The Art Of The Travel Memoir

By Heather Ellis


The travel diary. Record descriptions of people, places, scenery, how you are feeling, conversations. Write every day. Include ‘stream of consciousness’ writing.

What is memoir?

As well as the travel narrative, your memoir must include the elements of what makes a good story.
Memoir = asks the question ‘what it means to be human’.
Memoir = sharing our story because we have learned something through our lived experience.
Memoir = translates our experience to the universal story of humanness.
Memoir = using yourself to tell a story that affects us all.
Readers relate to your story as it addresses their own fears.

Your Core Message. What is good material for a memoir

What is the core message of your memoir? What is the ‘take away’ message of each chapter? Ask yourself, what drives your book.
Ask yourself, what compels you to travel. What are your obsessions and interests?
What is the story you want to share because it has meaning. It will ‘make the world a better place’. It will help others through your experiences.
Use your story to tell what it’s like to be human.



What to include…

Suffering, wounds, pain.
As a writer you must show your or your character’s strengths and weaknesses that lead to growth. Go deep into your personal story. What happened, what you thought or felt about it? Share your wounds, obsessions, experiences.
Share your vulnerability/s

Layers and themes of memoir:

What does your story connect to? Is it about spiritual growth, coming of age, gaining self-confidence? It must be more than the travel narrative. Readers are not interested in… I went here and I went there…
Each chapter is a series of scenes linked by reflection and your voice as the writer.
If you know your themes you’ll know what scenes to include that tell the message. There may be a number of themes running throughout the book and these are the layers. Each chapter builds on the themes you have chosen to share your ‘overarching’ message.

Ie. Wild by Cheryl Strayed – the theme is being lost and then found.
Refer to this blog for a good explanation on structure using Cheryl Strayed’s Wild as an example.

The structure of the book Wild includes scenes in the present, flashbacks, memories, dreams, and reflection, and everything supports the themes of being lost and found.


Tap into culture, history or mythology of our world that resonate in your story.
What place does your story occupy in the narrative tradition?
Is it like a fairy-tale? Ie. A hero’s journey where you go off into darkness, meet a dragon, slay it and come back a hero.

Story arc or narrative arc:

After your travel adventure, do a rough draft of your story arc as this will help keep you focused on your story having a beginning, middle and end. You don’t have to stick exactly to this style, but it will help avoid you meandering where the reader will get bored because your story has lost that sense of expectation of what comes next.

It might seem that your travel adventure does not fall into a story arc, but if you think of it as having a beginning, middle and end, you will soon identify the five key points of your story arc.

For example:
Beginning - you in your ordinary life and how you introduce you as a character and other characters in the book. This is the ‘exposition’.

Middle - then something happens the ‘inciting incident’. This is what makes you go on that adventure that you’ve always dreamed of. Then while on this journey, events unfold that reveal something new, something you did not realise before ‘Rising Action’.
In travel memoir the crisis leading to climax, that part in your journey when the tension reaches the highest part, is often very subtle. This story arc can also run through each chapter, which often is a micro-story under the umbrella of the main story. This is because travel memoirs recount an adventure that is location based. You then move on to the next location and a new story with a beginning, middle and end emerge.

End – From your travels, you’ve gained insights and have changed in some way, this is the falling action and ends with the resolution, particularly if you’ve dealt with any demons that incited your travels in the first place.

The key points of a story arc are:

Rising action
Falling action

See for more details on story arc:

(NB: there are several things to do before approaching publishers)

When you have a polished first draft, find an editor to do a manuscript assessment. Your local writers’ centre will have a list of accredited editors. You will work with your editor on a number of drafts. You will then need to find a proof reader.

You may have to have a legal assessment of your manuscript if you think anything might be defamatory. Most people are happy to be included in your book. Ask first and for those people you can not contact, it is best to change name and descriptions so people can not be identified.

Website and Social Media. Get a website. Develop your profile on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and others. Publishers want to see that you have an online profile.

Write a marketing plan.

Endorsements. Write a list of 10 to 20 authors. Contact six months before publication. Try to meet these authors in person ie. At writing events.

Submit to only four agents and/or publishers at one time. If you receive rejections, you can revisit your first chapters before sending to others. Once your manuscript has been rejected, a publisher or agent will not consider your work again.

Plan your book launch six months before publication. Attend a book launch or two for ideas. Recruit your family and friends to help you promote your event.

Once published, contact libraries and special interest groups where you could give a talk with a slide presentation. Audiences expect images for a talk focused on travel.

Once published contact the festival directors of writing festivals. Your publisher will also do this on your behalf but you should also follow up and be persistent. Festival directors get hundreds of submissions so you have to shout loud to get noticed. Propose a unique ‘catchy’ idea for a panel.

Consider self-publishing options on Amazon and with aggregators such as Publish Drive and Draft2Digital. It is best to split your distribution between Amazon and an aggregator as around 80% of all ebooks and POD (print on demand) are sold on Amazon. Amazon and most other online retailers will take 30% and an aggregator will take 10% to 15% from your 70% royalties. Submitting your eBook and POD files is free with Amazon and the aggregators so there are no set up and print costs incurred by you. Unless you learn to do it yourself, you will have to pay for someone to convert your manuscript to eBook (Mobi and ePub) and POD files. You can also do a small print run to sell books at your author talks and most independent bookshops will sell books on consignment from self-published authors (they usually take 40%). Invest in a professional cover design so that your book does not ‘look self-published’. Create your own publishing imprint so that your book appears to be published by a ‘publisher’ and not yourself.



My biggest concern is:
(this is an important exercise as it will help identify possible problems/issues that may stop you writing and solutions to overcome these).

My biggest concern when writing my travel memoir is….

I am really worried about…

What’s stopping me from writing is….

Some ways I might address my biggest concerns are….

What would help me to overcome my worries …



Are there particular themes?

Is there a particular angle?

Is the conflict in the story clear? What is it?

Is there enough dramatic tension?

Are characters strongly portrayed?

Which ones are not necessary?

What scenes might need to go?

Which ones can be left out?


Heather Ellis is the author of Timeless On The Silk Road(Phonte 2019) and Ubuntu: One Woman’s Motorcycle Odyssey Across Africa (Black Inc. 2016). Endorsed by a number of bestselling authors including Cheryl Strayed (Wild), Tony Wheeler (co-founder of Lonely Planet) and Ted Simon (Jupiter’s Travels). Both books are available online and in most bookshops. You can also purchase signed books from Heather at


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ubuntu book cover


Clunes Booktown Festival, Victoria, Australia 30 Apri to 1 May, 2016


St Albans Writers' Festival

(23-25 Sept 2016).

Heather Ellis

"This Is Not A Holiday' - speaking with Ailsa Piper and John Blay, with Sarah Macdonald as facilitator.







Writing Festivals


Are You A Writer?


How to Find Time To Write


How To Get An Endorsement


The Book Contract


Straight Up, I Am Hooked


Five Aussie Bestsellers Share Tips For Success







March 2013 My other life: Motorcycle Road Safety Politics


June 2012 Call for Inquiry into Transport Accident Act


October 2011 Call to extend Club Plate Scheme to all motorcycles used recreationally.