I’ll be honest: Traveling as a writer is the coolest thing since sliced bread. It wasn’t until I started traveling with other writers that I realized just how special the experience can be. Now, I use the lessons I learned from my friends to make every trip writer-approved.
Often when people travel, they go intending to switch off. But when you travel as a writer, you’re there to experience and learn — to observe and to interact. The trips I took as an ordinary person are often harder for me to remember, because I wasn’t really there. But the trips I took as a writer? They’re imprinted in HD in my brain — and in smudged ink in my journal.
Which leads rather nicely into the first point…
1. Carry a Journal and a Camera
A writer’s not a writer without a journal (or a phone note-taking app). It’s like my professors used to say: Within 24 hours, you’ll forget 80% of what you hear. Same concept applies. If you don’t write it down, you probably won’t remember.
My favorite journal for travel note-taking is the Miquelrius Leather-Like Journal. I love the grid paper because you can sketch out sights next to your notes, and you can bend the soft cover back for extra support while you write. This journal is flexible and small enough to slip in your pocket, but durable as hell. Mine has a small scratch in it from a travel accident that would have shredded a lesser journal. Not this one! It dries out pretty well when it gets wet (don’t ask me how I know) and withstands being thrown around a backpack or an airplane.
When you’re walking around town, exploring museums, or anywhere that note-taking might be necessary, get that journal in one hand and a pen in the other. If the journal’s in your backpack, you’re not going to stop to get it out. Trust me.
If you prefer to take notes on your phone, that’s cool. I have writer friends who do that, too. But sometimes your battery dies or you don’t want to be flashing a smartphone around certain areas of town or the museum doesn’t allow any cell phone usage/sign of cell phone existence. Just sayin’.
As for a camera, you only use this to accompany your notes, not to supplement them (unless you really want an entire plaque’s worth of information and don’t have time to copy it). If you take the time to write your observations down, you’ll remember them much better. You will also know where to find the information when you need it, instead of having to rely on old image folders stuffed with 500 pictures of flowers in Maui.
2. Use Down-Time to Write
Cafe visits, trains and buses and planes, sunset-watching or pre-bed preparation — these are all great times to grab that journal and write. Catch up with the notes floating around your head.
When you’re out in public, describe everything. Look around and write the scene you see. Sure, you could just take a picture — but if you make yourself observe, process, and write, you’ll be surprised by how vivid a picture you can paint.
Watch for little moments. For me, it was the roses boys twined to their bicycle handlebars in Kabul. Or the way the bells shook the ground and echoed off far canals in Venice. Or the flower vendors tossing daffodils to passersby at the end of the day in Trier, Germany. These detailed, specific observations helped form my memory — and influenced my writing.
If you’re on a research trip or scoping out a setting you’d like to write about, branch into fiction. Put your characters in the place you’re sitting and follow them around. What does it smell like? What sounds do you hear?
Take the time to really be in the place you are.