Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Travel writing books can no longer afford to be just detailed accounts of a trip – television has that covered – and travel blogging has changed the reader’s expectations for a travel narrative. Since so many people document their travels, the currency of the genre has been diluted, and travel writers have to prove to the reader that their work is more than just an attempt to share glorified holiday pictures.
Difficult though it may sound, there are ways to do this, and it starts by addressing the problem that holiday pictures bring up…
#1 Make it personal
Other people’s accounts of their travels are often boring because they hold immense meaning to the teller, and no meaning for the listener. That’s fine if you’re humoring your friend through a slideshow, but it won’t sell books.Other people’s travel writing can be boring because it holds meaning to the writer, not the reader.Click To Tweet
Travel writers must personally involve the reader in their writing. That’s not to say that the reader must ‘feel like they’re there’, but that they must be given an appreciation for the unique experiences of the writer.
This is where the written word can triumph over other media – while visual media can depict an exact, objective account of what a location looks or sounds like, it is less well-equipped to depict how being in that location feels.
More than that, the importance is in the reader understanding how the location felt to the author. Jan Morris, author of Coast to Coast, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere and Contact! A Book of Encounters confirms this:
…a public almost surfeited with TV travelogues rarely needs to be told what foreign parts look like.
Ah, but what they feel like is something else, and in a profounder sense the best travel writers are not really writing about travel at all. They are recording the effects of places or movements upon their own particular temperaments—recording the experience rather than the event, as they might make literary use of a love affair, an enigma or a tragedy.
– Jan Morris, ‘The Allure of Travel Writing’
That’s not to say that the author can simply say ‘I was in awe’, or ‘I wasn’t impressed’, since this information only has value if the reader understands the author outside the context of location.
This might sound strange, but all it means is that like many other genres, travel writing depends on character. Yes, in travel writing the character is a real person, but the reader still needs a viewpoint through which to appreciate the ‘story’ of the journey.
To this end, travel writers need to carefully consider how they come across in their writing. As I mentioned above, travel writing is rarely a work of pure fact. Some changes are often necessary to get at a deeper truth. Part of this is tailoring your voice and self-perception to suit the location. Which character works best to convey your story – the awe-inspired pilgrim, the up-for-anything tourist, the hapless adventurer, the grizzled traveller?
You don’t need to become a caricature, but you do need to present a consistent character that the reader can use to contextualize the experiences presented.
Of course, most stories need more than one character, and travel narratives benefit from a few different viewpoints. These don’t have to be gratuitous – you don’t have to find a travel buddy to be your co-author – but hearing from other people gives the reader a fuller appreciation of what’s going on, and ups the entertainment value.
Show the reader a great monument through the eyes of a child, or from the point of view of a trader who sets up a stall there every day. People make stories, and even in small doses they’ll help to flesh out your account. Travel author John Gimlette, who wrote Panther Soup, Theatre of Fish and At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, believes that locations are only made noteworthy by the people who experience them:
That’s much how I feel about travel: that it’s more about people than places (I’d hate the Antarctic).
– John Gimlette, ‘My favorite travel book, by the world’s greatest travel writers’
Characters aren’t the only similarity that mostly factual travel writing should share with fiction – there should also be a plot.
#2 Create a journey
The plot of travel writing isn’t in the account of specific locations, but in the journey that connects them. It’s important for writers to remember that the ‘travel’ of travel writing is the most important ingredient.
That means that the reader needs to know where the author starts, where they’re going and why they’re going there. Terry Darlington’s book Narrow Dog to Carcassonne is beloved because it tells the tale of a couple setting out to do something which has never been done before:
When they retired Terry and Monica Darlington decided to sail their canal narrowboat across the Channel and down to the Mediterranean, together with their whippet Jim. They took advice from experts, who said they would die, together with their whippet Jim.
– Terry Darlington, Narrow Dog to Carcassonne
In this book, the reader has a clear idea why the travel is important – the goal of the author is difficult, in fact even life-threatening, and there is value in its completion. Darlington is an amusing writer who gives a great account of his journey, but the end result is always in the reader’s mind.
This journey or ‘plot’ doesn’t have to involve physical events – it can just as easily be an ideological journey. This can take a few equally valid forms. Often writers will use various locations to explore a philosophical concept (such as touring battlegrounds to talk about war), or set out to explore the events, history or ideology of a location.
A famed travel writer himself, this is what Michael Jacobs says is the thing he most admires about Sven Lindqvist’s Exterminate All the Brutes:
Lindqvist’s beautifully sparse accounts of bus journeys and dusty hotels help build up a mood of fear and isolation that enhances the intellectual argument.
Michael Jacobs, ‘My favorite travel book, by the world’s greatest travel writers’
Lastly, the narrative of personal experience is incredibly popular in travel writing. This can be seen in the immense popularity of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia (as well as in the choice of title).
Scaffolding your plot
Of course the concept of the journey is another construct, and one which doesn’t have to form until the actual travel is concluded. While it’s completely valid to make a trip with an ideological or personal journey in mind, it’s of no less value to reflect on travel and draw conclusions after the fact.
Whichever way you want to do this, however, it’s important that a sense of journey exists throughout your account. While you may only have noticed a pattern once home, the reader needs to feel like they are moving towards a core concept or act which justifies the journey of the book.
For Narrow Dog to Carcassonne this justifying act is the conclusion of a seemingly impossible feat, whereas for Eat, Pray, Love it’s the emotional wellbeing of the narrator. Thinking of travel writing as a journey ‘to’ something, even if it’s just to the answer of a question posed by the writer, is a great way to imbue your account with a serviceable plot.
Of course, for writers who only reach a conclusion after their journey, it can be difficult to go back and characterize past adventures as part of this process. This is easily solved by a tip that all travel writers should observe, no matter what their writing style.
Paul Theroux, author of The Great Railway Bazaar, The Pillars of Hercules, Dark Star Safari and The Tao of Travel, puts it succinctly:
I have a small notebook and I make notes all day. I don’t have a tape recorder. I take notes. Then at night, I write up my notes, write up the day. I don’t dread it, but I do think ‘I’ve got to do this.’ I write up the notes very fully. On some days those notes are quite long, sometimes a couple of thousand words.
– Paul Theroux, ‘How I write travel books’
Writing up travel as it happens is the best way to capture all the vital details that make travel writing come alive, and it’s the only way to ensure that a sense of journey can be applied throughout your work without feeling forced.
This account will provide moments that would have been lost otherwise, and catalogue events which only reveal their true importance with later knowledge. Of course to achieve the most affecting type of travel writing there is, you can’t just read your own account…
#3 Do your research
Research is the thing that brings together everything I’ve already discussed into a cohesive whole. Research characterizes a location or a journey, rendering it a separate entity to the narrator. The sense of journey or plot is the story of how these two entities interact – how the reader tries to achieve their own goals in the face of a location’s reality.
This can be seen in William Dalrymple’s In Xanadu: A Quest. In this book he traces the path taken by ancient traveller Marco Polo, beginning in Jerusalem and ending in China. Dalrymple’s journey is in his comparison of the modern world to how it was at the time of Marco Polo’s original expedition. He uses his knowledge of each location to draw parallels between time periods, ‘exploring’ our perception of this historical figure and what his journey can tell us today.
Dalrymple takes on the role of a guide for the reader, introducing them to a journey which is both dependent on and independent from his description. All the locations he visits are real whether he’s there or not, all their history and relevance remain intact, and yet Dalrymple’s personal engagement with his journey presents them in a way that makes them accessible to the reader.
I talked earlier about characterizing locations, and I meant that in a literal way. The writer’s characters and the locations they visit come together to form a unique narrative. This is how one person’s personal experience of a journey can inspire someone else to make the same journey – if the location is shown to be ‘real’ then the implication is that the reader can have their own relationship with it.
Research is vital to showing a location as real, since it allows the writer to present contextual information outside of their own experience. In effect, they prove that this location exists outside of their influence.
This is the big difference between travel writing and memoir writing. A memoir is still a personal account, but it deals with events which were unique to the writer and have passed. A travel book details the writer’s personal experience of something which is still present and which could be personally relevant to the reader if they so choose.
That’s not to say that you’ll use everything you learn (in fact my tip for presenting character backstory applies here as well), but the more you know, the better you can judge what’s relevant to your own journey. What’s more, the more you know about a location the more deftly you can characterize it for your reader.
Yes the Taj Mahal is beautiful, but the reader’s appreciation for that beauty could be enhanced by the knowledge that it is a tomb commissioned to honor the beloved wife of Emperor Shah Jahan, employing 20,000 workers over twenty years. An appreciation of Muslim culture and art brings new context to the decorative engravings, while investigating the history of India’s ruling class could change the narrative to one of excess. These details can be used or discarded depending on the truth of your own journey, but to make that judgement you need to have them in the first place.
A journey of a thousand miles…
By combining the methods I’ve described above, writers can turn real experiences into great stories that resonate with and inspire their readers. It’s tempting to say that the next step is to get traveling, and that’s seldom a bad idea, but the truth is that travel writing isn’t dependent on a stunning location.
Budding travel writers can and should try their hand at documenting smaller trips, applying characterization and focused research to elevate the mundane. That way when they reach somewhere truly spectacular they’ll already know how to write about it.The 3 Things Successful Travel Writing Books NeedClick To Tweet
What’s your favorite travel book? Do you think the purpose of travel writing has changed in your lifetime, and if so for better or worse? Let me know in the comments.
For more on writing about locations, check out Should authors use familiar places as story settings?, or try Writing creative nonfiction – how to stay safe (and legal) for tips that can be applied to travel writing and memoirs.