Kathryn Page Camp
It’s one thing to write a travel article, but what about a book?
Maybe you want to publish a memoir about your travels, a novel built around a road trip, or a history that brings a particular locale to life. Or maybe you dream of writing a travel guide so riveting that it’s read from cover to cover because readers can’t put it down.
Those are great goals, but here’s the question. How do you learn to write a travel book that makes the reader keep reading?
Study the masters.
For me, James Michener falls into this category. I read Alaska before taking an Alaskan cruise in 2008 (see the picture above) and Hawaii before vacationing there the following year. Michener uses story to bring the reader into the history and terrain of his locale. In this passage from Alaska, a pilot has just located his runaway sister and her boyfriend, who are camping by a river. But it isn’t the human drama that captures us here.
Signaling to them by dipping his wings, he made another circuit, now flying so low that he could see their faces, but at this moment his attention was distracted by a gigantic pillar of spume soaring high in the air. The ice plugs which had held the three lakes captive during the past ten months had exploded, and the long-imprisoned waters were now roaring free. LeRoy in his plane, his sister and Nate from in front of their tent, watched in awe as this titanic force broke loose, for as the waters struck the face of the glacier they carved away massive icebergs, which began their tortuous way down the tempestuous river, gouging out smaller icebergs as they ground and jostled and carved their way along. It was the most violent manifestation of nature any of the three had ever seen, and LeRoy circled over the cascading waters and the crumbling icebergs for half an hour, after which he buzzed the tent once more, dipping his wings to the lovers and their excited dog.
A number of things attract me to this description, but I will only mention two of them. The first is the use of the three Ts in the third sentence—titanic, tortuous, and tempestuous—to convey the turbulence in the scene. I also like the end of that sentence because the vivid language helps me see the icebergs as they gouge, ground, jostle, and carve their way along.
Or consider the beauty of this much shorter passage from the same book (again viewed from the air):
It was a bright day, with the sun glistening off the glaciers and the manifold little islands shining in the Pacific like drops of crystal resting on blue satin.
Simple but riveting.
Children’s authors know that secret. In this passage from By the Shores of Silver Lake, Laura Ingalls Wilder describes early morning on a lake in South Dakota.
The sun had not yet risen next morning when Laura let down the pail into the shallow well by Silver Lake. Beyond the lake’s eastern shore the pale sky was bordered with bands of crimson and gold. Their brightness stretched around the south shore and shone on the high bank that stood up from the water in the east and the north.
Night was still shadowy in the northwest, but Silver Lake lay like a sheet of silver in its setting of tall wild grasses.
Ducks quacked among the thick grasses to the southwest, where the Big Slough began. Screaming gulls flew over the lake, beating against the dawn wind. A wild goose rose from the water with a ringing call, and one after another the birds of his flock answered him as they rose and followed. The great triangle of wild geese flew with a beating of strong wings into the glory of the sunrise.
Shafts of golden light shot higher and higher in the eastern sky, until their brightness touched the water and was reflected there.
Then the sun, a golden ball, rolled over the eastern edge of the world.
The words and images are simple, yet I can see the scene. It doesn’t take flowery language to describe a locale.
Here’s another example that takes a different approach to travel writing. Life on the Mississippi is Mark Twain’s memoir based on his career as a riverboat pilot. Here are two passages describing his days as a pilot in training. In the first one, he has been taking notes all along the river so that he knows what is coming up around the bend.
When I returned to the pilothouse St. Louis was gone and I was lost. Here was a piece of river which was all down in my book, but I could make neither head nor tail of it; you understand, it was turned around. I had seen it when coming upstream, but I had never faced about to see how it looked when it was behind me. My heart broke again, for it was plain that I had got to learn this troublesome river both ways. (Emphasis in original.)
Then there was the time his trainer left him alone (so Twain thought), and this happened:
He was still below when I rounded [the next bend] and entered upon a piece of river which I had some misgivings about. I did not know that he was hiding behind a chimney to see how I would perform. I went gaily along, getting prouder and prouder, for he had never left the boat in my sole charge such a length of time before. I even got to “setting” her and letting the wheel go, entirely, while I vaingloriously turned my back and inspected the stern marks and hummed a tune, a sort of easy indifference which I had prodigiously admired in Bixby and other great pilots. Once I inspected rather long, and when I faced to the front again my heart flew into my mouth so suddenly that if I hadn’t clapped my teeth together I should have lost it. One of those frightful bluff reefs was stretching its deadly length right across our bows! My head was gone in a moment; I did not know which end I stood on; I gasped and could not get my breath; I spun the wheel down with such rapidity that it wove itself together like a spider’s web; the boat answered and turned square away from the reef, but the reef followed her! I fled, and still it followed, still it kept—right across my bows! I never looked to see where I was going, I only fled. The awful crash was imminent—why didn’t that villain come!
Several paragraphs later we discover, with Twain, that the reef wasn’t a reef at all. The darker water signified only a change in the wind.
What makes these passages work? The interplay between Twain’s folksy descriptions and his dry sense of humor.
Every writer has his or her own style, and you shouldn’t try to write like Michener or Wilder or Twain. But we can all benefit from studying the masters.
Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Her most recent book, Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal (KP/PK Publishing 2013), is a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection. Kathryn is also the author of In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion (FaithWalk Publishing 2006) and numerous articles. You can learn more about Kathryn at www.kathrynpagecamp.com.