5 Ways To Find Good Travel Stories

Posted by on Apr 23, 2013 in Storytelling, Travel | 17 Comments

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Where are all the good stories?

Good travel storytelling is about two things: identifying good yarns, and telling them.

For the latter topic, we can turn to any number of mentors, writing schools and How To guidebooks. But what about finding things to write about? How can you spot a good story in the wild? This is a much slipperier topic. It requires instinct, experience, skill, gut feelings, all the things that fall under the label “individual creativity” – too subjective to be generally useful?

But maybe there’s another way to get at this skill. Things we can all do to attract inspiration, to better make ourselves available to it. Maybe there are ways to find good travel stories that are near-universally applicable, whoever and wherever you are in the world…

Maybe these 5 suggestions fit the bill.

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1. You Have Nowhere Else To Be

If you’re just passing through, and if your departure time is set in stone, it’s very hard to get your brain to relax. It won’t be able to tune out that clock ticking in the background. It will fret and occasionally panic, plucking you out of the Now and into the Oh Crap, What If…? You’ll feel the urge to hurry when the subject matter calls for attentive lurking. You’ll miss things because you’re prioritizing, knowing that time is short and you can’t do everything. You will not be fully present, because you can’t surrender yourself fully to the moment, because, what if you miss the bus and then the ferry and OH GOD maybe you’d better just skip the sightseeing to be on the safe side

The details that make up a good story work to a schedule you can’t predict, and usually involve a lot of on-the-hoof thinking. Journalist Gay Talese was asked to write up a profile of Frank Sinatra. Sinatra refused to be interviewed. End of story? Talese didn’t think so, and spent the next 3 months (and $5,000 of Esquire magazine’s expenses) getting as close to Sinatra’s orbit as he could. The result was one of the most famous pieces of magazine journalism ever written.

You probably don’t have $5k and 3 months just kicking around, waiting for the right story to blow them on — but you do have the ability to give your stories room to breathe. Craft your own Overflow Rule – where you automatically presume that anything you do will take a percentage of time longer than your gut says it will. (My writing always, always takes longer than I think it will, so I run on a 50% rule: if I think it’ll take me 2 hours, I give myself 3, and so on). Force yourself to slow down, to the point that you’re a little jittery and impatient with yourself. This is the perfect state for stories. They are the byproduct of braincells starved of something interesting to do, tugging at the leash, ready to disappear down every rabbit-hole in sight.

This is why great insights often occur to people while they exercise, as their bodies are hyper-stimulated, and their similarly energized minds are so fed up with being squandered that they make their own entertainment, in the form of Flashes Of Genius. This is why Haruki Murakami goes running.

Turn off the clock and mesmerize yourself until you can see the stories around you.

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2. You Forget Yourself

When you’re doing something online, you’re usually trying to attract attention.

This isn’t the start of some kind of rant about how the Internet is ruining society. This is about the story that drives social media – your story. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and a bazillion other online content-sharing services all run on the simple premise that your story is worth sharing. Boot them up, and the first thing you’re made aware of is yourself, via replies, retweets, Likes, DMs and all the feedback that makes you feel like a respected citizen of the Web. Social media can be an incredible force for selfless acts of philanthropy – but at rock bottom, it is driven by ego.

To tune into the stories around you, you need to tune yours out. It can be as simple as putting your phone in your pocket for 10 minutes, or as hardass as refusing to go online all week. If you’re fighting the urge to check your social media messages, your story is tugging your chain, either distracting you from what’s happening around you, or filtering it through you like a sycophantic publicist, making you the star of the show at the expense of the actual facts.

Forget yourself. There’ll be plenty of time to put yourself back into the picture when you write this story up – but for now, in the words of Pam Mandel, “get out of your own way.”

3. You Single-Task

Go here, and watch the video featuring Kurt Vonnegut, then the video featuring Andrew Evans.

Done that?

Are you sure you did nothing but that? You probably didn’t. None of us do. We’re all supremely capable multitaskers, which is a phrase that means “easily distracted”. This is a big problem when it comes to teasing stories out of the world, because stories are complicated and require a lot of thinking-through.

You know when you put your headphones into your pocket, and when you fish them out again they’re a hideously complicated knot in at least 3 dimensions, leaving you wondering why nobody has solved this very basic engineering problem yet? You know that special calmness that you have to settle into, where the world disappears around you until nothing exists except your fingers, your headphones and your blood pressure? And that bit goes around there and knots under there and ah, okay, so that’s why, so if I pull this I should, OH YOU F….no, it’s okay, I see it, come on, I got you I got you I got you….

That is what chasing a story is like. Good stories look simple enough, but they’re actually exactly like knotted headphones. When you’re unknotting them, you almost certainly will not have the bandwidth for anything else – so make sure you have nothing else to do. Give that story the full wattage of your brain-power. The results might floor you.

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4. You Write It Down

Here’s why travel writers need paper notebooks. (Edit, 30/6/14: alas, Travellll.com is long gone, but I’ll be reposting the essay behind that link very soon.)

But there’s something else – and it’s to do with the way we learn things. There is good evidence that handwriting is a far more effective tool for getting information to stick in our heads than typing is. It seems we bond with what we write in a more meaningful way, or at least a very different way. Don’t ditch the tech – use paper to complement your gadgets, rather than replace them.

If you want to capture a story in the fullest, most vivid way you possibly can, you need a notebook.

(And a sexy pen you can’t stop writing with. That’s important too.)

5. You Do Something “Risky”

[quote style="boxed"]Let’s face it — fear sucks. It has a place, however limited, to prevent us from running off the cliff like lemmings. But it’s not a place from which good things like joy or confidence flow freely. How to beat it? Aim to be informed and understand that the process of doing so requires a little effort. (After all, what in life that’s worth it doesn’t require some work?) You’ll be surprised by the overwhelmingly positive unintended consequences of your effort. The conversations and connections alone will shift your thinking. And when you decide to act, you’ll find that informed experiential travel is one of the best ways to combat fear. But that means you have to get in it, amongst it, and occasionally press the edges of your apprehension first. Don’t allow others to simply tell you about the way the world is when they haven’t been there. Demand better information. Go and find out for yourself. [/quote]

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Defining risk is a risky business.

If you’re in search of a good story, the best place to look is outside your comfort zone. The reason for this is partly your reaction to discomfort and fear. Your heart rate increases. Your pupils dilate. Your respiration level goes up. Other, less pleasant things threaten to happen if you don’t keep a lid on them. In summary: you are dragged, sweating and trembling, into the present. You are aware like never before.

(My favourite way of putting myself in this state? Getting lost.)

When you’re not exploring that discomfort, your senses aren’t enjoying that attention-honing jolt of adrenalin. They’re relatively dulled to the things around you, less able to collect and process sensory data. You’re less attuned to the things that lead to good stories.

But there’s another danger in comfort, and it’s the one Dan & Audrey allude to in the above quote. “Comfort” is a world you’ve created for yourself, a world with rules you understand and events you can more or less predict. To step out of that world is to emerge from a story you’ve written for yourself and surrender to something else – to throw your arms wide, like Kevin Costner on his horse in Dances With Wolves, and shout “Come on then – what else have you got for me?”

Find a way to step outside your comfortable, safe view of the world, carefully, with your mind thrown open…and go see what other stories are out there.

My thanks to everyone whose brain I picked over Facebook & Twitter while I was writing this post!

Images: koalazymonkey, lemmetweetthatforyou and Mike Sowden.

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  • http://www.alisonchino.com Alison Chino

    Love the reminder to keep using paper! I love my notebooks, but sometimes feel inefficient using them. Lots of great ideas. Thanks!

  • http://www.worldismycuttlefish.wordpress.com The World Is My Cuttlefish

    Loved Kurt. Thank you for all the ideas and reminders.

  • http://mindofjon.net jon

    These seem to be reasonable tips for life in general as well.

  • http://ctrl-alt-travel.com/ Andrew

    The longer I stay at home waiting for the travel opportunities to show up (we are only 2 weeks until go date, so I haven’t given up, just being patient), the more I realize the stories around me get missed. THOUGH I do get the imagination stories from inside my head more when the outside stories are not there. Fiction seems to need boredom in some way to grow.

    Love the reminder of paper and pen though. I have been wrestling with those aformentioned stories in my head for a while and it has been very hard to want to write them in the computer. I spent an hour this morning writing on little cards and did more then the past weeks on the computer. Oh, and little cards that can be moved around and replaced is even better than a notebook.

    Totally looking forward to our summer of travel and getting lost and taking time to rediscover things. Maybe I’ll find some stories along the way, but I am not holding my breathe.

  • http://sotcblog.com Britany

    Thanks for the great advice at a time that I really needed it! (How’d you know??) I’ve lately been discovering how valuable a crappy wi-fi connection can be. The first few days in Bolivia I wanted to pull my hair out as I tried to get work done. Then I realized that I’m actually getting some great writing done here because I so often can’t access anything else! It still kind of drives me crazy, but at least I’m writing! :)

  • http://www.reasonstogonorth.com Alvina

    Looking back at my journal, when I was in the Kamali National Park, Nepal, last October. I wrote pages and pages, every day. No Wi-Fi and a flat batter in my note book. Intermittent power supply not enough to recharge its batteries, but mine were!

  • http://uhoh-janellio.tumblr.com Janelle

    These are great tips. Thanks for the reminder to disconnect!

  • http://www.mytravelaffairs.com Marysia @ My Travel Affairs

    When I entered this world of travel blogging I observed what other successful people do, and I made a huge list about importance of Twitter, presence on Facebook etc etc
    I have promised myself that every day I will try to post pictures, tweets, but I have noticed I only do it when at home. When I travel I’m either out of internet or I’m so into my things that i have no time. Until now I havent write even one post while travelling, all of them I write after coming back home…I guess therefore my partial success ha ha ha

  • http://www.terence.co.za Terence

    Absolutely wonderful and fascinating tips.

  • http://www.gaytravelherald.com/ Nathan DePetris

    I loved this piece. We live in a world where we have to push ourselves harder and faster and we forget that if we have to just take a moment and actually notice the world around us, the creativity in us begins to flow naturally. Thanks Mikeachim for the reminder.

  • http://www.travellingblogger.com A Travel Blogger

    Awesome tips! Thanks a lot.

  • http://ghoomakar.wordpress.com/ Ramit

    Wow….these are pragmatic approaches for wannabe’s like me….thanks…Now following u :)

  • http://www.richtraveler.com Wade

    Pretty solid tips! I especially like the notebook tip! Totally agree that writing something down connects with a different part of your brain than typing does…plus, I think more thought goes into writing than it does typing. Either way, awesome post…keep up the good work! Cheers!

  • http://ausglobetrotter.com Jaryd

    So thats why I my stories are better when I physically write them. One great way I can give my full attention to writing is by not connecting to the internet when I first open my laptop and fully focus on just the story/article. It can be very tough though, as you explain, our hunger for social media news can be exceedingly distractive. Great article, Cheers Mike

  • Michelle

    These are great pointers of advice, thank you.

    PS, I find that my best travel stories are when I find myself getting to know locals. I am a foodie from New York, just moved to Tel Aviv, and came across this interesting site called EatWith http://goo.gl/8wrCBW that connects travelers with local hosts who welcome people into their homes for home-made meals.

    I went to a Canadian Thanksgiving-style feast a couple of weeks ago and it was delicious, plus there were 4 different languages being spoken at the table which was interesting.

    I highly recommend to all of you adventurous travelers who are excited to have new stories to share.

    M

  • http://www.gonomad.com Max Hartshorne

    I posted a link to your story on http://www.facebook.com/gonomadtravel since we pubilsh so many travel stories. good info Mike.

  • http://www.asiascams.org James P.

    Agreed with Michelle above, getting to know locals is key for finding the truly fun places and avoiding the touristy “fun” places. I don’t want to see a crocodile farm in Thailand, I want my bud Siriporn to take me the river where they get the crocodiles from.