Travel blogger and author Travis King offers his top six tips for successful travel writing
All the travel taught me a lot. It’s how I became myself. Writing about it taught me even more. It forced me to reflect and mature. It took me almost four years, but now it’s a thing I’ll get to explain to my nonexistent future children.
I recently published my first book, a travel memoir about my first four years of solo backpacking across four continents. I started as a scared young pup in Colombia and eventually got thrown in an Australian immigration jail before being forcibly removed from the country. The Australian government flew me (first-class baby) to Asia, so it wasn’t all bad. Looking back over my first four years on the road, a lot happened. A lot took place between Colombia and Asia.
My book ended up over 120,000 words, but it started with one sentence. At a goal-setting retreat, I promised myself, and declared to the entire group, that I’d write 'one story worth reading' before the end of the month. I thought of the first sentence while walking down a steep hill in Split, Croatia. Momentum is a powerful force, and once the words started tumbling downhill, I found that the 'T’s' and 'X’s' rolled just as fast as the 'O’s.' It all kept spilling out, and with each story, I got better. With each rewrite, the belt on the book tightened one notch. It was getting lean. It took me four years to finish the book, and, if you have about four minutes, I’d love to share with you as much as I can about what I learned in the process.
Here are my top six tips for writing your own travel stories.
1. Tell your best stories out loud first
One of the most frequently asked questions I’ve gotten since the book was published has been, 'How did you remember everything?' My response has been, 'What? That’s your question?' For me, it seems obvious that I would remember everything—it was life-changing. How could I forget the best stories I’ve ever been a part of?
Looking back with real curiosity, considering why it was hard for others to believe that it was so easy for me—that there was no magic journal—I realized there must be something else in the mix. The deeper reason I was able to recall seven-year-old stories in such detail was more so because I had told them so many times.
I’m a story-teller by nature, so you better believe that, after I pooped on a sunken ship 30 meters below sea level, I told a lot of people about it. When I wrote that dive-tale into the book four years later, I could easily recall the entire night, the people I was with, the feeling I had on the boat ride out, the sweet relief, the GoPros filming, the poop staying put in the toilet. I even knew what the best parts of the story were from having retold the tale so many times, eventually anticipating a laugh at a certain juncture of the evening, a chuckle about a certain detail.
From telling the story aloud, I not only was able to clearly remember what happened years later but also I already knew what the best parts were. When trying to write a book or a good short story, that’s pretty valuable informal data to be collecting.
2. Pull out your most interesting characters
You’ll likely be the main character in all the stories you put to paper, but ideally, there are a few other strange souls in the mix as well. Ask any avid travellers what their favorite part of traveling is, and I’m willing to bet that 'the people' is somewhere in their first breath, in the top two or three things that come to mind at the very least. A well-developed character can help make any travel story come to life. A detail for the readers to build on, to help fill in the colors and serve as the backdrop of the movie they're directing in their mind.
Let’s try something—let me introduce you to somebody—his name is Trampus.
From NTAA: Chapter 11: Seward, Alaska
I got to Miller’s Landing in the afternoon, and before I knew it I was in a kayak paddling around with one of the more experienced guides there, a half-man, half-bear creature named Trampus; I couldn’t make up a better name for this guy. He was a cross between Duck Dynasty and Sons of Anarchy, and his whole guiding style was to be a bit of a dick—one whose approval you sought desperately. So there I was, out on the water, doing everything I could to win his approval.
Don’t you want to know more about Trampus? Isn’t my story of kayak guiding in Alaska already more interesting now that you know one of the other guides? (You get to meet a few others in the book as well, including Sunny.) Characters can come to life for a reader if you give them enough to make a mental casting call, to really fall into the story and make the characters three-dimensional. To eventually think, Sunny would definitely be played by someone like Heather Graham from Boogie Nights.
3. The setting is key to any travel story, so lean in.
If there is one thing that makes a travel story a travel story, it’s the setting. The place where the dialogue is being spoken, where the misadventures are being had. Writing about a normal bike ride could be fairly boring or maybe laden with other details unrelated to the setting. In a travel tale, the reason a mundane thing like a bike ride might have been interesting enough to share is the setting. How it’s a different experience than all the hundreds of bike rides you had ever taken previously.
From NTAA: Chapter 20: Myanmar
Mandalay is the old capital of Burma, the site of old kings and a British overthrow. It’s full of historically significant landmarks and dipped in ancient sauce. It was also very full of garbage, street dogs, and a sense of deep economic inequality. Alex and I spent two days in Mandalay biking around with a few friends we met at our hostel. We stopped by random temples and fortresses and rode up and down the unpaved dirt roads that lined the river. We had an unpolished and unobstructed view of what life was like for people living with next to nothing. We looked wide-eyed at them, trying to imagine their lives. Seeing four white guys biking down their dirt road away from the city, they looked wide-eyed straight back.
All travel stories have two specific audiences. First are the people who have been to the place you’re writing about, and second are those who are imagining it for the first time. For those who have been there, hope your descriptions prompt a 'yes, that’s exactly what it was like.' Make that feeling permeate as many of their senses as possible. Describe the chicken blood smell in Hanoi as well as you can, the slipperiness of Lisbon's tiled sidewalks.
For those who have never been to the place you’re describing, you want to fill their minds with swirling images and direct their creative impulses to call 'Action!' on their imagined movie. It’s how you spur their creativity and bring the place to life for them. If you do it well enough, they’ll have sworn they’ve been there—that they smelled the chicken blood and felt the slippery tiles themselves.
4. Verisimilitude, my dude.
Verisimilitude is probably my favorite writing-related word, and if you know its meaning I’m willing to bet it’s one of your favorite words related to storytelling as well. If you don’t know the term, you’ll at least get something worth keeping from this article.
Verisimilitude is basically those details that make things real for people. According to vocabulary.com, it means 'being believable.' I’ve read plenty a travel tale where at some point I feel like, 'Woof, they’re really laying it on thick here,' in relation to the absurdity or believability of a particular claim.
How hard was the hike, really?
How spicy was the regional delicacy, really?
How scary was the scar-faced man, really?
For me, you just have to recall the character or events in a believable, memorable way. You don’t want to try to convince the reader that it was a scary, tense encounter by shouting, 'I WAS SO SCARED!' Turns out that actually doesn’t make for very compelling writing. You also don’t have to convince the reader by using hyperbole and clearly exaggerated claims of how dark the dark corner really was.
What I tried to do in my book when recalling a night buying drugs in Peru from a sketchy fella was simply to recount the tale accurately, using the best details I had. I described the tuk-tuk ride Brian and I took to a little empty house and our genuinely incredulous reaction to our success. Our disbelief at what we would do in order to come through for our travel family. Our surprise at how much we wanted to do drugs and what we were willing to risk to procure them.
Writing authentically like this can bring the reader there with you—right into the tuk-tuk. Going too far pulls the reader’s mind out of the pages and back up into their brains, wondering, 'Pssshhh, yeah right—I bet the guy was just a normal guy. I bet the night was a normal enough night. Your false, exaggerated suspicion is suspect!'
5. Keep a phone note for witty thoughts
I’m guessing most of us have this note. Mine is called 'writing ideas and jokes,' and it’s what I pull up when I think, 'Hmmm, that’s pretty good,' to myself, about—well, almost anything. (Note: It’s often when the right amount of THC is backstroking in my brain-pool or when the whiskey is causing me to start a great conversation with myself.)
It would be great if our best ideas came to us right after we ordered our coffee, got comfortable in our favorite corner of the cafe, and thought to ourselves, 'O.k., self, time to write!' That would be amazing. But my best thoughts—most relatable, charming, insightful, witty, and clever—come whenever they want. I have no control over it. Our brains are always filling our subconscious with some finger-painting of thoughts based on everything that has ever happened in our lives, the current surroundings we’re in, and maybe what we watched on Netflix last night. The mind runs marathons, the brain is a huge coffee guy, the subconscious is a narcoleptic.
The moment that a combination of the thoughts falling into your mind creates a 'Tetris'—when everything was set up perfectly, the long bar drops in, the four lines flash and then disappear in euphoria, and you know you’ve had a genuinely good thought—can not be predicted. It’s a beautiful alignment of so many variables that leads to a realization, a 'eureka' moment, or a genuinely funny thought. When it does, pull out your phone note and write it down. Find a way to use it in the future if you still think it shines upon a revisit.
In a well-written story, every sentence should be cared for and deeply considered. The very best of those sentences will even have a spark, a bit of magic. These phone notes will hopefully lead to having a number of sentences in each little story that jump off the page and spark something for your readers. If enough accumulates, good writing can feel like magic.
6. History books aren’t that interesting, and your travel is your history
When I set out to write my memoir, I had a few strong principles in mind. One was to be as honest as possible, even when it made me look like shit. Another core principle was to avoid writing a history book about my travels. Most travel tales are some version of 'I started here, I went here, then over here, then ended over here.' Travel is a journey from place to place, so it makes sense to conceive of it in a chronological fashion. But that story will be boring. Lots of folks have traveled, so writing a travel story that is strictly a day-by-day recounting of a trip is akin to posting your sandwich on Instagram. Everyone had lunch today; why do I care?
Tell your readers something about you that is hard to tell anyone. Tell your readers how something that happened reminded you of a painful experience from college. Tell your readers how you came to think something bizarre was actually normal because of how you were raised. Tell your readers what you were most scared of, how far and fast you fell in love, and how you’ve had your heart broken plenty of times before this one. Give your readers reasons to care about you, to laugh at you, and to say, 'Holy shit, me too!'
Plenty of people have traveled, and a lot of those folks have even written about it. If you want to write a story of your foreign affairs, your worldly ramblings, your exotic encounters, do it—just be sure it’s more than 'we did this, then this, then this.' Everyone did something on that exact day you’re writing about, so why do I need to know about your day? What parts of it will be truly worth reading? What parts of it are truly relatable, real, and risky to share?
I’m sure you will find them and pick out all the right details, my dudes.
Find out more about Travis at his website, www.traviswking.com
Not going very far this year? Find out how to get writing ideas from local life.