Writing about places you’ve traveled in the past can be tricky.
The further back in time you go, the harder it can get to make descriptions work. Places change – think of the fall of communism. What visitors experienced in Poland 12 years ago bears little resemblance to a visitor’s experience today. The monuments may be the same but it’s the subtleties that lend the most color to travel writing.
Much also depends on the destination and the type of article you intend to write. Writing about ‘Rome’s 10 Must-See Art Treasures’ is far easier than trying to capture the essence of life on Rome’s streets today when you haven’t been back in years.
If you’re going to try writing about past treks, you should keep these things in mind…
1. It’s vital to keep abreast of what’s happening – and has been happening – in the destination you plan to write about.
Say you visited Cornwall in south-west England a couple of years ago. You can still picture those quaint fishing villages and smugglers’ coves…taste the cream teas and Cornish pasties…capture the romance of what it felt like exploring the ruins of Tintagel. Cornwall can’t have changed that much — neither can Boscastle, that cute village with the riverside craft shops where you stayed.
I’m sorry, but you cannot send your readers there. A few weeks ago, Boscastle was completely devastated by the worst floods in Cornwall for centuries. Half the village homes were swept away.
Or take Ireland. Almost every travel writer mentions traditional music in smoky pubs. But despite your past experiences, describing the Emerald Isle’s drinking dens as ‘fug-filled’ would be a huge mistake.
Last March, Ireland introduced a smoking ban in public places – pubs included. Let your readers taste the Guinness, hear the wild cadence of a fiddle – but don’t tell them they’ll choke. Instead, you’ll have to show them the poor bedraggled smokers puffing in the rain.
2. Writing about somewhere you haven’t visited for years demands tremendous care. Lots of research. Lots of fact-checking.
Has that gorgeous Spanish fishing village now burgeoned into some revoltingly tacky resort? Check the local web site. And look at news sites to help your article seem more timely – and also to avoid making silly mistakes.
Even if you took notes at the time, chances are many of them are now useless. Your credibility with an editor will plummet to zero if you make amateurish errors like this:
‘The specialty in Trattoria Luigi is seafood risotto. Studded with clams, cuttlefish and sea urchins, for 7,000 lire it’s the best value risotto in Genoa.’
Even without accounting for inflation, that price is ludicrous. Italy now uses the Euro – and has done for almost four years.
As food often gets mentioned in travel articles, you may be wondering how to get around pricing questions. I’d say that unless you’re prepared to make lots of phone calls, the best idea is use the Internet to find restaurants with web sites. This won’t work for every country – I can’t imagine how you’d tackle it for some village in Laos – but many restaurants (particularly in cities) have online menus that include prices.
In Croatia, for example, Zagreb’s tourism and convention web site has a link to dining-out recommendations in the capital. It includes a huge list of restaurants, many with their own web sites. If you were in Zagreb a while ago, you could make use of the site and then write something like this:
“In Zagreb, the emphasis is more on meat dishes than seafood. On Cucerska Cesta Street, Vepar Restaurant is noted for wild game – try srneci medaljoni sa visnjama (venison medallions with cherries). Excellent value at 52 kuna ($8.84).”
Who knows whether the food is outstanding, but you’ll sound authoritative. And you’re not telling lies. You’re only suggesting readers try it – and venison for less than $9 seems like a great value by any standards.
3. Probably the biggest pitfall about writing this kind of article is falling in love with your own out-dated memories – and then using them. Like so:
A meeting place for east and west, Istanbul’s Kempinski Hotel swirls with intrigue. Rumor has it that KGB agents from Moscow regularly conduct their business behind the potted palms…
KGB agents? An editor will know this nonsense comes straight from the annals – or think you’ve been gorging too many ancient spy stories.
To figure if resurrecting past travels would work for me, I dug out an article I wrote about winter travel in the Scottish Highlands. Written in 1991, it was for a U.K. magazine called Best. It’s not brilliant – I’d only been writing for two years – but the editor thought it good enough to publish.
DISCOVER THE DELIGHTS OF THE SNOWY SPEY VALLEY
From January through to late April, the Spey Valley’s spectacular mountain backdrop is transformed into a frozen tableau. This Scottish retreat is a mecca for winter sports enthusiasts, but you will also find plenty of cleared paths for hiking and miles of snowcapped scenery.
Any one of the hospitable villages along the 30-mile stretch of river between Newtonmore and Grantown-on-Spey is worth a visit. Arranged around the Cairngorm Mountains like a necklace, the villages of Kingussie, Aviemore and Carrbridge offer a wide choice of activities and entertainment. Castles, museums and even whisky distilleries are open to visitors…
It needs a fair bit of polishing. But my initial reaction was that I could probably sell this same piece to a U.S. publication without doing too much work.
At first glance, all that’s needed to update the article is to do something with the Accommodation Fact Box. I don’t know if the guest-houses are still in business – or what they charge. But that’s easily solved by finding some Spey Valley B&Bs on the Scottish Tourist Board’s web site.
Much of the article is timeless. Frost spangling on rooftops…icicles dangling from eaves…winter in the Scottish Highlands is ALWAYS cold. And although giving lots of detail helps color any piece, you don’t have to include every last dollar and cent. For example, I didn’t think it necessary to give souvenir prices in the original article:
Further up river is Grantown-on-Spey. Queen Victoria stayed at the Grant Arms during her tour of the Highlands in 1860 and described the town as ”very amusing and never to be forgotten”. Windows display elegantly carved duck’s head walking sticks, Highland swords and daggers, pottery-ware, and – yes – yards of tartan. Look out for jewelry studded with the local semi-precious stone – smoky-brown Cairngorm quartz.
I tell readers they can see floodlit curling matches in Aviemore, walk the ruins of Ruthven Barracks, captured by the Jacobites for Bonnie Prince Charlie. So far, so good. But then I hit problems:
At Garva Bridge, the infant Spey is barely wider than a banner. This was once a halting place for the great cattle droves and you’ll still see the shaggy, toffee-coloured beasts roaming the hillsides. But to really delve into the past, head for Kingussie. Pronounced King-YEW-see, this village of small granite houses is home to the Highland Folk Museum.
The HFM now has its own web site. Since my visit, the museum has split into two. The original is still in Kingussie but a new Folk-Park was recently built in Newtownmore – and that’s where all the outdoor exhibits have gone.
For a winter travel article, my descriptions of primitive Black-Houses and Clack Mills are useless: opening times show the Folk-Park now closes between November and April. Glad I checked – the last thing any of us want are letters from readers raging about wasted journeys. Yet there’s enough in the article to convince me that with a lot of care, it’s possible to bring past travels back to life.
4. One final point. An article shouldn’t read like some ‘Last Days of the Raj’ memoir. The easiest way to avoid making your writing sound outdated is by using the present tense where possible. And don’t emphasize what you did – tell the reader what’s in it for them.
If there’s only a single frame left in your camera, save it for a picture of the Spey Valley’s most photographed beauty spot – the slender span of a packhorse bridge at Carrbridge. Built in 1717 at a cost of £100, it’s straight from an old-fashioned snowy Christmas card.
Few readers would guess this wrap-up paragraph was written in 1991, not 2004.
[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.]