Travel writing, with Nigel Ward – 11 December 2019

As writers, we’re told to show not tell.

But travel writing is different, said Nigel – we have to show AND tell.

That’s because we not only have to entertain with our stories, we have to give direction to our readers – they might be climbing some distant mountainside, clutching our story in their hand – and if we send them in the wrong direction, we haven’t done our job.

In his presentation, Nigel ‘told’ us a treasure trove of exercises and tips that would inspire any would-be travel writer.

But he also ‘showed’ us by sharing some exceptional travel writing. Here are a few inspiring examples he shared:

Mountains of the Moon by Alan Rowan – Nigel asked, how do you write about the 282 Munros and not repeat yourself? Rowan came up with a fabulous answer – climb when the moon is full! And the promise of the book takes it to the top of my Christmas shopping list – “Share in flaming sunsets, long, beautiful night walks by moonlight and stunning sunrises. Brace yourself for blizzards, gales and darkness.”

National Geographic Magazine: some of the best travel writing you’ll get with essays of around 2-3000 words. Nigel brought a number of issues along but you can also read full stories on their website. How about this for a teaser – “Captive tigers in the U.S. outnumber those in the wild. It’s a problem. Some are in roadside zoos. Some are pets. Many are abused.”

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin – a wonderfully atmospheric collection of writings, “In Patagonia, the isolation makes it easy to exaggerate the person you are: the drinker drinks; the devout prays; the lonely grows lonelier.”

Having done an excellent job of showing great travel writing, Nigel went into ‘telling’ mode and shared some great tips and exercises. Here’s just a selection:

● Our perspective is everything. We need to have something to say, not just describe a walk in the park
● We’re not writing advertising, we’re giving our readers the experience of being there
● You don’t travel in a vacuum, you travel in context. That means you need to write in multiple layers – giving depth and detail
● You’ve got to set the location. Involve your five senses – can you write a scene for each? Even play a game, ‘I spy with my little eye…’ Write to get your reader into where you are!
● Scribble lists – for me this was the top tip, as useful as writing ‘morning pages’. Nigel gave an example from his own scribbles from a visit to Trafalgar Square, grey smooth concrete – sounds of running water – masonry cliffs – geometric patterns – multilingual – pavement artist and so on. Once you’ve got your list, look for themes on which you can base your writing.
● Characters – the people that you see are your cast of characters. They make things happen so look for how they interact with their surroundings.

Nigel gave a wealth of detail and then came round again to his theme of ‘show and tell’.
The ‘show’ is the visual scenes you paint with your words – but don’t get carried away!
The ‘tell’ is the research and information you gather and share. It’s essential, but balance is critical – but too much detail and you’ll be boring!

Which sounds like the perfect place for me to stop this review. Members truly enjoyed the evening and I for one, can’t wait to start – and finish – my first piece of travel writing.

Many thanks, Nigel.

Ken McGaffin

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