Strange but True: Tales from Authors with Joy Ann Ribar

In this month's episode of Strange but True: Tales from Authors we're pivoting slightly away from the weirdest or most ambitious things authors have done or learned for their writing to how a shift in a writer's life is allowing her to collect a whole host of new experiences that enrich her stories. Our featured author, Joy Ann Ribar, is tells us all about it here:

Shift Happens: How Traveling Changes My Writing by Joy Ann Ribar

In 2022, my husband and I took a leap of faith, sold our sticks and bricks Wisconsin house, and began full-time life and travel in an RV.  Before you ask if we need our heads examined, you should know we made this decision after being students of RV life for about five  years.

Logistically, living with your partner in a small space where there is no privacy and no escape might not be ideal for many writers, especially those who need quiet to focus or need an abundant physical space for writing materials. I reduced my pen, notebook, and sticky note collections to one cloth bin that I call my office supply cupboard. Naturally, there’s no room for a writing desk in our 26-foot Winnebago, so my computer lives in a padded backpack beside a folded discount store table, the surface of which accommodates the laptop, keyboard, mouse, and a small notepad.

My husband works full time as a computer programmer about six feet from my “office.” How do we manage to focus?  Headphones for him, so he can play what he refers to as “programming music,” while I look out the window or play instrumental music on TV, you know, the kind that displays a fairy kingdom, hobbit pub, autumn coffee shop, or a rainy day in London.

The truth is, it works for us, surprisingly well most days. I come from a large family, so focusing inward was a mind trick I mastered at a young age. With four pesky brothers, two sisters, and one bathroom, I had to carve out hiding places in my childhood home, which meant I spent a lot of time wandering around my own imagination.  Who knew it would serve me so well?

I digress. What I really want to talk about here is how my writing is richer and more meaningful because of our travels. Meeting and talking to people, sharing RV park events with them, chatting around the washers and dryers in the public laundry houses, conversing with passerby while we empty our holding tanks or set up our site - well, it’s all authentic dialog for stories.

Before traveling, I made certain assumptions about people of other regions, and I feared I’d be stereotyping characters, their habits, and manner of speech.  I didn’t want to do that, even in cases where a character might just be a prop in my story.  I placed limitations on my writing, failing to introduce diverse characters because I wanted some first-hand experiences with people from different backgrounds than my small town in Wisconsin offered.

Now that we’ve explored the eastern half of the country, I can write more authentically about food, slang, weather, and local customs. I’ve read about Southern hospitality, the stubborn independence of New Englanders, fast-paced urbanites from the northern cities, wild weather along the Atlantic coastline, native Floridians vs. transplants, but the true flavors of people and places go beyond what I’ve read or tasted on vacation.

I learned from a few Mainers that everyone else is “from away.” The Ontario Canadians I assumed were just like friendly, eager-to-please Midwesterners, find it “exhausting” to greet everyone they pass in the morning who walk around the RV park we stayed at in Florida. Speaking of Florida, native Floridians will talk to anyone who will listen about “the real Florida” of citrus groves, cattle farms, lake and river fishing, swamp boats - anything that doesn’t involve a theme park or snowbirds.

I often tell people that we’re not campers, we’re RV residents. We usually stay parked somewhere for two weeks up to a few months. We’re not on vacation, although we do visit touristy places, too.  We try to live local, eat local, talk to locals, shop local, etc.

The past two winters, we stayed in a Florida park that is a true microcosm of two-thirds of North America. With almost 500 sites, two clubhouses, a church, a pool, and scads of activities, the park operates as a community.  We come from every province in Canada and nearly every state of the union, and we have a lot of interactions, some of which will show up in my future writing.

For example, I decided to take line-dancing classes, something new to me.  I didn’t know the Canadians were passionate about line dancing, had their own clubs back in the provinces, and knew the dances as soon as the songs cued up.  Our instructors spoke English; most of the Canadians were Quebecers, French speakers.  We bridged the gap with music, counting out moves in beats instead of words, offering smiles of encouragement or laughter when we messed up.  Ah, the universal humanity of communicating with facial expressions, actions, upbeat music, and dance. There’s something worth writing about.

I had the good fortune to travel to Colombia with my daughter and her family in March. Although the family had begun learning Spanish, I’d studied the language from age twelve through college, so I just needed to find my Spanish brain again.  It’s wonderful how the lingo comes back, even when it’s stored in memory.

Surrounded by fast-speaking Spanish for fifteen days, I found myself closely observing faces and gestures. My brain couldn’t rely on words alone to determine meaning, and it accommodated itself by opening up other ways to make sense of situations. That shift in focus from hearing to observing is an excellent way to improve writing about my characters’ reactions and movements! 

Our travels always include learning about the history of the area we’re visiting, the reasons behind the local cuisine and traditions. It doesn’t matter that I write fiction because I can use this information to make my writing more authentic, more relatable. Readers want to learn something new, even when they read fiction.  Stories don’t exist in a vacuum but are always connected to real people and places. Once I learn about the history of people and place, I feel obligated to choose my words and stories carefully, knowing the weight they carry or represent for others.

I keep a writing journal when I encounter something new or quirky.  I’m becoming what John Steinbeck called “a shameless magpie.” The shy, reticent Steinbeck used to listen in on conversations in busy places or at parties, writing them down in the margins of a magazine or on a napkin, then repeating them in his own novels. 

I saw a weather-worn, thin man pedaling a caravan of connected wagons on the shoulder of a Florida highway. He wore a neon vest, and his makeshift train was decked out in orange safety flags and cardboard Biblical signs. He wore a sandwich board with the same message front and back, “pedaling for Jesus.” We saw him on our way north and again, much later that day, on our way south. I wonder what his story is; so many questions come to mind.

Just before the holidays, I stood in a long line at a Florida post office with a box of books I was mailing. The line trailed out the door into the lobby and most of us good-naturedly joked around and chatted to make the best of waiting. Suddenly, when the conversation paused, we distinctly heard the sound of a rooster crowing. It was loud. We looked around.  We laughed and shrugged. But, the crowing persisted. More people came and went, and we finally entered the main waiting area near the postal counter.  At that point we could hear clucking along with crowing. Sitting on the counter by the postal clerk were two moving boxes marked live poultry.  It took quite some time to process mailing the noisy chickens, so everyone else was treated to a fowl concert while standing in line. I’m from farm country, yet I’ve never had the pleasure before.

My journal grows fatter as we travel, and I wonder where these bits and pieces will find homes in my books.  I know it honestly doesn’t matter, though.  Each overhead remark or exchange, each sensory detail from a new place or experience, each answer to my question will inform the writer I am becoming.  I’m excited to embrace every shift.

So, when I craft “Murder at the Wine Convention” or whatever the title may be, expect to distinguish among the UP Michigan wine maker, the sommelier from an estate winery on Lake Erie’s north shore in Ontario, and the award-winning vintner from the Finger Lakes region - all without their labels.  Just as the wine pros do when they identify a vintage using all of their senses.  Challenge accepted.

 

Joy Ann Ribar grew up in a small Wisconsin community where Winter is the longest season of the year,  the Friday Fish Fry is a religion and Up North is a collection of wonderful memories instead of a destination.  Joy loves to travel just about anywhere, but her hiking boots keep finding their way back to Wisconsin. Where else can a person find excuses to bake goodies nine months of the year as comfort from the cold?  Where else is grilling brats, drinking toasts and slicing cheese considered a workout? Where else can you find celebrated supper clubs, the largest variety of year-round water activities and the most adoring football fans even when the Packers are losing?  And in the current century, visitors can find something in Wisconsin they never imagined – many first-rate wineries!

Joy couldn’t imagine a better place to set a mystery series than a touristy Wisconsin lake town filled with local characters and flavors. Joy uses her main character, amateur investigator, Frankie Champagne, to showcase many of her favorite things including baking, wine tasting, birding, and hygge!  What’s “hygge”, you ask? It is the Danish version of coziness; it celebrates the warmth of friendship and hominess! Joy invites you to see the many sides of Wisconsin life in her Deep Lakes Mystery Series. Keep up with Joy on her websiteFacebook or Instagram

The Deep Lakes Mystery Series

If you like bakery without the calories, wine without the hangover, and drama without the backlash, try my Deep Lakes Cozy Mystery Series. Make friendswith Frankie Champagne - full time baker, vintner and Bubble & Bake shop owner with her business partner/best friend, Carmen Martinez. Frankie’s sideline is a sleuthing regional reporter for Point Press, giving her the opportunity to stick her nose into crimes in the small tourist town of Deep Lakes, Wisconsin. Of course, her investigations curl the toes of her life-long pal Sheriff Alonzo Goodman, especially since she enlists the help of her romantic partner, Coroner Garrett Iverson. The laugh-out-loud humor and strong female relationships make a winning recipe for this mystery series. (Recipes are included in each book.). LEARN MORE AND PURCHASE HERE. 

The Medusa Murders (A Bay Browning Mystery)

Professor Bay Browning has more snake problems than the Garden of Eden in this twisted mystery. The English Literature instructor is busy preparing for a new semester when a serial killer, known as Medusa, bites her quiet life in the behind. A wild ride ensues when Bay and her grifter sister, Cass, assist a perturbed Detective Downing with the investigation. What else can the sisters do, once they become Medusa's targets? Will the slithering trail of mythology, art history, and family secrets help them catch a killer before she turns them to stone? LEARN MORE AND PURCHASE HERE.

Comments

What a wonderful adventure! I've often wondered about doing the RV living thing. Nice to know that it's working for you.

I agree -- I've always wondered about RV-ing, but I think if my husband and I tried it that it might look a little like that Robin Williams' movie.

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