Many years ago I was a travel journalist for The Guardian; one of the best assignments of my life was to travel around the world for a year and write a regular column about it. Since then I’ve written novels set all over the world, because I love travelling and I love to write about it. My most recent novel is set in Rio, and the one before that was based in Svalbard, in the Arctic. The research trips, admittedly, form part of the appeal of the whole thing.
I also teach writing, for Faber and others, and have done many sessions in secondary schools. Over the years I’ve found that a lesson focused on travel and sense of place actually results in one that develops the skills required to produce vivid, surprising writing. It doesn’t matter how exotic or not your literal location is (this can very much be done in the classroom). It’s all about seeing a place through new eyes and conveying that experience to the reader. And that is an activity that brings with it a focus on vibrant, thoughtful writing, whether the format is a newspaper commission, an original story or a piece written from personal experience.
An immersive experience
Any kind of writing is, as Stephen King says, a piece of telepathy. As a writer, you place symbols on a page, and the reader decodes them instantly in their brain. That is quite a superpower, and you might as well use it for good, transporting your reader from their normal world into an exciting new one. As a reader I love it when that happens, and as a writer, I love it when readers say it’s happened to them.
The key things to think about with travel writing are the senses. Get the students to use all of them, so they’re thinking not just about what the place looks like (you can do that from a photo), but also how it smells, what you can hear, what things feel like to touch – the whole immersive experience.
Other pointers for learners to consider:
1. Whether you’re producing a factual article or writing creatively, you need to have a storyline of sorts. A simple description is actually quite boring without any tension at all. Why are you there? What is scary? How does it make you feel? Do you want to explore, or are you looking for a way out?
2. Focus on using vivid language, and avoiding cliché. Travel writing easily fills up with words and phrases such as ‘bustling’, ‘stunning’, ‘land of contrasts’ and so on. The reader’s eye glosses over them because they’re so familiar. Find your own words to describe what it’s actually like.
3. Don’t be afraid to include dialogue. Travel pieces are brought to life by snatches of conversation, and they are an essential part of any novel. Writing dialogue is a skill in itself, and it’s interesting to include this in travel writing, because it’s not immediately obvious.
Here are some practical activities you could try, which have worked for me in workshops in secondary classrooms. The skills they develop are transferable, and reach into other areas of writing, creative and otherwise.
Write a travel article about a place from a book. It could be a world you know well – for example, Hogwarts.
How would it feel to arrive there on a journalistic assignment, to be shown around by a pupil or teacher (including dialogue), to walk through the Forbidden Forest? Write a well structured, vivid article, explaining the school to people who have no idea that it’s there. Similarly, what about stepping into the universe of The Hunger Games, or any other favourite book, and reporting back to the ‘real world’ about it?
You can also use a set text to deepen your understanding of it: e.g. write a newspaper article as a stranger arriving in Dickens’s London or on the marshes from the start of Great Expectations. What would it be like going there as a time traveller? How about travelling into London when all you’ve ever known is the countryside? How would it smell? Why? What would it feel like to be there? Put in little details that make all the difference.
Think about a place you know well, and its sounds, smells and immersive experience. For example, your home or your school. Now imagine you have landed from another planet, and write an original story, describing it as the strangest, most exotic place you can imagine. Pick out the tiny details you would normally ignore. Listen to what’s happening around you (distant music could be threatening, the smell of the school canteen could be the most enticing thing in the world, or else make you vomit, depending on what sort of alien you are, and so on).
It’s impossible to write about a place without revealing things about yourself, or the character you’re writing. The way you see something depends upon who you are. You can look at an ocean and see freedom and excitement. You could see danger. You could see it as a barrier between you and the place you long to be.
Exercise three: (this works best with older students)
This is ‘the adjective exercise’. Before the class, write single adjectives on small pieces of paper. They should all be mood words that can describe a person, so ‘happy’, ‘furious’, ‘disappointed’ ‘hungry’ and so on, and you need one per student. After talking about the things to bear in mind (using the senses, avoiding cliché, making sure there is a storyline of some sort), get them to write a piece in which the narrator is feeling ‘the word’. They are not allowed to use the word itself or any of its synonyms, but have to observe the place around them through the eyes of one who is feeling that way. You can set them a particular location (I usually use the one we are in at the time, but you might want to let them go further afield, maybe to any place within the school, or their town). When it’s done, invite them to read their pieces aloud, while the rest of the group guesses what the word was.
This is an exercise that involves everyone, and in my experiences groups always enjoy it. It also demonstrates that there is no objective way to write about a new place, but that we all bring our experiences (from our whole life so far to whether we’ve had breakfast that morning) into it. As an extra, it gives a springboard for the ‘show don’t tell’ rule of creative writing.
About the author
Emily Barr used to work as a travel journalist and now writes novels. Her latest is The Truth and Lies of Ella Black which is out in Penguin paperback.