How to take field notes when traveling —
If I want to be able to gather enough information to write about in this travel column — a.k.a. blog — daily, I know that I need to take good field note throughout the day, everyday.
To do this, a good note taking strategy is needed. This travel tip shows my strategy — I am not sure if it is good, but it works.
Taking notes are easy to do in private circumstances — like when riding on a bus, sitting in a park, or alone in a hotel room. In these circumstances, I just whip out the little note pad that I always keep in either the back pocket of my pants or breast pocket of my shirt, and take my notes.
This does not need any sort of explanation: I get an idea, a thought, or remember something that I may want to write about, and I jot down a mnemonic aid. Straight forward, simple.
The most difficult part of this type of note taken is finding the impetus to take out the notebook and write. When I first began writing this travelogue, I thought that I could remember a lot of details without recording them. I thought that my crystal clear thoughts in the present would remain as such later on when I wanted to write them into a story.
I thought wrong.
I found that even the most vivid of thoughts can easily disappear in the mists of time. All too often I have jumped onto my computer and forgotten what it was I really wanted to write about earlier in the day.
So I take notes. I take notes on even the most simple of conversations, events, or ideas. If I even consider writing about something for a mere glimmer of a moment, I take out the notebook and write it up.
Sometimes I feel like a robot.
Taking notes in a comfortable, open setting does not require any special strategy — as you just take out your notebook and write away — but taking notes IN THE MOMENT an event is occurring is much more difficult.
It is a challenge to write notes as you are talking to someone. Believe me, it feels odd to write down someone’s words as you are having a conversation with them. But it is necessary to do so in order to take good notes. If I blunder about while taking these notes, it is going to weird out the person I am talking to.
I have weirded out many people by recording their words.
The trick, I have found, to taking good IN THE MOMENT notes is to do them so obviously and with such confidence that it seems normal. If you can take notes and make it seem as normal as white rice, you will rarely weird out anyone, and you will have free reign to record whatever you want, when you want to.
Taking travel notes is much like a good photographer taking pictures of people. If you watch a good photographer in action, you will see them taking pictures, but their actions will not seem conspicuous or obtuse. You will not often notice a good photographer working because they are often able to take their photos so naturally that it just seems like a normal part of the ebb and flow of existence. An experienced photographer has this sheen of invisibility about them which comes from being transparently up front and confident about what they are doing.
How do photographers get good photos? They act natural and don’t make a big deal of their work. They just do it — business as usual.
Excerpt from Daniel Kalder’s Strange Telescopes:
“Suddenly Dmitri was right in there, photographing the curious mother/ son relationship. He got a good picture of Vadim’s mum placing a loving hand on her son’s cheek as she encouraged him to take his medicine. Miraculously, neither of them seemed to notice that this six-foot-plus bearded giant was zipping around them, snapping the intimate scene. It was a remarkable talent of his, this ability to somehow vanish, as he stood right in front of you sticking a camera lens up your nose.”
The same goes with taking field notes while in conversation. I have found that if I take them naturally and confidently, nobody will question me — I will become as transparent as a good photographer.
Like photography, part of recording conversations comes from not making a big deal of what you are doing. To do this, you must maintain eye contact and be able to write notes without looking at your pencil or paper. You will never see a good photographer messing around with the settings on their camera when they are shooting, nor will you see a photographer looking AT their camera, as the camera as a device they see through, rather than look at.
I have found that if I break eye contact while taking notes– even for a moment — and look at my notebook, the person I am talking to will follow your gaze. The moment will then be broken and a duality would be created between the moment and its recording.
. . . and you may weird out the person you are speaking with, just as a photographer would if he treated his camera as some suspicious, abstract device.
“What are you writing,” I have often been asked when my note taking procedure was a little less polished.
If you maintain eye contact with the person you are talking to, you can essentially lock in their attention and show that you are actively in the conversation. You can do anything with your hands if you are 100% active in the conversation. In this way, taking a note will become as natural as taking a drink of water.
When in a conversation in which I may want to jot down some notes, I keep my notebook and my pencil in my hands or on the table in front of me — completely obvious and in plain view. I never look at it. If I get caught looking at my notes, I have already made them unnatural, abnormal, something to gawk at and question. It is not normal behavior to take notes in casual conversation, but I can make it seem normal by acting as if what I am doing is a not big deal. If I write notes as if it is my job to do so — it is my job — then I will do them naturally. . . like a good photographer.
I have good conversational recall — I have worked very hard to cultivate it. I am not near Truman Capote’s much toted 95% recall, but I have the impression that I can usually remember 70% of conversations that I make an asserted attempt to remember. If I take a few mnemonic notes, I am confident that I can collect close to 90% of the pertinent information from a story as it was initially spoken.
I have often wondered how travel writers remember the dialogue that they record, and have been occasionally prone to thinking that they just make it all up. But I have found that it is very possible to train yourself to be able to reconstruct full conversations from a few sketchy notes.
Coming up with a good note taking strategy is part of the WORK of travel writing. It has taken me years of hard effort to cultivate the ability to reproduce spoken conversation in writing, and I am nowhere close to being as efficient and accurate as I would like to be. To assist my memory, I know that I must take notes. Below is how I handle my note taking equipment.
Travel Writing Gear
This is the equipment that I use to take field notes. It is not flattering, and it all probably costs under $2. My note taking rig is made up of a cheap pocket sized notebook, a larger medium sized yellow pad of paper, and a whole bunch of mini pencils (that can be taken from various sources for free).
Note taking strategy:
I keep the spiral notebook in the rear pocket of my pants or breast pocket of my shirt. When I am in a comfortable situation that I can take notes in easily, I just remove the notebook and write. I use the bottoms of the pages as markers of where I am and the date so that I can keep it organized. So if I am in Egypt, I will write this at the bottom of each page that I write notes on from this country. In this way, I can just flip to the Egypt pages and read my notes.
For circumstances that require more clandestine or quicker note taking methods, I rip out a piece of paper and fold it up into a neat little rectangle. I make sure that the paper is folded enough times to be able to write on it within the palm of my hand, but not so much that there is a lack of space to write on.
I then roll the paper up around my mini pencil . . .
. . . and then store it in the small pocket of my jeans.
In this way, I can whip out the paper and pencil, take a quick note using the palm of my hand as a writing surface, and then shoot it back into my pocket very quickly. I always know where my paper and pencil are because they are wrapped together and kept in a location where they are difficult to misplace and always in close range of my hands.
After a day of note taking, I return to my computer and write everything up verbatim in word pad, along with my location and date. I do not know if I will ever use many of the notes that I take, but I have them read for potential use.
“I take notes all day long wherever I am. I can be seen with a mini pencil stuck behind an ear and a pad of paper in my back pocket at all times. I write down events, experiences, thoughts, dialogue, mnemonic jottings. I often do not intend to do anything in particular with most of these notes — and most of the time I don’t — but having them means that I have them for potential use.
A traveler’s notes are like intersections on a path: you will not take every intersection that you come upon, but by stopping for a moment and looking to where it leads often provides a broader impression of where you are going.
Notes have the tendency of sticking themselves together like the pages of a porno mag. One set of notes combine with another, which is beefed up through memory before being combine with more notes. You can never know the context that a random jotting could eventually end up in.” -Buffer for Travelogue
Cultivating a good note taking strategy is difficult. I am still practicing every day. But I know that good notes lead to better writing. The more notes I have, the more Paths these stories can take.