Tips for Writing a Travel Memoir

Some of the world’s best literature exists in the form of travel memoirs. Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, Julia Child’s My Life in France, Jamie Zeppa’s Beyond the Sky and the Earth, and John Higham’s 360 Degrees Longitude are all examples of critically acclaimed and universally loved travel memoirs. What makes each of these memoirs so aspirational? Each contains a clever mix of vulnerability, connection, and exoticism.

To create a compelling travel memoir, you must be a great storyteller, first and foremost— and we can help with that. What follows is a list of tips to help you engage your reader with a spellbinding travel story.

Let’s get started.

Here’s a list of the 15 most riveting travel memoirs. Subscribe to receive this extra resource.

Travel Writing Isn’t The Same As a Travel Memoir

Let’s draw an important distinction right away: A travel memoir is not the same as writing a guide book or a generic book on how to travel.

While the latter two may provide the travel-minded tourist hopeful with generic advice on what to see and do, the travel memoir is focused on the writer’s experience and takeaway. A travel memoir may appeal to the reader with wanderlust, but a love of and a desire to travel is not a requirement. The only true requirement for a travel memoir is a good story.

On the other hand, a reader isn’t likely to curl up with a non-narrative guide book.

Blogging, guide books, tutorials, and other forms of travel writing certainly have their place, but they aren’t the same as a memoir. A travel memoir isn’t just a list of experiences in a unique location. It’s a written documentation of the author’s awakening or evolution.

So, unless you’re being sponsored by the visitor’s bureau to write a marketing pamphlet on the destination, your travel memoir should be intimate, honest, and focused on the emotional takeaway.

Give Yourself Some Time

You can’t write a travel memoir while you’re actually on the journey. At best, you’re writing field notes or a travel journal. However, a memoir must have a deeper meaning that’s only evident after you’ve come to the end of your journey.

Before writing your memoir, you must take time to reflect on your travels and to contemplate your story’s overarching theme.

This past summer, I went on a month long adventure to the American West. Although I’d love to write about it one day, I’m still parsing through the experience and figuring out what I’ve learned. The best stories emerge after they’ve had an opportunity to breathe and you’ve gained much needed self-awareness.

To write with self-awareness, let it settle. Realize how the experience has changed you, and then write from that informed perspective.

You may not have it all figured out. Like me, you may be the type of writer who understands their thoughts while writing, but it’s still important for subconscious processing to give yourself space after an event and before writing.

Define Your Voice

When crafting a memoir of any type, you must define your voice.

Your voice is a combination of the following:

  • Your unique perspective
  • The type of language and cadence you use when writing your story
  • The way you choose to tell the story (i.e. humorous, relatable)

Many travel memoirists choose a voice that’s either friendly, self-deprecating, or conversational, however remember that you’re not bound to this type of voice. You can be aloof, formal, or matter-of-fact. Your voice will impact how the reader experiences your memoir, so choose a voice that carries the sentiment you’re hoping to convey.

Focus on the Meaning

The most important part of your travel memoir is the takeaway, or the moral of the story. This advice applies to any memoir, by the way. Creating a travel log of what happened and when it happened is boring. It’s the literary equivalent to showing slide show pictures of your vacation.

But if you dig underneath the surface and discuss not only what happened but what you learned from what happened, you’ll forge a stronger connection with the reader.

Find the universal takeaway that any human over the age of 12 can understand. To do this effectively, you’ll need to take the reader on two separate but parallel journeys. Those two types of journeys involved in your travel memoir are the physical journey and the emotional one. It’s relatively easy to write about the events you experienced on your trip. It’s harder to write about what you learned from the trip.

The meaning of your book is tied to its theme. Whether you go with a popular memoir theme like self-discovery, coping with loss, or coming of age, your theme will help you connect with readers who identify with your struggles.

Pick and Choose the Right Stories

I’m one of those weirdos who believes there’s no such thing as a mundane story, just a mundane way of telling it. This is why it’s crucial to edit yourself and get edited by professional readers.

Without editing, you’re likely to prattle on and on about every event during your journey. And not just you— we’re all prone to rambling. This why we need editing.

When editing yourself, always keep the theme in mind. This will help you include the stories that support your theme and cut the stories that are nice, but ill-fitting. You must be a slave to theme. It’s that important.

Don’t try to tell the entire story blow by blow. Instead, piece together the story that fits in with your overall theme.

Don’t Make Yourself Look Too Good

Sometimes you’re going to sound like a jerk. You’re human. Your reader is human and they’ll understand. In fact, embracing your raw stupidity is what will make you endearing to the reader. It will also make your experience real and relatable which is the entire point of reading a travel memoir. Readers like to travel with you on your emotional journey, and hopefully observe your growth.

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Unfortunately, self-preservation dictates that we try to look good at all times. Avoid that urge when writing your travel memoir. Or, at least, edit it out.

You must be willing to look foolish if this is ever going to work. When traveling to different places you’ve never been before, the reader won’t expect you to be completely prepared and perfect. You’re going to mess up. You’re going to offend people. You’re going to hate some of the food. You’re going to pack your preconceived stereotypes right next to your socks and undies. But you’re also going to connect with the reader because your honesty will be relatable.

Have an open mind when you hit the open road.

The story may not go as you’ve anticipated. You’ll be surprised and changed in ways that you never expected but that’s the gift of travel. To document how you’ve changed for the better, you’ve got to show the cringe-worthy before.

Titles Are Crucial

For a travel memoir, especially if you’re an unknown author, so much of your initial success will depend on a clear, catchy, or promising title. While I may not judge a book by it’s cover, I always judge a book by its title, and I suspect I’m not the only one.

J. Maarten Troost’s The Sex Lives of Cannibals wins my award for “Best Travel Memoir Title”. I purchased the book without even reading the first page just because it had a killer title (no pun intended).

That title was catchy, but your title need not be clever to be effective. Cheryl Strayed’s one word title, Wild, sets you up for the type of journey you’re about to take.

Then there’s the promising title, I’ll Never Be French (no matter what I do) by Mark Greenside. The reader knows going in that the book will be about France and some rather misfortunate experiences.

Whether you choose a title that’s descriptive or intriguing, at the very least, make it memorable. It should be a title that your reader will remember when they’re recommending your memoir to friends.

Additional Resources

Before you go, check out these related posts:

Here’s a list of the 15 most riveting travel memoirs. Subscribe to receive this extra resource.

How to write a travel book in 5 easy steps

Adventure Travel Show

Peter Moore will be at The Adventure Travel Show, talking in the Wanderlust Travel Writing Workshop on the 25th of January. Tickets for the workshop cost from
£55; this includes admission to the show and a £10 voucher for use on the Wanderlust stand. http://ow.ly/sKABd

Advance tickets to the show are now on sale. Get your tickets for only £5
(that’s saving £5 off the door price!) by quoting ‘WANDERLUST’ when
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I get a lot of emails from people asking me how to become a travel writer. And why not? It’s a great job. Unfortunately, like all great jobs competition is very tough. I wouldn’t mind being a radio DJ, for example, but I don’t fancy my chances of stepping into Zane Lowe’s shoes any time soon.

Having said that, with a little bit of perseverance, anything is possible. It took me over six years to get my first book published. If I’d known then what I know now, it probably would have only taken five!

In my experience getting published boils down to four things. A strong idea. A unique voice. Good writing. And a good deal of perseverance.

What’s your big idea?

There has to be a reason why. Why did you do this journey rather than another one? Some people follow in the footsteps of explorers of the past. Others attempt to be the first to do a particular journey. Some people are trying to find themselves, start a new life. It really doesn’t matter what the reason is, as long as it is a good one.

Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson. Bill takes one last look around England before returning to the US.

Holy Cow by Sarah Macdonald. Sarah road tests different religions in the spiritual supermarket of India.

Crazy River by Richard Grant. Richard attempts to be the first person to travel the length of the Malagarasi River.

A strong, easy-to-encapsulate reason why is vital because it’s the hook everyone will use – from you or an agent trying to interest publishers, through to the sales and marketing departments of the said publisher trying to get publicity for your book.

One thing to keep in mind is that most successful travel books are aspirational. Whether it’s renovating an old house in Tuscany, starting a new life in Paris or climbing Everest, each chronicle something that people would love to do if they could. My most popular book in the UK has been The Wrong Way Home. It tells the story of my journey overland from London to Sydney, a trip a lot of people have thought of doing (and often end up doing bits and pieces of it). Similarly, my book about riding around Italy on a Vespa, Vroom with a View, did really well in Australia. Aussies, it seems, have a hankering for the dolce vita on two-wheels. Or have a fixation with Sophia Loren. Like I did.

If you’re finding it difficult to single out one idea, write a one or two paragraph overview of your journey – or your idea for a journey – instead. Remember the who, what, where, when and why? It should lead you to your big idea.

Finding your voice

Your ‘voice’ is just the publishing industry’s way of describing your writing style. The biggest mistake aspriring writers make is to try and sound like someone else. Or worse, write like they expect ‘proper’ literature to sound.

When Andy McNab, the former SAS soldier-turned-author, first started out, he was told to write like he was telling a story to his mates down the pub. It’s good advice. Think of all the little tricks you put into telling a story so that it gets a laugh or retains the interest of your friends. If you’re not a big drinker, don’t worry. Pretend you’re meeting friends for a cup of coffee.

Another trick that some writers use is to imagine they are writing a letter to a particular friend. Some even go as far as writing ‘Dear John’ at the top (remove it, of course, before you send your manuscript off). That way you avoid being a pale imitation of Bill Bryson or Eric Newby. You’re being yourself, and that’s the best way to get a unique voice.

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It sounds more difficult than it really is. As an aspiring travel writer you’ve probably already developed a unique voice writing the emails to friends and family while you were on the road. Or on the blog you’ve been keeping. I get a lot of emails from people who say that friends and family have encouraged them to write after enjoying the emails they sent while they were travelling. That’s because they have discovered their ‘voice’.

A few practical writing tips

One thing I’ve taken for granted is that you can actually write. Maybe not of a Pulitzer Prize winning standard, but your sentences should be well constructed, your ideas clearly expressed and your story told in a way that maintains a reader’s interest.

The good news is that writing about a journey gives you a head start over a lot of other writers. You already have your narrative drive in place – you have a beginning and an end and a journey that that takes you from one to the other. But there are some other things you should keep in mind.

Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue

I can’t stress how important good dialogue is. Travel writing is about describing people and places. And you can do that a lot easier with dialogue. It ‘shows’ people rather than ‘tells’ them. You’ll be surprised how just a little bit of dialogue elevates your writing.

How do you get good dialogue? Just listen. You’ll be amazed by the things people say. I’m certainly not creative enough to make up the things that have been said to me in my travels. In The Wrong Way Home, for example, the guy who came up and told me Australia was safe in the event of a nuclear war. ‘I have worked in a nuclear facility in the States,’ he said. ‘Your country is safe!’

How do you remember it? Write it down! I keep a small notepad in my back pocket and write things down when I hear them. I don’t take dictation. I let situations play out and then duck around a corner and scribble it down!

If you’ve started writing something and it hasn’t got much dialogue, try and re-write it using dialogue. You’ll be amazed by the difference it makes.

Leave it out!

Deciding what to leave out is a key skill and probably the hardest thing to do. We all have trouble ‘killing our babies.’ I’ve been sent the odd chapter or two by people and the biggest problem was that they included every small detail. One guy sent me a document recounting one small part of his journey in Mali that ran to 50 pages and detailed boiling water for a cup of tea.

It’s a problem I still face. One of my latest books was about buying an old Vespa in Italy and riding it from Milan to Rome. I had a fantastic scene where I visited an old Vespa mechanic in Sydney. He had a great workshop with old posters on the wall and a coterie of little old Italian guys hanging around a beat up coffee machine. But I couldn’t use it without slowing down the whole narrative. So I had to cut it free.

It’s like movies. A lot of scenes end up on the cutting floor. A boring all day bus journey can be easily pared down to ‘By evening we were in Esfahan …’

Peter Moore

Peter Moore is Associate Web Editor at Wanderlust and author of six travel narratives including The Wrong Way Home, Swahili for the Broken-Hearted and Vroom with a View. You can find out more about Peter and his books by visiting www.petermoore.net.

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How to Write Your Adventure Book During Your Adventure

David Goodrich, former director of the UN Global Climate Observing System, is biking the country to observe our changing world in person—and writing a book as he goes. Mid-trip, we asked him about his strategy.

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In another life (from 2005 to 2008), David Goodrich was the director of the UN Global Climate Observing System in Geneva. Now his days are spent entirely on a bike. The retiree is cycling across America, hoping to further the national conversation about climate change by interviewing people he meets along the way and giving presentations to students about the consequences of global warming.

With a 36-year career as a climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under his belt, there’s probably no one more qualified to embark on such an ambitious project in the service of environment and education.

Soon after retiring, Goodrich left his home in Rockville, Maryland in May 2011. Seventy-five days and 4,208 miles later, he reached the coast of Oregon with meticulous documentation of his encounters, observations, and experiences on the road. He met farmers in Tribune, Kansas, despairing over droughts and diminished profits. He saw forests in Cameron Pass, Colorado, decimated by mountain pine beetles, whose numbers have exploded because of recent warm winters. These impressions of a changing America became A Hole in the Wind, out from Pegasus Books next year.

A Hole in the Wind is full of layman-terms climate information, rollicking cross-country adventures, and deep introspection as the 53-year-old Goodrich pushes his physical limits to see our changing world in real life.

On June 27, Goodrich set off on the final leg of the trip, which will be the book’s conclusion. He’ll cycle from Moscow, Idaho, to Chinook, Montana, spending two days on the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park. The park has become a symbol of climate change owing to its rapidly disappearing namesake glaciers.

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Outside spoke to Goodrich about his final trip and the nitty-gritty of writing a book while on the road.

OUTSIDE: How did you go about planning for a trip like this?
GOODRICH: In terms of my route, I’ve got a spreadsheet of where I expect to be each day. I use the site Ride with GPS, which is good on route planning.

You don’t want to discover at 3 p.m. that you have a 1,500-foot climb before the end of the day. So my planning sheets are very detailed—they include the number of miles I’ll cycle each day, how much elevation I’ll be facing, that sort of thing. I usually try to end each day in a town that has some kind of accommodation. And I use adventure cycling maps a lot.

What kind of gear do you bring?
Part of what I pack depends on whether or not I’ll be camping, and whether or not I’m self-contained. For the cross-country ride, I had four bags, a tent lashed onto my bike, and a handlebar bag. It all weighed between 40 and 50 pounds, depending on how much water I carried.

If I’ve got motels each night, then I’ll bring two bags of clothes, a competent tool kit—you want to be able to fix a spoke by the side of the road—and a first aid kit.

For conducting the interviews, I’ve got a laptop, a smartphone that has enough storage space for interview recordings, and a camera. Each night, I write a journal entry about the day’s events.

Lastly, I always bring pepper spray for dogs. I had a dog encounter in Missouri, and I had to rely solely on adrenaline to get me out of it. Never again!

My bike is an old clunky steel frame, because if you’re in central Wyoming or Nepal, and the frame breaks, you can always find someone who can work on steel.

The day before I leave, I just lay everything out on the floor. It’s like my personal Everest Base Camp.

No matter how prepared you are, there’s always going to be something unexpected that the road throws at you. And I look forward to that. That’s the fun part.

What are you hoping to accomplish from this final trip to Glacier National Park?
There are two parts to this trip. I want to see if I can still manage [to cycle long distances], and I want to investigate what climate change has brought to the northern Rockies and down into the plains. I’m also interested in how global warming has affected the wildlife.

I’ll be exploring these questions through my own observations and from my interviews with people on the ground. It’s as much about the people I meet along the way as the climate questions.

No matter how prepared you are, there’s always going to be something unexpected that the road throws at you. And I look forward to that. That’s the fun part.

Which books have helped inspire this journey for you?
Here are a few:

Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum (1899): An aging sea captain, awash in debts and legal problems, laid the keel for the Spray, “a private ark, designed to float free of the irksome land.” He set sail from Fairhaven, Massachusetts and returned three years later. Eleven years after the voyage, Slocum took the now-decrepit Spray out of Vineyard Haven into a November gale, bound for the Bahamas. He was never seen again.

Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck (1963): He was my age at the start (58) and roughly followed the route of my bike trip across the country. He implied that you could smell the salt air of the Pacific from the Cascade passes. His humor was dry: “I had conveniently forgotten how incredibly huge America is;” After a flat tire: “We would have no recourse but to burst into tears and wait for death.”

Annapurna by Maurice Herzog (1952): French guides from the Chamonix Valley (which was a frequent sojourn from our days living in Geneva) take on one of the highest mountains in the world, well before oxygen tanks. Annapurna is now recognized as a deathtrap. Herzog and his companion Lachenal reach the summit; they had no business surviving. Herzog loses most of his fingers and toes and dictates the book during his year of plastic surgery. He has “the assurance and serenity of a man who has fulfilled himself.”

What is your writing process like?
When I’m on the road, I’ll post each night on the magnificent crazyguyonabike.com, a journaling site for touring cyclists. It’s important when I sit down to write seriously that I can bring myself back to that pass, that river, that roadhouse. Sometimes the best stuff comes when I can still feel the blood pulsing in my legs in the evening. And I can still remember the bad jokes I thought up during the day’s ride, which may not be an upside.

When it comes to the serious writing, I’ve learned a lot from my daughter, who’s a professor and very disciplined. She sits down at 7:30, spends a half-hour on email, then shuts down Facebook, texts, the phone, and all of those other distractions. She flips on Toggl, a little time-tracking app, and punches the stopwatch when she starts actual writing and stops it when she’s not. That’s what I try to do also.

Lastly, for me cellulose is important stuff. I can only sketch out a piece on a legal pad first, in unintelligible code. Then after research and chewing and reworking on-screen comes that magical moment when the printer lights up by my feet and honest-to-goodness paper and pages start coming out. It isn’t real until then.

Any last words?
As a scientist, I observed networks for climate change in the ocean, the atmosphere, and the land surface. So climate change was a very clear thing for me. Right now we need to be aware that there’s a little bit of human-caused climate change in all of our long-term weather patterns. We are living in a different world.

Source https://nybookeditors.com/2017/08/tips-writing-travel-memoir/

Source https://www.wanderlust.co.uk/content/how-to-write-a-travel-book-in-5-easy-steps

Source https://www.outsideonline.com/culture/books-media/how-write-your-adventure-book-during-your-adventure/

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