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Writing Advice

A Few Thoughts About Travel Writing

I honestly went back and forth on this one a bit. Like…I don’t know about you, but I haven’t gotten to travel much this year. I doubt I’ll do any next year either. It’s just the state of the world right now.

I love, love travel stories and documentaries, though. I grew up on Rick Steves and dreamed of trekking through Europe. Then, in 2007 or so, I discovered Anthony Bourdain and just fell in love with his work. The places he visited, and the way he wrote about them–highlighting everything that’s beautiful, but never hiding from the ugly parts–was something else. I felt like he was honest in a way that few people are anymore. I was devastated when he died, and it’s still hard to put those feelings into words.

Today, I want to talk about what makes a great travel story. Once again, the secret is in giving your reader an emotional payout.

Start with the “why”

You’d think you should start with “where,” given that you’re writing about going to a place, but no. It’s much more important that you’re in touch with why. Why are you writing this piece? Why are you writing about this place, and why are you doing it now? Think about what you want your audience to get out of your travel story before you even start writing it.

Consider keeping things narrow

This is sort of similar to what I talked about yesterday. In the same way that a memoir is not an autobiography, a travel story doesn’t need to be a to-the-minute accounting of your entire vacation. Try to find an emotional theme and write about the moments that fit the theme. This will help your reader stay interested and on track.

Don’t be afraid to write about the ugly parts of travel

At the same time, don’t crap on other cultures. I think writing respectfully about things that didn’t go as planned can help alleviate people’s fears about travel. Like, maybe you got lost and didn’t speak the language, but someone helped you find your way. Or maybe someone was rude because of your nationality–this happened to me in France–but other people were welcoming and kind. Maybe the airport lost your luggage (this has also happened to me), or your phone broke and you had no way of reaching the people you were meeting (yup, this too). All this scary stuff happened, things got tense for a minute, but it was okay in the end.

Don’t hide from the emotional ugliness, either

Maybe you’re traveling for a funeral and dealing with some heavy emotions and memories. It’s okay to write all that out and share it with your readers. It doesn’t have to be about a bad travel experience; it could just be an uncomfortable time that has nothing to do with the travel. Maybe the trip helps you see your situation from a different point of view. Reflect on your experiences and experiment with your writing a little. See what you come up with.

Keep a travel journal

I have a little leather-bound journal that I always take on trips. At the end of every day, I write about what we did, what we ate, funny things that happened, and so on. We did a lot of cooking when we were in France, and I even wrote down the recipes. Sometimes it’s a pain, because I get tired or I’m just not in the mood, but I’m always so glad I have all those notes later. I take photos, too, but I think it’s nice to have the written notes.

I used to take trips with a family member who has passed now, and I can’t tell you how nice it is to look back on the notes I made of our adventures. You never know when this sort of thing will be useful, or meaningful.

Embrace non-linear storytelling

I should have mentioned this yesterday, too, but I didn’t. Just because events happened in a certain order doesn’t mean you have to tell the story in that order. I think it’s easier to write things out as they happened and then rearrange the scenes once I get it all drafted out, though.

Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself

I hope this gave you a little insight on travel writing. It’s not something I plan to focus on here, because I’m more into fiction, but I thought it would be nice to touch on something a little different for a change. Also, even if you’re not planning on writing any travel pieces, it might be a good idea to read some. Maybe it’ll help you with your worldbuilding.

Tomorrow, I’ll be back in my fictional world. Sort of. I have a post for you on suspended disbelief, which should be helpful for a lot of you. I’m so glad November is almost over, y’all. This blogathon has been a journey in and of itself.

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