Non-fiction authors lack the freedom of fiction writers to ‘make things up’. We have to show factual truth as best we can discern it. Without such authenticity our reputations are at risk. But avoiding invention does not mean we can’t use imagination, drawing on creative techniques to increase the quality of our travel writing.
Both fiction and non-fiction share the same writing craft, so whether for a blog, an article, a travelogue, or a travel memoir, here, in this first of a 3 part series are some ideas from fiction to enhance your creativity:
Hook the reader in the first sentence with a compelling local character. In a blog post some time ago, A Hidden Gem in the Scottish Highlands, I mention an octogenarian cycling back to front to amuse his grandchildren – placing his picture as the leading illustration because his golf course was one of the ‘gems’. A ‘person hook’ is usually more appealing than an inanimate one, unless a view or building is truly extraordinary.
Include a well-known person associated with a location, especially if your trip coincides with the anniversary of their birth or death, or you see an interesting monument to them. Research their back-story, and describe their character, appearance and quirks as a novelist would. Discovering the date was Gaudi’s birthday while travelling in Catalonia, I went to Reus, his birth place. After visiting his childhood home, a bronze statue of him as a youth, and a wondrous centre dedicated to his work, I blogged a brief post about him later that day as A Birthday Card.
When describing local people you meet, mention not only their general appearance, but clothing and how it is worn, how they move, body language, things they carry or have around them in their setting. If you talk with them, quote some of what they say so the reader can ‘hear’ them. (When quoting people at length, or photographing them, ask their permission first).
Points of View
Use additional points of view – other people’s perception – of culture and place to give depth to your own. In The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin uses Arkady, an Australian citizen of Russian descent researching Aboriginal culture, as guide and mentor on his travels. Sun Shuyun, a Han Chinese but a Tibet scholar, spent a year in Gyantse staying with the local Rikzin family, through whose lives he observed and filmed traditional rural Tibetan culture. His travel memoir, A Year in Tibet, is enriched by their insight.
Before writing my travel memoir of Papua New Guinea, I had lived and worked there for 5 years, but even if you are in a place for a short time, you can talk with local people and visitors, including your travelling companions, to gain at least some knowledge of their views.
Share your own back-story – why you are there. This not only shows what drew you to the place and might attract others, but allows the reader some understanding of where your particular ‘truth’ is coming from – part of your credibility. We all carry personal ‘baggage’ and bias, however objective we try to be. This is what took me to Bhutan:
“I would have come to Bhutan whatever I’d had to go through to get here. I’d already sold my car to pay for the trip.
A couple of years ago, sorting through dusty boxes of old books and magazines left me by a favourite aunt, I came upon a National Geographic Magazine from 1914. A bookmark – a crinkly, yellowed invoice for marzipan (my aunt had owned tearooms) – drew me to the most amazing photographs of mist threaded mountains, exotic architecture, and distinguished looking men wearing what appeared to be navy blue dressing gowns with broad white cuffs…had my aunt longed to go there herself? Was the marzipan marker a message of some kind? … Finding out how to get there was my next step – the fact that I would get there was somehow taken for granted in my enthusiasm.” (From: Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon).
Use brief flashbacks to compare your experience with other places and cultures, especially your own. In Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, and even when writing about the South Pacific, Robert Louis Stevenson frequently harks back to his native Scotland. Non-judgemental contrasts and similarities can sharpen what you wish to portray. Writing Masks of the Moryons, about the Philippines, I compare celebrations of the fascinating Easter Week pageants in two neighbouring towns to highlight the more traditional events in Mogpog, where the Moryonan originated 150 years ago.
These are only a few suggestions, if you read widely you will find others. Consider every writerly means that is appropriate to your project.
In Part 2 I write about imagery, the senses, emotion, language, and plot.
For much more advice on travel writing, see: Writing Your Nonfiction Book: the complete guide to becoming an author, available as an ebook or a paperback from main online booksellers.
If you enjoy reading about travel and adventure, you’ll love Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals also available as ebook from your favourite store.
And experience the trip in the illustrated ebook travelogue: Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon,
For history lovers, see my latest travel narrative: Passionate Travellers: Around the World on 21 Incredible Journeys in History. Also an ebook at all major outlets.