In this article, we discuss how to cultivate, capture, and create a sense of place in travel writing. This is the second article in a five-part series of articles about a sense of place in travel literature.
What is a sense of place?
In the previous article, we defined a sense of place in travel writing as a description of someone’s experience someplace. It is a description of what it is like to be somewhere specific.
Just describing a location is not what we’re talking about. What we are describing, rather, is the experience someone has in some place, their interactions with it, etc.
It is perhaps an easy thing to perceive the world and write down what one sees. But capturing and creating a sense of place in travel writing is more difficult than simply writing down what one perceives as it also involves understanding.
How to cultivate a sense of place while traveling?
Travel writers must cultivate a sense of place when they travel. To cultivate a sense of place means to engage and interact with a place. After this, travel writers can capture or re-create the experience in their writing. In other words, they must experience and reflect on the world before writing about it (for some, the “writing” is the “reflection”).
What can travel writers do to cultivate a sense of place?
- Pay attention to your five senses and the “spirit of a place.”
- Don’t just perceive, but try to think, reflect, and understand.
- Talk to people and, more importantly, listen to what they have to say. Ask questions.
- Understand the role of the self (and your own biases and contexts) in the experience of a place.
- Try to unlearn stereotypes and generalizations about a place and its people.
- Stray from the tourist trail.
- Get uncomfortable and try to have experiences that normally wouldn’t interest you.
- Follow random leads and whims.
- Ditch the guidebook and drift.
- Engage with history and culture more deeply before, during, and after the trip.
- Explore the city in the early morning, before most people wake up. (The Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini said that he sought to capture a “speaking likeness” of someone, a natural and revealing depiction of someone either just before or after they spoke. So, perhaps there is a value in trying to understand a place before it “speaks,” before it wakes ups.)
How to create a sense of place in travel writing?
Being able to evoke a sense of place is important for writers of all stripes, from poets to travel journalists to fiction authors. Draw upon the experience of place that you cultivated.
Evoking a sense of place requires an understanding of a place’s external sensory information (sights, sounds, tastes, touch, etc.) and the internal information that results from an individual’s interaction with it (memories, feelings, emotions, etc.).
Travel writers should pay attention to the external phenomena of place as much as the internal experience of it.
- Meditating on the senses. What is close, nearby, and far away in terms of what you can sense or experience?
- Explaining how a place interacts with the individual. For example, if you’re visiting a desert, consider what the arid environment does to your skin and lips.
- Explaining how an individual interacts with a place. For example, what would you do when visiting a desert? Do you crouch down and let the dry desert sand roll through your fingers? Does it leave behind a layer of dust on your fingers? Do you later discover a dusty handprint on your clothes?
- Going beyond the physical. Does a place or its phenomena evoke feelings or memories? Does the desert remind you of your childhood? Does it inspire you in some way?
- Reflecting on your own background, context, and biases. How does your background, your privilege, your previous experiences, etc. impact the way you experience a place?
- Considering the experiences of others. How does someone else interact with a place?
- Remembering that you’re the one who is “exotic” when you visit a new place.
Tips for writing about place
For all writers, but especially for travel writers, observation skills are important. Paying attention to how you and others inhabit spaces and interact within them should be a skill writers work on cultivating.
Joyce Carol Oats recommends writing in a journal every day as a way to sharpen the senses, even when you’re not traveling.
Take lots of notes and flesh them out daily.
Paul Theroux says that he takes notes throughout the day. At night before bed or in the morning before setting off again, he fleshes out his notes and writes up the day’s events. This on-the-ground approach gives an immediacy and a vitality to the writing as your descriptions are freshly observed or reflected upon.
This is the second article in a five-part series of articles about a sense of place in travel literature. In part three of this five-part series, I discuss how writers can use dictation to capture a sense of place.
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Last Updated on 1 January 2021 by Travel Writing World