The Art of Travel Memoir

The Art of Travel Memoir

By Wanda St. Hilaire

Years ago, my mother asked me a highly intuitive question.

“I feel there’s something you want to do and you’re not doing it. Am I right?”

“As a matter of fact, yes.”

I was a writer with a burning desire to weave my travel tales, but I wanted to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I told my mum I was afraid of people’s opinions —especially my family, about some of my wanton adventures.

“Write it. Do what you have to do. Don’t worry about what others think.”

At my premiere book signing event in the now defunct Indigo Spirit Mount Royal, a tall, handsome man walked in the door. Scanning the store, he spotted me sitting alone at the little corner table with my stack of hot-off-the-press books. With long strides, he headed directly for me. Picking up the book, he asked me to tell him about my Cuban misadventure. He cracked the book open and read the first word at a chapter break, aloud: Unbef——lievable.

“I’ll take it!”

At the next signing, a woman walked up and said nothing. She picked up the book and opened it. Gasping, she quickly closed it, and gently placed it back on the pile.

“Are there many swear words in this book?” she asked, lips pursed, a hand grasping her blouse together tightly at the neck.

“I would have to say … yes.”

She ran off, displeasure swirling behind her like a chemtrail.

Fear of disapproval, or even rejection, are powerful reasons for reluctance when writing anything memoir. If you wish to write about yourself, decide that you will not take feedback personally. We, as writers, will never please everyone.

The following are a few fundamentals for writing a captivating travel memoir:

  • Understand why you are writing the book. Journal about it. Be sure you have a story to tell that will be evocative to the reader. This will help direct the narrative.
  • What inspired the trip? What did you expect and hope for when you left?
  • Outline the chronology of events with brief details as a starting point for the writing process. Choose the highlights, so you can plot the rise and fall of the story’s arch.
  • Do you have a deep love of travel and all things foreign? Convey your passion for Earth and other cultures, countries, music, traditions, and lifestyles.
  • Show your courage. What did you overcome? How did you feel about any challenges you faced?
  • What will work best for your story: past or present tense? Because of the intensity of the story, I wrote my new travel memoir in present tense, so that my reader will feel every raw emotion alongside me as the story unfolds.
  • If the tale warrants it, use humor. We all love a good laugh.
  • Description rules. You want the reader to travel with you; describe food, vistas, location, climate, animals, and events in vivid, colorful prose. Humanize real life characters in the way a novelist would. Even mundane details can be interesting when described well, but be sure not to bore with moment-by-moment trivia.
  • Honing a keen sense of observation is critical for description. This is easier to master when traveling without the distraction of a companion. If you wish to write about your travels, spend time alone, even when traveling with others. Watch, engage, and show what you saw from your unique lens.
  • Pace the story well. Ensure the reader gets a sense of time. Stretch out the exciting parts with depth and detail. Don’t drag out the ordinary unless it’s rich. Think of the ebb and flow of a compelling a novel. Good pacing will keep the reader entertained and want to finish the book.
  • Use your own voice. We must be edited—and edited well—but don’t let another’s influence change your authentic timbre. Read the work of other writers in your genre, while maintaining your own style. Determine if you want a casual tone, an epistolary composition, or a more formal literary structure.
  • Have a ‘moral of the story’—a personal growth or learning angle, which may be your overarching theme. What insights did you gain? What did you learn about yourself? What did you takeaway from another culture? How will it change your life moving forward?
  • Don’t lie or omit key truths to make yourself look good. When a writer is not being honest or tells a partial story, readers sense it, sometimes so annoyed that they abandon the book. People want to see vulnerability. They can’t like you, or even fall in love with you, if they don’t know you in a candid light. Include messy mistakes and missteps; they make the journey worth reading about. Remember, overcoming adversity inspires.

About the Author

Her prime passion is the thrill of travel—of experiencing other cultures, traditions, lifestyles, and languages—thus expanding her perspective.
Wanda St. Hilaire has a predilection and passion for all things Latin, and she believes life is too short not to do what you love, where you love. She spends time writing in Mexico for inspiration, and to escape the frozen landscapes of Alberta.
Through writing, St. Hilaire shares what she’s learned from the high peaks of adventure and love, to the dark valleys of illness and heartbreak. Her mission is to help people overcome the self, and tap into their wise inner guidance system. Her wish is to inspire others to live true to their unique and beautiful nature.

Wanda is the author of the following books:

Fragments of French: An Unexpected Journey of the Heart
Of Love, Life, and Journeys: Companion Poetry to Fragments of French, second edition
The Cuban Chronicles
I’m So Sorry It’s Cancer: An Exceptional Guidebook for Navigating Your Way to Health and Happiness

This article appeared in the Opal Writers’ Magazine (July/August 2019 issue)

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