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Tell Your Story

“You should write my story,” the woman in the bar stool next to me exclaimed having discovered that I was the writer behind Julia “Butterfly” Hill’s national bestseller The Legacy of Luna.

I’ve probably heard that line more than a hundred times in my life. For the longest time, I simply made my excuses and then scurried to the nearest escape hatch as quickly as possible. Over the years, however, I’ve realized that most people do have a story to tell—especially when travel has added a liberal dash of spice to their lives, changing them forever in the process. And while I still don’t want to write the stories of all those who think I should, I do want to help people write their own stories.

Whether you’re interested in writing about an article about an experience on the road or a travel-related memoir, the process can—and should be—a fun, leisurely cruise down memory lane rather than a pile-up.

Start by making a list of all the people in addition to yourself who will populate your story. Next, write character sketches of each of those people. Add in every little detail you can remember (or invent), from how they look and smell to what they do for a living and for fun. Don’t forget about any ticks or other body-language tells that reveal background or character.

Chronicle any stories you remember about them, whether they involve you or not. Don’t stress if you can’t remember much. As you warm to the task and start writing other character studies, memories will come flooding back. When they do, either return to that character’s sketch or, if you don’t want to break away from what you’re working on, write yourself notes that are detailed enough to rekindle that memory when the time is right.

Once you’ve got your character studies well in hand, start writing about yourself. To tell your story, you can start at the beginning of your story (or your life) but you don’t have to. Write about anything that strikes you, in whatever order you like. You can shuffle around the bits and pieces once you’re done.

Then focus on the action—the plotline—of your story. What happened? What changed? Who changed? Story structure is very simple. Whether it’s a long book or a short piece, the main character(s) experiences a significant shift due to circumstances beyond his/her control. Write up scenes that show your characters, whether real or imaginary, at the outset, as they experience challenges, as they resolve them and the outcome (or shift).

Now it’s time to weave the three strands together. You can use the timeline as your guide, or focus on connecting similar themes together, or both. The key is to people your story with your character studies in a way that enriches your narrative while maintaining its flow. As with any puzzle, progress will slow at this stage, especially since you’ll not only need to figure out the order but the transitions as well. Don’t worry about revising the character studies or much of anything else. You’ll have plenty of time to tinker once you have the beginning, middle and end of your story.