Pros talking prose: the experts’ advice on how to improve your travel writing

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In search of some top tips to take your travel writing skills from proficient to prodigious?

We chat to a selection of authors appearing at this year’s star-studded Hay Festival about how to cultivate captivating travel writing, their favourite destinations to write about, and the travel tomes that inspired them to hit the road.

Horatio Clare, author of Icebreaker: A Voyage Far North © Sam HardwickHoratio Clare, author of Icebreaker: A Voyage Far North © Sam Hardwick

Horatio Clare – beach resort despiser and one-time Arctic sailor

Horatio is a Welsh-British author who has published a glut of literary works, from acclaimed children’s books to personal memoirs. His latest travel-focused text, Icebreaker: A Voyage Far North, details his time aboard a Finnish icebreaker ship traversing the Bay of Bothnia.

What’s your top tip for producing compelling travel writing?

You have to find somewhere that lights you in order to write well. If beach resorts aren’t your thing it’s very difficult to produce a good piece about one. I personally look for a mixture of culture and nature; so for example, the east coast of Madagascar is easy, because the people, landscapes and animal and bird life are all so rich with interest and diversity. For me, combining history and local legends with the mystery and drama of the natural world enables me to produce my best work.

What’s your favourite destination to write about?

Anywhere that is not a beach resort! I love writing about sub-Saharan Africa: Zambia and Tanzania are tremendous. But then Algiers is one of my favourite cities and Sicily is beautiful, and historically rich, and its culture and politics are a whirl of splendour and horror.

What’s your favourite work of travel literature?

It changes but I am a great fan of Norman Lewis. His Naples ‘44 is peerless, but all of his works are wonderful. Voices of the Old Sea, about southern Spain before development and tourism got to it, is the very model of how you need to understand and submerge yourself in a place in order to produce a masterpiece. Of recent writing, Michael Jacobs’ The Robber of Memories, about a journey up the Magdalena river in Colombia, is fabulous.

Patrick Barkham, author of Islander: A Journey Around our Archipelago © Marcus GarrettPatrick Barkham, author of Islander: A Journey Around our Archipelago © Marcus Garrett

Patrick Barkham – history buff and anglophile

Born in Norfolk, England, Patrick is Natural History Writer for the Guardian and author of several travel titles, including The Butterfly Isles, which was shortlisted for the Ondaatje Prize, and Islander, which delves into daily life on some of Britain’s smaller islands.

What’s your top tip for producing compelling travel writing?

When I am writing about a place I’m travelling around, I put my phone away and try to get completely in the moment, taking out my pen and notebook and writing obsessively about everything I see, hear, taste, touch, smell and think about. Attention to the small details of a place hopefully makes for more evocative writing.

What’s your favourite destination to write about?

I like writing about Britain because even in a supposedly homogenised and globalised society my home country has noticeable differences between even the most proximate places. It also has so much depth and complexity, and so many untold stories still to tell. Writing about ‘home’ also reduces some of the hazards of cultural imperialism, although the Welsh and the Scots have had to endure a long tradition of enraptured English visitors (such as me!) writing about them.

What’s your favourite work of travel literature?

It’s an obvious choice but I was very taken with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water – for romance, chutzpah and warm-heartedness. I also admire what must be a fairly creative reconstruction of vivid memories, with the author writing more than four decades after he made his journey across Europe.

Dylan Moore, Hay Festival Creative Wales International Fellow 2018/19 and author of Driving Home Both Ways © Dylan MooreDylan Moore, Hay Festival Creative Wales International Fellow 2018/19 and author of Driving Home Both Ways © Dylan Moore

Dylan Moore – familiarity seeker and hispanophile

Dylan Moore is an English teacher, writer and editor from Newport, Wales. He is the Hay Festival Creative Wales International Fellow 2018/19 and author of Driving Home Both Ways, a book that is part essay collection, part travelogue through life.

What’s your top tip for producing compelling travel writing?

Find equivalence. It may sound like a highfalutin concept, but wherever I go in the world, and however different it is from my home in Wales, I am on the lookout for relatability. Where’s the Cardiff Bay? What do they have instead of Welsh cakes? Who’s the Gareth Bale? More often than not, the practice of holding home and abroad up to each other like a pair of mirrors sheds unusual light on the sense of a place. Once you’ve seen the parallels, it’s often easier to examine the smaller, more interesting ways in which places are different.

What’s your favourite destination to write about?

Spain. Some might stray little further than sun, sand and sangria or a city break in Barcelona, but for me the Iberian peninsula is a subcontinent. From the pilgrimage trail of the Camino de Santiago along the green Basque coast in the north to the majesty of the Alhambra palace in the south, from the intricate Moorish tile designs of Seville to the futuristic architecture of Santiago Calatrava, and from the art of Goya and Picasso to the noise and glamour of La Liga, Spain has it all, and more.

What’s your favourite work of travel literature?

Abroad by Paul Fussell is a work of literary criticism about travel writing between the wars that touches upon many classics of the genre, including works by D.H. Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell and Robert Byron. Though I love the work as a whole, I don’t agree with the author’s argument that the twenties and thirties represented ‘the last great age of travel’; the fact that airplanes have largely replaced ocean liners and long-distance sleeper trains may mean we travel differently now, but for me the pull of elsewhere has lost none of its romance, and if anything the greater accessibility of ‘abroad’ has opened travel – and travel writing – to a wider range of voices.

Jasper Winn, author of Waterways: A Thousand Miles Along Britain's Canals © Jasper Winn Jasper Winn, author of Waterways: A Thousand Miles Along Britain’s Canals © Jasper Winn

Jasper Winn – slow adventurer and extreme kayaker

Jasper Winn is a self-titled ‘slow adventurer’ who has spent most of his life travelling the world and now serves as the Writer in Residence for the Canal and River Trust. Jasper has written two books focused around long-distance kayaking: Paddle and upcoming title Waterways: A thousand miles along Britain’s canals.

What’s your top tip for producing compelling travel writing?

It seems to me that the most important commodity for the modern travel writer is having time. Committing a serious amount of time to researching a subject, to talking to people, to travelling slowly, to waiting around just to see what happens, to reading tens of books on a destination, is the key to producing great travel writing.

What’s your favourite destination to write about?

I miss being totally out of touch. For my first long distance trip across the Sahara and through West Africa in the early 1980s, initially hitchhiking and then pedalling a 20 quid bike I bought in a market in Ouagadougou, I had one phone call back to Europe in five months; apart from that and a few poste restante letters I was totally out of touch with friends and family. The internet has changed everything, and mostly for the better, but a good trip is still anywhere that feels wild, where I have lots of time and few plans.

What’s your favourite work of travel literature?

Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Summer’s Morning was the book that sent me off as a teenager, hitchhiking from Ireland to Andalucía, playing guitar on streets and in cafes to eat. Meanwhile, Irish travel writer Peter Somerville-Large’s The Coast of West Cork, about a cycle trip along Cork’s coast where I grew up, made my own corner of the world both more familiar and much richer. That book showed me how writing could travel through time as much as through a landscape, weaving history, nature, social observation and quirky humour into one compelling narrative; an excellent example for anyone hoping to one day produce a great travel tome of their own.

You can hear more insights from all of these authors and many more at the Hay Festival, which runs from 24 May to 3 June. Find out more at hayfestival.org or follow @hayfestival

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