Travel Writing That Matters: Part II

Last summer, in the middle of an epic five-week Grand Tour which took me the equivalent of 1.7 times around the globe, I had the great pleasure of speaking at the TBEX blogger gathering in Dublin, Ireland.

Dublin was just as charming as the hype would have it be–every taxi driver seemed to have a streak of James Joyce in him, every pub was poetic, and the Bulmers cider flowed like the River Liffey–but that’s the subject of another post.

What I want to share now are the quintessential tips I offered in the talk I gave: “The Quality Quotient: Creating Content That Engages and Expands Your Audience.” I’ll do this in three parts: Before the trip, during the trip, and after the trip.

Part II: Finding and Focusing Your Story on the Road

In Part I I wrote about the importance of identifying potential passion points and creating a skeletal itinerary before you leave for the destination you plan to write about. Now I’ll focus on what I do when I get on the ground.

One thing, probably the most important thing, I find myself doing is continually asking myself: What’s the story?

This internal voice can get really irritating. In fact, sometimes you’ll want to tell it: “Just be quiet and let me have a good time!” But resist the temptation. This essential question will help you figure out the essence of a place, the fundamental characteristics that will become, in one way or another, the building blocks of your story.

I land, and I dive into the place, following my skeletal itinerary. I’m constantly refining the story as I move along; my eyes, ears, and mind are wide open, scanning for alluring places, people, and experiences–otherwise known as passion points.

I vacuum up all the information I can. Why? Even with the Internet, there’s a wealth of things–brochures, postcards, plaques, bulletin board flyers–that ooze important information about this place that you won’t be able to access once you’re back home.

I know from unfortunate experience early in my career that the last thing you want is to be on the other side of the world three months later, frantically turning your backpack inside out in fruitless search for a piece of essential data that you didn’t realize was going to be essential at the time, and thus left behind.

The other thing I’m always trying to do is to hone my focus. I can’t repeat this enough: Focus; focus; focus. Look for the telling little details that capture a taste, a person, an experience–the small truths that illuminate the larger truths. And, almost more importantly, write them down!

When you’re doing this, use all of your senses to capture the place in full. Your most telling impression of a South Pacific church may be the soaring voices of the choir; your first hint of a majestic California vista may be the distant roar of a waterfall. Garlic may be your entree to an Italian restaurant, plumeria your most memory-plucking souvenir of an afternoon idyll in Hawaii.

One way I try to ensure I do this is to set aside at least a half hour every day and plant myself somewhere–a café, a market, a museum–and write only about the world immediately around me. What I’m seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting–and thinking and feeling. Months later, these words become a precious portal into the heart of that far-off experience.

Another element I always pay attention to when I’m on the ground is dialogue. Record illuminating exchanges as they occur. Dialogue can be used to modulate the voice of a story–adding a new rhythm, vocabulary, and accent to your prose. It can also convey essential information in an entertaining way and fill out the character of a place and its people without any explication from you.

Every day I also try to set aside some time, usually at the end of the day, to write down the most important elements, experiences, and lessons of that day. These are quickly jotted notes, not refined, timeless prose. I’m just hoping to record some key words that will open the treasure chest of memory when I sit down to write in earnest.

Finally, I always ask myself, numerous times each day: What am I learning?

This is another version of the question I asked at the beginning of this column–What’s the story?–but with a more personal twist.

What is this place and my experience here revealing to me? What gifts are they bestowing upon me? How are they changing and challenging and expanding me? What, really, am I learning here?

This question will become crucial in the third phase of your journey–when you’re trying to figure out what to write once you’re back home.

Don George is an editor at large at Traveler and the author of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel WritingHe has also edited several award-winning travel-writing anthologies, including Better Than Fiction. Follow Don on Twitter @don_george.

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