The Heart and Soul of Travel Writing

No matter how far you roam, successful travel writing, whether a single story or a book, is governed by what you carry within your soul, not what you see with your eyes when you visit a place. If you are not searching for your past, you cannot translate the beauty of white soaring columns of a Greek revival mansion in the South to mere words on paper. You cannot capture the spirit of elation embodied in the Liberty Bell. You cannot “see” what you do not have within you.

Sunrise at Long Beach, Washington. Photo by Corey Dembeck

When I consider many of the places I have written about, I realize it takes more than what exists in the here and now to make a good story. You need something else. In order to transport your readers to a night of harmony at Georgia’s Springer Opera House, you must have music in your soul.

When you visit the Space Museum in Cape Kennedy, you need to see more than metal monsters that can face the unknowns of space and the massive VAB. You need to see the men and women who have given their lives for this project. You need to remember the Apollo, the Challenger, and the Columbia missions that succeeded as well as the ones that ended in a terrible tragedy. 

The travel writer who seeks to tell of the Appalachian weaver of carver must value the beauty of handmade, one of a kind objects. When you listen to a mountain musician play at the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina, you must show your readers much more than one man with a fiddle. You need to go to the roots of his music. See the lonely mountain settlers a century or more ago. Watch them gather on the isolated cabin porches for a sorghum harvest. Listen as those illiterate but talented word weavers transposed the plaintive ballads of Ireland or Scotland to fit their new Appalachian home.

The Long Room is a library found at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.

When you walk through the Harriet Tubman Museum in Macon, you cannot just see a group of beautifully arranged exhibits. You must instead see the Black craftsman or artisan learning to create, blending the processes learned in his native land with those of a culture that was alien to him. With this piece of pottery, he brought back a part of his village. With that painting, she showed others the rich life she had before

When I was working on my travel books, Georgia’s Ghostly Getaways and Finding Florida’s Phantoms, more than ever before, I realized the importance of all that went before in shaping the scene the present-day visitor sees. Many of the old homes, like Hay House in Macon would be interesting in a way to a certain group of people. An architect would be amazed at the construction. An artist would marvel at the wonderful works of art like the white marble statue of Ruth, so special it had its own room built just to showcase it. But add to that the story of William Johnson and his young wife Annie, who called the house her fairy palace. All of Johnson’s money could not bring back their children who died or restore Annie’s health. These are the things that make it a story. Not the fact that it is a magnificent American Castle that surpassed the White House in “modern” conveniences in the 1800s.

The Memory Hill Cemetery in Milledgeville, GA, is just an interesting old burial ground until you consider the occupants. Dixie Haygood, who could lift a table with five men seated on it, is reputed to be a witch. Dixie performed before the royalty of Europe and the rich and powerful of this country. In spite of her” gift,” she spent much of her later years in the state mental hospital and died at fifty-four. She is buried there in an unmarked grave. Thomas Fish, His wife, and child died shortly after he returned home from the Civil War. It was his final defeat. He walled himself up alive inside the tomb of his dead wife. 

With these stories, the old cemetery comes alive. The Old Cherokee Capital of New Echota is just a historical re-creation until you think of the American tragedy of the Trail of Tears that wiped out one-fourth of a proud culture. 

When you look upon the printing press used to create The Phoenix, the only bilingual Native American newspaper ever, when you visualize Elias Boudinot, a Harvard educated Cherokee and its first editor, toiling late into the night to tell his people’s side of the story. When you sit in their council house and realize how similar to our own government theirs was, only then do you begin to feel the true meaning of this site.

And this is so with all of the places a travel writer visits. Until the writer recognizes the creativity of those who left their mark on this particular area, it’s just another place. It may have fancy lodgings, world-class restaurants, and tons of attractions. Still, when you put it in the perspective of its history, its culture, the talents of the people who made this place different from any other spot on earth, it’s something else entirely. That is what makes good travel writing. The creativity of those who lived and died in this place, blended with the writer’s creativity, forms a story that comes to life. That’s what breathes a heart and soul into your travel articles or books. 

An Abandoned Shell of an church found on the backroads of Eastern Oregon. Photo By Corey Dembeck.

 General Travel Journalism pointers:

1. CVB and PR reps are your best friends. Treat them well and with respect.

2. Once you get clips, keep a file to use for press trips. Unless you have a lot of money to travel, press trips are your ticket to travel writing.

3. Be adaptable and courteous. Do not ask for special favors on a press trip unless the host offers. Best to avoid politics on press trips. 

 Book pointers:

1. Unless you are doing a specific guide book for a city or region, use a central theme for the book, like “Haunted Spots in ??” or “Best Dining in ??” or one point that ties all the attractions together.

2. When you start writing, think of your subject matter as a group of stories. If you start out thinking of a 100K word book, it will feel overwhelming.

3. When you finish, go back and re-edit yourself before you submit it to a publisher. You will find mistakes. And yes, the publishing house editor will still find errors.

4. Be passionate about your subject matter. If you are aiming to make money, forget it. 

5. Be prepared to market your book no matter who publishes it. That means the web site, social media, and personal appearances.

For both book and story writing read the “Heart and Soul of Travel Writing”


Written by Kathleen Walls

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