with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Pen on the Road: Travel Writing and Photography

Looking through a ferry boat window covered with rain, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenPart of the joy of writing about travel is sharing the knowledge gained from the experience, especially if it is novel – or at least expressed in a new way.

Preparing a travel article, consider all the information you’ve gathered in your research before you even hit the road, then, as you travel, what bits of trivia, information, advice, and wisdom can you find to share with your potential audience?

Consider the stereotypical phrases used to describe a locale or activity. The cliche of “rainy Seattle” has been done. If your travels take you to Seattle, and it happens to be raining, think of a new way to describe “rainy Seattle” to your readers and make it part of your experience. Maybe instead of moaning about “of course it’s raining, it’s Seattle”, why not find justification in the luscious green trees spreading up the streets of the city and into the distant forests as a reward for the rain? They don’t call it the Emerald City for nothing.

El Captian viewed from between the jagged edges of the tree tops, photography by Brent VanFossenProfessional nature and travel photographers are constantly battling the syndrome called “Tripod Holes”. At some spectacular scenic vista, everyone who has ever seen the “first” magical images taken from that vantage point has to place their tripod in the “same holes” as those first photographers, emulating the masters. The famous Tunnel View of Yosemite’s El Capitan and Half Dome is one such Tripod Hole Spot. Writers can get caught in the same tripod holes as they struggle to describe the same places described so many times before. The challenge for both photographers and writers is to step away from the holes and find a new perspective.

Did you know the same amount of rain falls in Oklahoma as in Seattle? Yet, Seattle is much greener.

Why is there a difference? How many different ways are there to describe rain? As a native to Seattle, I know at least eleven different ways to “name” the rain. Find a native and ask them to describe the different kinds of rain to help you find the words. In fact, rain is a favorite topic in Seattle, next to Paul Allen, traffic, and sports. The topic of rain usually opens a flood of Seattle trivia and information from most locals. This will give you a new perspective on an old story, for sure.

The same applies for other “cliches” in other places. Ask a native in the Dust Bowl area of Midwest America about wind and they will give you a lecture, stuffed with ideas, helping you gain a new perspective, away from the “holes”.

Revisiting Travel Writers Guidelines

Before taking off, have you checked the writer’s guidelines for the various travel-oriented publications you might be selling your work to?

What bits of information are they looking for?

Some magazines require names, dates, facts, figures, and very specific information, while others are more into the “how did it feel” experience. Some want the action of the adventure served up deliciously, while others want a more calming, family experience, safe for everyone of all ages and fitness. While you can slant the same article towards each of these needs, how about a checklist of the most common things requested so you can keep the list up-to-date as you go?

lace edged table cloths hanging from a store front are popular in Greece, Rhodes, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenThe most common information wanted by travel-oriented publications are:

  • Best way(s) to travel to, from, and through the area
  • Best time of year to visit
  • Candid appraisals of services, companies and people you experienced
  • Customs and appropriate dress and behaviors to the area
  • Gratis – Some publications require mention if any or all of the activities and services you participated in and talk about in the article came free.
  • Historical information not found in encyclopedias or guidebooks
  • Money issues (safe to exchange anywhere, stick to cash machines, avoid street exchanges, use cash not credit or vice versa?)
  • How and when to tip
  • Money saving tips and advice
  • Places and experiences to avoid
  • Popular holidays and festivals and whether they should be a “must-see” or avoided due to the crowds (dependent upon the publication – a “get away from it all” would avoid crowds)
  • Recommendations on gifts and souvenirs that are a “must” for the traveler to buy
  • Recommendations on where to stay, eat, shop, and browse
  • Recommendations on what to take or leave at home when visiting this place (like pets)
  • Safety warnings, tips and advice specific to the area
  • Sights and experiences not found in guidebooks or popular brochures
  • What “something special” makes the sight worth a visit or detour?

Is It Better to Know Before You Go or After?

There are two schools of thought on how to prepare for a travel writing experience, or most travels.

Research Before You Go
This school of thought is similar to the Scout’s motto: Always Be Prepared. Read and study everything you can find about the location before you go. Anticipate what you will find there and know the best spots for the best adventures and experiences. Understand the local culture, maybe learn a few words in their language to make the transition easier. Study and research and arrive prepared to explore to find out if it is true and how good the truth is.
Don’t Know Before You Go
The school of thought says “don’t research and study before you go”. It is the opposite of the first one. Just GO. Experience it as if it was the first time (well, it is), and write about how it feels as a new person in this place, time, and culture. Allow the audience to follow along as you delight over each new adventure and experience. Arrive with no preconceptions and an open mind and just allow fate to lead you through your adventure.

Sure, there is also the combination of the two, which is study a little so you are basically prepared but then just take it as it all comes.

There are pros and cons to both of these schools of thought, but they are all pretty much summed up by Douglas Adams: “I always read the guidebook on the plane returning home and agonize over what I missed.”

The stone monuments of the lost city of Petra, Jordan, photograph by Brent VanFossenArriving with no expectations, the travel writer and photographer is open to new ideas. Unfortunately, with photography, lack of planning can off mean missed photo opportunities as the traveler must hunt around for them and take them as they find them.

We recommend that you do both. Research and plan and arrive with an open mind, open to the possibilities as you find them. You may plan for overcast and cloudy days, ideal for nature photography, and arrive in the middle of a drought. Or you expect dramatic scenics of St. Marks in Venice and the building is covered with scaffolding and under rennovation. This is the normal unexpected and unanticipated part of the traveler’s life.

With a variety of ideas on your plate from your research, you have backup plans and locations to explore. You “know” what you won’t miss around the area.

We teach in our nature photography programs how to study and learn about your subject as much as possible, learning how it behaves, reacts, mates, and about where it hangs out, it’s habitat. The same applies to any where you travel. Where do people go? Are there regularly scheduled activities? Are there habits and rituals they perform repeatedly? Living in Israel, it is common to see people touch the mezzuzah outside of their homes and offices before the enter and after they leave. It is part of their daily ritual. Clothing styles, ritual behaviors, building styles, all the various aspects of the behaviors, customs, traditions, and habitat of the area can be explored – if you know what to look for.

So plan, plan, plan, and then stay open to all that you find.

One Comment

  • Jorge
    Posted July 17, 2006 at 13:59 | Permalink

    Thanks for a great website! Good and timely articles with a personal touch.

    Love it!


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