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Picture Prompts and Inspired Travel Writing, Part 1: How to Describe an Image

Describing an image to write a story is a good start. But going beyond what’s in the image is better. Write about what riveted you to the subject, what was happening around you while you were taking the photo, what you thought and how you felt amid all that.

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At the back of my mind, I always knew that, sooner or later, I was going to write about how to write travel stories. Note that I wrote travel stories and not travel guides. What’s the difference?

A travel guide is, well, a guide. It tells you where to go, how to get there and, occasionally, how to get out of there as well. If the writer is a little thorough, there are photos and short descriptions of what you can expect to find.

A travel story is more personal. It is a recall. A reliving of an experience either to document for future reference or to share with others. It is an attempt to put into words, as accurately and as thoughtfully as one’s vocabulary allows, what one saw, heard, smelled, felt or tasted.

………..

What is a picture prompt?

It is an exercise used in teaching writing where a person is given an image and asked to write about it.

In today’s world where almost everyone has a mobile phone and, during travel, hundreds of snapshots are taken, it is so simple for any travel writer (or wanna-be travel writer) to use those snapshots to write travel stories. In other words, you have as many picture prompts as there are images in your phone taken during your trip.

But how exactly does one go about describing an image?

How to describe an image

Start with the simplest. What is in the photo? Where was it taken? When? Why were you there and / or why did you take the photo? Who is in it? How did you snap the photo?

Okra Flower at the HCM Cooking School and Organic Farm, Cu Chi, Saigon
Okra Flower at the HCM Cooking School and Organic Farm, Cu Chi, Saigon

Let’s use the photo above as a picture prompt. Since you didn’t take the photo, you can only describe what you see in it. A flower with yellowish petals and a crimson center. Leaves. The photo was obviously taken outdoors.

In other words, if you’re a travel writer, it’s ridiculous to try to create a story based on an image that you know nothing about except what you see on the surface. A fiction writer can conjure a tale from a single image. But travel writing isn’t fiction.

But the person who took that photo — me — knows everything about it and I can answer the what, when, where, why, who and how. If I answer all that, will I have enough for a travel story?

Let’s see…

The basic what, where, when, why, who and how

Just by answering those six questions, I can write a full paragraph. Like this:

On March 2, 2019, our third day in Saigon, Alex and I attended a cooking class in Cu Chi. The cooking school has its own farm and, during a tour of the farm, I had my first glimpse of an okra flower.

So, the first sentence answers the when, where, who and why. The second sentence answers the what and the how. Insofar as utilizing a picture prompt goes, that paragraph is a success. But is that travel writing?

Go deeper and add context to the what, where, when, why, who and how

The thing about travel writing is that you want your readers to vicariously experience what you experienced. And that short paragraph above, while informative, just isn’t enough to transport your reader to that farm in Cu Chi and feel amazed at the discovery of an okra flower. Let’s expound on the experience of seeing an okra flower for the first time. We’ll use the simple description above as a starting point and add a title.

Don’t call okra ugly until you’ve seen its magnificent flower

On March 2, 2019, our third day in Saigon, Alex and I attended a cooking class in Cu Chi. The cooking school has its own farm and, during a tour of the farm, I had my first glimpse of an okra flower.

Under the heat of the noonday sun, I normally wouldn’t bother with a flower. We were there, after all, for the cooking lessons, and the farm tour was to gather herbs and vegetables that we were going to use for cooking. Everyone else was busy inspecting and exclaiming words of admiration for the oversized okra pods. Yet, there I was framing the most perfect-looking flower to shoot a photo.

A flower didn’t fit into the cooking agenda at all. But it wasn’t just any flower. Its stunning beauty already commanded more than a passing glance. The pale yellow petals looked faintly greenish which, I presumed, was from the reflection of the leaves around them. The deep crimson center made a stark contrast with the color of the petals. And from that crimson well rose the column that held the stamens heavy with pollen grains.

What amazed me the most was the fact that it was an okra flower. How could anything so captivatingly beautiful give birth to the ugly okra pod — a vegetable that makes my daughters cringe and turn away in disgust?

Adding value to your descriptive prose

With a strong start, you can now proceed to write a longer piece. Which direction you take is totally up to you.

1. If your travel writing focuses on the indigenous vegetables of a region, you may just write about okra — which parts of the plant are edible and how they are cooked by the locals. And, from there, you can create a recipe with okra as the main ingredient.

2. If you travel and write about agricultural practices, you may write about how long it takes from planting the seeds to harvest time, what pests the okra plant is susceptible to as well as non-food uses of the plant.

Or, with a little research, you can combine 1 and 2 above.

Can you imagine just how much nuance you can create by starting with a description of a single snapshot?

So, review the images in your phone. Relive the moment when you took each one and immortalize those moments into words. You’d be astonished to find just how much travel writing can come out of those photos.

Updated on August 30, 2019

Written By

I travel to eat, drink and learn new cuisines. Between trips, I write travel stories and share travel-inspired recipes. That is my idea of retirement with purpose.

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