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.
CHOOSING A STRUCTURE
WHERE TO START, WHERE TO FINISH
Like all journeys, the travel memoir has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. This sounds obvious, but most manuscripts that get mired down and never finished suffer from this basic lack of structure.
Clearly, an actual physical excursion, like a cruise to Alaska, has a point of embarkation, a voyage to geographical destinations, and an eventual return to port. Simple. But a journey of spiritual discovery, say to an Ashram, doesn’t begin with the narrator getting on a plane to India, it begins when the narrator realizes that there is a need for a spiritual awakening, either through an actual event or the reckoning that something is missing from the moral compass. And the memoir doesn’t end with the return to normal life, but rather when the instigating event is internally resolved.
By sorting out your beginning, middle and end prior to writing, you make your journey clear enough in your own mind that communicating it to the reader becomes far easier, and thus easier to finish the manuscript.
Just like every animal needs a skeleton to hang its flesh upon, every memoir needs a structure to give continuity to your observations. You don’t have to be an English major to understand how a book is constructed however; all you need to do is devote a little time to analyse what is sitting right under your nose.
A Paris Moment arose from observations I had been making while living in Paris. While my wife Linda worked, I would spend my days out in the streets of Paris, shopping, visiting tourist sites and interacting with my neighbours and the general population. I would then write emails to friends, describing my experiences. My friends insisted that I should string them together into a full manuscript.
When I decided to write A Paris Moment, I conducted this exercise on Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. I purchased a used paperback edition and pencilled in my observations right into the text. Here is what I discovered:
• The book is divided into 12 chapters, starting in January and running through to December. Each chapter is around 5000 words long, leading to a total length of approximately 60,000 words.
• Each chapter is broken down into a dozen anecdotes. They include the following topics; food, local cultural event, personally embarrassing moment, interaction with local citizens, tourist destination, flora, fauna, description of weather, regional quirks social quirks, artistic expression (theatre, music, etc.), and wine.
FORMING A CHAPTER OUT OF ANECDOTES
Reading a book that was simply an anthology of anecdotes would be quite boring, however. Mayle used several techniques to create continuity, flow and a sense of narrative. The first was the simple procedure of chronological progression; each chapter is a month sequentially presented, in order. This allowed him to sort his anecdotes based on seasonality; the emergence in spring of the first wild flowers, summer fetes, fall hunting season and winter storms.
The flow of one anecdote to another is guided by a sophisticated use of bridging. It can be relatively simple; if Anecdote A describes a sudden blizzard, Anecdote B can be introduced as “When I emerged from our home the following day, half the snow had already melted, forming rivulets of water that cheerfully uprooted carrots from my garden.”
You can juxtapose two diametrically opposite anecdotes (an encounter with a surly French waiter, then a very helpful neighbour), have the narrator walk from point A to point B, describe visual or auditory impressions that allow the narrator to segue from one topic to the next, etc.
Here is an anecdote bridge from A Paris Moment. It takes place shortly after the 9/11 attack in New York. I bridge between the French response to the terrorist attack, and buying coffee.
By the beginning of October, the cylindrical metal garbage cans that dot every corner of the city have been replaced by translucent green plastic bags with Vigipirate! scrawled across the front, no doubt to encourage mad bombers into safely discarding any unwanted explosives. Paratroopers in black berets and semi-automatic rifles lounge stylishly in the Metro stations. A portable canteen on rue des Rosiers has been set up to serve boeuf bourguignon to the platoons of federal police that patrol the Jewish quarter. Parisians, it seems, have already adapted to the terrorist threat. I take my shopping cart and try to do the same.
As I cross rue des Archives in search of fresh courgettes, the smell of fresh ground coffee grips me firmly by the nose. I jerk to a stop and peer through a window at a huge pile of burlap bags from Brazil and surmise that this is the source of the olfactory adhesive. I enter. The tiny shop is dominated by an immense, stainless-steel coffee roaster. A very tall man with wisps of hair emanating randomly from his scalp is bent over the roaster, stirring the beans with rapt attention.
I stand for several moments being comprehensively ignored. Finally, I cough. The coffee man rotates his head around like an owl and stares at me. “What do you want?”
Like a good Canadian, I stifle a wisecrack and stick to the script. “I’d like to buy some coffee, please.”
“What kind of machine do you have?”
“A flat-bottomed drip filter.”
The coffee man shrugs as though my machine isn’t fit to strain pigeon droppings, but he momentarily abandons his ministrations to lift down a package of beans marked Spécial Fort and grind them to specification. “Anything else?”
Linda and I both enjoy the thick, heady taste of espresso in the morning, so I pick up a pack sitting on the counter. “I’d like some of this espresso.”
“Do you own an espresso machine?”
“No, I’ll just run it through my drip machine.”
The coffee man reaches over the counter and snatches the bag out of my hand. “Espresso is for espresso machines.” He sticks the bag out of sight and reach.
You don’t argue with a man who keeps a hot roaster behind the till. I take my Spécial Fort home and brew it up and find it to be surprisingly good. I can’t help but imagine how nice the espresso would taste, however. I return the next week, again asking for some espresso.
The coffee man shakes his head. “You said you don’t own an espresso machine.”
I fall back on my innate knack for improvisation. “Um, I just bought one.”
“Oh?” The coffee man arches one eyebrow. “What kind — the Ducati 750 with dual injectors?”
“Yes, that’s the one.”
The coffee man smiles in triumph. “And how do you brew coffee with a motorcycle, Monsieur?”
Finally, Mayle has local characters, including the local plumber, a grouchy neighbour, a friendly restauranteur and a local official, who periodically interact with the narrator in order to give a story-like flow to the book. This particular technique is best achieved when your travel memoir is set in one place over an extended period of time, but other devices can also be used, such as a pet or acquaintance traveling along or, in the case of Tom Hanks stranded alone in the film Cast Away, a volleyball named Wilson.
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.