I love drama – the more of it, the better! On the other hand, Lori, you don’t want to go completely over the top. If your story starts reading like a plot-line for a Jaws remake, there’s a danger you’ll lose credibility with your readers (and your editor).
But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with embellishing a story if it needs spicing up. And let’s not pussy-foot around here. Embellishment is just a fancy word for lying.
As a travel writer, your job isn’t simply to report the facts. The aim is also to entertain – persuade readers to want to take the adventure or visit the destination you’re describing. The trick is knowing what sounds believable…and what doesn’t.
I’m not ashamed to admit I once made up the entire ending of one travel story. I’d got a commission from a UK outdoors magazine to write about a day’s fox-shooting with my local gun club in Ireland. Trouble was, we went the whole day without bagging a single fox…and I’d promised photos too.
Thankfully Ireland is a place where tall tales can grow very long legs. The gun club connived to produce three dead foxes from a member’s deep freeze so I could get my photos. (Too long and complicated to explain here what three dead foxes were doing in a freezer.)
And though it was all downright lies, I wrapped up the article with a wonderful description about a flash of russet streaking though the field, the crack of a trusty Baikal (a type of gun), and there being one less fox to prey on county Leitrim’s new-born lambs. As the article was published, I guess the editor found it believable. And it certainly entertained the guys in the gun club.
That’s an extreme case of ‘writer acting as lying toad’. As I don’t possess much of a conscience – and I needed the money – I never felt guilty about what I’d done. But you can still use embellishments without having to feel uncomfortable. Here’s an example of what I mean:
‘Wielded by six burly priests, a gigantic incense burner called the Botafumeiro swoops over the head of the congregation. Later, on the steps of the Cathedral, I got talking to a local girl called Maria who attends Santiago’s St James’ Day Mass every year. There’s a good reason why the incense burner is so huge. Maria explained it was originally designed to disguise the smell of malodorous pilgrims who’d been traveling the roads for months.’
What’s wrong with conjuring up a character like Maria to recount the story behind the Botafumeiro? In my view, nothing. Much more interesting than telling readers that it’s something you read about during your research.
Call me a cynic if you want, but I’ve noticed lots of writers have these ‘encounters’ with locals, all eager to impart snippets of knowledge. Usually the very same snippets you’ll find in a good guidebook…
[About the Author: Born in England to Latvian and English parents, Steenie Harvey moved to Ireland in 1988 with her Scottish husband and their daughter. Though she has no formal training as a writer, Steenie discovered she had a knack for it when, on a whim, she sent an article about her search for an Irish cottage to a British newspaper… and got a check in return. That was the start of an impressive career.
An accomplished and proven freelancer today, Steenie is International Living’s roving Euro-editor and also writes about travel, folklore, and real estate for publications both at home and abroad, among them The Daily Telegraph,The Independent, The World of Hibernia, The World & I, and Spotlight.]
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]