Elements of the travel story buried in an education in science

by Janice Nigro

When I started to write this piece, I thought, I have no idea why travel writing comes so naturally to me. I just thought, it’s like anything, when you want to do it, you actually do it.

Still when you do something right, the first thing people want to know, is how you did it.

They want, uh, the protocol.

Yes, the protocol. When I started to think about it, travel writing has some striking similarities to science writing which is something I was trained to do.

Maybe what I believe just comes naturally to me, has really been a lifelong education. The way to becoming a travel writer is to get your PhD in biology first.

Not really, but a good travel story can emerge in the same way that great science experiments develop. And just like that, this blog post becomes a story of where else your PhD in biology can take you.

1.You’re curious. You don’t get anywhere in life without being curious. In science, you do a little research and find out you want to know more about some animal, molecule, or process.

When you decide to travel, you choose your destination because you want to know more about a place, the people, or the food, or even just how to get there. Any place you have to take a ferry to is going to be interesting.

2. You ask questions. I always think that by just putting yourself somewhere or in some situation, something happens. Science starts with a question. The answers often aren’t what you expected, but it all starts with a question, a hypothesis.

Travel is a lot like that. You will have an adventure, but the nature of it is unknown. When you get there, you interact with your environment by asking questions. In my recent story in the LA Times, I happened to ask just the right question of the woman in the flower shop in Munich. She shocked me out of my jet lag with her simple statement summarizing the experience of expat living.

It all started with a question, a rather standard one at that.

3. You keep a notebook. Scientists keep notebooks to have a permanent source for the facts and protocols as they happen. Serious travel writers keep a journal.

I admit that my journal at home is a tremendous fail, but when I am traveling, I can hardly wait to crack open my journal and begin recording the facts and my thoughts. I have been accused of not having the most literary style in my journal, but I really just need a record of the facts and my immediate thoughts in a specific moment. My lab notebooks were not literary achievements either. They just contained the facts. And by the way, photographs too!

4. You present the facts. In a general sense, travel stories are a series of facts or events, just like a science report. You don’t get off the hook so easily though in either case by just reporting the facts. You still want to tell a story if your reader is going to remember or be moved by your travel story or your experiments.

In a scientific article, we include arguments for performing the experiments before we start to report the results. Such logic is not so different from why you want to present your travel story. For some reason, you traveled to that location. It all provides background, a mood, a vignette.

5. Your story isn’t about what everyone else is doingWe all are interested in curing cancer. Historically, though, some of our breakthroughs in science have come from some not so mainstream science. The field of molecular biology was basically born when scientists became interested in how bacteria fight off invasion by their version of a virus.

Everyone is equally enchanted by iconic locales around the world, but the real business of travel seems to happen somewhere else. The best travel stories often happen when you don’t expect them to happen. A moment of enlightenment or a big laugh perhaps in a conversation with someone you might never see again.

6. Your unique perspective leads to a breakthrough. Early in my scientific career, I had a boss who had been one of the first to see in the electron microscope what later became known as RNA splicing. He and his colleagues had no idea what they were looking at. Another group at another university had similar results, but they came up with a story to fit those results. They were looking at RNA splicing and that investigator won the Nobel Prize.

In travel, one person’s journey to a barbershop might be just that, a journey to a barbershop. But the same story might be told as an example of cultural differences, gender inequality, or a transformative personal experience.

These are all factual events, but someone puts them together to make some kind of sense out of it, i.e. the story.

7. You write stories you find interesting. The best stories are the ones we want to tell whether the topic is travel or science or anything else. If we have done our experiments right, we scientists give our readers, peers, and colleagues something to think about.

As a travel writer, your best stories transport your reader momentarily. You make them see what you see, smell what you smell, and feel what you feel. You give them the vignette.

And something to think about too.

Read the story in the LA Times

©Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com


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