Honesty in travel writing. Confession time?

Over on the BBC News website, there is an interesting article about the occurrence of lying in travel writing.  It outlines some pretty severe deviations from truth, one or two by very well-known travel writers. Transgressions include creating characters that did not exist, describing first-hand events that the writer didn’t actually witness, and even making up entire parts of a journey.

It’s sad, really, because when the world is so interesting, why rely on anything other than your ability to retell a story? Although it must be tempting to sex things up sometimes and enliven parts of the story that might be boring or repetitive, I still don’t see the point. Not least when some of the greatest travel writers out there have a lyrical and descriptive richness that is better than many famous novelists I’ve read.

I heard a talk from travel writer Peter Moore some years back when he talked about how he didn’t need to make things up, because the people and places he encountered on his travels were often so curious and odd, that fiction would never be as good as what actually happened.

Of course, making things interesting and readable is always a challenge when a journey might not be 100% packed with hilarious, dramatic, jaw-dropping experiences. But that’s why you should skip or summarise the boring bits to speed up the story – you might spend a few pages describing a single conversation or event, and then use a single paragraph to gloss over an entire day or two in which nothing of note or interest happened. You should use the quiet bits of a story as a chance for flashback or tangent. Perhaps you could explore the boringness in depth to allow the reader to empathise with what you were experiencing, or drag it out for comedy effect. You might even find something deeper within the silence or stillness of what on the surface seems boring but which might, with a bit of digging, be a scene of immense hidden detail.

That’s not to say that there aren’t good reasons to change certain minor details. In the same talk by Peter that I mentioned above, I recall him also describing how he visited a country with a notoriously oppressive government, and a local he met spoke at length about their problems with the regime. To protect them, Peter changed the character substantially. Fair enough, I’d say.

And on a similar but less dramatic level I’ve changed minor details about one or two people I met in my forthcoming second mullet book, mainly so I could feel more comfortable in accurately writing about their negative qualities. I’ve also paraphrased dialogue on a few occasions where my notes or memory failed me as to the precise wording people used. Mind you, I don’t feel that paraphrasing is unethical in any sense and I’m not convinced it is included in the point of the BBC News article I referred to. Sometimes you have to speed things up, generalise a bit, and get to the point. That’s the point of travel writing – it aims to be interesting, entertaining and inspiring. While I believe it should be the truth, I’m not sure it makes for coherent, flowing storytelling for it to constantly be the absolute whole truth.

However, the closest I came to the sorts of travel writers’ honesty crimes mentioned in the article above was in my first book, when I reattributed one sentence of dialogue to a very similar participant in the same conversation. The character I “wrote out” was not essential to the scene, and the only thing I remember them saying of any substance was that one line.  It was a line I wanted to use, but the paragraph or so it would have required to explain and introduce the person who said it would have interrupted the flow of the scene. I decided, on reflection, to put those words into the mouth of another character – one who was dominant in the scene, who was very similar to the person I wrote out, and who was very much a part of the sentiment of the words in question.

Was my reattribution of one sentence an example of lying? I’d be keen for your thoughts, but I’m not sure it was. I thought long and hard when I wrote that bit, and figured that the version I settled upon was entirely in keeping with the spirit of the scene and the dialogue as it actually happened. In any case, there was yet another person present at that conversation who I entirely wrote out, because they contributed nothing at all of substance to the scene, and their exclusion left no footprint on the story.

While I’m happy to criticise the sort of untruths mentioned in the article, I’m also happy for thoughts about my example of dialogue reattribution. It’s probably not crime of the century, but others might think it was a change too far. What do you think?

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