Write a Travel Memoir with the Techniques of a Novelist

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For 25 years I wrote freelance travel articles for newspapers and magazines, as well as six guidebooks. Most of these writings told readers where to stay, how to negotiate the cities and what to see and do. However, I learned over the years that the best accounts of travel are written using techniques that novelists use to engage readers.

Bestselling authors write about more than what characters saw or did. They find a story in the activities that encourages the reader to stay on the page to see what happens next. Novelists use techniques such as painting scenes and creating tension to make the story real and exciting for a reader. You can do this too, as you write a memoir about your travels, by taking yourself back to that time on your trip when you were filled with anticipation and uncertainty.

In my next few blogs I will explore several ways to write about your experiences using good story telling techniques. Two of those techniques follow.

 

  1. Tell a good story with a beginning, middle and end. Your readers will keep reading if you write a story with scenes that have action and an arc of discovery that reaches a satisfying conclusion. Here is an example of a story I wrote about hiking 70 miles on the Cotswold Way in England with 12 friends. It began like this:

In Chipping Campden on that first morning, after a full English breakfast of eggs, bacon, kippers and dry toast, we left our suitcases in the hotel lobby for a taxi pickup and strapped on small daypacks filled with water and snacks. We posed for a photo together beneath a sign marking the start of the Cotswold Way and then we headed off down the cobble-stone street in high spirits. The sun warmed us from a clear blue sky above while a cool breeze encouraged us to keep on our jackets.

At the edge of town, we found the first trail marker, a wooden post with a distinctive acorn carved on its face. A small arrow on the post pointed toward a broad hill. We could see the path inching up through green fields and disappearing into a forest of tall trees. All we had to do was put one foot in front of the other and head up that trail.

For the first five miles, we walked together, three or four abreast, watching our steps as we passed through rich farmland dotted with sheep. We stopped often to take photos of the sweeping vistas and to listen to the insistent bleating of baby lambs. The beginning of our 70-mile walk seemed so calm. We couldn’t imagine what awaited us farther along the trail as the weather turned and we got lost.

  1. Use the novel writer’s technique of adding tension and suspense. Make it an interesting read, with a cast of characters, including yourself, that are placed in a tenuous situation, as we often are when traveling. The following example is from a story I wrote about being caught in Hurricane Iwa when I went to Hawaii with my young children in 1982.

I was waiting with our kids at the Western Airlines ticket counter at LAX on a gray day in November, 1982, when I heard the news.

“Did you hear that a hurricane is supposed to hit Oahu this afternoon?” asked a tall, earnest man in line in front of me.

No, I hadn’t heard anything about it, and neither had the other would-be passengers around us.

“What’s a hurricane?” asked my six-year-old son, Ted.

“Well, it’s a storm with a lot of wind,” I replied, trying to sound breezy myself.

When we reached the counter, I asked the ticket agent if she had heard about the hurricane.

“They haven’t given us any information about it,” she replied. “So I don’t think it’s anything to worry about. The flight’s still scheduled to leave at 2 p.m.”

Once aboard the plane, the Polynesian music and stewardesses dressed in mumus lulled us into believing that we were heading for a pleasant vacation in paradise. We settled back to enjoy the trip.

With about 90 minutes left in the flight, the pilot announced we should return to our seats and put on our seatbelts for the remainder of the trip. He predicted we were going to experience a “bit of turbulence.” He never mentioned the “H” word as the plane began to shimmy and bounce…

 

The next time you write about your travel experiences, try these suggestions and have fun with it. In my next blog (April 1), I will provide more suggestions to make your travel memoirs sizzle.

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