The Scent of Imagination

Eric Boyd
6 min readJun 26, 2021
photo by the author ©MMXXI

How many pandemic novels do you think anyone actually finished? I would bet surprisingly few. Once it was clear I wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while — that my job wasn’t reopening anytime soon and everything was shutting down— I knew for sure I’d finish my train hopping novel. It’d be easy. That’s what I thought anyway.

I’ve said before that the hardest part about writing fiction, for me, is that I need to feel authoritative on the subject matter. Turns out there are theories related to the human imagination which suggest it is directly related to past experience; this is why I’ve always taken the idea of write what to you know as a call to action: if you don’t know about something, go do it.

So in order to write a train hopping novel, I needed some firsthand knowledge, I needed to soak up the culture. The summer of 2020 was supposed to be a watershed time for this. I had plans to check out an art show of railroad monikers in California, then the National Hobo Festival in Britt, Iowa later in the summer. My hope was to link up with some folks to maybe catch a ride or two in-between. Since my novel is about a character hopping trains for the first time it wasn’t necessary for me to be a seasoned pro, but I needed some experience.

Of course none of that happened. In mid-March I skipped AWP when the closest thing I could find to a medical-grade face mask was a K-pop cosplay mask (which I used for the first few months of the pandemic until masks were more widely available again), then my job shut down; the state and the country soon after. Like many, my life ground to a halt. On a personal level I am lucky and thankful things were not worse for me, but my writing did take a hit. It’s just too difficult to do a road novel without getting out on the road.

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Obviously the novel wasn’t the only thing lockdown messed up. Being unable to see family or friends or to even feel comfortable going outside took its toll. Once the weather warmed up my girlfriend and I took walks nearly every day and that helped, however it didn’t last for long (winter comes quick in Pittsburgh, a city already notorious for having less than ninety days of sunshine every year). I needed something in order to get away, get out, get moving. I needed a way to travel…

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Eric Boyd

Work in Joyland, Guernica, and The Offing. Winner of a PEN Prison Writing Award. Working on a novel. // linktr.ee/ericboyd