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I have some good, true travel stories. Things that involve guns, explosions, and all kinds of other good stuff. I want to write them down, but I'm having trouble envisioning how to present the stories. I don't want to embellish, and it would go against my ethics to stray into creative writing in a non-fiction account (eg. "the sun illuminated his eyes as he looked down his gun sight" is stretching into the realm of creative writing to me, instead of staying in non-fiction land.)

On the other hand, simply stating what happened: "Then I did this. Then that guy did that. Then we all had a good laugh." is boring.

So, how can I present my true travel stories in a way that is both interesting to someone on the Internet who had no association with the events the stories talk about, and that does not take too much creative license?

  • Not a dupe, but closely related: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/3240/what-makes-for-interesting-travel-writing-blogging – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Dec 21 '15 at 0:49
  • Is it possible to do some interviews with source material? If so, that could increase readability: asking witnesses to retell what they remember ten years later and comparing it to your recollections. – Stu W Dec 21 '15 at 5:17
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    Have you read "In Cold Blood?" I don't know why you'd worry about using creative writing to tell your true story. People embellish stories far more all of the time. My $.02. – Thom Dec 21 '15 at 13:56
  • @The Thom - if the story contains fiction content, is it not fiction? – HH- Apologize to Carole Baskin Dec 22 '15 at 13:39
  • Where do you draw the line. Each of our perspectives is our version of the truth and not the truth itself. Can't that be viewed as fiction. All I'm saying is "based on a true story" often has very little relationship with the true story. I'd write your book and not worry so much about your dramatization of the events. – Thom Dec 22 '15 at 15:01
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You have travel stories that sound like they could be interesting, but it doesn't follow that seeing or doing interesting things will make interesting stories unless you tell them as a story, with beginnings, middles, endings, etc.

A lot of this depends on who your audience is. If you're giving an after action report to an Incident Commander after spending the day fighting a wildfire, the type of writing you'll use is completely different than the type of writing you'd use as you describe to your friends how you were driving through the forest road escaping from a flareup and the stupid bear wouldn't get out of your way.

You say that it's against your ethics to make stuff up, and that would be appropriate in an after action report or other kinds of reporting, where the facts of what happened rule over emotional impact and enjoyment, but in a story you can't use dry factual reporting and keep people's attention. This isn't making things up, it's being true to the essence of what happened and helping your readers feel as if they're in your shoes experiencing the things you're telling them.

So the question is, are you writing a story or a report, and who is your audience? If your audience is expecting a story and you give them a report, then you'll lose your audience. If your commanding officer, or your editor is expecting a report and you give them a story, they might enjoy it, but still be unhappy because they had to dig through your writing to find the facts.

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  • Good points but - while it may be true that using dry factual reporting may not keep people's attention, that doesn't make embellishments truth. This is something I wish everyone, especially my journalist friends who do this sort of thing all the time, would come to terms with. If it didn't happen, it didn't happen, and no amount of entertainment is going to make it OK to claim it did. – HH- Apologize to Carole Baskin Dec 22 '15 at 10:07
  • I agree with you - embellishments don't belong in journalism, especially when reporting about what things people were supposed to have said, but in a memoir you're not really reporting a story as a journalist but as a storyteller. It's a different thing, I think. – DoWhileNot Dec 22 '15 at 16:16
  • Yes, non-fiction does not mean boring or an itemized report of facts. – Simon White Jan 26 '16 at 6:09
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I like to use a lot of dialogue. It allows you to avoid narrative information dumps and will prevent you from being too opinionated compared to simply being selective about presented material.

Narrative:

Ben-Yaden relaxed his grip on the trigger. He couldn't be sure if the man within his sites was Jew or Palestinian. He knew his orders, but he was a human being, after all. Even if there was a shred of doubt ... He didn't complete the thought before an explosion rocked the ground and shrapnel flew in all direction. Ben-Yaden didn't even take cover, awaiting his marks next move.

Dialogue:

Ben-Yaden yelled in Hebrew, "Show me a Star of David or you're a dead man!"

His adversary stood silent. Ben-Yaden tried again in Arabic--he could swear better than speak. "Listen to me, motherf--ker! Show me your fu--ing hands!"

BOOM!

Ben-Yaden didn't even flinch. He knew what had just happened. He looked his mark square in the eye and demanded in Arabic, "Don't you move. Don't you fu--ing move."

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  • good point, but I don't think I can use it in my particular case. Some of this stuff happened years ago, even a decade or more ago, and I don't want to guess or paraphrase quotes, since that would (by my ethics) render the story a work of fiction. I think I could still use eg. "Then I told him to follow me" type paraphrasing, where dialogue existed, though. – HH- Apologize to Carole Baskin Dec 20 '15 at 22:17
  • Yeah, I was considering that as soon as I posted. First person narration really struggles with "then this, then this, then this ..." Let's see what others come up with. – Stu W Dec 21 '15 at 5:08
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I don't want to embellish, and it would go against my ethics to stray into creative writing in a non-fiction account

I think you're off-base here. Memoirs (which is what you're writing) are not transcripts of history. Yes, they are recitations of actual facts and events which occurred to the writer, but nobody remembers every detail of first grade with photographic precision (unless you happen to have eidetic memory). The writer is going to add, trim, and edit to make it work as a story.

There's nothing wrong with smoothing out the dry facts of your narrative into something readable and interesting. That's not embellishment or what you dismiss as "creative writing." That's editing.

If the dry fact is "I caught two trout," embellishment is "I caught four monstrous trout!" and creative writing is "After two days at sea, with no power, no GPS, and diminishing supplies, I finally sighted the great white shark. He reared out of the water and fixed me with one fathomless black eye. I took aim with my trusty flare gun..."

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  • That may be the professional stance but, as I said, my ethics dictate otherwise. If something didn't happen, it didn't happen, and selling / attracting attention isn't going to make me say it did, and (to me) "prettying up the facts" is the same as a lie. Again, I understand mine isn't a popular stance, and I'm not condemning anyone else's viewpoint. – HH- Apologize to Carole Baskin Dec 20 '15 at 22:55
  • To reiterate - everything a writer says happened that didn't happen is a lie. I know people won't feel this way (because it will detract from their writing to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth), but that's the way it is. – HH- Apologize to Carole Baskin Dec 22 '15 at 10:04
  • @horsehair Then you aren't writing "travel stories"; you're writing news. And you should approach it as such. Don't ask for help about making "the news" interesting. "The news" doesn't need to bother with being interesting. It's just reporting facts. That's what you're doing, right? You only want to write down what happened. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Dec 22 '15 at 11:07
  • Does this mean that non-fiction "stories" that do not contain embellishment (references to events / perceptions / words that never occurred) are not stories, but news? – HH- Apologize to Carole Baskin Dec 22 '15 at 13:32
  • Also, if I see a "story" (eg. a travel story on a blog), should assume that either the story contains falsehoods used to make the story more attractive, or that the "story" is incorrectly labeled and should be called "news"? – HH- Apologize to Carole Baskin Dec 22 '15 at 13:41
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Travel stories are about the longing for something with a counterpoint of fear of the unknown and its dangers. To make your story interesting, find the object of longing and find the the source of peril. The longing and the peril may be great or small, but they are always at the heart of the story.

Since you have guns and explosions, the perils are pretty clear. What is the longing that drives the traveller to brave these perils?

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  • Thanks, this helps with something else I've been dealing with too. As for the longing that drives the traveler to brave the perils, is implied desire for survival strong enough? Or would I be better off building that up a bit somehow? – HH- Apologize to Carole Baskin Dec 20 '15 at 22:36
  • I don't think the desire for survival is enough unless we have some reason to care about the survival of the person -- unless we care about them. This is why every disaster movie hero has a kid that has to be rescued. We care that our hero survives because he has to rescue his kid. In other words, we have to have a reason to cheer for the protagonist independent of the peril they are in. There are all kind of ways to do this, but since this is true travel and you don't want to embellish it, you will need to find a reason for the reader to care in your own story. – user16226 Dec 21 '15 at 1:57
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Although the following might seem obvious, some of the things I tell my students include: don't use 'then'. If you have written it well one thing follows from another.

Secondly, avoid starting sentences in the same way. Particularly avoid starting with 'I' or a similar pronoun.

Thirdly, vary the structure of your sentences for effect. Use simple sentences for pace, etc.

Fourthly, try to use some similes and metaphors to make your writing more interesting.

Fifthly, vary your vocabulary and definitely avoid repeating most words.

Sixthly, include more details. For example, what did the explosives smell like?

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From what I can see, there seems to be no way of writing an interesting account, without violating your ethics. But I would bet my bottom dollar that at least 50% of "non-fiction" accounts embellish on the facts. Sure, maybe you don't want to add whole paragraphs of made-up details, but without some details (e.g, "My hand held tightly to the cold metal of the gun...") your story will be as dry as dust. Non-fiction is taking the things that you remember happening, and telling them in an interesting, way, that accurately portray the emotions that you felt while going through the events.

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I have written 2 narrative travel books. My advice is - use lots of dialogue, look into the monomyth structure, increase drama where possible and try to build an emotional connection between the reader and characters by embellishing the ups and downs the character is facing.

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You can use internal monologue in between the action beats. Show reaction beats: "I did this. He flinched. Then he did that".

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