What is it like to be a motorcycling travel writer?
Adventure motorcyclist and writer Graham Field explains how his experiences in the saddle make it on to the page, while offering his top eight tips for the budding travel author.
Sights, sounds and sensations are the three elements of the road that I try to capture. I should point out first that my preferred riding glove is the fingerless variety. Even on cold days, the thin leather means warmth will transfer from the heated grip to the hand without having to find its way through the insulation of a winter glove. It may seem a bit illogical; however, there are plenty of people out there who drive with the top down and the heater on.
This is perhaps the two-wheel equivalent. So, with the increased dexterity from my warm and exposed fingers, I am able to access my voice recorder that I keep in a pouch on my tank box. Any thought, inspired or otherwise, that passes through my head is recorded before it disappears for ever into whatever cosmos it came from.
My somewhat controversial tank box was designed specifically to house my camera and keep it shock-, dust- and waterproof as well as secure, but ultimately for ease of access. I can grab it quickly without sunglasses, wallet or lip balm getting tangled round the strap.
The box’s purpose was to increase the possibilities of capturing the spontaneous. It’s been a bit of a naysayer magnet, but I never expected it to go into mass production – it’s what I wanted, it meets my needs, I love it and it functions perfectly.
My diary has been my one daily discipline for more than a quarter of a century and like anything that’s done repeatedly, I got better at it. At the beginning of every day, I write as I sip my chai. It used to be a last-thing-at-night activity but I worked nights for seven years and when I got home I was knackered, so it became a morning ritual and has remained that way.
I think the previous day is processed subconsciously as we sleep and, in the morning, it is easier, for me at least, to document yesterday chronologically. It niggles me if a few days have passed which have been so full on I’ve not had time to write.
Annoyingly, those non-stop times are the ones I most want to record, as those are the good times, the fast times, the unplanned times that are most enjoyable to look back on.
Eat, sleep, ride, write…
So, fast-forward to the end of the bike trip. My tenant moves out, I move back in and, with the same determination I apply to my travelling, I start the process of writing the book.
I barely blog, Facebook or keep my website updated as I travel. I’m travelling to experience what is beyond the computer screen. I have many Facebook friends who, while on the road, are continually updating: ‘...is lovin’ this mountain vista’. I think: ‘no you’re not! You’re staring at your bloody phone!’. Live in the moment and tell us about it later.
Perhaps this opinionated attitude is why I live alone; I don’t have a pet that needs feeding or even a plant that needs to be watered, so I’m free of any distractions. I write my books in diary format, as that’s what I’m most experienced in. A diary is blatantly honest and in the present. Not knowing what tomorrow brings, readers have said, makes them feel like they are riding with me.
I look at the photos to recall the sites, terrain and weather, and I use the voice recorder to hear my mood: elated, scared, bored, indecisive or tired. The voice, like the mirror, tells no lies.
It gives a sincere reference of how I felt at that moment of that day. I write for about 12 hours, scribbling on post-it notes when something occurs to me that isn’t relevant to the moment I’m writing about.
For the last book, I slept on the floor in the lounge as it was the warmest room due to the addition of a log burner. If a flash of brilliance was ignited in the night by a restless mind, I wrote it down. Sometimes I wrote from 2am through until dawn and then slept a few more hours. The time on the clock means little. It feels almost rebellious to work, eat and sleep when the body craves, not when the clock dictates.
Reliving the trip
The start of a new writing day: I have my chai, write my diary before starting the next chapter (day) of the book. Sometimes writing my diary when all I’m doing is writing what is in my diary can be a bit tricky, much like this article where I am writing about writing about writing.
The book takes me as long to write as the journey took to ride. First I read the previous day’s writing and try to improve it. Then I start today’s day, and fi nish by reading tomorrow’s entry so I can contemplate it overnight before I start the process again, assuming my ever-churning mind lets me sleep.
I relive the trip day-by-day, hour-by-hour in the comfort of my home. That alone is a reward, regardless of how the book sells. I’ve just experienced the whole journey again and I don’t want to interrupt it. I write on Christmas day – I don’t care what day it is. I have sausage and egg sandwiches on a Saturday morning to remind me it’s the weekend. I don’t have a TV.
Sometimes I listen to the radio, particularly if I’m starved for a word or need a break. I listen to every word I hear. Trying to write a book, like trying to take a good photo, makes you so much more aware of what is around you – inspiration is everywhere if you’re only receptive to it.
Nuts and bolts of a book
The other advantage of the diary format is the ‘chunking’ of the book; sitting down to write a book is a very daunting prospect. To record one day is a doable task and, like a long journey, day-by-day progress is made until your destination is reached. So, 100 days after I started chapter one, I’m about finished and I have a word document with 150,000 words in it.
I now put my creation in the hands of the people who possess skills I don’t. Cover design, editing, proofread, type set, map creation, photo setting, ISBN number, book registration. I read it again, change it, reread it, correct it, think it, double-think it and over-think it before committing to sending it to press.
Then there are other considerations: distribution, advertising, press releases and arranging for review copies to be sent out. Eventually, the day arrives when I hold a copy of the book in my hand. It’s a real physical thing, no longer a document on a screen. It is beautiful, it is perfect and it is finished.
Priceless pay off
Nine months have passed; the book has been a bottomless pit of need. Then, one day, regardless of how much money and time the book owes me, I receive a message that says: “I’ve been riding for years and never been out of the country. After I read your book, I booked a ferry and went to Europe.”
And that’s it, right there, the priceless reward. I love that, that my words have inspired. I don’t have a privileged life; everything I do, I do on a budget with utter determination. That’s how I’ve achieved what I have; anyone can do that to some degree.
The path to publishing a book is harder than any journey I have ever taken but it’s what I have always wanted to do: write, and tell people about the way I see the world as I travel through it. It’s my dream come true; it’s where I find contentment. I go to the bike shows and hand out my fl yers next to my £700 KLR650 that’s taken me on two 15,000-mile journeys, standing behind my little table that displays my books, trying to spread the word. Imagine how it feels when some miserable git walks past saying, “it’s all right for you, travelling round the world and getting paid for it” – that’s when I realise the limitations of my ability to inspire, encourage and inform.
This is my passion and that’s how I can work at it so hard, so long, for seemingly so little. It’s the best kind of poverty I could ever ask for.
Graham’s tips for good tour writing
1. Read other motorcycle travel books to see what appeals to you… and what’s already been said.
2. Follow the writers that inspire you. They’re probably not unreachable and will almost certainly encourage you.
3. Start writing NOW. Practise by keeping a diary.
4. Record thoughts as voice memos or messages on your phone as and when inspiration hits you.
5. Take photos of your trip in the first few days, before the unusual becomes commonplace.
6. Use photos to remind you of the sights, smells, sounds and feel of that time.
7. Be disciplined. Make a schedule and write daily.
8. Believe it can be done – know that you can do it.