Having been to Utrecht 19 times in 14 years and written about it in press, I feel that I can write about it with some authority.
I know what I am writing about and I know how to make it useful to people who may seek to go there.
But what about the travel writer who might be going to Utrecht (or any destination) for the first time? What can s/he do to learn as much as possible in that first trip (when they likely won’t have time to see and do everything), so that they can write about it with authority?
Invest time in planning beforehand
For every trip I have ever made, I have devised a travelogue; a blank A5 notepad to which I add prospective travel plans about places to see, maps, ideas for places to eat and drink and local cuisine to try; and the more practical travel dates, hotel and flight details. I would cram my travelogues with information from several books and maps into one easy-to-carry resource, which I can keep in my camera pouch.
I would search for different sources of information about the destination I would be going to. In the past I sourced travel guide books, but that has (of course) long since been overtaken by web-based information, although I still buy books about destinations. There is so much information available about places to travel to – in print and on the web. Some information is more reliable and informative, and some less so. But there is a helluva lot of it out there.
Say for example you want to go to Rome on a long weekend city break, (I use this as an example because I am fond of doing city breaks).
There are literally hundreds of tourist guides on Rome and Italy. In addition to that there are many more travel writing books; e.g. the stories of great and good writers who have traveled the world, written about it and entertained us with their escapades. Bill Bryson is but one of many people who have shared their tales of the Eternal City.
And that does not even take into consideration information (reliable or not) on the Internet. For example, someone who has never been to Rome will have to trust a guidebook when it says that the Vatican is opposite Pantheon. They’re not. They are on opposite banks of the Tiber River. This highlights why travel information needs to be trustworthy.
There are various ways that we can trust the information. Usually we can trust information from a reputable source – think one of those big name publishers. For information in magazines or on the web I have made an assessment based on layout and design, as much as the actual content. I will compare the information I have found in a book with that from another source, e.g. a website; which could be considered a form of cross-referencing.
I summarize the information that I have found, using maps where applicable. For example, rather than writing long directions for how to get from place one to place two, I capture this more practically with a map, which also shows the addresses of all places to visit. So before I have left the comfort of my arm-chair, I am already well on my way to becoming an authority on my destination.
Keep a real-time journal
On my travels I would flip over the booklet and it becomes a place in which I would document my travels in real time. This is a simple and yet effective way to keep a written record of my thoughts and feelings about what I saw; something a photograph could never capture.
Some might say I biased my travels by investing so heavily in the information that I had read. Others might say I was stripping myself of the element of surprise. I like to say I was becoming theoretically knowledgeable of a new place to then confirm that knowledge (or not) with the experience of my travels.
That is why I recommend that if you want to write with authority about a place you have been to for the first time, you need to become an authority before leaving home.