Question: I am considering writing a novel based on my traveling experiences but not as an autobiography. Do you have any advice on how I can formulate my experiences into a fictional format?

Travel writers can use their experiences and adventures to inspire fiction stories. 

Answer:

It is very common for writers to use real life experiences to influence and inform their fiction stories. New writers are often told to “write what you know”. This is because it’s much easier to be descriptive and use all five senses in your writing when you apply details from people, places, and experiences you know firsthand.

Real life CAN make great stories, but turning a personal experience into a full-length novel that engages readers from start to finish can be challenging. It takes a good understanding of narrative structure and writing craft, along with considerable dedication and self-discipline. For a fiction book to grab readers on page one and keep them turning to the end, writers must incorporate several key elements including: 

•  An opening hook and inciting action or incident
•  A protagonist that wants or needs something
•  An antagonist that keeps the protagonist from getting it
•  Multiple points of escalating conflict
•  A resolution showing character growth


Opening Hook and Inciting Incident

There are many ways to start a story, but a captivating beginning is always the best way to “hook” a reader and keep them wanting more. Your opening lines and scene need to do several things including establish time and place, introduce your main character and his or her goals, and reveal the main conflict.

Once you’ve grounded and captured the reader with your opening, your job is to quickly build up to the inciting incident. The inciting incident is an essential plot point in any story, and is the catalyst that changes everything for your main character. It is the event that upsets the status quo and forces him or her to make a life-altering decision. The inciting incident should happen early on in your story and can even take place in the opening scene. The right placement depends on your genre and overall pacing.


A Well-Developed Protagonist

Your story’s protagonist is your main character around whom the story evolves. Fiction is largely driven by the main character as well as their motivations. Characters that are authentic, believable, and flawed are more engaging, so choose the personality traits and vulnerabilities that are most interesting. It’s also important to be clear about your main character’s desires or needs and what’s at stake if these are not met. Your story won’t matter to readers if you don’t establish a relatable main character that has something to gain or lose. Here are five ways to make sure you are developing a main character that will keep readers turning the pages:

•  Give the character a strong desire or need
•  Raise the stakes…what happens if the goal isn’t attained?
•  Develop relatable and likable traits
•  Reveal flaws…everyone has flaws, this contributes to believability
•  Avoid stereotypes and clichés


A Troublesome Antagonist or Opposing Force

Every great protagonist needs an equally great “antagonist”. The antagonist is the “villain” or force that attempts to keep your main character from reaching his or her goals. Without this opposition, a story will be dull, uninteresting, and unfocused. This opposing force pushes your protagonist to grow and change throughout the story, and can come from a person, group, or internal/external forces.

Some examples of good antagonists include a rival at work, school, or home, a disease or mental illness, a government entity, or the environment. For a book with themes around travel and adventure, maybe environmental elements like the weather are keeping your protagonist from reaching his or her destination, or, he or she wants to see the world but suffers from severe agoraphobia.

Conflict is central to any good fiction story.


Conflict, Conflict, and More Conflict

Conflict arises when your antagonist challenges your protagonist. Conflict must be an integral part of your story to give it a clear beginning, middle, and ending. It’s what brings tension into your story, creates trouble for the protagonist, and keeps your plot moving forward. Over the course of your book, your should have multiple points of conflict that get more intense as your story progresses and your protagonist gets closer to his or her goal.

There are many different types of conflict, but the primary categories are internal and external. Internal conflict takes place within the mind of a character, such as a fear of failure or anger toward a family member. External conflict is what happens to the character based on outside forces, such as a tragic accident or a fight started by another character. Regardless, some degree of conflict should be present at all times, otherwise the manuscript may need some work. 


A Satisfying Resolution

No matter what, your story needs to have a pleasing conclusion for your readers. Even if you don’t want to wrap up all conflicts—maybe you want to leave room for a sequel, for example—most of the issues and questions you introduce should be resolved by the end of your book. Your protagonist should undergo some changes and get a little closer to reaching his or her goal. If your story’s ending doesn’t feel complete, you are likely to leave your readers incredibly frustrated.


If you've taken photos or have written journal entries about your travel, you can use those for writing inspiration.Brainstorm How to Use Your Travel Experiences

There are several ways you can use your travel experiences to inspire your fiction writing. Is there a unique or unusual place you’ve visited that would make an intriguing setting for a story? Or, have you experienced something wild and crazy on one of your trips that you want to use in a scene? Maybe you’ve met some really interesting people along the way that you’d like to use to inspire characters.

You don’t have to write about your experiences exactly as they occurred. That will likely be boring to others. Instead, use experiences as a foundation to build upon, drawing from your imagination to enhance story elements and fill in any gaps. If you’ve kept a journal of these trips, taken photos, or have a folder with your itinerary, maps, and receipts, you can use these details to help brainstorm story ideas. Sometimes outlining the major plot points or scenes will provide a blueprint for structuring your story.

Once you start writing your first draft, don’t forget about other elements that greatly affect the tone and readability of a story. Here are a few:

•  Writing voice and style
•  Point of view
•  Dialogue
•  Writing techniques and devices
•  Word count

If you decide that a full-length novel is too ambitious for sharing your travel experiences, you should consider writing short stories instead. Or, maybe even personal essays. There are definitely audiences for both in the marketplace.

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CharlieAJA via Getty Images
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