Writing Right with Dmitri: Tarting Up Your Travel Writing

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Writing Right with Dmitri: Tarting Up Your Travel Writing

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Where do you live? A world city? A small town? Out in the country, miles from nowhere? A quaint village? A remote monastery?

Wherever you live, you probably take the place for granted. If people ask, you probably say, 'Oh, it's dead boring. Nobody comes here.' But what if you wanted to sell the place as a tourist destination? Or the backdrop for a romantic tale? Could you make it sound interesting enough to be convincing?

Taste award-winning wines along the Groundhog Wine Trail while enjoying scenic views of the Pennsylvania Wilds.
Punxsutawney Groundhog Day Road Trip care of visitpa.com

There are some good tips here: give the otherwise boring two-lane roads around here a fancy name. Groundhog Wine Trail, indeed. Throw in words like 'scenic'. Okay, it is that. Watch out for Amish buggies. And use a tie-in: everybody's heard of Groundhog Day by now, even the military use it as a metaphor.

Islington is an up-tempo, up-market and vividly fashionable area of north London. Media professionals, entertainers and politicians have all set up home in this richly multicultural neighbourhood with its green squares, Georgian terraces and excellent eating, shopping and nightlife.
A Guide to Islington

Obviously, if you write like this, you want People With Money to show up. Appeal to snobbery works well here: use trendy terms like 'up-tempo, up-market and vividly fashionable'. 'Multicultural' is a nice touch. Don't mention crime. From this description, we expect rubbish pickup to occur on a regular basis.

Vladivostok is a mysterious entity saturated with sea salt and wind.
It is a Russian city, but is it Asian or European? Is it the center of a new world, or is it an ambitious world’s end? It is a city that lets you go, but never lets you forget...

Vladivostok Tourist Guide

Oh, you really want to go there. No mention of, say, currency scammers, or being followed around by the GRU. Sounds exotic and definitely one for the bucket list, right?

What if you're not writing a tourist brochure? What if you're not trying to sell the place, but merely make people think it's interesting enough to read about? What do you do then?

Kealakekua Bay is a little curve like the last kink of a snail-shell, winding deep into the land, seemingly not more than a mile wide from shore to shore. It is bounded on one side – where the murder [of Captain Cook] was done – by a little flat plain, on which stands a cocoanut grove and some ruined houses; a steep wall of lava, a thousand feet high at the upper end and three or four hundred at the lower, comes down from the mountain and bounds the inner extremity of it. From this wall the place takes its name, Kealakekua, which in the native tongue signifies “The Pathway of the Gods.” They say, (and still believe, in spite of their liberal education in Christianity), that the great god Lono, who used to live upon the hillside, always traveled that causeway when urgent business connected with heavenly affairs called him down to the seashore in a hurry.

As the red sun looked across the placid ocean through the tall, clean stems of the cocoanut trees, like a blooming whiskey bloat through the bars of a city prison, I went and stood in the edge of the water on the flat rock pressed by Captain Cook’s feet when the blow was dealt which took away his life, and tried to picture in my mind the doomed man struggling in the midst of the multitude of exasperated savages – the men in the ship crowding to the vessel’s side and gazing in anxious dismay toward the shore – the – but I discovered that I could not do it.

Mark Twain, Roughing It

'Oh,' you say, 'But making Hawaii sound picturesque and interesting is dead easy.' Well, first of all, oh, yeah?

Our snorkeling destination for the day is a place called Kealakekua Bay, this area is of huge significance to Hawaiian history. At one point Kealakekua Bay was a large fishing village that was known by the locals for it's [sic] massive annual harvest festival. The festival was to pay tribute to the god "Lono". . . It just so happened that at this very place, during the festival of Lono, was the place where Captain Cook happened to land when he initially came to Hawaii. In addition to being the first place that Captain Cook landed, it was also the place where he died (this happened on a later visit to Kealakekua Bay).
Tom Barefoot's Tours

Apparently, modern snorkelers can't picture it in their minds, either, Mr Twain. My point being, you may live there, or go there and appreciate the heck out of it, but if you don't find a way to tell anyone about it, you might as well keep your comments to yourself. Which is not what we are about.

It doesn't have to be Hawaii. As Twain points out, in spite of the beauty of lava mountains, greenery, and gorgeous ocean, Hawaii in his day was kind of underdeveloped. You couldn't find a luxury hotel for miles. It was mostly straw huts and coconut trees. And yes, it probably looked much better that way. But it took imagination to make it sound important, rather than a really nice stopover on an ocean journey. Twain had imagination. Tom Barefoot is probably a much better snorkeler than the old riverboat pilot.

Mississippi haze

Eudora Welty wrote, 'One place understood helps us understand all places better.' She should know. She lived and wrote in the Mississippi Delta – that's northern Mississippi for the geographically challenged. 'Ah,' you say again (you keep interrupting), 'but the Mississippi Delta is dead romantic. Everybody writes about it: Faulkner, Welty, all of those Southern goths. It's easy if you have that sort of material. I live in Stoke Poges/Pontefract/Grimsby.'

You think the Mississippi Delta is romantic. You wouldn't if you'd spent part of your childhood summers there, as I did. The Mississippi Delta is as flat as a pancake. It looks like the Martian landscape, only with cotton growing on it and no rovers. The heat comes off the two-lane in a wavy haze that makes you wonder if you're hallucinating. You wouldn't be surprised, because you're dehydrated. That's because every drop of water in your body has risen through your pores and is trickling down your face, neck, and back. Had you realised before how much the back of your knees could sweat? That's Mississippi. And in all those miles of cotton, one lonely tree rises up, about five miles away, maybe y'all can reach the shade before you die. . . maybe there's a country store with some cold soft drinks for sale, you can hope. . . your dad keeps driving, all the windows of your '57 Chevy open to what is certainly not a breeze, more like the hot exhaust of a jet engine, 90 miles an hour down the road and oh, no. . . green smoke and a biplane, they're dusting the cotton with DDT, quick, roll up all the windows and breathe shallowly, President Eisenhower says it's safe, but nobody knows for sure. . .

Tell me about how romantic the Mississippi Delta is. That's before we talk about, well, all the things Faulkner talked about. 'There may be people like that, but you don't have to write books about them,' sniffed my mother, who was born and raised in Bolivar County.

Yes, you do, said Eudora Welty. One place understood helps us understand all places better. So get to work: tell us about where you are. Is it romantic? Bloody awful? Oppressive? Fast-paced? A tourist haven/nightmare? Tell, tell. But make us see it. Make us feel it. Help us smell the smells only a local would know about. Do not say 'bougainvillea', I don't know what that stuff is. Give us colours, sounds. Don't hold back the good stuff. Take us there.

Maybe someday soon, Grimsby will become a mecca for literary tourists. Okay, not if Galaxy Babe has anything to say about it. But then, all her Grimsby digs may backfire and make the place famous.

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Dmitri Gheorgheni

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