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Think of your essay as a flight into the unknown, which it should be for the reader (even if you know the place inside out).
This may only be the point of departure, but that’s OK.
The important thing, as a writer, is that you bring this to life with descriptive detail that sets the mood and weaves imagery, color, texture, sound, light, architecture and nature into a believable background.
In “Alone in Amsterdam,” I began with an imaginary dialogue between myself and the “Dutch Masters” in Rembrandt’s iconic painting “The Draper’s Guild.” Other writers, like Jan Morris in her introductory chapter to Venice or Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul: Memories and the City, plunge in with sensuous word paintings of cityscapes.
Simon Winchester’s The River at the Center of the World begins by explaining the circumstances that motivated his 4,000-mile exploration of China’s Yangtze River, then he is free to take the reader along with him on his tour.
As the writer, your task is to use your imagination to “omit and compress,” as Alain de Botton describes it, in order to steer your reader to “critical moments” and, I would add, unforgettable images.
Here are some steps to get you there; the first two deal mostly with prewriting preparation.Travel has shifted in style and scope while tourism—that market-driven substitute for a voyage of discovery—runs the gamut from “packaged” to pretentious.In the 21st century, the well-crafted travel essay has begun to look as nostalgic as a dusty khaki safari jacket sans logo.Descriptive prose provides the larger context while you, the writer, bring a strong sense of your personal motives, state of mind, and situation as we embark on the trip together.The “hinge” of these two levels allows you to pivot and shift your point of view as you move through the pages.Reading before and after a trip—history, biography, anthropology, literature, newspapers, magazines and/or other travel writing—will help shake off false assumptions and open windows in your creative mind.But do be careful about how you work facts into your essay. Gill refers to this as seeking “the key, an image that unlocks everything else.” In my essay about Tahiti, “Lost in a dream with Gauguin,” I opened with the late-18th-century voyage of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the globe.To test the waters, try describing the essence of the street you live on in one vivid paragraph, and remain open to where your own description leads.The “collage effect” appropriate to travel writing requires artful transitions from one theme or scene to another in order to create a sense of wholeness.It also calls for two distinct levels of information that might be summed up as background and foreground.Remember, your readers need a sense of place and a sense of who is taking them on this journey.