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  • Writer's pictureVeronica Cline Barton

Transforming a Real-life Train Trip Into Your Fictional Storyline; 4 Areas to Think About…

A Grand West Coast Train Adventure, en route daily between Los Angeles and Seattle, the Coast Starlight train passes through Santa Barbara, the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento and Portland. Widely regarded as one of the most spectacular of all train routes, the Coast Starlight links the greatest cities on the West Coast. The scenery along the Coast Starlight route is unsurpassed. The dramatic snow-covered peaks of the Cascade Range and Mount Shasta, lush forests, fertile valleys and long stretches of Pacific Ocean shoreline provide a stunning backdrop for your journey.”

Sounds lovely doesn’t it? As I mentioned last week in the Veronica’s #WritersDiary post, my Hubby and I took a train trip from San Juan Capistrano to San Francisco on the Amtrak Coastal Starlight train. I have always loved the thought of travelling on a train as depicted in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, or last year’s Hallmark Channel’s enchanting train story that fueled my writer’s mind, The Christmas Train. In the book and movie I loved the idea of having glamourous little sleeping compartments, elegant meals in the 5 star dining car, and the cozy chairs in the lounge car from which to sit and study the other passengers while reading or playing games. Seems such a great place for a mystery—and so, doubly inspired, we booked our trip.

I had never travelled a long distance by train before and wanted to get a feel for what it would be like as part of my research for some scenes in book three (an yes, I knew beforehand that my train trip would not be exactly an Orient Express or Christmas Train experience, but we did treat our selves to  ‘business class’ accommodations). We elected not to go the full route to Seattle due to time constraints (the trip from south Orange County to Oakland took around fifteen hours alone, plus another hour+ bus ride to get from the terminal in Oakland to our hotel in San Francisco).

Our train trip was filled with many beautiful sites, giving us some views of areas we would never get to see by car or plane. It was very inspirational, and it gave me some reference points for the train scenes in my book that I had not thought through the adaptation of completely. Thank goodness I’m writing a fiction story, liberties can and will be taken to make up for the different sites and scenes, and perhaps the not so glamourous aspects of real life train travel (Ma-ma expects only the best you know). Here are the four areas that will need to be ‘tuned up a bit’ for my work of fiction:

*map courtesy of Google

1. Destination Route, and stops, and more stops…

For book three, my characters will be travelling a fictional train route from New York City to Vail, CO to attend the television awards show, the Telly Tiaras (Ma-ma has been nominated). I’ve looked at the train routes and maps that approximated my fictional route to make sure I don’t describe something totally off the wall, which I knew I would have to do.

What I didn’t quite think about is all of the numerous stops a real life train trip entails, or the slowing and accelerating speeds a traveler gets to experience (I’m sorry, but the passengers on the Orient Express or The Christmas Train seemed to have a pleasant, continuous speed journey, uninterrupted by the real life stops, #JustSayin). The real life stops aren’t going to be helpful to the storyline, so they’re going to have to go.

Also, I’ve got to think about terrain implications as well—going along the coast is one thing—flat, sea level, fairly continuous route. Add mountains or steep hills to the mix and you have a completely different story where you must add in the complexities of grade traversing up and down the hills and mountains. This is definitely an area where some fictional liberties will have to be taken (but unlike the Orient Express or The Christmas Train, we won’t be having any track blocked avalanches to give Gemma and crew time to expose the bad guys).

coast view 4

2. Scenery

The train offers you a beautiful view of areas all along the route that give you a unique perspective, no doubt. We saw ocean views we had never seen before, and I loved it. I’m lucky to have travelled in many of the states my characters will traverse on their trip as well, so I think I will know how to describe the scenes they will see on their fictional route. (Pinterest is a great source of pictures too, to fill in any inspiration gaps)

What I will leave out are descriptions of the real life industrial areas a train goes through that are not very glamorous, or the loads of trash that line the railways (really very sad). I also think I’ll leave out the part of being able to see into people’s house and apartment rooms—if you live near the tracks you might want to think about lowering the blinds or closing the curtains, #JustSayin


3. Accommodations

Hubby and I booked a roomette since we knew we would not be spending the night onboard, which basically had two comfy chairs facing one another, small table, and a pull down bed above the chairs (which I did pull down and climb into for a lovely afternoon nap). You have a door that closes, covered with curtains to give you privacy, which was nice.

I didn’t have my imagined sleeping room with carved paneling, desk, etc, but it was comfortable in a stainless steel, airplane-like, business class sort of way. I think for the fictional storyline I’ll take some liberties for the accommodations and go back to my imagined world of paneled sleeping car rooms–I just can’t see Ma-ma pulling down the bed from above and climbing in, plus, where would we put her luggage?

*dining car picture courtesy of Google

4. Dining

We were able to have two meals onboard for our trip to San Francisco, lunch and dinner. The meals were not as gourmet as I had imagined from the stories I’ve read or seen, but were good. You do not have the luxury of just stepping into the dining car when you want and choosing your table. Meal times are offered on the hour by reservation only. You are seated first come first serve, no picking and choosing of tables, and once your dining hour is up, it’s time for you to vacate the table.

I think we’ll be a bit more flexible in the fictional storyline, otherwise how will we have time to discuss the dastardly deeds and figure out who the bad guys are? We’re definitely going to need additional bars too, one downstairs is not going to be enough, #JustSayin

I’m so glad I was able to go on the trip. I learned a lot for my current storyline, and most importantly, was greatly inspired. Here are some more of the beautiful views and video clips taken, enjoy!

Coastal views…

And an unbelievable sunset…

Crowns and Kisses,


P.S. Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, , Gemma would approve 😉

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