How to Start Writing a Travel Story
So you have been on a great trip, haven’t you? And after you told the story to your mom, your wife, your friends, your grandparents and your dog, you’re still full of it and you want to share your experiences with others too. Am I right? But you have no clue where to start. That’s alright, you’ve come to the right place. I’ll try to set you up with some basics.
First question you need to ask yourself is if you want to inform people or entertain people. Probably your answer will be both (lucky guess), that’s good. If your answer is only to entertain people, that’s okay too. If you only want to inform people – maybe you’re not in the right place after all. Let me explain.
You can divide the audience of your travel stories in two categories. First you have the people who love reading travel stories, like me. And secondly there’s the people who’re planning a trip to the same place you’ve been and who are searching for some great tips on sights, food, drinks, hotels, etc.
I bet you got a great bunch of tips there, the hostel with the hot shower, the restaurant where you got that cheap lobster, the bar with the gorgeous bartender where you got drunk. That’s all very nice, but you’ll need to consider that there are lots of specialized websites with this information. Not to mention the guidebooks. Have a look at the website of Lonely Planet and find out if your hostel is mentioned there. If it’s not, maybe you found a new place, great, but I bet you’ll be able to find at least a couple of other places on the web where it is mentioned, and where someone already gave a similar review to what you were about to write.
Do you see where I’m going here? If you want to write pure information, you might want to consider writing reviews for travel websites instead of travel stories.
So you need to be a bit entertaining too.
Don’t worry, it’s not that hard. Tell what happened, not only what you did or what you saw.
For example, you arrived at Mexico City airport. You could tell that you left the plane, took your luggage, and after two minutes walk there’s a change office on your left where you could change your Euros to Pesos. A little bit further on your left side there’s an office of Hertz where you rented a car, and so on.
That’s good information, but frankly, who cares? Everybody knows the cash sign in airports, which they have to follow to get to the change office. And if I’m planning to rent a car, I’ll probably consult the website of Hertz or Avis to see if they have an office in Mexico City airport. In the meanwhile I also know their prices.
What I want to read is stuff that happened to you, which I can’t find on any other website. Tell me about the guy you’ve met on the plane who’s writing a book and who will use you as a character. Tell me about the airport security who took your passport and who you had to bribe to get it back. This is the stuff I want to read, and it’s not just me, most of your readers want to be entertained.
Personal experiences together with slices of information form a good basis for a travel story
Now which information should you provide? Try to go for details. When you’re talking about the Eiffel tower, don’t tell me the opening hours or that it was built for the Exposition Universelle of 1889. Tell me that it consists of 18,038 pieces of metal and 2.5 million nails, and that since the opening already 400 people committed suicide by jumping from the tower.
Don’t tell me the Guggenheim Museum in Berlin is open daily from 10 am till 8pm, but tell me how lucky you were that you walked in the museum on a Monday, and that it took the girl from the reception 10 minutes to explain to you in German that on Monday it’s free entrance.
Don’t tell me that the Inca Trail is an 88km route from Cuzco to Machu Picchu at a height of 2800m, but tell me how you finally got to Machu Picchu but you couldn’t see anything because of the mist so you had to sit on a rock until noon before you could enjoy the view. Oh yeah, and don’t forget to tell about the Llama who chased you!
Don’t get me wrong, you’re not writing fiction here and it doesn’t have to be all fun. It’s okay to write how you’re at the beginning of your trip to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, and then tell everything you know about that mountain, but when you start writing about the real trip, leave the information behind and write what really happened. How you weren’t prepared for the cold and how the guide kept on going while you almost passed out.
Following these guidelines, you’ll probably give 99% of your readers what they want. Even the readers who purely searched for information got what they needed and got it in a style which is fun to read.
Another very important issue you need to consider is creating an atmosphere. The readers need to be able to image the things they’re reading, with the emotion you want them to feel. Actually, this is what makes the difference between writing and describing.
Take my couch for example (yes, it’s the first thing that came up to me as I’m sitting in it). I can tell you that it’s gray, it has red pillows and it has room for three persons to sit in.
Now try to imagine it.
Got it? Okay.
Let’s have a look at my other couch, which is gray with very soft pillows, where late at night I like to lay down on, hiding under my fresh smelling blanket, falling asleep in front of the TV.
Try to imagine this couch.
I bet in your imagination they look totally different, right? Even though in reality they are very similar. One is a couple of centimeters longer than the other, but that’s it. You see? It’s all a matter of creating atmosphere.
Sure, it was a silly example, but this is the case for all kinds of things: places, bars, hostel rooms and most important, people.
You can describe the same person as the most lovable person in the world, the biggest ass, or the lamest person your readers have ever seen.
How people imagine things has a lot to do with their senses
Of course, vision is the most common sense to trigger. You can tell how things look. You can tell about the shape, the size and the colors. Colors are very important, because they also trigger some feelings. For example red, orange and yellow colors have a warm feeling. Blue colors have a cold but pure feeling, black has a dark, morbid feeling, and so on.
What lots of people forget is to trigger the other senses too, as they will also provide an added value. Tell people how something smells, sounds, tastes and feels.
Pretend we’re in a park now. Let’s start describing what we see: We’re on the grass, and we’re surrounded by large trees, probably pines. Don’t forget the colors! The grass is fresh green, the trees consist of hundreds of different kinds of dark green and brown.
The park smells fresh, like it just rained after a hot day.
Around us we hear the sounds of about a thousand birds, a couple of dogs barking and a squirrel running on a branch.
The grass is that soft, so soft that it feels like I’m sitting on a thick blanket.
This was not an example of good writing style, as I created a new sentence for every sense, but the purpose of this is to show you how, by using the different senses, an atmosphere is slowly created.
If you put this together in a well written paragraph, your readers should see themselves sitting in the park, watching the birds and smelling the grass.
Photo by Our Enchanted Garden on Flickr