The art of travel writing

When we think of the travel book, we generally think of the solo traveller who took a trip, went home and wrote his or her story – the loner who bounces back larger than life. This is the classic travel memoir. There are people who say that the travel genre is one of the lowest forms of literature. There are also people who say that it’s a rather obsolete genre because all the information we need on virtually every destination in the world is readily available on travel blogs these days.

There’s probably some truth in both statements, but they easily dismiss the notion that the travel genre offers so many possibilities that sometimes a travel story is hard to even be recognized as such. A travel story might become a novel or scientific research (like anthropology); it might be part of a much broader story, like a memoir set around personal recovery; it might be a writing assignment for a magazine with all the guidelines and requirements that this implies. Sometimes, a travel story takes place in the writer’s hometown or even his own street.

Each travel story requires, of course, some sort of journey. It doesn’t need to be a year-long trip filled with breath-taking adventure, fist fights in dark and dodgy bars and nearly starving to death in the desert. It certainly (if you survive) makes for great reading, but there are plenty of alternatives that are less wild yet just as or even more interesting in terms of story-telling. It could, for example, be an excursion that takes place in one afternoon.

There are a few fundamental basics that will work for any kind of travel story. In this article we are going to cover the steps necessary to come to a coherent story.

Note-taking

Fun is not the point in travel. The point is discovery. Seeing things for yourself – the smell, the sight, the touch – and truly experiencing a place is what makes all the expenditure, the waiting, the nuisances, the visa applications worth it – hopefully. It’s a common misconception that you’ll remember all these details later on. People think they can all the time: “Mental note to self: Remember this odour and this dialogue for the story I’ll write once I get home in perhaps six months’ time!”

But detail goes lost in an instant. And it’s exactly the details that give life to a scene. A writer should never overestimate his own memorial capabilities. In order to convey the reader to the place where you were and to the situation that you were in, you’ll need to write things down at just about the same moment they take place.

A writer like Paul Theroux takes notes all day long and then works them out in longhand at night. This means that he won’t have new experiences before the previous ones have been worked into a story. It shows in his detailed books. Sitting down at night to manually write over a 1,000 words (he doesn’t use electronics) is a very arduous task, but he’s been called “the greatest living travel writer” for a reason.

A writer like Levison Wood keeps a diary: he writes about two pages every day, including some dialogue. The difference clearly shows in his books: these go from scene to scene, but are never as detailed as Theroux’s. Wood doesn’t need to: his books tell the story of his foot journeys and have no other ambition than just that. Also, adventurers aren’t, like Theroux, novelists, and that shows in the less detailed (but not less engaging) writing.

The same goes for Bill Bryson’s books. He stuffs them with societal criticism we can all relate to and has an ability to make local history an entertaining read. But his local encounters are hardly ever detailed revelations. He drinks at bars, eats at restaurants and sleeps at hotels before moving on to the next destination. You hardly notice it, because the jokes and history crowd the pages. In an interview (published by The Guardian as a podcast on 8th January 2016) he even says that he doesn’t take notes, because they wouldn’t allow him to have as many experiences. Instead, he’d have the experiences, take lots of photos and only write down the bare minimum – the text on gravestones, what he’d hear on the radio. The rest he’d leave up to his memory, although “I discover all the time how faulty my memory is.”

There’s something to say for any of these approaches, but it all depends on the kind of writer you are. Nobody is a second Paul Theroux, Levison Wood or Bill Bryson – they are all inimitable, they are all unique, and so are you.

If you have never written a travel book before, play it safe and keep notes of detailed things. Take photographs. The colours of a bus can matter if you are in Guatemala on one of these colourful chicken buses. There’s often something dangling from the rear-view mirror. These are the sort of details you want to jot down. A downpour in the tropics is not something many people in the UK might have experienced – what does that feel like, that warmer rain water, those bigger drops? Look at the roofing of a market stall: rain drops sound different on canvas than they do on steel. What did the canvas look like? Was it worn? Was it painted? What did the roofing of corrugated steel look like? Was it rusty? Was the stall newly built? This matters if you want to paint a picture.

Smartphones and/or digital cameras are a must, these days. You can snap away and obtain so many details that you won’t believe how much they’ll add to the story you’re going to write.

Dialogue

Detailing the environment gives life to the setting in the way dialogue gives local people a voice and therefore a valid place in your story. Many writers tend to go wrong with dialogue because they make things up. Theroux claims to be accurate whereas Bruce Chatwin deliberately fictionalized scenes in his books (In Patagonia and The Songlines).

Paul Theroux once said to him, “You got to come clean.” Chatwin’s answer: “I don’t believe in coming clean.”

But what about Paul Theroux himself?

In a Dutch literary television programme that aired in 1983 (but is still available online in the Netherlands), Paul Theroux, Jonathan Raban, Bruce Chatwin and Cees Nooteboom, seated at a table in an Amsterdam restaurant, talk travel writing under the leadership of Belgian television host Frans Boenders. At some point the subject turned to putting dialogue into a travelogue when Nooteboom, the only Dutchman at the table, questioned Theroux’s accuracy.

He said, “I think there’s a lot of fiction in travel writing, anyway. Thank God people don’t know it, but one makes things up. At least, I do.” He tapped Theroux on the elbow. “I was wondering… I was reading… For example, you were somewhere in Burma. You were on a train, and you’re cold, and you’re shivering, and there’s this old man in front of you. You talk. Now, you’d be terribly conspicuous if you wrote things down. Yet, there are pages and pages about what the man said. He said, I was a servant of captain so-and-so, and I was a servant of colonel so-and-so… You named all the names. Either, you made them up or you took them down. Now, if you took them down, you must’ve been a very strange man to the man sitting opposite you.”

Theroux replied, “I wouldn’t write down a conversation, but the thing is, the most difficult thing is…”

“Do you remember?”

“Yes, I think… I tried to, uh… It’s the one,” – he scratched the back of his head – “I suppose, unacknowledged necessity of being a traveller who writes or being a novelist. I actually think that the quality all writers must have, is memory. Remember what people say, remember what…”

Those names!” emphasised Cees Nooteboom.

“Well, it doesn’t matter.” He laughed. “You see, I have this gift.”

Jonathan Raban said, “I’m possibly the only person at this table who appeared briefly in one of Paul’s books. Every single other word in Paul’s books is true. The one exception is his description of me and meeting me in Brighton, in The Kingdom By The Sea. It is totally, I promise, fiction. Everything else may be true…”

“It’s abbreviated,” said Paul.

“It’s the only one in which I’m capable of offering an informed opinion. It is fiction.”

“It’s abbreviated. Do you think it’s false?”

“Yes, absolutely. You’d never catch me saying ‘Good old Bognor’.”

A little later in the conversation, Theroux said, “When we parted company, I said, ‘Bye.’ Jonathan may not have said ‘Good old Bognor.’ But I went down the promenade and I actually sat down at a bench and wrote down the conversation that we’d had.”

This conversation is very telling of the nature of travel writers. What we read is often, apparently, no more than the blueprint of a conversation. If your story concerns a piece of journalism, you’ll probably use a voice-recorder. But if not, words will go lost almost immediately. You need to be a very autistic person, with a very specific memory, in order to truthfully recall an entire conversation. The best you can do is immediate note-taking, like Theroux did: he sat down at a bench, got his little notebook out and wrote the conversation down. At night, he of course wrote the day down in longhand and probably abbreviated the conversation for the sake of his story.

Getting started on the story

Once the trip has been taken, the story needs to get written. Don’t worry about opening scenes or sentences just yet. The first task is to put all your notes into the document that will become your manuscript. Put in the dates, the times; write out your dialogue; add in descriptions from your pictures; add everything else you deem valuable. This will have you end up with a massive document that nobody wants to read. Therefore, the next step is to turn it into a readable story. This is where it gets slightly more technical.

The theme

The trip is our research, but not necessarily our premise. Determining the premise of your work can be tricky, but every good travel story has one. A premise keeps all the story material together. Some travel writers set out knowing the theme of their story long before booking their tickets, others see a premise emerge as they travel or even after the trip while writing the book.

The reason why you personally love to travel doesn’t matter to anyone – there’s probably no profound reason, anyway. In other words: you’ll need another premise, and anything else goes, really.

A potential reader wants to know: Why should I read this book? People love story-telling. Any trip goes from A to B and generally onwards to C and D – and so does a good travel story, though obviously with scenes instead of destinations.

Nobody wants to read a travel story verbatim. During the writing process, the theme helps to select the material needed to help the story along. Here are some examples of famous books:

  • Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson: the author retraces his travels as a student twenty years earlier;
  • The Kingdom By The Sea by Paul Theroux: the author had lived in London for eleven years but had not seen much of Britain itself;
  • The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth: the author has lived in Denmark for over ten years but finds himself still perplexed by Scandinavian rituals and sets off to all five countries to investigate the Nordic character.

Opening sentence

The opening sentence is something many writers can’t seem to get right, according to themselves. They’ll fuss over it for hours. But often the opening sentence evolves automatically from the story itself. Just get on with your story before worrying about the opening sentence.

A much more important question is: where to start the story? A lot of writers opt for the adventurous scene that took place in the middle of their journey, before retracing what got them into that situation. Others beach their readers in some exotic destination that serves as the background or the start of the journey. All this might work if your theme allows it.

In general, the best thing to do is to start your story where you began to travel mentally. In The Man Who Broke Out Of The Bank – And Went For A Walk In France, Miles Morland spends several chapters detailing his working life in the financial world as a way to introduce his walk across the width of France. This can be dangerous – the whiny man who hates his little shell – but if done right, like Mr. Morland pulled off, it’s a great way to warm the reader up to the trip itself.

Paul Theroux generally opens with his reason to take a trip. Sometimes he mixes it in with his first impressions of the place where his journey starts. Bill Bryson simply starts telling his story in his inimitable way.

Your writing voice

Many first-timers try to use difficult words – words they wouldn’t use in real life. Your writing voice is obviously not how you’d speak in real life (imagine all the quoting you’d be doing!) but the wording should be similar.

Your story has inevitably taken place in the past and should (well, ideally) be written in the past tense. And write economical: don’t use twenty words if five can do, as well. This helps to propel the story and keeps your readers interested.

Scene development

Contrary to a novel scene, a travel book scene is oftentimes merely a story unit that stands on its own and simply details a funny situation that serves no further purpose.

The creation of a travel book scene is nevertheless subject to the basic rules that also apply to the writing of a novel scene. In general (and to keep it uncomplicated), the first thing that happens is the arrival of the protagonist – you. In a previous scene you had, for example, boarded a bus. The ride itself – if you care to include it – can be described as a bridging paragraph between the previous scene and the one we are about to roll into.

The first question that needs answering is where the scene takes place. It won’t suffice to write “It was dark when we got off the bus” if you had not made this clear previously or immediately afterwards.

Introduce the characters in the scene in a chronological order. Who are they? Describe them, quote them.

Why do they act in a certain way? Are they tired after that long bus ride? Are they anxious about being in a new, unknown location?

What happens in the scene? Show it rather than telling us – the oldest writing advice certainly is a valid one.

It’s always a good idea to refer to a scene at a later point in your story, even as a little side note, as this contributes to the story’s coherence.

Delete, delete, delete

The scenes are the part where a lot of “darling killing” occurs. They need to evolve from your notes and that means that a lot of boring, unnecessary dialogue can be discarded. Sometimes it helps to combine dialogue from two different conversations and make it one. It saves having to describe why you met the same person again (unless it serves a purpose in your story).

If, in your daily notes, you wrote ten days in a row how dreadful the weather was, it will suffice to say that the weather was dreadful this whole week. You might work a reminder into a scene, especially when the weather worsens or lets up: “After days of dark clouds and rain, a biblical downpour was inevitable.”

Humour

A travel book can only be funny if the theme allows for it. It’s easy to misplace a joke.

Space your jokes throughout the entire story – never too many, never too few. We still want to be able to take your word for what you’re telling us, but we also don’t want to buy a book based on a great sense of humour displayed on the first few pages only to find out that they are not to be found later on.

A coherent story

Make sure that your voice is on every page, the same humour is present, the scenes flow nicely, pace your story – you can’t add five pages of local history if all your other destinations went without. Everything has to be timed; the theme has to be (mostly) adhered to; the story has to be coherent.

If you can manage that, your story is ready for a journey of its own.


In brief…

On November 15th, my next travel book will be published: In Britain: The Long Path To Cape Wrath. You can pre-order an e-book copy already on Amazon!

 

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