Writing and reading travel for years has given me a sense of what makes great travel writing in my humble opinion. One only has to look at popular travel writers to see what makes them successful. I just gave a travelling friend who was couch surfing a Bill Bryson book from his travels in Europe. She couldn’t stop giggling. Bryson maximizes his humour in his travels. Elizabeth Gilbert has that women’s spiritual quest thing going for her. But, what have the best travel writers from Theroux to Hemmingway got in common. What are some of the must haves? This is what I have come up with.
1. Make Your Overall Arc an Adventure / Quest Story
If the quest is to get to a camp site, a beloved, or a sacred relic, what were the obstacles? What bureaucracy, what mishaps, what detours kept you from your quest, your goal? As long as you keep it exciting it doesn’t matter how mundane the quest is. Whether it is to find the best ice cream in a city, or to follow in the footsteps of some figure of history. Your job is to create the adventure. This is also a good reason to try to make it feel like it is happening in the moment. Use every device you have (snatches of dialogue, using a present tense) to make it feel like the reader is on the quest with you and doesn’t know what is going to happen next. Many well meaning writers give the ending away before we get there simply because it is non-fiction. Don’t do it. Keep it a quest.
2. You are the Hero/Heroine
Your personal reasons for the quest are interesting, whether you are reluctant and cynical, or excited and filled with expectations matters to the story. Some people try to keep the personal stuff out but the great writers never do. Their reasons for travelling are there, and they are often very personal. So, if you thought you could hide behind reporting on some food, wine and parades, think that strategy over. The psychology of a story is that we are following the hero or heroine, looking over their shoulder and understanding their motivations. You are NOT taking us on a trip, but your trip.
3. Bring Something New to the Old, and Something Old to the New
When describing a place that people have already been to for hundreds of years, you have to deliver something new. Part of it is you, but bringing something new may require a little knowledge of what has been done to death already. Your job is to thwart travel writing cliches and give something fresh. Not everything can be or should be “breathtaking.” Perhaps your fresh perspective will be an underbelly no one wants to mention, or since everyone seems to enjoy underbellies these days, perhaps something small but uplifting that has been perpetually overlooked. I remember years ago a travel writer I knew who wrote a lovely piece about the cats of Athens since they had a small overpopulation and no SPCA to control them. She could have written about the Parthenon, again, but I wouldn’t have remembered it if she did. And whatever is new and exciting do a little research and see if you can find out backgrounds that no one else has written about. Nothing more alluring than hidden histories.
4. Things Going Wrong Make the Best Stories
An essential part of a quest is that there are obstacles and surprises. Or, as my mother said, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. Doubly true for travel plans. Things going wrong often adds humour, but just as often it gives the quest serendipity. The unexpected is the whole delight of travel so do not disappoint your readers with perfect plans going perfectly.
5. Avoid the Mundane and Boring Laundry Lists
Paul Theroux said that it was criminal for a travel writer to keep the boring parts in. Theroux’s particularly pet peeve was that he hated hearing about how long people had to wait in a line. I agree with Theroux that line waiting is pretty dull, but I would add that if you can make the waiting in line funny and interesting, do it, but otherwise edit it out. That’s what he is talking about, good old fashioned editing. If it isn’t part of the quest, or entertaining as all hell, leave it out. And if I am allowed my pet peeve about boring travel writing it is laundry lists of travel “sights” or whatever. There is a temptation for those of us who like to write lists, that they are going to be interesting to read. That is often untrue. If you must for benefit of necessary information write a list, leave it in the end notes or sneak it in the narrative, or figure out how to do without. Less is more. Theroux knew this, and I am constantly relearning it.
6. Give the Travel Culture What It Wants
Food, Locations, Arts, People, Transportation and Activities (FLAPTA) with a dash of history and weather. For each travel piece, one of the FLAPTA subjects will often be a major theme, with all else as secondary. Give the travel culture what they want, but trying to do all of them in one piece is often boring and the laundry list style you should avoid. What is at the center of your you travel piece? The food? The people? The transportation? You have to decide who is the star and dress that star for the spotlight.
7. Use All 5 Senses
Use all five senses to describe things: sight, sound, taste, smell, texture. This is basic good writing technique that all of us forget from time to time, but in the editing process it is not hard to cast your mind back and remember what noises were in the background, what smells were like no other place you’ve been to. It is in my final passes that I add my sense details that can really elevate the writing. From Nina Mclaughlin this example, “Sawdust spewed and dusted down onto the pavement, resting in craters in the cement, and the smell of pine moved with it, bright and clean, the smell of Christmas, renewal.”
8. Essential Sense of Humour
Add humour. Not only is it funny when things go wrong, there is bountiful potential for humor in the faux pas travelers make when encountering a place away from home. Take advantage of this. Trying to make yourself out to be the perfectly happy traveler all the time is boring. Your happy times are happier if you have some far less than perfect moments that we can laugh at, in hindsight, with you. If humor is not your strong suit ask anyone who was with you (if there were people) or run it by someone who has a natural sense of humor. You don’t have to be a comic, but I think every piece should have one or two giggles in it.
9. Know Your Audience / Readership
Who are your readers? How cultured are they? Is it mostly women? Mostly men? How old? Are they into a particular kind of transport (ex: airstreams, sailboats)? What is their budget for travel? What all these questions boil down to is , who is your readership, or who is your tribe? Unless you write for a particular publication that has their audience well established, you should define what you think your tribe likes and what you can give to them. It is better to try to narrow to your specialties or interests or style so that your readers can depend on getting more of that from you, assuming they like it and it is well written. Also, you want to write what you enjoy writing all the time. If you are a woman who travels alone, what are your running themes? Fashion shopping, chocolatiers, dealing with less progressive cultures, or whatever it is you perpetually encounter as a woman who travels alone, but make sure it is something you can also make perpetually interesting to your tribe.
10. Metaphors and Similes
Metaphors and similes always worked well when I was a trainer in order to give my trainees those aha moments of understanding. Likewise, they work well in travel writing in your word play where you are bringing a new culture or location to those who have never been there. For example, “Their May pole is like our Christmas tree, but for summer equinox.”
Also, do not ignore using similes and metaphors for humourous effect, ex: “Our guide was wearing his traditional blue carnival costume, which made him look like a six foot tall smurf with beer breath.”
Interested in learning more writing techniques while you travel:
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