One of the most powerful talks at TBEX Dublin was a man with 25 years experience as a travel writer and editor, Mr Don George.
He disarmed us when he took an official break to wipe the sweat from his shiny, bald head.
He charmed us when he shared his secrets for coaxing a travel story out of that same head.
Here are the notes I took during Don George's talk. It's written from his point of view – I'm not that wise! I recommend budding writers read this advice as a reminder, each time they approach a new adventure.
For a travel writer there are two parts to the journey; the one you write about it and the actual creation of that story. Throughout the process you're looking for engagement not just with the audience but with your self, the place and the work you create.
1. BEFORE YOU GO
Research as much as you can about the history, the culture and the place. Ask yourself:
Why do I even want to go there? What's compelling me to be there?
and then follow up on that thread.
If you can find your passion points in a place, these become the stepping stones in your story. I always arrive with a skeletal itinerary - it gives me a sense of purpose but I'm always ready to diverge.
If you can frame a story in terms of a quest, it's a nice way to think about it and can provide good framework for the story and become a shaper for the trip.
2. ON THE GROUND
The key is to work out what's the essence/secret of the story here, how can I help someone who's never been here understand. To do this I soak up everything I can, vacuum it in, brochures, newspapers, posters etc. and I take a lot of notes on the ground. I set aside an hour each day to take notes and write about what's happening around me, considering all of my senses – everything. This is VERY IMPORTANT because you can use these descriptions as a portal to a place later on when you try to write about it.
You're on the hunt for small details, that reveal something essential about the place. You don't want a big description about a place, you only need 3 precise details that tell the story.
A small truth that illuminates the larger truth.
I keep asking myself:What am I learning?
and it helps put the story in focus, helps me understand what the story is.
Another great tip is to record dialogue, that moved me in some way or another, it will enliven the stories you create.
3. AFTER THE TRIP
90% of travel stories are a re-creation of the lessons learned in a place.
Now it's time to identify and isolate the stepping stones, that lead to that end. When you're re-living the journey, think about the details that bring those stepping stones to life for the reader. You want to lead them to the same a-ha moment that you had. Another question to ask yourself is, 'What's the point of my piece? Does everything in the story lead towards the point I'm trying to make?
Does the reader need to know this?' You must be constantly editing yourself.
Dialogue and humor create a different connection with the reader. It's important to be able to make fun of yourself, getting lost, all the mistakes that you make in a place.
Read your work out loud, to get a sense of the music in your writing, alliteration, assonance and look out for dead wooden phrases. It stops the story, makes it move felicitously along in the readers head.
Then if you can, put it away and come back with fresh eyes. Join a writers group, have a friend or editor take a look, work with someone other than yourself.
When in doubt, read steps 1-3 again. Here's to storytelling done well. Cheers Don!