Baggage. Luggage. Not much difference. Baggage would seem to refer to what you pack things in for travel, or possibly what you put into those bags-of-many-terms. Luggage is more evocative of what you have to lug around when you travel. Suitcases and portmanteaux suggest carefully folded formal or business garb. Steamer trunks (now archaic) indicate the same careful packing of a much larger wardrobe. Valises and satchels (also archaic) wouldn’t hold as much, while carry-alls and duffle bags of any size would hold whatever you could stuff into them, with no promise at all of neatness.
But there’s more to some of the various types of luggage than how well they serve for travel.
Carpet Bags (a type of valise presumably made of heavy carpet material, often with designs woven into them, possibly made from actual cut-up carpets) were the quick pick of Northern entrepreneurs (generally con-men) invading the defeated Southern states after the Civil War, looking for whatever economic or political swindles they could finagle. I don’t know whether they were all scoundrels, but the term “Carpet-bagger” certainly inferred that, and even now you might see it used when someone runs for office in a state where they don’t actually live, or have only moved to recently for that purpose.
I don’t know whether the French still use the term portmanteaux for the things they pack their clothes in, but the word has another, rather literary application: “a word or morpheme whose form and meaning are derived from a blending of two or more distinct forms (such as smog from smoke and fog.)” I can only guess that this use stretches the French meaning of "port" as “carry” to indicate a word that carries meanings from two words packed together into one. The English carry-all would serve just as well, or better, but it doesn’t have the elegance or panache of portmanteau.
Duffle bags are called by several other names now, but to me they have a military aura because I remember my dad’s big khaki bag from WWII. In Britain as far back as WWI the same things were called kit bags, leading to the wartime song, “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag/And smile, smile, smile.”
And that brings me in my meandering way to what I really intended to write about. The intangible things that we pack up in our metaphorical old kit bags, the memories, traumas, misunderstandings, mistakes, guilt, phobias…all those influences that we bring with us from our pasts and call, sometimes, baggage, even though luggage might be the more logical term since we can’t avoid lugging them around. We tend not to include the good times in our concept of baggage, probably because those memories don’t weigh us down the way the bad and sad times do.
In fiction as in real life our psychological baggage plays a big part. A writer friend just went through a break-up with the third person she’s dated seriously since the death of her partner of twenty years, and now she attributes all of the relationship failures to the baggage she carries. That may well be true. I hope she does find happiness again. In fiction, though—romance, I’m looking straight at you--I wish authors wouldn’t rely so heavily on this trope. I also wish that they wouldn’t splatter their book’s blurbs so recklessly with question marks. “Will she ever overcome her tragic past?” “Will so-and-so and so-and-so be able to forget their ingrained fears and find happiness together?” Really, have any of you ever read a book with that kind of blurb where the answer turned out to be “no”?
We erotica authors aren’t quite as dependent on this means of dragging out the tension before the inevitable clinch, but we still need to approximate some level of realism in our characters’ relationships, and recognizing the baggage they carry is important to making those characters multi-dimensional and understanding their needs and actions.
Recognizing our own baggage is even more important. Everything we write comes from inside our minds, no matter how it gets there. We need a certain kind of empathy for our characters, whether its details come to us through personal experience, travel, observation, persuasive reading, or dozens of ways we can’t quite identify. I think of all these things we draw on for our writing as baggage of sorts, even the relatively happy bits. Maybe those especially. Some ideas we pack neatly, as in a suitcase, for instance items we research and study carefully in order to draw on them at will. More are crammed haphazardly into amorphous duffle bags and only retrieved by accident, or triggered by ideas that wander by, or certain sights, or scents. Sometimes I’m astounded by the bits of information and details that seem to come from nowhere and slide neatly into place in a story that I hadn’t realized needed them. They’re not coming from nowhere, they’re coming from some niche in my mind where they were stuffed away carelessly and forgotten until, suddenly, they were retrieved. Yes, my mind is an old duffle bag crammed full of random bits and pieces.
The ideas and information we accumulate from actual travel tend to fall into the suitcase category, willingly preserved mental souvenirs more valuable than most of the tangible artifacts we pack in among our shirts and underwear. Cameron’s post about his unexpected visits to war cemeteries reminded me of this. Whether or not we ever use these exact memories in our writing, they become a vital part of who we are, how we see the world and people in it. Even when the travel isn’t very extensive, it’s valuable, shifting our outlook for a while, maybe even lifting temporarily the burden of our other baggage.
Right now I’m about to pack up a suitcase, boxes, a cooler, and various other things to take home with me from a four-day mini-vacation in New Hampshire. On the whole my every-day baggage hasn’t receded much—the guilts, responsibilities, should-haves, might-haves, fears for the future—but as always there have been moments of release, of joy, like sitting on a rock in a mountain stream watching the flow of water over a multitude of kinds and colors of stones left behind by a long-ago glacier, or taking in the vast view from the top of the highest mountain in the Northeast. I realize once again how lucky I am in my suitcase memories, and how relatively light my baggage is after all.