3 Travel Writing Tips that Can Boost Your Scene Setting Skills in Any Genre

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Use travel writing techniques to write like your story’s the most important thing in the world

Are you stuck trying to recall the teen memories of your hometown, population 2,200, in your memoir? Or does your novel need a new and improved setting in a made-up extragalactic planet? No matter where your characters are hanging out, the basic tenets of travel writing can help you set a scene.

People love to read about places they’ve never visited. Even a real destination can feel like a fantasy to your audience if it’s written well. A great setting takes them out of their ordinary lives and sends their imaginations on a journey. Even if their bodies are back in Hoboken.

Still, your writing needs to stick to clear, uncomplicated details. No inflated language to oversell a spot on the map. How do you accurately describe your narrative’s sense of place?

Learning the essentials of travel writing can boost your scene setting skills in almost any genre. But first, you need to understand how good travel writing reads.

Today’s travel writing isn’t about cute clichés or overdramatizing an experience. Nobody wants you to take them to find that “hidden gem,” go “off the beaten track,” or locate the “charming village nestled in the hilltop that feels like a trip back in time.” Why? Because we’ve taken those trips 1000s of times before. And they doesn’t tell us anything about a destination. We want you to take us somewhere we’ve never been. A place only you can help us reach.

Your readers want to live through you.

The term travel journalism is more in keeping with the kind of travel writing I’m talking about. It’s honest writing about a place and its people, not a touristy advertisement trap. You write without excessive flare or embellishments. But that doesn’t mean your setting is boring. No way! If you take me to Naples in your writing and tell me about “the most beautiful place,” your vague language is lost on me. What’s your definition of the word beautiful? Is it as naturally beautiful as when I saw all the green hills of Ireland? Or the manufactured beauty of the Swarovski crystals inside Austria’s Kristallwelten?

What if you decided, instead, to describe the smells and tastes of the one pizzeria you visited in Naples? What was it like approaching the restaurant? What did you see as you walked towards the building? Did you eat outside or inside? What was the temperature? Was it noisy or quiet? What smells were coming from the kitchen? Did you have a long wait or did you breeze right in?

By now you’ve teased us with the anticipation of the food to come. When we see that pizza for the first time, when we bite into it, it’s going to be tantalizing, mouthwatering, delicious, right?

(Record scratch)

Maybe not.

What if you led us all the way up to this realistic environment, a spot we’d never been to before? The one you told us had the most charming people who cooked the best pizza in the world. You got us all the way to the big moment. You set us up for some kind of masterpiece pizza. And then…

The slice sucked!

*As the pizza pie turns*

My new soap opera coming to the Travel Channel.

Strong settings can take you in so many different directions. They are like window dressing. You are literally setting the stage for us to be invited into a place...for better and for worse. Don’t underestimate this sense of place.  

Here are three key tips to remember when exploring a new destination in your writing:

1. Stay in the Moment and Use Your 5 Senses

Unless you are being paid big money to write kitschy postcard travel articles that say “Charleston, South Carolina is Eccentric” or “Paris is for Lovers” steer clear of that clichéd writing. Clichés are overused, and they don’t tell us anything about your specific experience in a city. Your readers want to live through you. To see a new a place through your eyes, not hear hyped up hyperbole.

Stay present when you travel and absorb everything you can with your five senses.

The best way to ensure your writing is mesmerizing is to decide what has mesmerized you about a location. Don’t run around with your notebook in hand. You can keep it on you but first experience, then write. Wait until you are sitting down in a coffee shop or get back to your hotel to scribble notes. Stay present when you travel and absorb everything you can with your five senses.

What do you see? Don’t overlay images from movies or friend’s vacation photos. Instead focus on what you are seeing with your own eyes right here, right now.

I took a drawing class when I was a theatre major. I was the only non-art major, so I was terrified that I wouldn’t cut it. It made me pay attention and take the words of the professor to heart: “You can only draw what you see.” Don’t just draw the outlines of things. That’s what we first do in art, isn’t it? But to convey the image accurately we may need lots of shading. Is there a shadow there? Use a darker pencil. A highlight over here? Erase. Don’t overcomplicate by adding in extra stuff that’s not visible to the eye. You can draw pictures with your words if you learn to only capture what you see. Think verbs and nouns. Excessive adverb usage can spell trouble.

What do you hear? Sounds often take a back seat when we write, but they can set a scene. Capturing exactly what your ears pick up can help your readers get into the moment with you. Noises in the kitchen at a busy restaurant. The ambient music. A glass breaking. Silverware clinking.

I noticed noise—or lack thereof—as an element of setting in Las Vegas. My ex-husband and I used to drive up from Phoenix to see the construction on the new Hoover Dam Bypass Bridge. After several trips to the casinos, it hit me. You never hear any kitchen commotion in Vegas. Not ever. No staff storming out after a hard night. No dishes clanking. It’s perfect… and eerie. Upon investigation I learned that Vegas was orchestrated like a theme park. Many students go to school in Nevada to train in hospitality management. Kitchen issues we often overhear in Phoenix were kept undercover in the casino restaurants. This could be used as a key component in identifying place if Las Vegas was your setting.

What do you taste? This one seems easy but can be harder to describe than you’d think. We assume we know what a giant bowl of freshly made pasta will taste like when we arrive in Tuscany, but you’re not watching the Food Network at home, you’re living it. And even if you were, there’s no Taste-a-vision TV. Not yet, anyway.

Don’t describe what you expect it to taste like, tell me how the food feels in your mouth. Temperature. Texture. Doneness. Pretend you are a critic when you sit down at a restaurant by yourself (it’s great to go alone and yes, this is the place where you can jot notes).

But don’t think taste is all about food. (I know I’ve been hitting the restaurants hard this post) If you cry and your tears run down your face, you may taste those. Are they always as salty as they get portrayed in romance novels? What about that bloody nose after a bar fight? Or your lover’s neck in the heat of the moment? Smell and taste are wrapped up together, so don’t underestimate exploring both in a scene.

What do you feel? Don’t just tell me about the beauty of a place and leave out what your body is sensing. In retrospect, the climb up the hillside of Bisbee, Arizona seems like a small price to pay for the grandeur of the view. But in reality, when I arrived and had to find my hillside hotel, it was over 100° outside. I was exhausted, sweaty, hungry, and had to go to the bathroom. Even the idea of mounting one more step was a monumental effort. And just when I thought I’d arrived, I realized I’d climbed up the wrong hillside and had to start over with a brand-new climb before there’d be any respite. Yet with all those negative internal feelings, I felt invigorated as I clung onto the wobbly railing that led up to our room. Many people might never get the chance to trek up the stairs of such a unique place. Kind of like that time I took such pride in walking up each hard step of Chichen Itza—only to manage my fear of heights on the return by sliding down each step on my butt.

Don’t neglect the misery of the baking sun or a full bladder in the middle of your romantic getaway. Truth engages us. Humor connects us. These are things we don’t get from you describing a sunrise as “just stunning.”

What do you smell? Nothing catapults me back to my grandmother’s house more quickly than getting a whiff of roses and Southern fried chicken. My grandparents owned a florist shop. And my grandmother only allowed my grandfather to eat fried chicken when I would visit. Now that they’re both deceased, remembering these smells is a big deal for me. But smells are so often left out of the scenery of a place. You have the power to transport a reader just by introducing them to what you smell. Detail smell well and you can send readers hurdling through time. And that’s a good thing.

2. Your Perspective Matters

One of the biggest mistakes new writers make when describing their travels is to present a destination the same way it’s always been presented in travel magazines. Writers wrongly assume that readers only want the good stuff. The luxurious, free from imperfection stuff.

Oh please! Your readers want truth. Warts and all. 

We feel like we SHOULD love our adventures, but what if we don’t? Or what if we have mixed feelings about the place we’ve waited so long to explore? I have a love/hate relationship with nearly all my travel destinations.

I spent years looking forward to living in Savannah, Georgia only to discover there was such a huge economic and racial divide that the place wasn’t for me. I moved back to Phoenix.

Jerome, Arizona is one of my favorite places on Earth and definitely fits in with my quirky style. But every time I go there in the summer, I think about how difficult it’d be to live in such a dusty, dirty, hot place far from regular grocery stores and hospitals. And don’t get me started about my trip there in winter when I was six months pregnant and I waddled around in the ice and snow attempting not to fall down the hillside.

There was also my one-month trip of a lifetime to France and Spain. But I will never forget the machismo that permeated Madrid with the hotel staff asking me my plans each time I was on my way out for the evening. I was a single woman traveling alone. A rarity. A weirdo. All the nosy attention made my self-consciousness palpable.

Just because you have mixed feelings about the places you visit doesn’t make the travel any less valuable or intriguing. Being honest and capturing your true experiences of a place help your writing stand out from stories that sound tired, fakey, and clichéd.

3. Write like a Journalist, Not a Tourist:

All the above lends itself to you seeing your travels more like a journalist than a tourist. Investigating places that the locals suggest instead of going to the tourist traps can make the difference between a lackluster piece that’s been done before and a travel article that puts a new spin on an old spot.

Every Minnesotan I’ve spoken with would never be caught dead going to the Mall of America, but all my flight attendant colleagues would rush over whenever we’d get a Minneapolis trip. Unsatisfied, I asked about odd places to see and discovered there was a Museum of Questionable Medical Devices in Minneapolis. Ding. Ding. Ding. This is my kind of sightseeing.

A shuttle driver in Houston, Texas asked me if he could take me to the mall once on my layover. I laughed because I had set my sights on the Museum of Funeral History, instead. This museum should be on everyone’s bucket list—you will not be disappointed or depressed.

Accepting these kinds of experiences have landed me in a dream writing land with stories so unique they’re almost too good to be true. You can use this kind of travel knowledge in your memoir and novel writing, too. Don’t show us only the things we know. Reveal to us places and things we’d never expect.

Take the travel challenge and see how it affects your other writing. Don’t go into a destination (setting) with an itinerary mapped out. Ask locals (characters) for suggestions. Or go somewhere you’ve been many times before and investigate it like a first-time traveler. Now write a scene that contradicts the stereotype of that place.

How will you apply these travel writing tips to your fiction or memoir writing?

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