Take a Journey with a Traveler’s Tale

Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain
Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain is an outstanding traveler’s tale which I reference in my Seattle writing classes, online writing classes and travel writing classes.

If you love to travel like I do, you’ve probably found the last six months a challenging time. After canceling my Travel Writing class in Spain and an assignment to ski in Austria, I have hunkered down at home to write, teach, shelter with my family and occasionally venture out to a local cafe. Such is the situation in the world today.

During this time, I’ve found great pleasure in reading travel books, something I’ve done in the past as research. Now it’s become a pleasure in its own right as well as preparation for when I can hit the road again.

I’ve been traveling vicariously with Mark Twain (The Innocents Abroad) Beryl Markham (West with the Night), V.S. Naipaul (Among the Believers), Charles Nichol (The Fruit Palace) and Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods). These are some of the titles I reference in my Seattle writing classes, online writing classes and especially in my travel writing classes. Here’s more on the books below.

The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress is a travel book by Mark Twain published in 1869 which humorously chronicles what Twain called his “Great Pleasure Excursion” on board the chartered vessel Quaker City through Europe and the Holy Land with a group of American travelers in 1867. It was the best-selling of Twain’s works during his lifetime, as well as one of the best-selling travel books of all time.

West with the Night is a 1942 memoir by Beryl Markham, chronicling her experiences growing up in Kenya in the early 1900s, leading to careers as a racehorse trainer and bush pilot there. It is considered a classic of outdoor literature and was included in the U.S.A.’s Armed Services Editions shortly after its publication.

Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey is a book by the Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul. Published in 1981, the book chronicles a six-month journey across Asian after the Iranian Revolution. V.S. Naipaul explores the culture and the explosive situation in countries where Islamic fundamentalism was taking root. His travels start with Iran, on to Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, with a short stop in Pakistan and Iran. Like the best travel books is prescient, indicating what was about to unfold in the region.

The Fruit Palace is a classic travel story by Charles Nicholl, chronicling his quest for ‘The Great Cocaine Story’. The book is set in the eighties in Columbia and describes not only the cocaine trade, but the wonder of everyday life in the country. The Fruit Palace is a little whitewashed café that legally dispenses tropical fruit juices as well as a meeting place for black marketers. It’s here that the story begins.

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail is a 1998 travel book by writer Bill Bryson, describing his attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail with his friend Stephen Katz, a less than competent outdoorsman whose foibles contribute mightily to this entertaining book. It’s a hilarious account of their adventures and misadventures, with Bryson’s trademark humor coming to the fore.

How to Write a Dramatic Scene

Dramatic Scenes in Seattle Writing Classes.
Driving makes great material for dramatic scenes in Seattle Writing Classes.

In my Seattle writing classes, I teach how to write a dramatic scene, an especially effective way of organizing stories. In my Seattle writing classes, I explain how to use dramatic scenes to give life and movement to stories, whether fiction on nonfiction. It’s a technique that also helps you as a writer organize the story. You don’t need to go into detail about everything, but rather just the key moments that made the trip memorable.

On a recent trip to England, I used dramatic scene to highlight some of the adventures of the trip. Although travel stories tend to highlight the pleasures of a trip, I also like to write about the challenges and inconveniences. One of the biggest challenges was driving on the LEFT side of the road, with a clutch in my left hand. The whole operation was widely counter intuitive, with lots of honking drivers, speeding motorcyclists and phone-distracted pedestrians thrown into the mix.

As I tell students in my Seattle writing classes, it’s a good idea to always take a notebook with you to record your adventures. I took a reporter’s notebook and filled it with impressions of the trip, especially those involving driving. The hardest part was rewiring my brain to go left, not right, at key moments. This wasn’t so hard on a straightaway, but devilishly difficult on a roundabout. I followed the car in front of me, said a prayer, and plunged through it, occasionally earning a honk or other gesture.

It was a great pleasure to return the rental car to Heathrow airport and have someone else drive into London. Once there, we took the Tube and buses around, very convenient, but not the great material I found through driving on the wrong side of the road.

For more on writing with dramatic scenes, please sign up for my winter Seattle Writing class, The Arc of the Story.

In Medias Res Openings in Seattle Writing Classes

In Medias Res Openings in Seattle Writing Classes.
In Medias Res Openings in Seattle Writing Classes.

In my summer Seattle writing class, we’ll discuss In Medias Res openings, one of the most effective ways of opening a story. To write in medias res, you’ll need a strong scene from the middle of your story. Pick the most vivid and dramatic moment in the story, for example, when you’re rappelling off a mountain, the canoe is about to go over the falls, or the killer is making his last stand, or the argument is reaching its climax. You’re looking, in other words, for a scene that has conflict and drama. These qualities are essential to any in medias res scene, because they will bring the readers quickly into the story.

After finding the scene, divide it in half. Use the first half of the scene in the in medias res lead and save the second half of it for right near the end of the story. By dividing it in half, you’ll create suspense within your story. The reader will get hooked on the first half of the in medias res scene and then read to the end of the story to see what happens. In the process, readers will finish the rest of story.

After putting first half of scene in lead, make transition to actual start of story. For example, tell how you came to make a rafting trip down the Salmon River. Readers will follow this discussion because it will reveal whether you survived going over the falls. From time to time, foreshadow the falls and give the reader hints about what is going to happen.

Once you’ve reached the point where the second half of the in medias res scene occurs, insert it without repeating the opening scene. Just use summary or a repeated detail to remind the reader of what happened at the start of the story. Then go through second half of scene. End with a conclusion that makes sense of the trip and gives the reader a sense of what you learned from it.

Best Wines for Thanksgiving

Wild Turkey and Wine Pairing from Travel Writing Classes.
Wild Turkey and Wine Pairing from Travel Writing Classes.

In my travel writing classes, I have the pleasure of visiting places that have had centuries to find perfect pairings for food and wine. We Americans are newer to this, but we keep getting better. Practice makes perfect!

It’s hard to beat champagne as a classic wine for Thanksgiving as it goes well with everything: turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, even pumpkin pie. Widely available Moët & Chandon or Veuve Clicquot Brut NV are excellent choices. They give dinner a celebratory, special occasion quality that I prize, if they cost a bit more. Thanksgiving is a day for giving thanks and celebrating our family and friends and country. Champagne is a great way to do this.

Closer to home, domestic sparkling wines offer great value. I especially enjoy the crisp, food-friendly wines from Washington’s Domaine Ste. Michelle, such as Brut or Brut Rosé from the Columbia Valley. These pair well with Thanksgiving fare. California’s Roederer Estate makes consistently dry, appealing sparkling wine. Check out the estate’s Anderson Valley Brut Sparkling Wine.

Rosé is often considered a summer patio wine, but it goes well with turkey. There are many great affordable rosés from southern France, including Campuget or Domaine Sorin. My favorite French rosé is Domaine de la Mordoree, which I had the pleasure of visiting as part of one of my travel writing classes in Provence. It’s more expensive, but has a beautiful blood-orange color and a deep, savory, satisfying flavor. In Washington, Barnard Griffin makes a lovely Rosé of Sangiovese that is delicious and affordable.

There are many red wines that make great pairings. I recommend pulling out a bottle from the cellar, or the closet, or the store room, wherever you keep that special bottle from an occasion some years ago. Uncork it on Thanksgiving. You never know how long wine will last and it’s a great sorrow to open a bottle that’s past its prime. Bottles like this will memorialize the occasion. I have many bottles like this, gathered from my travel writing classes in Europe. I plan to open at least one this Thursday.

Let me know if this has been helpful or if you have other suggestions.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Nick O’Connell

Here are some additional suggestions from Eric Asimov:


Seattle Writing Class Teaches Power of Details

Seattle Writing Class teaches how to use concrete detail as exemplified by All the Light We Cannot See.
Seattle Writing Class teaches how to use concrete detail as exemplified by All the Light We Cannot See.

In my fall Seattle writing class, Revising Your Life, I emphasize how using concrete detail can conjure a world and bring it to life. I just finished a novel which provides a masterful example of how to do this. Anthony Doerr’s, All the Light We Cannot See, brings to life the hardship and atmosphere of WWII Europe, telling the story of Marie Laure, a blind French Girl, and Werner, a German orphan, whose lives illuminate the larger story of the period.

Though I have read many books about WWII, none of them brings to life the hardships of the period as clearly as this one. Werner escapes the orphanage by learning to build and fix radios, a skill highly prized by the Nazis, who soon send him to an elite military academy to train and become indoctrinated into the Nazi world view. His younger sister, Jutta, objects to his attending the school as she believes it will turn him into one of them. The difficult moral problems each of these characters is forced to confront testifies to the subtlety and sympathy of Doerr as a writer. There are no easy answers to such questions.

Frederick, one of Werner’s friends at the academy, refuses to cooperate with commandant. The other boys then set on him, beating him nearly to death. There is no easy way out of Werner’s dilemma. He keeps his head down and mouth shut and succeeds at the school because of his prowess at fixing radios. This talent soon leads him into the German army where he specializes in tracking radios used by the enemy.

The book alternates between Werner’s and Marie Laure’s point of view. While Doerr employs a more conventional point of view with Werner, he uses a braille-like approach with Marie Laure. There is so much amazingly tactile writing in the book, first about Paris where she grows up, and then about St. Malo, a luminous city on the north coast of France, where the book’s climax takes place. I won’t give away the ending, but it is satisfying, haunting, and surprisingly optimistic, making it a worthy recipient of the Pulitzer Prize.

My fall Seattle Writing Class, Revising Your Life, will emphasize how to use concrete detail in your own work. There’s still room. Let me know if you’d like to sign up!

Hemingway and Travel Writing Classes

Hotel Florida and Travel Writing Classes.
Hotel Florida inspires travel stories, travel writing classes.

In my travel writing classes, I like to emphasize how using scenes and concrete detail can make a place come to life as Ernest Hemingway did in A Moveable Feast and other works. I recently returned from teaching the Travel, Food and Wine Writing class in Spain and while there, took a tour of Hemingway’s Madrid which provided a fascinating look at his time there. The visit inspired me to read, Hotel Florida, by Amanda Vaill, a fascinating account of the intertwined lives of Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and others who went to Spain to capture the stories and images of this horrific conflict which served as a precursor to World War II.

The book begins in 1936 with a scene of Franco boarding a plane in the Canary Islands for Spanish Morocco to lead his troups onto the mainland of Spain in a carefully planned military coup against the democratically elected Socialist Government. So began the Spanish Civil war, a conflict that tore apart the country and helped touch off a global conflict. There have been many books and histories about the war, but Vaill breaks new ground in using six true to life characters–Hemingway and others–to tell her story. This gives the book a freshness that’s appealing. Hemingway found in the conflict a way to boost his writing career as his experience as a war correspondent helped provide the material of For Whom the Bell Tolls, a novel that confirmed and expanded his reputation. He also fell in love with Martha Gellhorn, an ambitious and extremely attractive young journalist who became his third wife. The book chronicles their blossoming romance amid the bombs, shells, atrocities, and excitement of this important conflict, illuminating the lives of Hemingway and others who told the story of the war.


Travel Writing Class and Goya’s Black Paintings

Travel Writing Class and Goya's Black Paintings.
Travel Writing Class and Goya’s Black Paintings.

While teaching my Travel writing class for The Writer’s Workshop, I stopped by the Prado Museum in Madrid to see Goya’s Black Paintings. I’d written a long paper about the paintings for an art history class at Amherst College. When I traveled to Europe as part of a junior year abroad program I found them electric in their intensity, shocking in their gruesome detail. I was especially struck by the painting Pilgrimage to San Isidro and the malevolent and haunting expressions on the faces of the pilgrims. It was astounding to think that Goya actually displayed the paintings on the walls of his house. What would it be like to wake up every day and see these horrific images?

I came away from my first visit to the Prado moved by the paintings but unsure of how to interpret them. I did not return to the museum or Madrid for many years, but the images stuck with me.

This past year I planned to teach a travel writing class in Haro, about a three-hour drive north of Madrid. I decided to fly into Madrid, stay in the city for a couple nights, enjoy the buzz of the city, order some tapas and return to the Prado. How would I react to the paintings 30 years later? There was no way to know. Some paintings I’d loved over the years eventually lost their lustre. I hoped this would not be the case.

As my friend Chris Olsen and I entered the museum, we made our way toward the Black Paintings. Walking through the exhibition, I was astonished by the skill of Goya’s execution. I came away impressed by the power of Goya’s art to transform even the most horrific experience into something satisfying and strangely beautiful.

Travel Writing and Marketing Master Class

Travel Writing and Marketing Master Class
Seattle, WA
April 7-9

Travel Writing Classes
Sign up early for the Travel Writing and Marketing Master Class.

Why do you need to sign up for the upcoming Travel Writing, Marketing Master Class? It’s early evening and you’re luxuriating in a 5-star Balinese lifestyle resort. You’re reclining on a pristine white daybed with your partner, sipping a cocktail beside the gorgeous infinity pool. Maybe you spent the day wandering around a market and marveling at the colors, smells and sounds. Perhaps you were inspired by art galleries, found intriguing historical sites, enjoyed a bird’s eye view from a hot
air balloon and took a dip in the crystal clear turquoise ocean.

Soon you’ll be heading over to the resort’s Michelin-starred restaurant, where you’ll dine on exquisite international cuisine in opulent beach-side surroundings. Tomorrow you’ll be experiencing a bespoke
aromatherapy spa treatment before boarding the hotel’s VIP yacht for an unforgettable snorkeling and diving trip. And the best part?  You’re getting paid to do this.

This isn’t an unachievable dream. I’ve been paid to travel the globe and stay in the most exclusive hotels and resorts for over nine years. My travel stories have appeared in more than 200 publications and
I’ve earned thousands of dollars writing about the world’s most luxurious destinations. Let me tell you, success feels fantastic – and I’m going to show you exactly how to do it.

The Complete Travel Writing & Marketing Master Class (April 7-9) is an exclusive program where we’ll explore, in detail, every single step of my travel writing, pitching and selling strategy. Other workshops gloss over the details, but that’s not how we do things around here. You will walk away from this program knowing exactly how to get sensational paid trips around the world and sky-rocket your travel writing success – even if you’re starting at $0.

Workshop is limited to twenty-five participants to guarantee a high quality experience and allow plenty of time for
interaction between your instructors and fellow writers of the Travel Writing and Marketing Class.

“Roy Stevenson will be teaching the marketing side of the class,” says Nicholas O’Connell. “Roy is one of the savviest and shrewdest travel writers anywhere and he’s very generous about spreading the wealth of his knowledge about how to break into the world of freelance travel writing. I highly recommend his books on the subject as well as his Complete Travel Writing, Marketing and Photography Destination Master Class in Siem Reap, Cambodia (Oct. 23-28). I’ll  have more details on this class in a later blog post.  Take a look at his website for more: http://www.pitchtravelwrite.com/

As part of the Travel Writing and Marketing Class, Nicholas O’Connell will be offering An optional one-day creative travel writing workshop  offered to Master Class participants for an additional fee. His class will complement Roy’s as he’ll emphasize the art and craft of travel writing: once you’ve got the assignment, how do you deliver the goods in an appealing and colorful and memorable way? The one-day writing workshop will be held on April 6.

Registration is open.  Learn more and register …

Seattle Writing Class Discusses Travel Writing

Seattle Writing Class
The scallop shell, symbol of the Camino de Santiago, a portion of which we’ll walk during the Travel, Food and Wine Writing Class.

My winter Seattle Writing Class, Follow the Story, will focus on genre in narrative writing. We will discuss travel writing and many other genres during the eight- session class. Here are some tips for the would-be travel writer:


  • START WITH FAMILIAR, GO TO THE UNFAMILIAR – Good travel stories meet the reader’s expectations about a place, but take them a bit further. Good stories take the readers as they are, and in the course of the journey, bring them to someplace new.
  • STRUGGLE – Don’t forget to struggle a bit as you travel. If you fly from destination to destination without a hitch, you’re going to tell a BORING STORY. Conversely, if you have to work to get through your vacation then chances are you’ve got some drama to provide interest and suspense in your story.
  • FOCUS ON PEOPLE as well as the place, especially people who are characteristic of it. Ever notice how the folks you met along your journey conjure up the strongest memories? It’s the same with readers. They want to be introduced to the folks that made your trip special. Add QUICK CHARACTER SKETCHES of the most memorable folks you met.
  • ORGANIZE STORY AROUND SCENES – Don’t include every event that happened, just the important, lively, funny, fearful, memorable ones. This is one of the techniques I’ll discuss in the winter Seattle Writing Class.
  • GENERALLY SPEAKING, USE FIRST PERSON POINT OF VIEW – Make yourself a character in the story. Filter the place through your point of view. Describe how it impinges on you.  In first person point of view the “I” is the focal character and it selects, colors and shapes the material related in the story.When I write in first person, my feelings, thoughts, impressions are added to descriptions of the actions, so that the reader gets a sense of how they affect me, but the “me” is a very selective one, because I understand that readers are looking for a surrogate in the story and that my job is to fulfill that role without boring, irritating or putting them off

Restaurant exemplifies ideal of Travel Writing Classes

Travel, Food and Wine Writing Classes
In my Travel, Food and Wine Writing Classes I love to visit restaurants like the Sooke Harbour House, where I had the pleasure of dining with my family.

In my Travel Writing Classes, I love to visit restaurants with a strong sense of place.

Though European restaurants often exhibit this connection with place, North American restaurants are making this a priority, too.

Thus, it was a great pleasure to visit Sooke Harbour House on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. It was one of the first restaurants to place a strong emphasis on local foods, a natural outgrowth of its location on a beautiful inlet, with access to abundant local seafood, meats, and an extensive flower and produce garden.

I have been wanting to visit Sooke Harbor for years and finally got the chance this summer with my family. We sat outside in the sunshine at a table overlooking the sea, with the Olympic Mountains in the distance. I ordered the delicious charcuterie plate, which came with a side of wonderful figs and local produce. My children, not easily impressed by fancy food, agreed that the fish, soup and ice cream were some of the best they’d  ever enjoyed. My wife, Lisa, raved about the plum dessert.

Everything was perfectly prepared, with a light touch and the freshest of ingredients. The amiable waiter even made our dog, Stella, feel at home. It was everything I had expected and more. As is the case with the restaurants I visit for the Travel Writing Classes, the place reflects the philosophy and practice of the owners.

The Sooke Harbour House has been owned by Frederique and Sinclair Philip since 1979. Sinclair Philip is the Canadian representative to Slow Food in Italy and some years ago was a Slow Food Vancouver Island Convivium leader. Mr. Philip has a doctorate in political economics from the University of Grenoble in France.

The restaurant reflects this heritage, taking cues from French, Japanese and  Northwest Indian cuisine. If you have a chance to visit, don’t miss it!