The Difference Between Fiction and Travel Writing

I keep an eye on the search terms people use to find my blog. Blogging, in general, makes me feel just a little like an exhibitionist, and (to the extent that it doesn’t involve taking off my clothes) I rather enjoy that. People peeking into my life. But why do they peek? What were they really hoping to find when they stumbled across my blog?

Here are a few of the more entertaining search terms that have brought up my blog:

  • naked college coe
  • wolf lingerie
  • donny osmond you can’t fire me i’m famous
  • spider soup

And my current favorite:

  • difference between fiction and travel writing

What a wonderful question! Take a moment to savor it on its own merits. Aah!

Now here’s my opinion: that question sums up my entire opinion on writing and the theme of my blog: there is very little difference.

Memory, I’ve been told, is one of the least reliable sources available. I could swear up one hill and down another that my sister was wearing a blue shirt yesterday. I might even be willing to place a wager on it, I’m so convinced, but I could be wrong. Easily.

I spent a few days last week listening to my grandparents tell stories of their pasts. On several occasions, they disagreed with each other about the way such and such event had actually happened, or whether so and so had been married twice or three times. It was clear to me that each grandparent was equally sure that his or her version of the tale was correct, and neither would admit otherwise.

Most of these disagreements would end with my grandmother flicking her fingers at my grandfather and saying “oh well, it doesn’t matter anyway,” though her tone implied she’s only humoring him. Sometimes she’d add an aside to me in her I-forgot-my-hearing-aid whisper: “Your grandpa doesn’t remember as well as he used to.”

Truth is, both my grandparents’ memories are in excellent working order, especially considering their ages. If I wanted to write a story of, let’s say, their courtship and wedding, I might interview both and get two slightly different recountings. Which one is more right? Neither, of course. The real story is the story that lives in your mind. If I wrote down a combined version of the stories they told me, I bet neither grandparent would find the result very satisfying. I can hear the comments now:

Grandma: “Well, that’s not really exactly how it happened, but it was nice of you to try.

Grandpa: “Very creative.”


There is more than one way to tell any tale. You can relate what happened, describe a scene, and include dialog only to find upon rereading that the story that it evokes no emotional response at all, much less the same feeling you had while being there yourself. How do you get that moment back, then?

It is not enough to simply describe. A scene must be created, sculpted to your audience and tailored to exceed expectations. Tools in the arsenal? Exaggeration is potent, and must therefore be used in moderation. Using a perspective other than your own to get closer to the action is occasionally good. Outright lying…? Well that’s where the whole question arises, isn’t it? When does embellishment for the sake of giving a story its true feel cross a line into fiction?

I mentioned in a previous post that A Million Little Pieces was an excellent example of this debate, one which was lost by the author. I think James Frey’s mistake was telling a tale shocking enough to elicit public outcry. Though he may well have suffered so much that his story demanded to be told at the edge of obscenity, people generally don’t like to have their emotions whipped to a boil and sympathies imposed upon only to find them misplaced.

So here is my guideline for determining when the telling of a tale is just right or gone to far: Ask yourself what someone else who was also there (or might have been there) would say if he or she read your story. Anything ranging from “yes! You got it dead on!” to “haha! That’s good, but not really what that woman said!” are acceptable. (Note that the “haha” in the last comment is important.) Once you enter the realm of “dude, that’s not right” or “what are you trying to say here?” (assume tone of irritation or anger) you’ve probably gone too far.

But who am I to make guidelines? Do what works for you, be willing to accept whatever consequences your words may have, and maybe you, too, can be on a best seller list.


7 thoughts on “The Difference Between Fiction and Travel Writing

  1. That’s why you have the failsafe disclaimer “Based on True Events but creative license used extensively” :p

  2. Ah, glad to have found your site and read this post. I’ve been writing about similar things on my blog. I’m revising my dead grandmother’s memoir. Talk about a difficult task — she remembered a lot of her own life and what she was told about others, so I have a lot of detail, considering. But to make the story come alive has taken a lot of research into the so-called “truth.” And then there are the places where I just don’t know what was said or the details of what happened, only the broad outline of events.

    I realize that I am using creative energy to make this “non-fiction” story come alive for the reader, but my guideline is always, “Is it likely that something like this really happened? Does it illustrate the truth as Grandma saw it?”

    Sometimes I can’t answer those questions. That’s when I fall back on the fact that I’m still drafting the revision and don’t have to make the tough decisions yet!

    I enjoyed your post — thanks!

  3. “Does it illustrate the truth as Grandma saw it?”

    writinggb, I think this is the perfect question. If you’re faithful to that, you’re bound to wind up with a story you’ll be proud of (and hopefully that grandma would have been proud of too). I wish you the best luck with your six pages a day goal!

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