Create Lively Stories with Details and Quotes

Susan Orlean

To capture the details of place, dialogue, and your own emotions, take notes. That’s what I learned from Frances Koltan, Travel Editor at Mademoiselle magazine when I was a guest editor there. She encouraged me to write down phrases, descriptions and impressions in the moment.

As we rode a bus through Mexico City, she asked to see my notes. I had jotted down the names of plants and flowers, historical details, and images that impressed me. I later incorporated them into my article.

On one of our excursions, I wrote about the landscape: “On the road to Texcoco, the land is dry, and scattered plantings catch my eye. There are cactus and red pepper trees, fields of corn and emerald-green seas of alfalfa. A mule team draws a plow through fields that are fringed by telephone poles.”

In another scene, I described the faithful approaching the shrine of Guadalupe on their knees. “A child carries gladioli. A man spreads out newspaper pages so that his wife will not scrape her knees.” Today, I might snap a photo of the scene that I could look at to remind me of details.

Throughout the trip, I recorded unusual lines of dialogue in my notebook, as soon as I heard them, like the intended compliment from a Mexican host when our group arrived: “I’ve never seen such a chunk of beauty.”

Susan Orlean, author of bestsellers The Orchid Thief and Rin Tin Tin agrees— she jots down quotes as soon as possible. But when she’s working on a story she doesn’t take notes right away. Instead, she focuses on establishing relationships with people and taking everything in. Like many travel writers, she writes her recollections at the end of the day, while the details are still fresh.

There’s a balance. If you have a great memory, you can get away with less note taking and type the day’s events up in the evening. Either way, a small notebook and pen will serve you well when you’re on the road. I always have one with me, even when I’m close to home.