Last month, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Don George, National Geographic Traveler’s resident #TripLit expert and editor of the wildly popular Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing (now in its third edition).
I asked the veteran travel writer and editor about his plan of attack when he’s out on assignment in the field. Here’s what he had to say:
(This is Part II of a continuing series. Read Part I.)
Leslie Trew Magraw: How do you prepare for a new assignment? Do you have a ritual?
Don George: When I was starting out as a travel writer I would pretty religiously prepare. I would read guidebooks and prepare a skeleton itinerary in my mind based on what I thought I could gain from the guidebooks. I would try, if I could, to read a couple of novels or some nonfiction that was set in the place that I was going.
Over the years, because I have become more busy and a little more confident as a writer to try and get the story on the spot, I do that less and less. Still, I’ll try to have some outside reading that will ground me in the place before I actually arrive.
LTM: What’s your plan of attack when you land somewhere you’ve never been before?
DG: As soon as I land in a place, I’m on high intake to absorb as much as I can, paying attention to what leaps out at me. It could be the signs or the way people interact with each other, what people are saying, the atmosphere in the air, the smells.
Once I’ve vacuumed up all of that information, I refine and process it until I’ve narrowed it down to what seems to be the fundamental essence or character of the place. I’m trying to find a story to a certain extent; I’m asking myself, “What is the story here? What do people care about?” Once I’ve homed in on what strikes me as a traveler, what’s making me feel excited or exhilarated or intrigued, I try to find out as much as I can about it.
I’m also a proponent of following serendipity, letting myself be pulled in different directions. When a local says, “Oh, there’s this incredible festival going on this weekend in that village over there that nobody knows about,” you should probably jettison the itinerary you thought you had meticulously planned on the airplane and go there instead. Inevitably something amazing happens.
LTM: What’s your approach when it comes to interviewing people?
DG: I always think of stories as paths leading to a point, or to a lesson. Every part of your story, every anecdote, is a stone that leads the reader towards the ultimate destination. You go to a place and spend a week there and you have a thousand potential stepping-stones, but you end up choosing five or six because those are the most important ones.
I put interviews in the same category; they’re stepping-stones, too. I interview people who, in one way or another, are engaged in the story that is unfolding in front of me. I try to get at the piece of their story that fits with my story and will help move it along.
You may spend 45 minutes or an hour to get one paragraph, but that paragraph could be critical to your piece. The ratio of time spent to return on investment is really low, but it’s really important to do that work. Writers — even veterans — spend a whole lot of time doing things that don’t end up in the story, but that doesn’t mean it’s wasted time. It all somehow feeds subliminally into the story and helps make it work.
The one thing I find irksome about interviews is the transcription process where you are listening and having to write down. I usually listen to the entire recording, and when I have a good sense of what piece of the interview I’m looking for, I’ll only transcribe the two or three pieces that seem to fit the story I am writing and let the rest of it go.
Leslie Trew Magraw is the editor and producer of the Intelligent Travel blog network at National Geographic. Follow her on Twitter @leslietrew.