by Jeff Soloway
Some years ago, before I published any fiction, I was an editor for Frommer’s travel guides. Mostly I spent long hours in the office wrenching into shape the prose of freelance writers, but occasionally I took on assignments of my own. My travel excursions ranged from the luxurious (a cruise through the Hawaiian islands) to the bizarre (the world premiere in Bavaria of a really terrible Broadway-style musical about Mad King Ludwig) to the rustic (a tour of rural Florida, the highlight of which was a visit to Homosassa Springs to go “Swimmin’ with the Manatees”).
Today I write a mystery series starring a travel writer detective. But my old job gave me more than just the premise of my series; it taught me universal principles of good writing.
Show your passion
The first rule of travel writing is to convey enthusiasm for your subject. No one wants to read a guide to Italy by someone who thinks pasta is tasteless, the Renaissance overrated, and Italians a bunch of gesticulating blowhards. We want to be enchanted by the subject. Travel guides are loaded with pages and pages of reviews of hotels, restaurants, and attractions. A good travel writer identifies what’s distinct and memorable about every one.
Manatees may seem like the most sluggish, dull, and dorky of all wild animals, but I’ll never forget the experience of watching a creature the size of an SUV roll over underwater so I could scratch its belly, and I hope I captured that unexpected thrill in my write-up. Everything else about the Homosassa Springs area was pretty mediocre—so I omitted the rest in my writing.
Fiction writers too should have a passion for everything in their story—every character, every plot twist, every paragraph.
If you’re writing a boring but necessary scene that exists simply to transport your character from Place A to Place B, then your writing will expose your boredom.
Skip the boring parts
If a section exists purely for technical reasons of plot, find whatever is most interesting about it, and provide a tantalizing description or add a twist that makes the passage worthwhile reading. If you don’t love your writing, no one else will.
Beware of cynicism
Travel writing attracts young, adventurous know-it-alls. Travel broadens the mind, but also hardens it. When you’ve seen everything (or think you have), you tend to get cynical about famous places. This is a shame, because, as travel editors know, the best-selling guides are to the cheesiest destinations. Travel writers are much more often assigned crowd-pleasers like Disney World and Dollywood than authentic unspoiled paradises in southeast Asia.
The first cruise I ever took was for a travel writing assignment. I never thought of myself as the type to enjoy a cruise, but I had to open my mind to do my job. It wasn’t enough for me simply to suppress my sarcasm in my write-up. I had to tear apart my preconceptions and become a person who likes cruises—and in the end, I did.
The newest novel in my “Travel Writer series” is its most ambitious. The story takes place on a cruise ship, where a billionaire, former reality-TV star very much like our current president is gathering his supporters after resigning from the presidency. Cruises, as even cruise lovers will admit, are often more ridiculous than glamorous, as are political true believers. It’s easy to make jokes at the expense of both. But at the same time, taking the trouble to understand why they love what they love makes for a better story. Satire is fine, but mixing satire with sympathy is the only way to create characters people care about.
Finally, everyone knows that good writing is concise, but in travel writing, brief, vivid descriptions are essential. The travel guides I worked on often allotted just a page or two to entire capital cities. It soon became clear to me that one striking detail was worth more than a catalog of mundane facts. I once had to describe the Witches’ Market in La Paz, Bolivia. It took me several tries. I finally realized that if I wrote that the market offered a variety of objects used in traditional rituals, including good-luck charms, candies, potions and medicinal plants, readers would be interested. But if I wrote that shoppers there could find a wide assortment of dried llama fetuses—now I had their full attention.
I keep that lesson in mind every time I sit down to write. Both travel writing and fiction take the readers to places they’ve never been. It hardly matters that the one describes the real world and the second an imaginary one. In both cases:
The writer’s goal is to pin the description to the reader’s mind with a single sharp point.
A novelist can describe every piece of furnishing in the main character’s living room, and all of it will pale beside one brief description of the wilted lily she forgot to water.
Other valuable lessons I learned in travel writing include to double-check your facts, be respectful to your copyeditor, and never, under any circumstances, not even when you’re offered a free flight to Munich, attend a German musical about Mad King Ludwig. But those are self-explanatory.
Formerly an editor and writer for Frommer’s travel guides, Jeff Soloway is now an executive editor in New York City. In 2014 he won the Robert L. Fish Memorial Award from the Mystery Writers of America. His “Travel Writer mystery series” is published by Alibi, Random House’s digital imprint for crime fiction. On May 29, he will publish the third title in the series, The Ex-President, the first novel to imagine the resignation of America’s billionaire reality-TV-star President—and his mysterious comeback.