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How to Write a Travel Memoir
by Aditi Bose

Return to Travel Writing · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

A travel memoir, at its best, is one in which a writer recollects not only his journey to a particular destination, but how that place changed his life. Such memoirs are stories about the writer's inner self, his soul within the context of a distant panorama. They chronicle the journey of life -- sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking. But how, exactly, do you write one?

1. Know the Reasons People Read Travel Memoirs

The Author's Experience. Readers want to know about the joys and anxieties, adventures and periods of relaxation that the author faced during his journey. That does not mean one just talks about "first I did this, then I did that," however. One also needs to write about the feelings experienced during that journey.

During my journey to Haridwar, for example, I met a man who made his livelihood by diving into the freezing waters of the Ganges to collect coins thrown by pilgrims like me who were making a wish upon the river. I included him in my memoir because I could never forget him: frail to the point of being skeletal, yet braving the ice-melted waters for his family. As I sat on the "ghat" watching him and hearing my parents talking about how picking up "wish coins" from the riverbed was unholy, all I saw was the hardships he endured to produce a few morsels of food for his wife and children. Suddenly, my sadness over not having scored very well in my board examinations seemed trivial and inconsequential!

The Place. Readers read travel memoirs either because they are set in exotic locales the readers have not visited, or because they describe a place where the reader spent his childhood or went on holiday, and would like to relive the experience. It's all the better if the memoir has stunning photographs to accompany the words. For example, consider the stunning photographs in Karen Chase's Bonjour 40: A Paris Travel Log (40 Years. 40 Days. 40 Seconds.)

The Culture. Authors can breathe life into their memoirs by vividly describing the food, festivals, and locals -- and readers love reading about it. For example, the memoir Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World, by Rita Golden Gelman, talks about how at the age of 40, after a divorce, she hit the road and spent time living among various all-but-forgotten tribes. Some Girls: My Life in a Harem, by Jillian Lauren, describes her (willing) experience in a modern day "harem" in Brunei.

2. Read Travel Memoirs Written by Others

Many travel memoirs are available on the market. Before you start writing your own, read them. Read different authors, so that you aren't subconsciously influenced by a single voice. I also found that reading fiction while writing my memoir helped keep my creative juices flowing.

Two things that you should consider while reading other memoirs are:

  • The structure and flow of the story
  • What your unique approach/selling proposition would be if you wrote on a similar topic

Some books you might consider are Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert; Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes; Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson, etc. Other authors who have written worthwhile travel memoirs include Doreen Orion, Mark Richardson, Tom Coyne, Rosemary Mahoney, Paul Theroux, and Mary Morris. Before I began my memoir, I read two Indian memoirs: India: A Million Mutinies Now, and India in Mind.

3. Begin Writing

The most difficult part of any sort of writing is to make a beginning. You might have wanted to write a travel memoir for quite awhile. Instead of forming the words and sentences in your mind, start putting them on paper. Only when you put pen to paper will those thoughts that might have seemed garbled in your head become clearer and reveal insights into what you may not have even known you were feeling.

It is natural, if you are beginner at such memoirs, that you may not even be aware of the message you want your memoir to reveal. As you keep writing and retrieving your memories and writing anecdotes as they come to mind (even if they are not chronological), you will notice that your stories begin weaving themselves automatically into a meaningful script. Only as you write will you begin to find new meanings to the various incidents you experienced -- and it is only when you realize and accept these layers of meanings that you will know why a particular journey was life-changing for you.

When I wrote a travel memoir for the first time, it was only after I had written many pages that I realized what the theme would be. Once I figured that out, putting the rest of the memoir into a smooth, flowing structure was not difficult.

4. Decide on a Message

Ideally, a travel memoir should convey a message, and ideally, this should be different from those that have been written in the past. This message might be about:

  • An aspect of personal growth
  • A heart-wrenching story that will gain reader sympathy
  • An amusing incident
  • The experience of a new culture through food, festivals, people, architecture, etc.

To bring across your message clearly, a few things should be borne in mind:

Focus. Sometimes, while writing, your mind may work faster than your pen. Thoughts might get garbled, and you may not express what you want to say correctly. One way to retain focus is to jot down your thoughts on a piece of paper and make a brief outline of what you want to say. You could jot down a few words, phrases or sentences that will remind you of the incident later when you are writing your memoir. You can also record what you want to say; often, speaking aloud opens up a writing block. This will also ensure that you don't forget any sentiment during the writing process.

Know Your Audience. Always keep in mind whom you are writing your memoir FOR. Based on your audience, you might want to use different styles of writing and expression. For example, for family, your style would be more intimate and could include more regional and local words and phrases, as well as very personal experiences, than if you were writing for a public, national, or international audience.

Seek Help. If you are unable to recall all the details of an incident, ask those who were with you during the journey. Minor details count, and you want to be as descriptive as possible -- for example, in recalling conversations, surroundings, time of day, etc.

Disconnect The Internet. While a search engine might help you find the name of the bird you discovered during your journey to the Andes, leave that for later. During your initial draft, keep writing without getting distracted by the Internet. It's a huge research tool and very helpful -- but it can distract you from expressing the main message you have in mind.

5. Let the Flow Be Smooth

A travel memoir need not be to exotic places or full of adventure to be entertaining. The key lies in how easily the author interweaves the various layers of the story that make it a bestseller.

Begin by Writing for Those You Know. So you want to tell the world how you came to understand the meaning of life as you trekked breathlessly through snow-clad mountains, or how you managed to make your marriage work after the both of you decided to go globe-trotting without baggage. But before you begin to tell the world, start writing for those who know you and are close to you. It's a simple trick to keep your writing smooth and natural.

Make It Sound Fictional. Even if your memoir is a true story, let it read like fiction. Give it tension, conflict, and a solution. Like fiction, let it be witty, conversational and engaging.

Although the memoir is your story, readers want to know more about how you untangled the knots within yourself than about the vines in the vineyard. Have the courage to look deep within yourself -- and so challenge the thoughts of those who travel with you through those pages.

Keep It Humble. While writing a travel memoir, it helps to maintain a humble tone, to be able to make fun of yourself. This will help you remain a "real person" within your own pages; readers will connect more easily than if you become preachy, arrogant, or sound like a know-it-all.

Read Aloud. Once you have written the greater part of your memoir, read it aloud. This is one of the best ways to judge its flow.

Know How Much To Reveal. Often during a journey, as you talk to people, you will come across stories that are very personal to them. Although these may have touched your emotions, and though as an author you may be willing to bare it all, remember to consider whether it would be ethically correct to reveal others' personal stories to the world, even if you change their names.

Find Your Special Hour. It is not possible to write at all hours of the day. Discover the time of day when you feel that your writing flows the most smoothly, and the distractions are fewest.

6. Factors to Include

Now that you know what message your memoir will convey and you've begun writing, it's time to consider what factors in your travel experience that you should write about.

Negative Experiences. Don't forget to include negative experiences as well as positive ones. Even if they caused you bitterness and pain, include them, because a memoir needs to be truthful.

Place. Talk about the place that you visited. However, don't restrict yourself to just describing minute details. Interweave the description of the place with your emotions. For example, a mere description of your visit to a castle in Ireland might not be that interesting -- but your thoughts while you stepped into a structure of a bygone era would make your writing more attractive.

Your Companions. Your readers will want to know if you want on that road trip alone, or if friends or family accompanied you. So tell them! And don't forget to explain why you chose that person to accompany you on this life-changing journey.

Other People. People form a very important part of a memoir. They add life to the story and personality to the journey. For example, talk about the waitress at the restaurant or the locals walking up the mountain road. It's even better if you've spoken with them, for it is usually the lifestyle and hardships of such people that form the beginning of our "changed thinking."

Mode Of Travel. Talk about how you travelled: by car, bike, train, or on foot. This always adds a new perspective to the story -- for example, how your bike collapsed in the middle of nowhere and you still had miles to cover, or how your shoes got stuck in the mud when you were trekking through swampy jungles. Describing your "once in a lifetime" limousine ride that your husband arranged to celebrate your anniversary is also worth mentioning. Such descriptions will help readers feel more connected with you as they travel on your life's journey.

7. Test the Waters

So your family and friends have read your story and applauded it. Now you want to share it with outsiders. As an amateur, however, it's best not to begin with a book. Instead, share your memoir and gather feedback in other ways:

  • On your blog. This will help you get into the habit of writing regularly and also help you become open to receiving feedback, both positive and negative. It will help you see whether your stories are resonating with an audience.

  • On travel memoir writers' groups on various social networking sites. Write small pieces for various sites that pay, such as BootsnAll, Matador Network, Travel Thru History, etc. Such feature stories, if accepted, will aid you when you finally decide to pitch a book to a publisher. They will also help you improve your writing.

  • Through memoir-writing contests on sites like Memoir Journal.

I hope these tips help you as you begin to write your own travel memoir. Don't feel scared. Just begin writing, and share your journey with the world. We all love to read about life-altering journeys!

Find Out More...

How to Keep your Memoir Writing Sharp and Vital - Dr. Allan Hunter

Copyright © 2013 Aditi Bose
This article is not available for reprint without the author's written permission.

Aditi Bose, an Economics graduate and an MBA in marketing, has over 8 years of experience in the research and talent search industry. Currently she freelances with a number of Indian and U.S. websites and specializes in articles related to parenting, food and travel. Her work has appeared on such sites as Indusladies, Rediff Getahead and BootsnAll.


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