Recently I’ve been re-reading old journals for one of my book projects. It’s exciting to remember people and events I’ve long forgotten but I wince at some of my banal turns of phrase: ‘the view was breathtaking, the landscape beautiful.’ Yuck!
Keeping a travel journal for yourself or your family—they might be incompatible—helps keep your memories alive. Looking back on my own early attempts, I wish I’d followed a few simple rules to make them more compelling.
Here are some tips. For an entire book and website dedicated to the art, look for Dave Fox’s Globejotting (thanks Graham for the link).
Write as you travel. Quick notes, short sentences are fine, just get the impressions down as immediacy generates sharper writing. I have a small pocket notebook handy and a bigger journal for longer writing at the end of the day.
Aim to write about different aspects of your trip. One day focus on people. Note facial expressions, the fabric of their clothes, distinct mannerisms. Jot down snippets of conversations—both with the Gujarati bangle seller in the bazaar and the couple arguing next to you on the train. If you don’t speak the language, listen for catchphrases to add authentic voices to your prose.
Think how to paint the countryside with words. Pay special attention to the trees or geological features. Chose different aspects of nature to bring to life.
Show don’t tell. Instead of writing ‘the view was breathtaking’—which means very little—I could have described what the view was like. Did it shimmer like a mosaic? Was the landscape sculptured by the winds?
Note down the names of key towns you pass through as it can be easy to forget on a road trip. If in doubt, look at the map, ask your guide or a fellow traveller.
Describe how places make you feel using the five senses. How you respond to your environment is a way to situate your writing. If you walk into a cave and prickles crawl down your spine, write it down.
Don’t forget facts. The date of a medieval citadel; the temperature at 9 am; how many hours it takes to reach your destination. Facts help anchor descriptions and make the writing less impressionistic.
Keep a page at the back of the journal for questions. I always have a list of ‘things to know’ and if I can’t find out at the time, I go back later and do the research.
Most of all have fun. Doodle, sketch, stick things in. Sometimes have a splurge about what’s going on internally for you. Let the pen decide what to write, bypass the rational mind and play.
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