A Sense of Place
– thoughts on travel writing by Philippa Hawley.
I’ve just submitted my first piece of formal travel writing; an article for the online magazine, the Literary Bohemian. Doing this has made me realise that much of my writing over recent years has been travel related. Travel writing overlaps with so many genres; memoir writing, autobiography, blogging, or simply keeping a journal. It can form the basis for a short story or a novel, and in my own case I realise travel has frequently inspired my fictional attempts. My first book, ‘There’s No Sea in Salford’ came out of a desire to write about some time I spent working in Sri Lanka. ‘How They Met Themselves’, my second book, was inspired by a road trip I once made with friends in California.
Traditional travel writing commonly results in articles for magazines, newspapers or online blogs. It is usually written in the first person, present or past tense. As with all writing description is important and clichés should be avoided. A narrative thread can be helpful, maybe some quotes and references included, but perhaps most importantly any facts have to be researched and checked.
A different form of travel writing is the autobiographical book. I’m thinking of the success of “A Year in Provence’ by Peter Mayle in 1989 and also ‘A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush’, once described as the greatest travel book of all time in both the Guardian and Telegraph listings. Written by Eric Newby in 1959, this book stimulated travel ideas in many a young person in the 60s and 70s.
In a similar vein Chris Stewart, the retired drummer of Genesis, published “Driving Over Lemons’ in 1999, an account of his Andalucian adventure. Wivenhoe writer, Jan Ward’s autobiographical book, ‘Travellers Wanted…’ about her journey in 1968 from Sydney to London in a bus, was self-published in 2012 and is well worth a look.
The transition from autobiography to fiction allows the constraints of travel writing to shift. In ‘A Thousand days in Venice’, it's hard to know if Marlena de Blasi is writing true biography or fiction as she describes an unexpected romance in Venice and adds tasty snippets about food and recipes along the way.
When travel inspires pure fiction the rules change further. In a short story a sense of place often grounds a piece of writing, giving the reader a greater understanding of a plot or character by showing not telling. In longer pieces or novels, knowing where the story is set can add depth and realism to the writing. But in fiction facts can be modified to suit your story, reality and fantasy can merge and create a new place, or a new way of looking at a known environment.
Placing your novel in a different part of the world or in a specific city or town, can add interest for a reader, allowing them learn about another country through the eyes of the characters within. It can rekindle their own memories of travel or create a desire to visit and make their own journeys.
I love reading stories set in places I’ve been to. ‘The Miniaturist’ by Jess Burton reminded me of frequent trips to Amsterdam, ‘Brixton Beach’ by Roma Tearne took me back to my time in Sri Lanka, and ‘Brighton Rock’ by Graham Greene made me think of when my daughter lived in the town, albeit decades later. Other novels I’ve read have taken me across the USA, or into unknown areas of the Middle East. I’ve been transported to Sweden, Africa and New Zealand as well as enjoying more familiar European places through different eyes.
Reading can help you travel the world and as writers we can encourage our readers to do just that. So next time you write, think about place and setting and maybe add a little travel to your tale.
‘There’s No Sea in Salford’
‘How They Met Themselves’
are available at Wivenhoe Bookshop and online.