For some reason, most people believe (falsely) that they need loads of cash, and a year long sabbatical to write a travel book.
Don’t get me wrong, having loads of cash is never a bad thing, but it just isn’t necessary.
The most expensive part of travel should be the plane ticket, which hopefully you can cover (in part) with frequent flyer miles.
Haven’t you heard about the hoards of twenty somethings with backpacks roaming Europe and South East Asia? They certainly don’t have money. Trust me, I’ve seen them. So how do they do it?
They follow a couple of very basic rules:
- Make friends. Use connections to find places to sleep and eat for free.
Making friends doesn’t come easily to everyone, but if you intend to write a compelling travel book, blog, or article, you have to do it. Without meeting people, connecting with locals, and opening yourself to new relationships, you won’t get far. As I like to say, a stranger is a friend you haven’t met, or a murderer. Be smart out there.
- Forget expectations. Don’t expect luxury. Are you trying to write or are you trying to relax? The best books are ones that involve struggles, discomfort, and stretching boundaries. Let those boundaries be yours. Live at the level of the local people, or below it.
- Don’t be a tourist. Don’t plan every minute and don’t buy things. You are a writer. The only thing you ‘need’ on your trip is a pen and paper. On second thought, bring a toothbrush, (dental hygiene is important no matter where you are). Your time should be spent interacting with locals, learning about them, traveling with them, experiencing their culture, and eating their food. Yes, even tarantulas. They’re hairy, but nutritious. Traveling to write should be unlike any trip you have ever taken. It should be lived in the moment, as a participant, not an observer.
This last point brings me to one of the most important ways to get the biggest bang for your traveling buck. Participate! If you are always observing, you may be able to write about an event in great detail. The colors, the smells, the action, but you will never be able to write about how it feels. Reflecting on what you have experienced is more powerful than a hundred pages of descriptions about the things you have not experienced – and more interesting to read. Your readers want to relate to you. They want to relate to the people in the places you describe.
Participation is also the key to collecting notes and stories from an abbreviated journey. Many travel writers spend months in the places they write about. I am one of them. I spent six months traveling through South East Asia to write my book. I loved every minute of my adventure, but I could have completed a book about a trip that lasted three weeks just as easily. Sound impossible?
Imagine yourself on a bicycle, peddling across uncharted, washed-out bike paths in Northern Cambodia. You and a close friend have packed day bags with some food, six liters of water, and an almost empty bottle of sunblock. There are no hotels, only local people living in stilt houses, who don’t speak your language. You must ride three hundred miles through the jungle to reach Siem Reap and the last time you were on a bicycle was 1987. The journey will take six days. The only way to make it, is to rely on Cambodian families by asking for help.
Does this sound crazy to you? Well, it is. That’s exactly my point. The more daring your activities (and I don’t mean unsafe), the more willing you are to put yourself in uncomfortable situations, the better your story will be. You will have no choice but to grow. Your experience will be the kind of adventure that people want to read about. Being present in every moment is like taking notes in your memory. Instead of writing everything down, you will have stored it in a unique place that can never be lost. Taking notes is something you can do before going to bed every night, as a way of reflecting, clarifying and expanding on your memories. Most of your trip will be forever imprinted in your brain – making it easy to write about. If you can’t live without notes, make them brief, easy to carry, and waterproof.
With three weeks, you can collect enough experience to complete a lively, and entertaining book or numerous blog posts and articles. Remember that research is very important. Before you depart, you should spend time learning about customs, festivals, cultural differences, and places to visit. Having context for the things you see and feel lends another dimension to your work. While you’re traveling you should spend as little time as possible doing research. Just live!
When you get home, there will be plenty of time to look up all the things you didn’t understand, and to piece the puzzle together, filling in the gaps. If the prospect of writing an entire book about a three week period seems daunting, here is a list of books to serve as inspiration. Each one takes place in a single day.
1. Ulysses by James Joyce
2. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
3. Seize the Day by Saul Bellow
4. Billiards at Half-Past Nine by Heinrich Boll
5. Hogfather by Terry Pratchett
6. The Hours by Michael Cunningham
How do you get the most from your travels? Share your advice!
The experiential travel book is much more interesting than the dry, descriptive travel guide. It’s part of why I’ve enjoyed Peter Hessler’s books so much. Might have to add some of those books to my reading list since I’ve only read Ulysses.
Thanks for the comment Matt! I completely agree – as a reader, I would much rather get to know someone as they travel than read a fact sheet about a location. If I can judge what kind of person is writing, I’m more likely to take their advice if what they’re doing sounds interesting. Character development lends another dimension to travel books.
Good input Matt. It would keep me motivated to read something like that too. It’s like you can actually imagine yourself traveling by just reading. Should add humor to spice it up more.
“You must ride three hundred miles through the jungle to reach Siem Reap and the last time you were on a bicycle was 1987.” This is exactly it. You must challenge yourself while travelling, otherwise, there is no memory to create.
About 8 years ago now, I flew to Switzerland to meet a friend of mine from back home. On one of the days we decided we would go skiing in the Alps. Neither of us had been on skis in 10 years. But after going through the rentals process, we looked at each other, knowing full well we were way out of practice. “To the top then”, “I don’t see why not”.
So on the second run of the day I skied moguls for the first time, as there was no choice, the runs at the top were all Black Diamond (and I had never skied a Black Diamond run before as they don’t exist in Manitoba). Although on second thought I wouldn’t exactly say I skied them, I made it through the mine field after about 20 minutes of successive wipeouts. Up, Down, Up again, Down again…
But By the end of the day, I was able to make it through that run without falling. A marvelous achievement. I remember so much from that one day, because the whole day was a challenge, a test of will, which resulted in many new and lasting memories.
Of course, I could barely move the next two days…
this story would make a great travel book! you could set it in cambodia too, with only one village of natives – cannibalistic citizens.
too much feeling can turn travel writing into diary entries
I think a good dose of humour and intrigue is needed in travel books, otherwise it just gets a bit boring!
Agree with @ChinaMatt on that one… :-)
I personally love to talk about the places that I have traveled to and relay interesting things that I have done as I hope from one place to another. I agree with Jennifer. Having friends when you travel makes your experience more memorable, and of course, less costly. When you have friends in the destinations you go to, you will not only save yourself extra cost from too much dining out alone but you will also have somebody to tell you where and what to do there.