionate best friend Jackie has pointed out that they could speak English as a second language and have heard “50 minutes” instead of 15, and just assume that things work that way here in America. And I mean, she could be right – but I don’t think so. I don’t think the bus company would have made the bus turn around for anything less than an absolute demand from the people left behind. So maybe it’s unkind. But I don’t care.

It’s now 5:05 PM, and we’re nearly back in New Jersey. We’re all sort of resigned to our fate now. I’d decided to do the mature thing and simply bury my nose in a book, and not look at who got on the bus. Because I couldn’t truly, deeply resent them if I didn’t have faces to match them to. We were nearly at the border when suddenly, the bus pulls off the highway, turns around, and gets back on going the opposite direction.

I think I’m one of the few people who noticed that right away. I’d been staring out the window for a while. I’d lost my internet connection and needed a break after working on the bus earlier. I know one other person noticed because he went up to ask the driver what was going on, then came back to inform us that the people who’d made us turn the bus around had contacted the company to tell them that they no longer needed to be picked up.

I can’t even tell you the momentary chaos that ensued. I was swearing and threatening these people who I had never seen and would never see again. Jackie was silently fuming and staring out the window. The teacher next to me was in hysterics – laughing and saying, “I can’t handle this, guys. I can’t do it.” The girl in front of her was muttering a string of steady curse words under her breath. The DJs said, “Are you f***ing kidding me?” and groaned.

This was incredible. I will never know if Jackie was right or me. I’ll never know if those people were simply very entitled and didn’t feel guilty about inconveniencing many of us for their own benefit, or if it was truly a string of weird coincidences. And I don’t know that it matters – it didn’t deeply inconvenience me in any conceivable way, and I met some cool new people out of it. So, I can’t complain. Not really.

***

Note: You’ll probably notice that I didn’t put the name of the bus company in this post. That was purposeful. I spent some time reflecting on everything that happened. Yes, the company inconvenienced me. But they also fully refunded both of my tickets, as well as gave me a voucher for another ride. And when it comes down to it – I’d rather ride with a company that chooses to help its passengers – even if they’re idiots – than one that would just leave them behind. Now if this same thing happens again – obviously I won’t ride with them again. But when I spoke to their representative on the phone, he was both kind and helpful. So all around, as weird of an experience as it was, I don’t really consider it a bad one.

The Great Road Trip Playlist!

Approaching a 13-hour road trip this week, I knew that I had to design an amazing playlist to help the drive go by quicker. Of course – we also did things like: listen to podcasts and an audio book. But – honestly – we did spend a lot of the trip listening to music.

Building a long playlist is – more than anything – dependent on being very familiar with what types of music you enjoy. Because once you’re on the road – unless you have a very good road trip companion (which I did) you don’t have a lot of freedom to add or remove things from your playlist. Sure, you can always skip – but that can get old if you’ve misjudged what music you’ll enjoy.

Because I know that I really enjoy Alternative, Indie, and Classic Rock, those genres were heavily represented in the playlist. As well as crossovers from other genres, and just other songs that I like for one reason or another. I also included some songs that were recommended to me, as I love new songs – and pulled some songs that just have to be included in a road trip playlist.

So without further ado, here are some of the highlights of the playlist that I built:

Classic Rock

  • The Beatles (Ticket to Ride, Help, Here Comes the Sun)
  • Fleetwood Mac (Go Your Own Way, The Chain, Landslide)
  • The Rolling Stones (Start Me Up, Sympathy for the Devil, Beast of Burden)
  • Blink 182 (All the Small Things, What’s my Age Again?, First Date)
  • Eagles (Hotel California, Take it Easy, Life in the Fast Lane)

Pop

  • Train (Drops of Jupiter, Play That Song, Marry Me)
  • Panic! at the Disco (LA Devotee, Let’s Kill Tonight, Collar Full)
  • Ed Sheeran (Galway Girl, Don’t, Runaway)
  • Olly Murs (Wan’na Be Like You (with Robbie Williams), Dance With Me Tonight, Troublemaker)
  • Maroon 5 (This Love, Love Somebody, She Will Be Loved)

Alternative

  • Coldplay (Clocks, Adventure of a Lifetime, Yellow, Up & Up)
  • Hozier (Sedated, Arsonist’s Lullaby, Angel of Small Death in the Codeine Scene)
  • Florence + the Machine (Dog Days are Over, Delilah, Shake it Out)
  • Arctic Monkeys (One for the Road, Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High, Fluorescent Adolescent)
  • The 1975 (Love Me, Chocolate, Settle Down)

Rock

  • Red Hot Chili Peppers (Road Trippin’, Californication, Can’t Stop)
  • Rooney (Simply Because, Stay Away, Shaken)
  • Arcade Fire (Normal Person, Keep the Car Runnin’, The Suburbs)
  • Oasis (Champagne Supernova, Don’t Look Back in Anger, Wonderwall)
  • U2 (Vertigo, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Beautiful)

Indie Music

  • Noisettes (Never Forget You, Don’t Upset the Rythym, Wild Young Hearts)
  • Of Monsters and Men (Little Talks, King and Lionheart, Crystals)
  • Mumford & Sons (Believe, Little Lion Man)
  • Bombay Bicycle Club (Shuffle, Luna, Take the Right One, Lights Out Words Gone)
  • Phoenix (Laso, 1901, Lisztomania)

These 25 artists are just a taste of the playlist that we listened to on our 13-hour trip (made even longer by an unintended 6-hour pitstop in Wisconsin). There are over a hundred and fifty songs on the actual playlist – which you can find on Spotify and listen to as much as you want if you want to change up what you listen to for a while!

As always I would love comments, and more suggestions for music to listen to while I’m traveling is always welcome! (Special thanks to my amazing friend Jackie, who has much better taste in music than me and helped build a truly great playlist for our trip).

Brief Introduction

Well, here we are. A week later than planned, and a little haphazard, but still here.

I’m excited to announce that, due to personal circumstances – both good and bad – I’ve decided to spend the next year of my life traveling the world. I don’t have everything planned out yet – because planning a year just seems ridiculous at this point – but I know that I’m going to spend the first six or so months traveling around the US – going places that I haven’t been before (and some that I have), and trying to see everything that I can possibly see. After that, I’m heading to Europe!

My blog here is going to be a mix of different types of posts. Some of them are going to be about where I am, and what my favorite spots are where I am. Some will be somewhat more informative – dealing with things like how I’ve been managing my budget, where to get cheap tickets, how to live out of a carry-on, and other things along those lines.

I’ve also created an Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat that are all going to be connected to this blog, where I’ll be posting more details of where I am – and, very importantly, the pictures I’m going to take along the way. So if you want to see everything there is, check out my pages!

I always welcome interactions on all my different platforms, so feel free to drop me a line, send me a message, or leave a comment!

Next week, my post is going to be about the best music to listen to on a road trip. I would love for people to leave me comments about their favorite songs, albums, artists, and genres to listen to on the road. There will also be some further details as to when my adventure starts, and where I’m going first!

Instagram: @wander_writer

Twitter: @wander_write

Snapchat: wanderwrite