If you love to travel and have visited places that have left a strong impression on you, you have a story to write. If you enjoy telling travel stories and people like hearing them, you have the seeds for writing your own travel book.
In her introduction to the 2021 edition of “The Best American Travel Writing,” author Padma Lakshmi writes that “The beauty of good writing is that it transports the reader inside another person’s experience in some other physical place and culture, and, at its best, evokes a palpable feeling of being in a specific moment in time and space.” Good travel writing has that power to not only let us view a place through an author’s eyes, but also feel like we are there, beside him or her, in a real environment with sights and sounds.
What should you keep in mind as you begin to write your travel stories? Here are five features that many good travel books share:
A good story
If people are looking for facts about a place, they search online for maps, history, and statistics. A good travel writing weaves in those basics but goes beyond with engaging stories that hold readers’ attention. Some stories are funny, some are poignant, some are thought-provoking: many travel books have all of the above and more. A journey is a story in itself, starting at point A and ending at point B; the story is the action in the middle. The story is also what happens inside you on the journey: no matter what happens, at the end, you are not the same person you were on page one.
A first-person perspective
While this isn’t a hard and fast rule, most successful travel books are written in first person, meaning the author is using “I” and “we” in the retelling of a trip. The reader vicariously walks with the traveler and benefits from his or her opinions and views. It may feel risky to a writer, but readers like to see the writer’s personality come through the words. Keeping a trip journal during your travels is essential to keep your personal memories fresh for writing down your thoughts later.
Details, details, details
In your travel book, you can make a person or place come alive with specific details in your descriptions. Good travel books are not built on vague memories or abstract concepts, but concrete details that only someone who was there would know. In his introduction to “They Went: The Art and Craft of Travel Writing,” author William Zinsser wrote about a book on Tunisia by British author Norman Douglas. “I was especially grateful for the exactness of its detail. Wherever Norman Douglas went, I felt one thing for sure: he had been there. This is the crucial gift that all good travel writers bestow – the sense that they were there…”
Attention to audience
If you’re writing for publication, you can’t help but think of the reader, the person on the other side of the page. Will your reader be able to follow your account easily and understand your terms? For instance, if you are telling the story of your barge trip through France, don’t assume everyone knows how locks work along the canals. While you’re writing, edit yourself continuously to appeal to readers: ask yourself if your accounts will engage your audience. Keep them interested in what comes next.
Respect and appreciation of the people and their land
Good travel books aren’t written with disdain for another culture or place. Trips invariably come with challenges and misadventures and travelers can certainly encounter less than ideal people and conditions. However, typical travel authors spend hours writing about a place because they had a passion to get to know that particular spot on this earth and its inhabitants. Their sense of awe, enthusiasm, and respect propels them to keep writing – and they want their readers to appreciate these special places and people, too.
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