In Part 1 I shared some fiction writing techniques – hook, character, point of view, back-story and flashback – to enrich travel writing without being tempted to ‘make it up’. Here are five more:
Bring alive an historic site by imagining the sights and sounds of its original period. What would you hear, see and smell in Saint Columba’s Abbey on the Scottish Island of Iona in the sixth century? Or in the Roman Colosseum during its construction? When I stood in front of the ruined 17th century Drugyel Dzong in Bhutan’s Paro Valley, I closed my eyes and envisaged how I might have experienced it in its heyday as a fortified monastery and administrative centre.
“Standing in this quiet spot, listening to birds singing and leaves crinkling in the breeze, it is hard to imagine these hillsides echoing with the thunderous clatter of war horses and the deadly whisper of arrows, but since at least the seventh century, various Tibetan war-lords and rulers have tried to expand their influence into the favoured valleys of Bhutan. Over the same period, waves of refugees from cycles of political chaos in Tibet have migrated and settled here.” (Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon)
Readers of travel want to experience exotic environments without leaving the armchair or putting down their gin and tonic. Travel writers can indulge themselves in descriptive creativity (the bits less perceptive fiction readers sometimes skip in novels), so use all your senses in conveying what you see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and feel intuitively.
“Higher up the hillside, grass gave way to woodland and then dense montane forest rising out of a maze of moss covered rocks and tree roots. The heavy shower was reduced to drizzle under the canopy and it invigorated the forest; every shade of green was intensified, glistening and vivid. Lazy drops of water glided slowly along leaves, dripping silently onto moss beneath. Fine hairs on the ribs of fern fronds, usually invisible, were lit-up by tiny twinkling water droplets like miniature fairy lights. And the air was filled with the fecund mustiness of moist earth seasoned with the tang of wet foliage.
Picking our way between gigantic trees, their trunks smothered in creepers, ferns and grotesque fungi, we pushed aside lianas that hung down from overhead branches, or were they aerial roots? Or snakes? It was hard to tell the difference. Huge spider webs looped from branch to branch, their spun strands elegantly draped by the weight of raindrop beads. Terrified of getting entangled in one, I kept well behind Thomas.
Apart from the clatter of water dropping onto flat waxy leaves, the forest stood in strange, expectant silence, muffled by the press of growing, spreading vegetation all around us. Yet every surface, especially the dark underside, was teeming with life we could not see, or would not recognise if we did, and we couldn’t see beyond the next tree trunk or veil of hanging moss. The sense of being enclosed, entrapped within an unknowable multitude, was overpowering. (An excerpt from Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals).
Every trip has some emotional highs, and lows. Readers relate to emotion, a shared human experience. Andrew Harvey draws us – without elaborate language but using his senses – into his expectant excitement at the beginning of his travels in Ladakh:
“It is dawn. The muezzin has just been singing. All the dogs of Leh are barking as they always bark at dawn, different bell-like barks from the hills, from across the valley, from the river. I have the ‘Glass Room’ in the hotel; it looks on to the garden. The fat, already glowing sunflowers knock against my window as I open it. The air is so fresh it makes me half-drunk, and my hand is unsteady finding my shirt.” (A Journey in Ladakh).
All the usual advice on fiction writing applies to creative non-fiction: avoid clichés, use original metaphors and similes, fresh adjectives, adverbs only if necessary, and active verbs to avoid the latter two where possible. In addition, for travel writing, applying local names for things and places (putting the translation in brackets, not the other way round), not only adds atmosphere, it shows respect to the uniqueness of local culture. In Venice, use viottola, not alley; in Thailand, tuktuk rather than auto rickshaw, and in Kenya, minibuses are Matatus.
How much you use plot – a series of events around conflicts that characters face, and the causes and effects of their resolution which turn the direction of a story to its conclusion – depends on the nature and length of your piece. It could include strife encountered on your journey and how you overcame it, or perhaps it influenced your final itinerary, but it also applies to challenges and opportunities acting on the land and people you experience, and the outcomes recognisable in the places you visit.
Personal challenges such as ill health, environmental hazards, and the historical events of the time are significant plot features in the journeys traced in my latest travel narrative: Passionate Travellers: Around the World on 21 Incredible Journeys in History. Each one of the eight women and thirteen men were driven to achieve a personal quest, and each one had to overcome extreme dangers, at sea, on mountains, or through war-torn territory. Their courage is inspiring.
In the final Part 3 , I write about structure, theme and resolution, among other things.
For much more advice on travel writing, including how to choose a publishing option and to market your book, see: Writing Your Nonfiction Book: the complete guide to becoming an author, also available as an ebook from your favourite online store.
If you enjoy reading about travel and adventure in exotic places, you’ll love these illustrated travelogues:
Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals (also available as an ebook)