Gordon Cope was previously featured on Reading Recommendations and offered to write this new 3-part series about writing travel memoirs.
How to Write Travel Memoirs
I recently attended the San Miguel de Allende Writer’s Conference, held each February. In addition to fantastic speakers (Alice Walker, Gloria Steinem and Scott Turow this year), the conference runs over 50 seminars on everything from ePublishing to poetry. When an instructor asks for a raise-of-hands to show who is working on what genre, the memoir always wins.
The memoir genre is not held in high regard; I once heard it described as the bastard son of non-fiction. But for aspiring writers, it is an enjoyable, accessible vehicle; the travel memoir, especially, inspires nascent authors to grasp their digital mice and let their imaginations flow.
Having read many travel memoirs (and written three), I recently sat down and pondered exactly what makes a travel memoir a success, which I measure by the ability of the author to include me as a companion in their exploration of fascinating and exotic lands.
As part of the Tenth Anniversary of the publishing of A Paris Moment, I offer some tips and advice on how to write a travel memoir.
WHAT KIND OF TRAVEL MEMOIR SHOULD YOU WRITE?
If you do a web search of the ‘top ten travel memoirs’, you will find an immense gamut of books that have been catalogued by sales, polls, critical reviews and columnist choices. Here are some of my favourites, in no particular order.
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Gilbert goes on a year-long tour of Italy, India and Indonesia in her search for the meaning of life.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Strayed creates a candid and funny autobiography wrapped in her solo mountain hike.
Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
Bryson has written a score of travel memoirs, mostly based on geography; Notes covers his journey through the UK.
Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes
Mayes purchases and renovates an ancient home in Tuscany.
My Life in France by Julia Child
Child describes how she became a chef in Paris.
McCarthy’s Bar by Pete McCarthy
An hilarious account of a British writer’s search for his ancestral roots in Ireland.
A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle
Mayle and his wife purchase a dilapidated home in rural Provence and spend a year renovating it.
I recommend that, while writing, you seek out and read several travel memoirs; not only do they serve as inspiration for your own efforts, they will also offer insights into how you will eventually structure your own tome.
TRAVEL WRITING VS TRAVEL MEMOIRS
If you were simply writing a travel book, you would generally concentrate on describing museums, restaurants, historical buildings and other tourism-related activities and destinations.
A travel memoir, on the other hand, has the added dimension of your unique interpretation of what you are seeing and experiencing – your inner space. By doing so, you move beyond the superficial facts and evoke a much greater experience for the reader; they join you as a companion and journey along.
How do you incorporate your inner space? Describing your emotional reactions to entering Notre Dame, say, or memories evoked by the smell of lilies in the flower market near the Hotel Dieu hospital on Ile de la Cité, add a personal touch.
But most of your inner space is revealed through personal revelations that pertain to your memoir subject. When the opportunity to spend a year in Paris arose, one of my chief concerns was my woeful lack of facility with the French language. Here is an excerpt from the first chapter of A Paris Moment, when we are contemplating moving to Paris:
I grew up in a town where children were arbitrarily punished with compulsory French lessons. Madame Trussler was a hatchet-faced woman who would order us to conjugate verbs for a half-hour every morning until she could stand it no more, and would harangue us in a salty French that we were never able to locate in our primers.
After two years of sufferance, I was released from Madame Trussler’s ministrations and fled to senior high school where, through the kind of luck experienced by passengers on the Titanic, I was assigned to her husband, Monsieur Trussler. Although he struggled manfully to pound the niceties of French into my thick skull, the highlight of five years of lessons was my ability to order a peanut-butter and banana sandwich.
Not that I was afraid of going to a country where I did not comprehend the language – I once spent a year in Australia — but there are strict laws in France against abusing the language. My version of French went way past abuse, more in the area of aggravated assault. I envisioned the language police pulling me over to the curb and forcing me to speak into a voice analyzer to confirm that I was well over the limit of tolerance. I would then be cuffed and hauled before a magistrate who would sentence me to four years with Madame Trussler. Would I risk going to Paris for that?
CHOOSING A VEHICLE
The obvious, and clearly favourite, vehicle for a travel memoir is a journey, preferably extended, in which the author covers considerable ground. This has several advantages; it delineates the book into the start of a journey, the middle, and the end, and it also gives the opportunity to record a large amount of description.
But a travel memoir can also take place in one location, such as A Year in Provence. The advantage with one location is that the author can incorporate local neighbours and acquaintances as characters in the narrative. If the author is in one place for at least a year, then they can record seasonal variations, annual events and other occasions that make up the fabric of a community. I personally prefer this type of memoir, as it offers the opportunity to explore a much wider palette of experiences, and creates a rich, colorful texture for the reader.
In some cases, a travel memoir doesn’t really have to be about travel at all. It can be a journey through an experience; such as an illness, an educational session or a spiritual awakening. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love takes place in Italy, India and Bali, but the exotic locations are really a subtext to her journey toward self-respect and enlightenment.
The advantage of a travel memoir over a novel or a screenplay is that you do not have to invent characters, plot or physical locations. The bulk of your manuscript can be observations on many different topics; food, local cultural events, personally embarrassing moments, interaction with local citizens, tourist destinations, flora, fauna, descriptions of weather, regional social quirks, and artistic expression (theatre, music, etc.). Each observation can be written in the form of an anecdote. Here is a description of a restaurant in Paris, taken from A Paris Moment:
Exploring for a new place to eat in Paris is a joy; shall it be mouth-watering lamb roasted in rosemary, or perhaps duck in orange liqueur sauce? Who cares? Just walk into the nearest brasserie and order the special of the day and a bottle of the house red and prepare to be amazed.
We no sooner round the corner onto rue Vieille du Temple when we spot Restaurant Robert & Louise amid the swirling mist. I had passed along this stretch of road countless times but had never made much note of its presence. A tiny signboard decorated with leaping flames of fire juts out from a thicket of ivy over the doorway. The windows, covered with red and white checked curtains, obscure the business within. The menu in the window is short on details. A notice forewarns “no credit cards are accepted.” The only indication that the restaurant is open for business is the tiny square of white cardboard, labeled fermé, which has been turned to its blank side. I can hardly imagine a more cavalier attitude to self-promotion in all of Paris. We immediately decide to give it a try.
We are met at the door by the head waitress who shakes her head gravely when we reveal we have no dinner reservations. She escorts us to a table for two, a tiny, semi-circular affair designed for circus performers. We squeeze past the adjacent patrons and make ourselves as comfortable as is possible in the Spartan cane chairs.
I look around the room and conclude that only the French can make decrepitude so charming. The oak beams holding up the roof are in such parlous condition that even the woodworms have decamped; the furniture appears to have been hewn from logs by unemployed catapult builders.
The proprietors are similarly antique. Robert, with a shock of white hair and stooped shoulders, holds court at a dining table at the back of the restaurant near a roaring fireplace. A large, raw rib roast rests upon the table along with a cutting board and knife. When a patron orders an entrecote, Robert cuts the requisite amount then hands it to the chef, who salts and peppers the meat before placing it in the cheminée, a flat, iron griddle in the fireplace.
Louise shuffles around the restaurant in her house slippers placing wooden plates and razor sharp cutlery on the tables. When she comes to take our order, she explains that they have run the restaurant for the last 40 years in the manner of the original establishment, built shortly after 1650. The only significant changes over the interceding centuries appeared to be a large fridge and the table fork.
We choose the tantalizingly-labeled entrecote for three. I also request an assortment of escargots and veal head, but Louise ignores my entreaties for appetizers. “The entrecote will be sufficient,” she explains, and promptly commands Robert to open a Brouilly for our table.
Gladly abandoning his butchery duties, Robert advances to the bar at the front of the restaurant and pours himself a restorative glass of red wine before engaging in the laborious task. He relishes his duties, carefully removing the lead wrapper then examining the top of the cork for signs of ignoble mold, before extracting the cork with a spindly screw.
The entrecote arrives shortly thereafter, accompanied by a salad, a large plate of pan-fried potatoes and a small black Poodle named Isaiah, who positions himself strategically below the roast beef. Unfortunately for Isaiah, the meat has been seared to perfection on the outside while still retaining a pink, tender juiciness on the inside, and we selfishly reduce the roast to its component rib.
After the main course, Louise returns to ask us if we would like a cheese plate or a dessert plate.
“What is in the cheese plate?” I ask.
Louise ponders for a moment. “Cheese.”
“And the dessert plate?”
“Why, dessert, of course.”
Thus clarified, we order the cheese plate which, as promised, contains cheese, in this case slices of Brie, Camembert and a delicious moldy something in the fashion of Gorgonzola. By the end of the meal, we are too full to even find room for coffee. Amid hearty praise for the meal, we pay the bill and make our way back out into the swirling mists, glad for the umpteenth time that we are living in the greatest culinary city in the world.
In order to create enough content for a travel memoir, you will need approximately 100 anecdotes ranging from 500-1000 words. Writing one anecdote a day would take slightly over three months, but you are unlikely to have an experience, research it and write an anecdote every 24 hours. It took me approximately one year to generate 100 anecdotes for A Paris Moment.
A NOTE ON REAL LIFE VS REALITY
There is a spectrum in a travel memoir that stretches from the absolute truth to absolute fiction. You can actually visit the geographical locations in Bill Bryson’s books, and, with a little work, find the people he meets. In the early 1960s, John Steinbeck set out on a solo journey around the US in a camper van with his dog. Travels with Charley was published as a travel memoir, and achieved great acclaim. Later, journalists following in his footsteps concluded that much of the book was fiction (not a great shock, considering he was, first and foremost, an novelist). When the 50th anniversary edition was published in 2012, his biographer, Jay Parina, noted the following in the introduction:
“It would be a mistake to take this travelogue too literally, as Steinbeck was at heart a novelist, and he added countless touches – changing the sequence of events, elaborating on scenes, inventing dialogue – that one associates more with fiction than nonfiction.
“It should be kept in mind, when reading this travelogue, that Steinbeck took liberties with the facts, inventing freely when it served his purposes, using everything in the arsenal of the novelist to make this book a readable, vivid narrative. The book remains ‘true’ in the way all good novels or narratives are true. That is, it provides an aesthetic vision of America at a certain time. The evocation of its people and places stay forever in the mind, and Steinbeck’s understanding of his country at this tipping point in its history was nothing short of extraordinary. It reflects his decades of observation and the years spent in honing his craft.”
For your travel memoir, I recommend you record the sights, smells, images, sounds, social and cultural interactions and tactical sensations of each geographical location you encounter as accurately as you can. Your impressions of all these sensations, on the other hand, is your own personal journey and you can explore whatever interpretation that grabs your fancy.
In Part 2, we will explore how to structure a travel memoir.
Gordon Cope was also a guest blogger of a 3-part series about the San Miguel Writers’ Conference. Here’s Part One. As well, he also contributed a 3-part series on the Femmes Fatales of Paris. Here’s Part One of that.