Travel writing that merely recounts someone’s adventure can be entertaining, but it could be flat and unfulfilling without some cultural or historical insight. In this craft article, Amar Grover shares with Travel Writing World some pointers on how to use history in travel writing.
I’m sure you’ve seen this before. Travel writer visits a wonderful destination, imbibes some pertinent history, and then for the “benefit” of readers reels off great chunks of it seemingly without filter or finesse.
Perhaps there are (too many?) inches on the page that somehow need to be filled; maybe our writer has weak personal observations or experienced little…. but whatever the editorial predicament, blocky and dry history doesn’t generally cut the mustard in travel articles.
Every destination we visit has a story if not a history and carefully chosen aspects of it can inform, entertain, or lend perspective. But how does one go about sorting the facts and sifting the trivia?
For a travel writer, the key to incorporating history is to ensure it connects with the present. Readers generally want to know more about what your destination is like now and in the near future; although not irrelevant, its past is largely of interest only in as much as it illuminates the present.
Drill down a little deeper and you’ll find two components: how much history should we include in our travel articles? and how does one go about incorporating history into them?
How much history should I include in a travel article?
The proportion of history to include is fairly straightforward. Consider your readership and the article’s overall thrust. If you’re writing about, say, an archaeological- or battlefield-themed tour, that experience pivots almost entirely around ancient or modern history – so, give it plenty of room. If you’re covering a city-break weekend away, the focus is probably tilted more in favor of food and drink, museums, and nightlife – so, it’s probably better to weave in pertinent historical details as concisely-written hors d’oeuvres.
Many travel stories – and probably the majority I’ve written – benefit from some historical perspective. Think of it like seasoning: too little is pointless, too much is overpowering. If the need to incorporate aspects of King X, the Battle of Y, or President Clueless isn’t clear and compelling, the chances are they don’t belong in the article.
Remember this is not a science and there are no hard rules; rightly or wrongly, editors can fault even experienced writers. Years ago, in a China travel piece for a top UK newspaper, I mentioned the Cultural Revolution. I had consciously opted not to explain it because a) I assumed the educated readership didn’t need it and might even feel “insulted” and b) any sensible explanation, however concise, seemed to disrupt the narrative flow. Back came my editor saying, “we need to explain this!”
How do I incorporate history into my travel article?
Incorporating historical events and episodes is not complicated. Yet doing this fluidly – making your writing engaging, seamless, and interesting – is something of an art that takes agility and experience.
The simplest peg for historical detail is an anniversary-type story; it’s a ready justification for a dose of history which readers can immediately understand. Rather than a license to sound professorial, it simply offers more scope for detail – you’re still writing a travel article. Yet the shelf-life of these kinds of articles is relatively short because they tend to come and go rather like, well, anniversaries. Neither you nor editors particularly wish to feel hemmed in by a calendar.
Humor is a more entertaining, if not winning, approach. If there’s a bizarre historical episode or extraordinary character – the ‘madder’ the better – pertaining to your destination, try to incorporate this. But it must, somehow, be relevant to and preferably still tangible in the present; random connections simply parachuted into the story rarely work.
So, for example, when writing about country houses and stately homes that tourists can visit on the island of Mallorca, it was worth dwelling on Archduke Ludwig Salvator and his former home San Morroig, now a museum. Salvator, a Habsburg royal, was eccentrically fond of Mallorca and not only constructed extensive bridle paths (which still exist) across his mountainous estate but authored a six-thousand-page encyclopedia on the Balearic Islands at a time when they were relatively unknown.
If a historical episode or character was responsible for a grand palace or fabulous monument – wonderful! Writers need to distill some nugget of detail that makes the place more memorable and distinctive. So, for example, when writing about the Maharajah of Gwalior’s 19th-century Jai Vilas Palace in India there’s an array of splendid facts and figures that affirm its size and sumptuousness. But few match the eight elephants suspended from its Royal Hall’s ceiling to test its strength in preparation for the world’s then-largest pair of chandeliers. Unless, of course, you prefer his toy train set whose carriages orbited a vast dining table delivering Scotch and cigars to certain guests while mischievously bypassing others.
Sometimes in popular imagination history can unfairly stain a destination. Take Kolkata and the infamous “Black Hole” incident – this may well be the only association readers make with the city: possibly understandable but hardly justifiable. As a writer, you can milk this bias by promptly turning it on its head, just as you might with Colombia and cartels or Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge.
In summary, then, remember that history in travel writing is not an end but a means to an end. Consider the type of piece you’re writing and your audience to determine the “how much?” Be interesting and entertaining with your “how.” And don’t inadvertently consign your travel writing career to history. Remember, you’re a travel writer.
By Amar Grover
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