Travel Writing Strategies: Part Three – What’s the Conflict?

We’re on a travel writing roll this month. The summer sun is making a comeback and it’s bringing along the itch to travel. While I don’t have a big plan (yet), I am looking forward to the next big adventure. And when I drag out my world map… ok, so I have a wall-sized one and it’s permanently on display. Like I was saying, when I’m gazing at the map, plotting a world tour, not once in my wanderlust-filled delirium have I envisioned the above train wreck.

Travel writing strategies include one of the biggest concepts in all writing: conflict. A lot of times, conflict gets a bum rap. It’s like, yeah, I know, there should be problems, obstacles, fractures, a pick-your-word for upset – but what exactly does that look like? Sometimes it feels like an amorphous idea when you’re dreaming up travel adventures and far flung escapades. It’s the last thing anyone wants to think about. The best advice I’ve ever gotten regarding conflict came from my thesis adviser. If you know what your character wants, you know what can come between her and getting what she wants. You can place many obstacles (conflicts) in her path. With travel writing, you’re the character and the crazy travel environment will insert lots of obstacles to getting what you want.

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So… What Do You Want?

Why is this important? Because the main difference between a travel journal and travel writing is that the travel writer has gone to a specific location with a specific quest in mind. Which means you want something. Otherwise, what’s the point? Not to be harsh, but if you want to write a memorable piece, there has to be a point to it. The last thing you want to write is a “that’s nice but who cares?” essay. Once you have figured out your quest, understand that shit will go wrong. Things will come between you and what you want to do. I’d love to tell you this isn’t the case, but think of it like this – these delays and obstructions are gifts to your writing.

There are as many reasons to travel as there are people who travel, so don’t think that you have to climb Mt. Everest in order to have worthy quest. Contraire! Your quest could simply be to relax on a family trip and actually unplug for a few days. That can be harder than it sounds when your tablet beckons and you can nearly feel the hum of wifi in the air. You may want to track down a specific artifact, ruins, dig site, temple, or the origins of veal parmigiana (Hint: Campania, Sicily, and Parma have all made claims, so you’ll have to eat a LOT of it. Bummer.). Maybe you’re after the perfect sunset photograph, or to learn how to make a Sacher Torte in Vienna, or to charge a horse across the Steppes Attila the Hun style. Whatever you want to do, there will be obstacles, and obstacles make for interesting writing.

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What Did You Expect?

Well, of course you expected to find/do/eat what you set out to find/do/eat, right? Right! But how did you expect the nomadic traders along the Silk Road to interact with you before you jetted off to Kazakhstan to meet up with them? What did you expect the pace of Nairobi to feel like during your ten day adventure? The difference between our daydreams, and incessant Google image searches about a place, is the reality of that world and how it conflicts with our own cultural ideals, values, understanding, and comfort zones. Including our tolerance for weather, spicy food, and local germs. Most of the time, these differences are awesome and they open our minds to a another way of being in the world. And sometimes… well, sometimes they’re not quite as awesome. Both experiences give you adequate conflict for your travel essay because you know what you wanted before you left for your destination.

Then, there is that rare time when our expectations are met, and it can be equally surprising when that happens. This doesn’t mean you’ve lost the conflict that can make for a great story. One of the hallmarks of traveling, and travel writing strategies, is being flexible so when you’re dealt a full house, you can still cash in. Which one of your grandparents warned you about this place? Who insisted you carry an extra ten pounds of first aid supplies/water filtering system/hand held fax machine and copier all in one (hey, just in case!)? These are great sources of conflict because guess what? You knew all along you would be fine without it. More than fine. Great!

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The Players

People protesting on the streets, the green salad of doom, missing every blasted train, a National Guard worthy natural disaster – all players who can throw a gnarly monkey wrench right into your best laid plans. We can never know for sure what Mother Nature will dole out, or when our benign looking train mates decide their plan for global domination must start now. There is being in the wrong place at the wrong time, meeting up with people who believe you really can drink that whole bottle of rum, and simple things like the power going out and you miss your alarm clock.

Sure, some conflicts will add more punch to your story than others, but a nice laundry list of little snafus can go quite a ways to making a great essay. Just think of them like a patch of mosquito bites, and voila! The piece will practically write itself. Ok, so maybe not, but the point is things can and will go wrong. Embrace them to whatever degree you can, because 99% of the time you have no control over them anyway. No sense in beating yourself up about it. Just get to writing.

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