Take the reader along
Published: January 10, 2002
|Capture the sights, sounds and smells of your travel destination|
"Our Camelbaks bulging, we pedaled out onto the Mongolian steppe, each of us choosing one of a dozen dirt tracks threading through the long, waving grass. Five hundred and sixty miles northwest of the markets of Ulan Bator, Mongolia's capital, we had entered the Asian outback from the town of Mörön, the nine of us feeling like the luckiest mountain bikers alive." *
|Biking across Mongolia on an assignment for Outside magazine was one of the most rigorous and exhilarating experiences I've had. But when it comes to adventure travel writing, the trip itself is only part of a challenging journey that begins with selling your idea to an editor, who probably has hundreds of similar queries, and ends with a glossy feature spread.|
While the interest in reading about travel adventures is growing (you'll find dozens of magazines devoted to the subject at your local bookstore), it's not an easy market to break into. Researching and writing such stories also poses unique challenges.
Your level of physical skills should match the assignment. For example, a recent issue of National Geographic Adventure featured stories on rafting and scuba diving in Australia and another on climbing to a remote mountaintop hotel in China. Gathering information, interviewing people and taking notes while you're on a trip often requires special care.
Here are a few things I've learned while writing for Outside, Women Outside and Sports Illustrated for Women.
|Research before the pitch|
You've heard it before, but it bears repeating: Do your groundwork before calling an editor, so you can back up your story idea with information. Study the magazine's contents from cover to cover. Libraries and bookstores are a good place to start. Travel guides, especially those with a unique slant, such as the Lonely Planet series, can be excellent resources. Interview people who have gone to the place where you will be traveling.
To prepare for the Mongolian trip, I interviewed people who had worked and traveled there, including a grasslands expert who had headed USAID projects in the Gobi Desert and an old friend who had mountain biked in Mongolia.
When you've done your background research and organized your materials, you're ready to make the pitch. Write a proposal that's clear, informed and assures the editor that you're the best person for the job. Pitch clearly in the first sentence: "Dear Mark: I'd like to propose a story on the first all-female team to dog-sled to the North Pole."
If you're too slow in getting to the point, the editor might dismiss your idea. Capture the essence of the article in one paragraph and include some of the unusual details you've come across in your research. Perhaps you have a wonderful quote about the destination that can set the tone, or you've learned of a little-known region that you want to explore. Your proposal should demonstrate that you are knowledgeable about travel and the area.
If your idea is rejected, don't give up. It's likely you just won't hear one way or the other. Until you get a "no thanks," you still stand a chance of getting a "yes," so stay in touch.
When I had the opportunity to take a mountain bike excursion in a new national park in Mongolia, I pitched the story to several prestigious adventure magazines. I got a bunch of "maybes," and as the trip's departure date drew closer and closer, I started to see a missed opportunity the size of Africa on my horizon. I pulled out a copy of Outside, the magazine I really wanted to write for, looked up editors' names on the masthead, called the editorial number and went down the list until someone picked up the call. When I finally reached an editor, I watched the clock, knowing I had about 30 seconds to get my idea across. To assure the editor that I could handle the logistics of such a big trip, I mentioned other places I had traveled in Asia and offered to send clips from previous articles. Finally, the editor said "yes."
Throughout the process, I remembered a helpful adage: "You have to increase your rate of failure in order to increase your rate of success." You have to be willing to put yourself out there.
|Be open to the unknown|
Your research gives you some idea of what you might find on your trip, and the editor outlines what he or she wants, but some of your experiences will be different from anything you imagined.
The Outside editor wanted the article to focus on biking conditions across the Mongolian steppe. It was an unexpected September snowstorm that gave me some of the best images of the trip and also clearly conveyed the quality of the bike riding.
"We strung out in Technicolor shapes on the gray and brown hills and spent the first four days in sunny, clear weather. Then, on the afternoon of our fifth day, we left the rolling grasslands and felt the chill of the Saridag Mountains ahead. Melted snow and frost turned our ascent into a slushy mess, and snowflakes soon blanketed our helmets."
Keeping track of sensations, sights, sounds and atmosphere as you go along will help when you write the story later, but taking notes and gathering background materials in the midst of your adventure isn't always convenient. Packing a few key items helps. Bring a couple of notebooks (I prefer reporter-size or black-and-white composition notebooks), your camera and a tape recorder. Use the tape recorder to capture sounds, such as music or a crowded marketplace, that will help you relive the experience later, when you are ready to write about it. If you've got a tough laptop computer, bring that too, but not in place of notebooks. Bring extras of everything and plastic bags to protect your notebooks or to store small items you pick up along the way—such as grass and leaf samples, beer labels and receipts.
Travel reporting is a great training ground for the underrated art of scribbling. The back of an airplane ticket is the perfect place for a string of adjectives describing the tarmac and fog at the airport. A notation on the back of a receipt for a soda jogged my memory of the vendor who sold it to me. A few words to a song can evoke the smell or atmosphere of the place where you heard it.
Keep all your receipts, whether you're intending to use them for reimbursements or not. The names of the places where you stopped can trigger your memory. "Narayan's" printed on a thin, gray receipt recalls the upstairs floor of the famous Katmandu restaurant, its windows open to the noise of rug vendors, traveling climbers and the pitch of car horns below.
Receipts, scraps of cloth, sometimes a blade or two of grass, coins, strange pamphlets that I can't necessarily read, bus tokens—these are my notes. A couple of cigarettes vividly remind me of a dusty corner of a cafe where two Mongolian nomads offered me a smoke.
I also note temperatures and temperature changes, the sound of skis on snow in the morning—and then that same sound in the evening, the number of hours I slept at night, what I ate for each meal, which direction the wind blew and whether that wind rocked four or 20 boats in a harbor. I write in guidebooks (often my notes cover the title page) and on maps. Lists, quotes, vignettes, schedules, recipes, images, hand-drawn maps and sketches—these are the contents of my trip journals. It usually takes me a day or two to sift through the piles of information I accumulated.
To help me visualize my experiences, I follow a popular practice that I learned from poet friends—writing 10 to 15 images a day. At the end of a long and sometimes very physical day of climbing, rowing, biking, picking cherries or switching buses five times, the prospect of jotting down a few lines can be more appealing than writing a narrative of the day's events. Here are some notations I made while trekking in Mongolia:
"A lone Mongolian nomad, riding a rickety old one-speed bicycle up the river wash ahead of us, picks his way around four boulders while the trees blow back the wind all around and above him.
"Six oxen pulling a cart loaded with a dismantled yurt. The bridge they're crossing, creaking, and M.C. and I standing beneath them on the river shore, holding our fishing rods in above the current."
Armed with your notes and memorabilia, you need to make one more stop before heading home. Visit a good bookstore and collect some local guidebooks, which will give you a feel for the residents' view of their city or country.
|Coming home and writing|
Once you're home and ready to write, it's the details that give life to your piece and help you recapture on the page your passion for travel and the places you've been. Readers are looking for an experience, not just a list of places. Try to get across the element of mystery and excitement you feel in a foreign setting.
I relish being in a place outside the familiar grid and away from a routine schedule, where every sense is heightened. The mountains seem loftier, the people more complex, the storms more intense than in familiar surroundings.
I try to give the reader an idea of what it's like to be the stranger. When I visit a new country, city or region, I enjoy reinventing myself. As a writer, I try to capture this transforming aspect of travel, and once the story is finished, I'm ready to browse the atlas in search of my next adventure. #
* Excerpt from "Destinations: Mongolian Heights" by Martha Sutro in Outside, July 2000.
Photographs by: Martha Sutro, D. E. Cox, and Warren Lieb