Travel writing should be easy. Go someplace interesting, snoop around, take a few notes and the blog/article/book will write itself, right?
In my experience, wrong. Dead wrong.
The fact is travel, like other highly subjective experiences, is hard to universalise. The challenge is to capture your feelings and experiences in a way that makes them interesting to other people. It is harder than it sounds. Much harder.
Getting it right is not about having the most glamorous encounter (though a disastrous one can be helpful, see 5) or staying at the finest hotel, it is about grubbing for detail then rendering it as evocatively as possible.
These five tips are how I start:
You might not think you need to research your destination because, hey, you’re going there! But preparation is essential. Before I went to Myanmar I tracked down people who had lived, worked and travelled there. On a practical level, their advice on local customs, etc saved me a huge amount of hassle and panic. When it came to writing, their stories and experiences provided context and contrast for my own.
Personally, I’m a notebook fan (blame Harriet The Spy). And I record interviews. Whatever your preferred method get down every single damn boring detail. Because you won’t know until much later what is significant. Make note of how long it takes to get breakfast, what flavours of ice cream the street vendors sell, the brand of soap in the hotel bathroom, what books are on display in the shop window, the graffiti on the side of the flyover, how many stray cats circle your table at the restaurant, how much it costs to get a sandwich at the airport, anything and everything has the potential to be a telling detail. The smaller and more seemingly obscure, the greater the chance it will evoke something specific about the place – which is what you’re aiming for.
Photos, that is, not the stray cats circling your table. Some projects or assignments will require photography, but even if you don’t have to supply images at the end, use a camera as a writing tool. Snapshots jog your memory; they allow you to be accurate and specific; they take you into a scene in a new way. Usually, I take notes, recording my subjective impressions, and then take a couple of pictures. These images, along with my words, allow me to revisit and recall scenes with greater depth and precision than notes or photos alone.
The whole point of travel is to experience something new. The way to do that, to get out of your own head and perspective, is to talk to people. As many as possible. Chat to taxi drivers, waiters, shop assistants, street-sweepers, kids, anyone at all. Don’t be shy. Ask them about their lives, what they like, where they hang out, what’s good to eat/watch/wear/buy in their town. If they tell you to try something, do it. If you’re heading someplace where there is a major language barrier (Myanmar, for example) ask for introductions from your hometown sources (tip 1) and arrange to meet with people who can give you insights into life on the ground.
The great journalist and globe-trotter Martha Gellhorn observed that audiences love a tale of travel catastrophe. I’m not saying to go look for trouble. That’s daft and possibly dangerous. If, however, your venture veers into misadventure, consider it a gift from the gods of narrative possibility. Whatever unfolds, carry on recording, shooting and talking. The positive action will propel you through the dilemma and it is all material.
Travel writing tip or query? Share in the comments!