MatadorU interviews leading travel authors and editors on general tips for crafting travel stories. Learn how to be a travel journalist — check out the curricula at MatadorU today.

TAKING A STEP BACK for a moment from the points above, I’d like to break down the process of writing travel stories into its two most basic components: real life experience, and the portrayal of that experience. These two “sides” to the process of writing are so obvious, so right in front of our noses, that we may not even consider their relationship.

Let’s begin by putting them in a context or spectrum of “packaging.” On one end of the spectrum are raw moments of experience, for example, a fisherman (A) in El Salvador pointing at a pelican over the waves.

On the other end of the spectrum is the final image or description of this moment (B), the way you interpret it and narrate it, essentially “packaging” it in a travel story.

The Moment (A) is inherently “unpackaged.” As such it contains unlimited numbers of referents, everything from weather conditions to the relationship between you and the fisherman, to the backstories leading up to how you found yourselves there, to your own perceptions of what’s being communicated vs. what’s lost in translation, and so on ad infinitum. But whereas all this occurs (and is processed) simultaneously in real life, the packaged “moment” (B) is limited by syntax, form, and the author’s motivations, creativity, and point of view.

This leads us to a fundamental storytelling “rule”: Just because something felt meaningful or vivid or any other way to you in real life (A), doesn’t mean that the reader will perceive it this way through your portrayal of it (B). There is always a disjunction between life and our descriptions of it. All we can do is deconstruct our Moments (A) turning them around and around, looking at them again and again, so that when we do finally render them as (B), it’s almost like we’ve lived them several times over, and perhaps something is picked up by the reader which approximates what we felt in life.

With this in mind, here are several considerations when moving from A to B:

How did we arrive at this place?

So many travel stories seem to “float.” They unwittingly, unintentionally capture that feeling of being in an airport between flights where there’s no real place or culture. Life, interaction, engagement seems temporarily suspended, replaced by a vague sense of being “in transit.” All you want to do is just get on your next flight and arrive. This is from a popular travel blog:

As I made my way up to my friend’s apartment on that initial walk, I couldn’t help but notice the trash, graffiti, and abandoned buildings everywhere. Half the buildings are broken down with boarded up windows and look as though they would be filled with squatters or drug addicts. Yet unlike the Italian city of Naples that has that same outward appearance, Lisbon didn’t feel gross or unsafe. It didn’t make me feel like I needed a shower. No, it simply felt lived in. I think Naples is a disgusting city, but Lisbon? There the run-down feeling is charming and lovable.

One key question to ask is “how did we arrive at this place?” I don’t mean literally — like the flight number — but in the sense of placing characters, location, history, emotions — and by default, the reader — within the context of your journey. When you can answer this question, and the answer informs your writing, the story tends towards a sense of being grounded, of having “arrived.” Check this opening by Tom Gates from Wayward:

The Expatriates of Buenos Aires all came together at a club called Sugar for the purpose of seeing Barack Obama sworn in as the 42nd president. The divey club in Palermo was having a Moment, having marketed their venue as the only place to see the event live, with superior sound and on a big screen…. Nobody seemed to care that they were watching the event on a setup that rivaled those found in most adult movie emporiums. The room was crammed with people who all had one thing in common; they’d fled America, short term or long term.

What is the cultural narrative?

Expanding on the point above, this question of “how did we arrive?” should also be flipped on the place itself. Relevant questions for locals might be, “How did you arrive in Buenos Aires?” or “When did your family arrive here?” “How has this place changed?”

This is how we move from travel blogging to travel journalism; these are the gateway questions for engaging with people.

Again, from Tom Gates’s Wayward, note the inquisitiveness and humor in trying to figure out the cultural narrative in Vietnam:

There are no spinning classes or McDonald’s or air conditioner repair shops. There are no public libraries or subways or Doppler weather forecasts. No gutters, baristas or professional clowns. Jobs that Westerners have created still serve no function here. I spent the better part of fifteen minutes trying to explain what a Dog Catcher was to a semi-English-speaking waitress who was fascinated with The American Way. “But why you want catch dog? Dog go when he ready.”

In fact, the only universal thread I can seem to find is video games. Internet stores are jammed from 4-6 p.m. with kids desperate for an hour of dance simulation or first person murder. Video games. It seems that the only way to world communication may be between an online bullet battle between Nguyen in Sapa and Michael in Fort Wayne.

Reducing the distance from A to B

One interesting thing about the (A) and (B) outlined above is that they’re not mutually exclusive. Sometimes you’re simultaneously “experiencing” and note-taking (such as when you’re interviewing or taking field recordings). In general, unless you have genius-level auditory memory and can recount entire conversations days or weeks after they happen, you need to constantly take notes on the precise words that were said, the nonverbal cues that were given, the thoughts and feeling that occurred to you at the time.

Playing with chronology

There are many editors and writers who seem to look at “the beginning, middle, and end” as the sacred cow of storytelling. And for sure, this has been the predominant narrative framework in Western Civilization since Aristotle. A linear chronology is natural for stories (B) because in real life (A), time appears linear and unidirectional. We seem to live in present tense. A moment passes, and then another moment, until we die.

And yet, anyone who has surfed enough to get barreled or participated in the birth of a son or daughter can tell you: There are many other ways in which time can occur. For many indigenous peoples, time is circular. Even when we are “present” in a certain moment (A), what if we’re engaged in deep remembering? In what tense, exactly, does one remember?

The point is that playing with chronology linearity — reassembling scenes so that they begin to feel more like real life — is one of the most powerful tools we have for crafting stories. In (B) we have control over “time.” Similar to post-processing a photograph so that certain colors or saturation levels go beyond what entered the lens, playing with time may change the parameters of what happened in (A), but in a way that is actually closer to how we remember it.

Take this example from Notes on Temperatures in a War Zone:

125° Fahrenheit

Doha, Qatar, summer 2010. My bottle of frozen water is warm after the 100-yard walk from the chow hall to my tent. My flight to Afghanistan leaves in fifteen minutes. I won’t return for six months. They issue me my weapon and body armor. They give me my final instructions. I walk across the runway and feel the heat resonate up my legs. The C-130 lowers its cargo door and we shuffle inside.

-65.2° to 176° Fahrenheit

The operating temperature of the 5.56mm round that goes into my M4 Carbine. I have ninety of them hanging on my vest. This means that when everything else breaks, I can still shoot something.

I haven’t shot anyone yet. Most of us haven’t. We awkwardly sling our rifles over our backs and slam them into doorways and kneecaps. We attach scopes we hope to never use. I make sure it’s in the background whenever I’m on Skype.

Recreating layers

No matter what transpires in real life (A) — whether it’s sitting alone watching TV, hiking through the woods, or having dinner with a group of friends — we experience it as a continuously changing and infinitely complex array of actions, reactions, thoughts, memories, ideas, and emotions, and process all of these things simultaneously.

There’s an important lesson to be learned here when it comes to writing: As life itself is layered, our portrayal of it tends to feel more “alive” when it’s multilayered as opposed to writing that only operates on one level (check the example of the “Lisbon” paragraph above.)

In general, writing has two main layers, the context and subtext. Context includes the conditions and circumstances relevant to the story. Setting, characters, dialogue, background information all help build up a story’s context. Within these layers are other layers, however, such as layers of temporality, or the time “within” the story and outside the story.

Subtext is underlying meaning, emotions, motivations, and/or ideas that are not stated outright but implicit in a story. For example, a story could be ostensibly “about” traveling through Costa Rica, the context centering on place, people, food, the overall journey. The subtext, however — something that’s only hinted at (and yet ideally felt throughout the story) — might be about getting over a difficult loss in one’s life through travel.

Sometimes there’s a third layer as well, pretext, which is developed in order to conceal or disguise one’s real motivations, emotions, or reasons. In real life, for example, one might use the pretext of asking someone the time, or for a cigarette, in order to begin a conversation with them.

If we just break simple sentences into functions, we can begin to see how to “layer” a story:

    Description: conditions, characters, within “story time”
    At dawn it was clear and cool along the ridge.

Action: movement, dialogue within “story time”

    I toasted a bagel over the fire.

Assertion: statement of belief that can unite both “story time” and outside “story time”

    Almost nothing leads to being more productive than waking up with nothing to do.

Exposition: backstory, history – ability to give perspective outside of “story time”

    I’d been coming up to the Chatooga since I was a boy, but this was the first time I’d hiked into Raven Cliffs.

Experimenting with how you mix the different kinds of sentences together can help you find an order, a rhythm that recreates the feeling of convergence or simultaneity you experienced in (A).

Final thoughts

These are only some of the points I’d consider “most important.” There are others. Focusing on relationships between people, for example. Learning the names of things and the stories behind those names. I’ll follow up with more next time. Meanwhile, please check out MatadorU for more information.

*The MatadorU Travel Writing program will help you build the skills you need to become a travel writer.