Pack Your Bags and Grab Your Passport

Travel Writing:
More from Tips and Tools of the Trade: Notes from the Writer’s Workshop (Part 3)
(Previous entries in this series: part 1part 2 )

Who doesn’t dream of making a career out of travel writing?  All those exotic locales, all those comped trips to the day spa, all those frequent flier miles!  I don’t know about you, but about the time I got my first passport at age 16, the dream of making it as a travel writer has dominated my “when I grow up” daydreams about as much as “published author,” and  “Oscar-winning screenwriter.”

The Travel Writing seminar I attended a couple of years ago as part of my city’s mini Writer’s Workshop included practical information, insightful suggestions and opened up the big wide world of travel writing for fun and profit.

Behold…the highlights…

There are two kinds of travel writing: commercial and literary.  Commercial writing is the stuff you find in magazines, newspapers, and guides.  It’s upbeat, and its primary goal is to make the reader want to travel to that destination.  The two essential elements of successful travel writing are detailed description and practical information.  The description is used primarily to “install your experience into the reader’s nervous system.”  It’s important to include all the senses: sight, smell sound and even touch (when appropriate!).  Information should be up to date and serviceable: transportation options, hotel rates, major food groups – you get the idea.

Literary travel writing, on the other hand, is a deeper exploration of “the spirit of the place.”  The most obvious – and unfairly ridiculed – examples of literary travel writing can often be found near the top of the New York Times Bestseller list for nonfiction – think “Eat, Pray, Love” or “Under the Tuscan Sun.”  Literary travel writing can be a multi-part feature in a glossy magazine or a book-length memoir of a place and time.  Literary travel writing is created for the long haul. 

Techniques commonly applied to fiction work well in this context.  Building scenes, developing characters, examining challenges and unexpected occurrences and insights through a plot structure – these are the ways literary travel fiction goes from a mere travelogue to something more, something like “Out of Africa.”  Great literary travel fiction includes dialogue, themes, symbolism, maybe even a motif or MacGuffin (that one goes out to all you Hitchcock fans!).  There’s no need to be upbeat or informative with this type of writing.  Instead, the aim is to bring your own fresh ideas and perceptions and apply them to a wider context with deeper meaning.

Another option is the hybrid or “blended travel piece”, a story that’s more magazine length and is still created to serve the reader, but it contains elements of literary travel writing.  You sometimes find these stories in non-travel periodicals like Vanity Fair or Rolling Stone.  I find that these types of pieces come naturally out of entries in a travel journal, where you tend to note what you’re seeing or doing but often fall into a more self-reflective mode (see my Spain entries here and here).

Travel writing can also be broken down into the type of story you’re trying to tell.  There’s the exotic travel story focused on far off places and unusual personages.  Then there’s the city story, where details and descriptions are utilized to communicate the personality of a town to the reader – hip Barcelona, sleepy Savannah, boisterous New Orleans.  A corral story groups together different trips under a similar theme – kid-friendly getaways, for example, or romantic weekend jaunts.  There are history stories, where the travel writing focuses on the history of a place, like the terracotta soldiers of China or a trip to Hoover Dam.  You can simply reminisce about a scenic drive, looping around a central point (i.e., sights to see outside of Vegas) or travel in a straight line from point “A” to point “B” (i.e., cruising down the Pan American Highway).  You can develop a transportation story by focusing on how you get around in a particular locale, like renting a Porshe and driving along the Almafi coast. Another option is Ecotourism, where you detail how to vacation and protect the environment by doing something like swimming with dolphins or clearing hiking trails in Appalachia. You could even pick an exotic sport and explain it within the context of the location where it originated (surfing in Hawaii), or choose a regional dish epicurial or unique local service. Even a familiar activity like shopping, for example, picking cowboy boots in Austin, can add color and uniqueness to your piece.  The trick is to zoom in on a special interest and expand from there.

And while the TSA has indeed made some inroads into our comfort levels while on the road, in truth the “travel” part of travel writing is the easiest element to master.  The challenge is getting those experiences down on paper.  A successful travel story draws a conclusion about “what it all meant.”  There should be telling, precise and poignant details and moments: graffiti on the walls of Alcatraz, a soldier leaning near the wailing wall, a coyote cruising down Sunset Blvd at 4 am.  You should also aim for universal connection by adding up all the particular elements of your story to reveal one central theme.  Other tips: write in specifics, use sensory language, avoid hackneyed phrases and flowery prose.  Finally, sit down for a moment and just visualize the scene around you – think of those San Francisco trolleys, clanging up the hill as the warm steam of your black coffee hovers by your chin under cloudy skies.  Or the grumble in your stomach as you shift your weight and dodge the elbows of fellow tourists while you angle for one last glimpse of the Mona Lisa before you head out the door.  Visualize it, and the great travel story will follow.

I know you’re not necessarily writing for your own pleasure, and while I’m a firm believer in the focusing on the experience rather than the outcome, it makes sense to include a few notes about selling your work.  Travel writing is a small market, getting smaller every day as newspapers shrink and publishers fold.  Nevertheless, it’s best to start in your own backyard. If you’re local newspaper no longer carries a travel section, see if there are some community focused magazines you can pitch to (for example, in Santa Barbara we have more than one wine magazine designed just for the tourist trade – here’s my guide to wine tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley).  It’s not necessary to go after specifically focused travel publications either – I’ve traveled all over the world as the editor of Water Efficiency magazine, and some of my favorite editorials and blog entries have essentially been travelogues of my adventures abroad (click here for my recent trip to Israel).

One last resource, check out http://www.travelwriters.com/, which updates travel publications regularly.  The primary intent of travelwriters.com is “ to connect top-tier writers with editors, PR agencies, tourism professionals, CVBs and tour operators, nurturing the important link that so heavily influences the travel media.”

Now pack that bag, grab your passport and go live some material!

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