How do you find story ideas for your travel write-ups? How to write about a place from another angle instead of reporting about what you do on a day-to-day basis? I’ve been asked this question quite often in various occasions, so I thought I could share about it through this post:
1. Follow your curiosity
You are not a cat, so hopefully, you won’t get killed (and even cats have 9 lives!). Have you ever looked at something, heard something, or read about something, and felt curious about a certain thing afterwards? Curiosity is human. We like to ‘sniff around’. We want to know what is happening, we want to know more, we want to know what will happen next. Our mind is full of chatters and questions–even about the most trivial things. The next time you are curious about something, follow it like a detective.
There was this one time around 3 years ago when I watched a TV series, Miss Advised. One of the characters used Craigslist–a listing site, to find herself a date. I was curious whether there were also people posting dating profiles on Craigslist in Indonesia. So I went in. And there were loads of people looking for ‘dates’ on Craigslist, in Jakarta–even just reading their ‘creative’ ads had given me a few hours of uninterrupted fun. Then I asked myself, do people really answer these ads? Does it really work? And so I replied to one of the ads and set myself up for a blind date. The story of the blind date–I’ll keep that for another time!
Stories that may come up: stories about exploration, about your effort in following ‘clues’, about uncovering something, about the challenges in getting the information you need, etc.
2. Keep asking ‘why’ and talk to people
When we travel, there may be many occasions when we realised that we know nothing about something: the way people dress, how they treat each other, their eating habit, the way they treat guests, their local beliefs, about why it seemed like every students in Kazakhstan were always asking me about how many languages do I speak, or about why we would see some old people in Paris walking down the street or sitting in front of a restaurant–talking to themselves.
Of course, we can always shrug our shoulders and let these things pass; or we can always try to understand these ‘unfamiliar’ things by asking people. I talked to a guy working in a villa in Bali, and it turns into this.
Stories that may come up: a feature story about someone you meet/talk to, a conversation with this person, the way he/she left some memories or give valuable life-lessons that are relevant to you, a story about that person and his/her life experience, etc.
3. Observe keenly
Did you still remember the things you see, hear, smell, taste, feel, and think from one of your traveling journeys? Maybe we remember what we saw–more or less, because we took pictures, but most of the times, we forgot the rest. But these small details are like seeds. When we plant, water, and nurture them, when they are ripe, they can burst into stories. To keep a journal on the things you see, hear, smell, taste, feel, and think on your journeys is a great way to keep these seeds. For instance, what is the headline of the local newspaper at the day of your visit?
I overheard a conversation at Musee d’Orsay one time, between a father and his son, and it made its way into this post. I played around with a memory of a city in this post. I wrote down the things I felt as I walked around the small alleys of Santorini, and it became this. I’m not saying they are good stories–but they are short drafts and snippets of what can actually come up from keen observations.
Stories that may come up: a reflection on life based on an overhead dialogue, how a dialogue you overheard reminds you of something–or enlightened you about something, about capturing a spirit of a city or an environment through the local’s conversations, etc.
4. Break your habit
If you’re always staying at a hostel, try a nice hotel when you have enough money. If you’re always staying in a hotel, try an Airbnb space. If you are always following a map, try ditching it. If you are always traveling with friends, try traveling alone. If you’ve never bought souvenirs, buy one. If you’ve always bought souvenirs, buy none. Try to do new things when you travel and break your usual habit. It will feel odd and uncomfortable–two sure signs that you’re about to experience something new. And when we experience something new, we are being introduced to a new story.
From trying out Tinder, having a picnic date with a stranger, dancing with a bunch of policemen, staying with a transgender host, hopping on into a stranger’s car at 4 am in the morning, eating horse meat, to hanging out with a bunch of high school students, each one is a story in itself!
Stories that may come up: challenges you need to face when you’re dealing with unfamiliar territories, the internal conflict of doing things you are unsure about, the way you see a place differently because you change your habit, etc.
5. Try to see things from a neutral ‘place’
Are you opposing arranged marriage? Do you think couples should get married because they love each other–not because of their compatibility towards one another? Do you think it’s shallow for a girl to not want to go to college–and opt for an arranged marriage instead? When we travel, we may see, hear, or experience things that are not in-line with our beliefs or our views of the world. It is easy for us to pass judgement instantly; but things are not always what it seems.
I always thought bitterly about India and its arranged marriage tradition; until I tried to be more open about this and started chatting with an Indian woman–who happily chose an arranged marriage rather than a college life; and with a car-rental driver–who said confidently, that of course–he would choose a compatible husband for her daughter through an arranged marriage! I may still disagree to some extent, but opening up myself to see things from a neutral ‘place’ made me able to understand the underlying reasons behind; and to accept the fact that there are couples who really fall in love after their arranged marriage!
Stories that may come up: unveiling the reasons behind why people act or think a certain way, background about a city/country’s cultural or political history that affects the way they interact or behave with each other, busting myths or breaking the stereotypes about a certain place, etc.