Travel writing: 7 steps to success
Published: February 26, 2004
|Travel writing is the dream of many. While we are nearly all tourists at one time or another, those of us who inscribe our wanderings to inspire and inform others must follow certain specific steps for success in this highly competitive marketplace. The following are seven such steps.|
1. Note niche markets
Competition for publication in top travel glossies is stiff. Major newspaper travel sections receive hundreds of submissions every week. But there are dozens of publishers eager for a good travel feature geared to specialized markets. These include books, magazines, newsletters, advertising flyers and company brochures focusing on RV travelers, senior sojourners, automobile adventurers, military families, honeymooners, teen trippers, home hobbyists, studio artists and volunteer vacationers, among others.
My fiber art business led me to visit the Seri Indian basket makers on the Sea of Cortez in Sonora, Mexico. My article about this trip was published in an insurance magazine for Mexico travelers. My interest in the intricate beadwork of the Huichol Indians in Nayarit State, Mexico, was detailed for a cover story for Bead and Button magazine. A drive along U.S. Highway 50, dubbed "The loneliest road in America," resulted in a feature for an automobile company booklet.
Other niche markets include health and fitness magazines (ideas might include exercise options on cruise ships and in hotels; airplane aerobics), house and garden publications (medicinal plants of the Amazon jungle; botanical gardens of Hawaii); outdoor and sports publications (halibut fishing in the Aleutians), as well as religious, photography, trade, technical and professional journals.
Regional magazines are a great market source. These publications are always looking for a fresh approach or a new discovery in their area of readership. My recounting of an excursion from Tucson to the colonial gem hill town of Alamos, Sonora, was purchased by an Arizona monthly.
The literature of travel is an ever-burgeoning field that concentrates upon the introspective, personal narrative, as opposed to the guidebook-style article.
No matter which publication you choose as your potential venue, be sure to thoroughly familiarize yourself with its contents before submission.
2. Target before you type Querying before you take that trip or write that article will save you time, travail and postage. While you are crafting a 3,000-word narrative on your trans-Siberian railway journey, the magazine you are certain will snap it up may have just closed a deal on the definitive work on your subject.
If you have confirmed travel plans at a particular date in the future, you may solicit sales in advance with your query. Focus on a particular angle. A trip to Oahu inspired one traveler to query about her plans to take lei-making lessons from a well-known artist of the ancient technique.
Your query should suggest, through its selective, scintillating language, descriptive detail and streamlined style, your final finished feature. Brevity is preferable. The one-page sparkler over the four-page plodder is more likely to grab the interest of a busy editor.
Researching your travel destination before adventuring out adds punch to your sales approach. Seek to educate as well as entertain your reader.
3. Survey your surroundings Think you must hike the Himalayas, navigate the Nile, jungle-trek in Thailand to be a travel writer? Your family campout in the Poconos, that five-mile hike through the redwood forest near your home, a sampling of tropical fruits from the ethnic open markets in your city, an afternoon spent at the local nature museum your kids love, the unique ceramic tiles inlaid in the original downtown buildings of a nearby town--any of these can fire fresh interest and transform the familiar.
4. Be devoted to detail Whether you are kayaking an exotic inland sea, meandering through a fragrant, flower-flecked Swiss alpine meadow to the music of cowbells, sorting seashells on the shores of Florida's Sanibel Island, clattering over cobblestones in a medieval village, imbibing bouillabaisse in Marseilles, record every enticing input to your five senses.
Hiking over tundra near the Brooks Range in northern Alaska, I photographed, recorded and later researched the millions of densely packed and amazingly hardy miniature plants that form a brilliant emerald, gold and scarlet tapestry over vast stretches of this pristine region. While climbing rose-colored sand dunes in a remote area of the Mojave Desert, I was fascinated with the hundreds of spider, scorpion, snake, lizard, jackrabbit, fox and coyote trails lacing the crystalline mounds. Subsequent study of the subject led to a submission for a nature magazine. Curiosity about the multitude of vending machines in Japanese cities, their many offerings and their often whimsical and charming English advertisements led to a piece on that country's superb accommodations for travelers.
5. Journal your journeys Lug laptops, tape recorders, cameras, and plenty of pencils and paper to write down everything along your path. However you preserve your travel experiences for posterity, be sure to set aside a time each day to record them. In addition to your evocative musings about the spirit of your travel place--its snow-capped crags, jungle temples, desert nomads, coral reefs, urban towers--do not neglect the more mundane details of services you encounter.
Transportation and accommodation costs, restaurant menus and reviews, distances and routes, climate and temperatures, and health and safety precautions are useful and necessary information for the traveler. A number of publications focus specifically on these details. Ttavel Smart, for example, looks for articles on unusual or hard-to-find travel bargains in lodging, food and transportation. And most travel publications request a list of services to accompany a feature.
6. Interview and engage Research and recording detail form a framework for a travel story. Interview and engagement enliven it. If your query evokes a publisher's interest, you might arrange an interview in advance with the chef or activities director of your cruise ship, a museum docent or curator, a native artisan, your nature guide. But even without an arranged interview, you can talk--to shopkeepers in Tehran, sidewalk vendors on the Grand Canal, clerks at Harrod's, fishermen on the Sea of Cortez, tourists in the Tower of London.
It helps to know some of the local language, but even with a dictionary and some well-placed gestures, valuable information can be gleaned. Graham Macintosh, in his book Into a Desert Place, recounts his many amusing and often heartwarming encounters and "conversations" in his limited Spanish, with Mexicans he met along his 3,000-mile walk along the coast of Baja California. I was able to describe, in an article for a regional lifestyle magazine, the generosity and artistry of a town of potters in Chihuahua, Mexico, after a day spent in their company, and dialogues with them using one-word "dictionary Spanish" and gestures.
7. Focus on photos The importance of good photographs to accompany a travel article cannot be overstated. Many travel publications request prints, slides or negatives. Great photographs can help to sell a story.
Focus on the subject of your article and snap away. Unless you are a camera pro, you will not regret taking too many photos. At least a few may warrant submission. I often load two cameras, one with print film and one with slide film.
Good landscape photo times are early morning and late afternoon to evening. Take both close-up and distance shots, horizontals and verticals. Put a person in a picture for perspective. Photographing the fantastic shape of the spiraling cirio trees in central Baja California, I placed my 10-year-old son against a towering plant. My husband's big hand looked miniature situated next to an immense prehistoric bird's egg at the 2001 Tucson Gem and Mineral Show.
By defining your market, crafting a solid query, precisely and accurately detailing your travel environment, by injecting into it the vitality of personal interview and accompanying your narrative with descriptive photos, you can tap into travel-writing success.
--Posted Feb. 26, 2004