As a freelance travel writer, I’m always on the lookout for stories and interesting experiences. A few years ago, my husband and I rode the Discovery Riverboat on the Chena River near Fairbanks, Alaska. During the relaxing and informative three-hour trip, I took pages of notes and shot dozens of photos.
Upon our return, I queried the features editor at the Fort Wayne, Ind., News-Sentinel. Before my trip, the editor had not run travel stories, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to try. The gamble paid off. He had just received the publisher’s permission to begin a weekly travel section. My article on the Discovery Riverboat was the first article for the column, complete with three of my photos. Over the next couple of years, the editor used dozens of my travel articles.
The best thing about travel writing is you don’t have to live in a beautiful place like Alaska or Hawaii to write travel articles (but it doesn’t hurt!). Fascinating places and events are everywhere. The travel writer’s mission is to be observant and record unique qualities about an area or event, so readers will want to go there, or at least wish they could. You can find ideas and build your articles around some basic pegs.
Start with where you live
Is a famous landmark nearby? The Johnny Appleseed Festival held each September in Fort Wayne, hosts a festival in a park where the famous fruit bearer (real name: John Chapman) is buried. As morbid as it might sound, this event has become one of the most attended festivals in the Midwest. It also became the lead for my article that sold to Good Reading Magazine:
In Fort Wayne, Indiana, a lone grave sits atop a hill in the middle of an empty field. It remains quietly undisturbed during the year until the third weekend in September. Then, more than 250,000 people converge on the area surrounding the grave, paying tribute to the man buried there who gave his life to helping others.
Attending the festival provided me with loads of sensory details for description so that readers could imagine being at the event: noisy cannons firing in the midst of a Civil War military encampment, scents of apple dumplings baking in food booths, children winding through a straw maze, women dressed in mob caps and calico dresses spinning wool under shady oaks.
Capper’s magazine bought a reprint of the article. A few years later, a blurb about the festival appeared in my roundup about area festivals for a Fort Wayne Magazine cover story.
Upon returning from a visit to eastern Montana, I queried the editor of Cowboys and Country Magazine with a roundup of possible article ideas. He expressed interest in a profile of The Rex Restaurant in Billings, which dates to the late 1800s, when Buffalo Bill Cody’s chef established an eatery in the Wild West.
My focus was on the history of the place, but the restaurant’s specialty—Montana-raised, rosemary-roasted buffalo—earned a big mention. The editor liked the historic angle and menu details and published the article.
Gene Stratton-Porter (1863-1924) was a popular nature novelist from Indiana. Her book Girl of the Limberlost sold millions of copies. Since her Hoosier homes in Geneva and Rome City are state historic sites, I wrote about her life and what she accomplished in those places (she later lived in California). My editor at the News-Sentinel published the story with several of my photos of the homes, while including information about admission and hours.
Be alert to anniversaries for tourist-related events. When the 50th anniversary of James Dean’s death occurred in 2005, my newspaper editor was happy to publish my article about the actor’s birthplace in Fairmount, Ind., 50 miles away, and news of its upcoming celebration.
Off the beaten path
The savvy travel writer does not limit the search for markets to the obvious. A few years ago, Grit Magazine published my article on the Peru (Indiana) Children’s Circus. While the article’s focus was on the physical and mental strength and discipline the children learned from being involved with the circus, I included the circus’s performance dates, ticket info and website at the end.
Other off-the-beaten-path locations I’ve used for travel-related articles:
• An automotive-industry publication published my article on the history of the Indianapolis 500 Race.
• Scouting magazine’s editor printed my story “A Halloween Tradition” about a local Boy Scout troop that supported its activities by conducting a haunted-castle event each October. While the article focused on the scouts’ hard work and creativity, I included the Haunted Castle’s website for more information, making it a destination-related piece.
• While vacationing in Amelia Island, Fla., I toured a B&B that offered accommodations to people with disabilities. A trade publication for the Southern hospitality industry bought my article on this unusual and considerate establishment.
• Town Square magazine wanted stories about small American towns and what made them special. The editor liked my description of my favorite ice cream joint, Ivanhoe’s restaurant in Upland, Ind. The hardest part of writing this article was not sampling each of the 100 delicious shakes and sundaes with names like Chocolate Peanut Butter Pretzel, Grasshopper and Peach Melba, in the name of research! An added benefit to this article: The owner of Ivanhoe’s framed it and hung it on the wall beside the checkout. Keep an eye out for other travel-writing opportunities. Family Fun Magazine pays readers $100 for submitting winning travel ideas to its column “Let’s Talk Travel.” If your family has been somewhere that you consider worth the trip, send them the details at [email protected].
The value of good photos
One point about travel writing that cannot be stressed too much is the im-portance of providing good—make that great!—photographs with each article. Photos add pizazz, visual interest and information to a travel article. I always carry a digital camera with two charged batteries when traveling. My camera, though not terribly expensive, is set at the highest resolution and has paid for itself many times over with the photos I’ve taken and sold with travel articles.
For the Johnny Appleseed festival, I snapped a Civil War doctor re-enactor outside his tent. Capper’s and Good Reading both used the photo with the article.
A trip to French Lick, Ind., offered many opportunities for intriguing photos with gold-laden ceilings, painted murals of Greek gods, and a sky-high dome in the area’s restored hotels. Publications usually pay separately for photos, so shoot as many as possible to add to your paycheck. Enrolling in a photography class will increase your chances of selling travel photos. Study photos in prestigious travel magazines to recognize the kinds of shots that will hook editors.
You should also shoot photos that won’t appear in print but can assist with your research. During a Christmas visit to Nashville, Ind., I photographed attractive shops, carolers dressed in muffs and colorful scarves, and festive street decorations. The photos let me describe stores, events and scenery in extra detail for the article, which ran in the News- Sentinel.
Sometimes it’s impossible to obtain adequate photos on your own. When The Rex restaurant’s dark interior prevented me from getting good shots, the restaurant owner provided professional photos.
Kayleen Reusser has published travel articles in books, magazines and newspapers. Her articles and information about her nine children’s books can be found at kayleenr.com.