By Stephen Bugno
Here are some practical tips to improving your travel and your writing.
Get the details
Write descriptions of the five senses. A big mistake in my past 22 years of travel journaling (I started keeping a journal on a family vacation to the Southwest U.S. when I was seven years old at my mother’s strong suggestion) was not capturing the details.
I’m the kind of writer who likes to write about my travel experiences after they have digested. I get a better sense of the magnitude of the events as they fit into my life and the trip, and the publication I’m writing for, long after they have occurred.
But three months after the fact, when I want to write about that four days in a Nicaraguan village living with Sandinistas, I need to able to look back into my journal and read the details of the chirping chicks and squealing piglets that woke me up in the morning, the pungent smell of the burning rubbish piles, and the colorful hand-painted signs hung around the community.
Get quotes down
Another thing I’m really bad at: remembering quotes. I need to take my own advice here and carry a notepad or a small tape recorder. Write those quotes down ASAP. During practically all of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Love Pray, I was asking myself, “How did she remember all these long, detailed conversations?”
Elizabeth…if you are out there… how did you remember all those quotes?
Write every day
I have a bad history of getting behind on my journal. At the end of the day running around Madrid art museums, churches, cafes and clubs, I’m either too tired or too drunk, and chances are, you are too. Whip out that journal during your morning coffee or at coffee number two, or even at coffee number three. Write during the day when you are awake, alert, and sober.
Back it up
The days of Paul Theroux mailing back photocopies of his hand-written journal from a Nairobi post office may soon be over. Although that is still an option, times are changing. I have been taking photographs of my journal pages and uploading the images onto Google Picasa. Do it regularly.
I learned this the hard way when I had to hand over my shoulder bag as I was held up at knife-point on the beach in Nicaragua. My journal was in the bag. I was not diligent staying up-to-date on backing up my journal. Following that incident I wasted a week being annoyed, frustrated, unmotivated and just plain pissed off. I didn’t pick up a pen the whole time.
If you keep an electronic journal, back your documents up online at Google Docs. Or, for a third backup, carry a USB flash drive or a portable hard drive or better yet, pay for an online storage service.
I wrote a detailed post about this over at Bohemian Traveler inspired by Susan Orlean’s suggestion at the New York Times Travel Show to do less background research and show up at your destination less prepared. She offered firsthand accounts of when she was more successful writing about a place when she had fewer preconceived notions. She thought that a place “loses its freshness” if you know too much about it.
Have a project
Tony Perrottet had another good suggestion at the Travel Show. He once traveled around Paris using a 19th century food guidebook. This could be done with any historical book, or not even a book at all. Follow your own interests, be it jazz, architecture, wine, graffiti, or ethnic minorities. Your detective work will have you running around to different places meeting lots of different people. Interesting, experience-rich travel leads to interesting writing.