Saturday, 6 May 2017

The Background to Travel Writing.

Case History: The Long Leg of Italy: Explore with Just Us Two.

The travel-based books that I write are based on fact. Not so much a biography, they are more of a travelogue. But how do I make sure that what I write is authentic? How do I structure the ‘story’?

The Long Leg of Italy is a case in point. Unlike my first two books in the Just Us Two Travel series, which were quite straightforward in terms of chronological order, this one required some thought. 


I decided to start where our love affair with Italy began. This was many years ago when my husband and I ventured out independently to follow more of my dreams. He [said husband] had been adamant that he wasn’t having a party for our Silver Wedding but deemed that a ‘little trip’ would suffice. My imagination ran riot and, with the conviction that I wanted to go to Rome, I searched travel brochures on the quiet. With all aspects costed, I approached the subject warily stating that I wanted to go to Rome, and if there, well, Florence and Venice as well. After the shock had subsided – we had only been abroad twice and that as part of an organised group - and he had thought about it, it was all systems go.

Structure and research.

With all this in mind, when writing about Rome, Florence, Venice, and Sorrento, I delved into my elephantine and pictorial memory, searched out the pre-digital, copious photograph albums and, for reference to a later visit, the camcorder film that I had eagerly taken. 

I then began another journey; a very emotional journey as I retraced our steps, checked maps, checked Italian spellings on Google, and carried out Internet searches to verify details and gather expanded information. Of course, I saved all the web links for inclusion in a bibliography at the end – added value for the reader who wishes to explore more. 

The question that exercised my thoughts was: do I put both visits to the same  city into one topic area?; or do I simply 'tell it how it happened' in a chronological order. This last approach  was particularly relevant for Sorrento, which we first visited on our second tour of Italian cities. Not least because I had stated in Florence, when deciding to return five years hence,that we would reverse the trip, visiting Venice first, as after all the culture we would need a holiday. The difficulty was, how do I handle a subsequent second visit to Sorrento itself. I solved that by treating it as a second chapter.

I must share with you that in writing this huge part of The Long Leg of Italy, I was emotionally drained; the enormity of what we had not only undertaken and encountered as we travelled without guidance by train through the countryside between cities, but had also personally achieved, hit me; hard.

Many years later we again returned to tour this beautiful and diverse country. Although in the intervening years we had ridden into the north on our motorbike, this time we were safely with a travel company who would have all the information that we now liked to absorb and would be there if something went wrong. (Don’t forget that the middle-aged couple of the first visit are now considerably older!) We toured the south and Sicily before re-visiting the mountains and hidden lakes of the north a short while later. 

I decided to chat about this tour of the mountains and hidden lakes of Italy before the previous tour of the deep south. Why not keep it chronological? The answer lies in another book that was in the pipeline. As I was planning to write about the islands that we had visited over the years, it made sense to keep the Sicily part of this tour for that book; indeed, it was the perfect opening for Island Interludes.

Recording first-hand experiences.

On the tours, I took copious notes and recorded much information shared by the tour guide. Replaying the videos, especially our reverse second visit to Italy,, made me catch my breath when I realized what could have gone wrong - yet we simply decided that: ‘we can’. My study was awash with my collection of maps and guide books; my dog-eared Michelin guide came off the shelf to join the maps. I had also saved inconsequential things like the colourful entrance tickets to famous places, restaurant and cafĂ© bills (some in lire, some in euros) postcards, leaflets about places visited, the tickets from the Vatican to the Papal Audience in Rome and seats in St Peter’s Square on Easter Sunday, plane tickets. All these I resurrected from the photograph albums and the travel shelf. 

In order to clarify the actual dates, I found the calendar on the Internet and worked out  days from the dates on the plane and train tickets (Rome Florence and Venice). I was also thankful that I had categorized and recorded dates and places in the physical photograph albums. The later digital photographs, of course, have the date saved within the file details.

Bringing it all to fruition,

After making sure that the structure was right; after re-living the day-to-day events (especially the disasters on our independent traveller trips) I felt ready to select photographs for inclusion in the manuscript. I thought that it would bring the story alive.

After reaching the end of the first draft, it was time for another pair of eyes, confirmation that I had not missed anything out, confirmation of geographical facts and the disasters that had befallen us on the way. Hint: don’t pack a full-face Venetian mask with an enormous quantity of tissue paper - especially white tissue paper -  or Customs will pull you over with the suspicion that the solid white mass is something else; at least not if you are carefully carrying it. I won’t say more or else I will spoil the story. 

Cover images and design.

For the jacket cover, I wanted to show some of the diversity of the country while at the same time including the national colours. I settled for a photograph of the mountains in the Brenta Dolomites in the north east; the timeless scene of emerging from under the Academia Bridge on the Grand Canal in Venice - where the  of the white Basilica of Santa Maria Della Salute standing majestically at the point where the Grand Canal and the Guidecca Canal meet - greets you; and finally, a complete contrast. The Trulli houses in Alberobello in Puglia in the deep south. A green coloured outline map of the country overlaid on these photographs ,together with the addition of red lettering for the title, completed the front cover.

For the new hardcover format which is due out in June, I decided to put a photo on the back as well and apply some transparency (fade) so that the book information could be clearly seen by the reader. (This formatting for the jacket back has been applied to all the new hardcover formats.) I used a photo of the Dome of St Peter in Rome and carried it over the spine. My husband commented, 'we were right at the top of that!'. Yes, we made it without having a heart attack; thankful now that we had done it all while we were younger and fit.

Final thoughts.

The process that I have outlined is and has been for my other travel books and travel-based fiction. The Long Leg of Italy,  in particular, was a roller-coaster ride.

The Long Leg of Italy: Explore with Just Us Two