Introduction | Step 1: Planning | Step 2: Research | Step 3: Writing | Step 4: Editing
Step 2: Research
Every minute spent reading saves twenty later. Make sure the story is clear in your head before you start typing. A story contains a handful of principal facts (the what, where, who, when, how, and why). If you understand them, you can help the reader understand them, and you can build an interesting story around them.
You don’t have to ‘write what you know’.
If you do know something, it would be silly not to use it. A chef spending six months touring Southeast Asia is in the perfect position to write a gastronomic travel book. But for most travel writers, researching a book involves some very steep learning curves.
If a blogger marvelling at the sunbeams which pour into Chartres Cathedral doesn’t at least mention the relationship between sunlight and flying buttresses, he really shouldn’t be writing about Chartres Cathedral. One of the great benefits of background research is that the next time your reader is in Chartres, they are going to amaze their travelling companions with their knowledge of late Gothic architecture - and readers love being able to amaze their friends. We keep buying Bill Bryson’s books because we know we’ll learn loads about whatever he has been researching. If he published a book on Scandinavian knitting techniques, we know it wouldn’t just be about Scandinavian knitting techniques. It would probably also include a fascinating story of a Suomi spy who used an enciphered cross-hatched beany hat design to fool the Romanovs into giving him Finland, or something.
Most guides to travel writing tell you to keep your eyes open. This is as obvious as telling a Formula One driver to keep his eyes on the road, or telling a guitarist not to get her hands chopped off. It’s the research that writers do before, during, and after the journey that makes the difference. Bryson wouldn’t be able to fill his books with anecdotes just by keeping his eyes open. Bryson’s skill lies in finding the story behind what those keeping their eyes open can see.
Research is active
If you keep your eyes open, you’ll simply see what everyone else can see, and that’s not enough to become the next Chatwin. Decide on your subject, do the reading, set up a few interviews to get started, then buy the plane ticket.
Take notes immediately
Don’t wait until later, you won’t remember what was said or done accurately. Always have a notebook and pen with you (and not a ‘Traveller’s Journal’ with pictures of bi-planes and visa stamps on it – no interviewee will take you seriously if you pull one of those out. Even Moleskin looks like you’re trying too hard. Use a simple journalist’s shorthand pad). You might also want to think about using the voice recorder on your phone. You can never be accused of misquoting someone, and writing legibly on a moving bus is not easy. (Always ask permission before you record someone though.)
When you find an interesting quote or fact, always make a note of who said it, and where you found it (book, chapter, page number, or link). It’s highly likely that you will need to find it again later. I remember reading about a trainee journalist at lunch with a politician who let slip a very publishable piece of information. It being a rather boozy lunch the journalist used the excuse of a full bladder to rush to the toilet to write it down before he forgot it. I wanted to use that story here to illustrate the importance of immediate note-taking, but I can’t remember who the journalist was, or where I read the story. I can’t even remember whether it’s true or not - which rather nicely illustrates the point.
Be organised in your note taking. Different systems work for different writers. Find yours, and stick to it.
Keep a journal
It's very useful to keep a daily journal while doing your research. By the time you are doing your final revisions, months may have passed since the end of your trip. It’s not easy to conjure up the right adjective to describe tropical temperatures when it’s minus five and snowing outside. A journal of thoughts and feelings (along with photos or music) can be a useful way of transporting yourself back to a particular time and place.
When it comes to improving your writing, there is absolutely no substitute for reading. To become a good travel writer, you must first be a good travel reader. Notice how your favourite writers do it. If you are impressed by a sentence, deconstruct it. Work out why it has an impact on you. Which word changed it from a good sentence into a great sentence? Why did the writer choose that word and not a synonym? What is that word’s relationship to the rest of the sentence? How does it enhance or alter the structure?
“Not long after I moved to New Hampshire with my family, I happened upon a path that vanished into a wood on the edge of town.” Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods.
The word ‘vanished’ could have been ‘led’, ‘went’, ‘wove’, but Bryson chose ‘vanished’ and the reader is already being taken down the rabbit hole…
Learning about literary technique may sound like a chore, but it’s really just the technical terms for the devices your favourite writers use (and you probably use them yourself without realising). Understanding techniques like pacing, bathos, and the Rule of Three will give your own sentences far more impact. Lord Acton's dictum 'Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely' isn't memorable because of its meaning; it's memorable because of its rhetorical structure.
Reading is also important for those times when you need to adopt a different style. If you want to discuss the politics of a country, read some Robert Fisk or Neil MacFarquhar. If you want to write about how spooky Whitby Abbey is, read some Stephen King.
Pack some suitable clothes: proper trousers, a shirt, and some shoes that will pass muster in the lobby of an office building. You don’t need to wear a suit, but you won’t be taken seriously wearing flip-flops.
Plan your interviews carefully. Read up on the interviewee or organisation and arrive with a list of questions. You don't need to pay for an interview, a brief mention of the company or organisation they represent is a reasonable quid pro quo (though if you conduct the interview in a café, pay for the coffee). If they ask for their name to be changed; change it. Always treat interviewees with courtesy; word gets around if you don't. Follow up interviews with a thank you email if possible.
Stop thinking of yourself as a ‘travel writer’
Be a journalist. If your dreams of being a travel writer include poncing around the world dressed like Indiana Jones then you’re in for a shock. If you’re planning on selling your writing, you’ll be pitching it to newspapers and magazines. The editor who reads your submissions will be a journalist, and they will read it - and judge it - as a journalist.
Some of the best travel writers started as journalists. Graham Greene, Martha Gellhorn, Jon Swain, James Fenton and Christopher Hitchens all trained as journalists and there is nothing sloppy about their prose. Reading good journalism is excellent for injecting discipline into our own writing.
aka Drinking and Travel Writing
Hunter S Thompson made taking a fistful of drugs and writing about it look easy. Unfortunately for the many writers who have tried to follow in his footsteps, it’s not, and most of them end up sounding like a drunk uncle at a wedding.
Thompson’s writing is very disciplined, so we can assume that he was a very disciplined writer. If nothing else he would have been aware that his readers would probably be sober when they read Fear and Loathing.
Hemingway never said: “Write drunk, edit sober.” In 'A Moveable Feast' he actually said: 'Never before work and never after dinner'. When asked about drinking and work he said: “You’re thinking of Faulkner … I can tell right in the middle of his page when he’s had his first.”