From here to there: Travel writing isn’t all beaches and sunshine

Thanks to an invitation from the South Baltimore chapter of the Maryland Writers Association, I had an opportunity to talk about my experiences as a travel writer for Frommer’s, as a blogger at ADayAwayTravel.wordpress.com, and for local publications.

Here is my talk.

From Here to There: Travel writing isn’t all beaches and sunshine

Good evening.

I am Mary K. Tilghman and I wrote for Frommer’s for 12 years. 

I’ve also written travel articles for local newspapers and magazines and kept up a blog called A Day Away for more than five years. 

Believe it or not, Frommer’s was my first travel writing gig. But I had connections. A college friend working for the publisher recommended me when the Maryland-Delaware book needed a new writer—and I turned it down. I was busy with three school-age children and a part-time job. My car logged more than 100 miles a day between children’s school, sports and Scouts, and my own obligations.

By the next day, however, I was having second thoughts. I called my friend back and asked if the job was still open. I was excited when she said yes and then when I got my contract— but maybe I shouldn’t have been. I had no idea what I was in for.

These were pre-internet days. I had to call or visit every hotel, shop, restaurant, state park, tourism office and who knows what else listed in the book. And I had three months to get the new version turned in to my editor.

I started September 12, 2001, not a good day for anybody.

Every book started the same way. I’d pick a chapter and start making phone calls.

Now remember my book had been published before. I was merely revising what was already published with the understanding I had to visit and rewrite at least a third of the book. 

Usually I started with Baltimore since it was the closest. I would have hotel days when I visited every hotel, inn and B&B in downtown Baltimore or Fells Point/Canton in a day. 

These were certainly my most delightful days. I picked up toilet lids, studied minibars and other amenities, checked out the bedding and asked when it was renewed as well as when the whole hotel was renovated, looked in the coffee shop, restaurants, bars and spa, asked for prices—making sure to get the difference between harbor view and city view—which often meant a parking lot or the tops of shorter buildings, parking (always astonishingly expensive in the city) and …You get the idea. 

I had a similar routine for shopping and museums. Get evergreen facts. You don’t need to know about next month’s sale or art exhibition. But you need opening hours, parking, handicapped accessibility, how close a restaurant, bar or hotel is. What are key attractions that make that shop worth visiting? Does the museum specialize in ancient artifacts or modern sculpture? 

I ate out as much as I could and gained 20 pounds that first year. I often ate at the bar at an off-hour and quizzed the bartender about the menu, busy times, the kind of clientele (If it’s a youngish crowd the oldsters want to know, if it leans old, the Gen Zers like to know that). Of course prices, credit cards and the condition of the bathrooms are essential to know. (I didn’t include a restaurant if the bathroom was disgusting.)

I would follow a similar routine for anywhere within a couple of hours. Spend a whole day shopping in Annapolis, visiting museums and historic houses in Frederick, checking out the Riverwalk in Wilmington.

There were visits that lasted several days, Western Maryland, the Eastern Shore, the beaches. 

No day was the same. But I had to follow two rules.

Think like a tourist.

Research like a journalist.

I had good days. I visited the shop in Cambridge, on the Eastern Shore, where it is said Harriet Tubman was struck and had the vision that got her started as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. It was a bike shop then so I rented a bike for a tour of the nearby Blackwater Wildlife Refuge. I road through a landscape virtually unchanged since Harriet led enslaved people to freedom along those very paths. I turned the ride into a short essay since it was one of those unforgettable moments that makes travel so worthwhile. 

Another time, I got the kind of welcome I rarely get. On my first visit to Wilmington, Delaware, the new and eager tourism director wanted me to love her town. It’s easy to love a place when you’re given accommodations in a luxurious hotel room, treated to dinner at a new restaurant, and driven from Longwood Gardens to the Nemours Mansion in the Brandywine Valley. I usually pay my own way—although tourism offices, like this one, often will provide museum passes and some kind of hotel accommodations. Never dining, except this one time.

There were okay days.

Remember that luxurious lodging in Wilmington? A few years later I had the pleasure of staying in a seriously dumpy place, thanks to the local tourism office. I was led to a 1950s cinder-block walled motel room more akin to a basement than a hotel. Imagine my surprise when I took a tour of the hotel the next morning and found my horrible room was attached to a modern, spacious hotel with indoor pool. In the next edition, I included the place but warned readers to ask where their room was located before booking. I dropped the listing altogether the following edition.

But let me warn you. The glamorous life of a travel writer quickly comes to an end way before the deadline looms.

For every wonderful day of travel I knew there were going to be long days behind a keyboard.

Lots of them, in fact. All my notes had to be reviewed and then I had to double check my facts and update everything in the book. That’s 338 pages of review, revision and additions—and subtraction. I couldn’t change the number of pages at all. If I added something, I had to take something else out. And there were requirements I had to follow.

What credit cards do you take? When was the last time you updated the menu? What are your opening hours? Do they change in winter? Even after the internet offered me plenty of data, I still had to call everybody and go over all the details. And not everyone was interested in hearing from me.

My favorite pizza place in Rehoboth refused to talk to me because they didn’t have time. It was 10 in the morning—not lunchtime. I knew better than to call a restaurant during meal time. But I couldn’t include them in my book without accurate information. 

A couple of places asked me not to include them. Even after I explained it didn’t cost a dime for the listing. Mistaking me for an ad rep was a really difficult thing to overcome.

My three-month obsession every two years made it impossible to work full time and my contract always started in the fall—one time after Ocean City had shut down for the winter. That was a tricky chapter to write that year.

For the next issue, I did all the research before I even received my contract so I didn’t miss out on key attractions that closed down after labor day. I needed to talk to the Trimper Pier Rides people and get menu updates from restaurants in Rehoboth and talk to the kayak rental operators before they went to Florida.

Furthermore, my research was so expensive, my flat payment about covered it. My husband called it my “hobby.”

I stuck it out for twelve years. Then Google bought all the guides and fired all of us. The Maryland Delaware guide was never published again.

For me it was just as well. I had learned everything I could about these two little states. I could recommend restaurants, hotels and fun places to visit from Boonsboro to Odessa. It was time to try something new.

It was the start of my writing travel articles for local newspapers and set me on the way to write a travel blog for five years. And all that research has helped set the scenes of my novels.

Sounds like fun?

You want to write a travel guide?

Here are a few things you should know.

Every guide is different. They are geared to different age groups, bank accounts and lifestyles. I was supposed to write for the well-heeled traveler when I wrote my Frommer’s guide.

Read as many as you can to see which appeals to you or which you think you could write for. The library stocks lots of them. Some publications hire one writer to produce the entire book. Others hire a stable of writers for each destination. Most of them like their writers to live in the destination they are writing about. Most of their websites will tell you all you need to know about getting a gig with them.

At Fodor’s—

Send your resume and some clips via the form on the website. They are one of the organizations that hires writers who live in the destinations they cover. They, like nearly everybody else, do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

For Lonely Planet—

Send your resume and clips to Red Ventures, which publishes Lonely Planet, and maybe you’ll get a call.

Moon Guides—

Asks for a query letter much like any novelist. Their guidelines, listed on their website, say, “Prior experience writing a travel guidebook is not a requirement for becoming a Moon author, but writing for magazines, newspapers, or blogs about the destination you’re applying for is important.

Write your own—

My friend Leslie Atkins has produced from scratch several Maryland and Delaware based guidebooks for Countryman Press as part of their Backroads and Byways series. 

Let’s go back to the advice from the Moon website.

Prior experience writing a travel guidebook is not a requirement for becoming a Moon author, but writing for magazines, newspapers, or blogs about the destination you’re applying for is important.

If your goal is to become the next Rick Steves, you gotta start small. Start by writing what you know about places you know.

One way to start is by writing reviews for Yelp and Trip Advisor. Although I think these are doing their best to kill guide books like mine, they have their place since they give customers the power to tell the world what they love and when they’ve been disappointed.

Trip Advisor actually awards points and badges to reviewers based on the number of reviews they post. It won’t make you any money but it’s a good way to practice. Collect clips of your work. You’ll need them when you get ready to send your pitch or query for a paying gig.

Get started with Yelp and you could become a member of their Yelp Elite Squad. I have a friend is often invited to Baltimore-area events so she can taste the newest craft beer, check out hotel rooms and eat appetizers at a new restaurant. 

If you’re ready to try your hand at magazines and newspapers, here again, start small. 

Renee Sklarew, a travel writer for national magazines as well as author of The Unofficial Guide to Washington DC says, “Look for sections that are not full features so you can break in with a short story or post. They usually award bigger stories to experienced writers.”

So start in a place you know about things you know. Say you’re a big fan of Edgar Allan Poe. Magazines in other parts of the country would probably love a story about the famous author’s Baltimore home, especially around his birthday or death day. Find an angle nobody else has written and you’re golden.

Find a niche—antiques, museums, snowboarding, outdoor adventure—and research magazines for places where you can write. 

One of my travel writing friends Barbara Beem focuses on antiques and has made a 29-year career of visiting museums, historic houses and focusing on the craftsmanship for her antiques-loving readers. Her travel pieces run in—surprise!—antiques magazines, including Antique Week. Barbara remembers a friend who visited the garage of a DuPont family member and sold the story to an automaker magazine.

Renée S. Gordon, who writes for the Philadelphia Sun, always gives her stories for the Sun, AAA MidAtlantic and her own blog “Smooth Traveler” a cultural slant. A travel writer for 15 years, she writes columns that focus on cultural, historic and heritage tourism and her areas of specialization are sites and attractions related to African American and African Diaspora history. 

Your own interests, creative pursuits, age, orientation, identity, ability or religion may give you insights others won’t have. If so, you may be the best to write from a particular angle. 

Getting started

Once you have decided to take the plunge—you’re going to write about inns for cyclists along the C&O Canal—there are lots of things you need to do first before you get on your bike.

Research

Contact the local tourism office. They’ll have the latest on their MEMBERS. That doesn’t mean they’ll tell you about every single business you want to include, only the inns that have paid for the privilege of this service. They may be able to hook you up with important resources, though. Besides the names of inns, restaurants, bike rentals or repairs, local hospitals, they may know where the towpath is washed out, where you can take a ride on a reproduction canal boat or places along the way for a drink or a bandaid.

Check the websites. I live by Google maps as an aid for everything I need when I’m getting ready to travel. I want to know how far it is from the highway to the parking lot, what’s in the area I might want to see, sometimes whether I want to stop at all. Then read the tourism sites and the special interest sites. The C&O Canal for instance has national park service sites and local cycling aficionado sites.

Make a plan for your travel—

First think like a tourist. Remember you have to go to a place with the mindset of someone who plans to have a good time. Enjoy the scenery. Take the kids, a friend or your mother. (I often did).

Plan as if you are really going on vacation. How long will you be away? Where are you staying? Where will you eat? 

  • What other stops will you make along the way? This is where I check my Google maps, but I keep my eye out for other options as I travel.
  • What will you do if it rains, you get hurt, your car breaks down? If nothing else, keep your phone charged.
  • Be flexible. Smile through the trouble. If you were traveling for the fun of it you’d have to work out a plan. Here’s your opportunity. It could make for a good story.
  • Then research like a journalist. Take plenty of notes. Bring all the notebooks and pens you can carry as well as your phone and your laptop, and a tote bag for everything you want to bring home.

When do you pitch your story? And to whom?

When is tricky. Usually you want to pitch before you go—if you know enough about the topic to speak with authority in your pitch letter. 

Sometimes you may feel you need to take the trip first so you have a really good feel for the story.

I’ve done both.

Either way, you want to study the magazines, newspapers or websites before you pitch. Know whether they’ve covered your subject before. If they haven’t great! If they have, go find another place to pitch. 

Travel magazines come in all flavors—national and regional, and some are very local or specialized. I write for Recreation News, a mid-Atlantic publication for government employees. It focuses on local travel but there’s a smattering of national and international travel as well. Don’t forget all the airlines, Amtrak, Triple-AAA and other transportation-minded businesses have their own travel publications. 

Don’t only look at travel magazines and websites. There are blogs that accept guest-written features. Local newspapers, and alumni, regional and special interest magazines are other options. Fling that net out as wide as you can to find the right outlet.

You might want to check out social media websites for travel writing groups or freelance groups or other sites that are looking for writers. I’ve heard of them but have never used them myself. Maybe others here have tips for using those.

Another important point. Try to find two or three possible places to sell your story—with different angles if you can. Especially if you’re funding your own trip, you want to make it worth your while. It helps spark interest from the tourism offices too: those hosting you like it if you have more to offer.

I wrote a story about Catholic history along Charles Street to the Catholic Review for a summer feature. I posted it on my blog too—and recycled part of it for another story later.

Be on the lookout for other places to sell your story as you write, as you research outlets for your work, as you travel. Maybe you’ll discover your C&O canal story will appeal to a children’s magazine if you focus on attractions for youngsters or the inns you visit will fit perfectly in a country living magazine, your historic sites will fit into an antiques magazine. Maybe you’ll find out your source went to UMBC and the school would love a story like this about an alum.

You’re almost ready to pitch. Check out the submission guidelines for each publication or website. Though they vary a lot, there are some key elements every editor is looking for. It’s called the HOOK-BOOK-COOK.

Works for novels and it works for travel articles.

Write the lead. Tell the editor what is going to make your story so good he or she has got to buy it. Your cycling story features handicapped-accessible sites or shows how to travel the whole 184 miles of the canal with a couple of six-year-olds over a series of weekends. Or maybe you’ve found historic evidence some of the inns were part of the Underground Railroad. 

Then describe what you intend to write. How many words are you writing? What kind of a story is it? Personal, factual, historical, funny? Who are you using as sources? Make sure you fit the guidelines of their particular publication. If you noticed a magazine often features the kind of article you want to write, remind them of that. It shows you’ve been paying attention.

Now that you’ve done all the planning, it’s time to go. You can’t write about a place very well if you haven’t been there. While you are there, be on the lookout for some place that is not overly reported— instead of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, what about Japantown? Instead of the Air and Space Museum in Washington, what about the lesser known museums? Find out why they are worthy of an article. Do they have something new there? Are they especially worthwhile for a certain demographic – say kids or LGBTQ travelers? These will be helpful to sell that story several times.

When you’re there, make a point of talking to a local ranger, restaurant owner, or hire a tour guide who can share the history and relevance of the place you want to write about. Take good notes and get contact information so you can follow up and don’t leave until you’ve asked permission to quote them. Check the spelling of their name and title.

Keep it personal. Your visit will add the spice and personal experience that brings your travel piece to life. I like Rick Steves because he talks about the hotels where he himself has stayed,  sights he has seen and trains he has taken. Though he talks in general terms, he’s clear about  why he endorses the places he’s visiting.

When you write, show don’t tell.  You know Sherwood Gardens is beautiful in the spring. Don’t say that. Show it. Describe the beds bursting with red-flamed tulips. Show the parents with little children gamboling under the blooming magnolias. Smell the floral-scented breeze cooling your face on an unseasonably hot Sunday afternoon. Then check when the flowers actually bloom and where the heck do you park anyway. And can you bring your dog? Or a picnic lunch? Or hold a wedding on the property?

While you’re at it, write short, compare your destination to another better-known place, especially if you are writing about a place people might not have heard about. When I wrote about Lewes I considered it more like Cape Cod than Bethany. No ocean front hotels, no boardwalk but a cozy little town like Chatham, Massachusetts.

And get it right. Always check the facts on the websites and make a call if you think the website is out of date. They often are. 

Wrong information could ruin someone’s vacation. And it could affect your reputation.

Make sure you have all the facts the publication expects. Don’t leave a single one out.

Start with MATPRA, the Mid-Atlantic Tourism Public Relations Alliance especially if you are writing about the Mid-Atlantic. They host a great Media Marketplace every fall. Every tourism office from Pittsburgh to Virginia Beach sends a few people with lots of swag and great ideas for stories to cover. There are tours and dinners on the days before the Marketplace. I’ve met lots of people I now consider my friends, both writers and tourism people.

To build your travel writing career, build a network.

There are plenty of other travel writers groups

All of them have websites and conferences to keep you updated.

As my friend Barbara Beem says, “Other writers are not the competition: They’re support, camaraderie, fellow travelers upon whom you can lean!”

Travel writer Renee Gordon told me, “Social networking is important. Every writer knows other writer who will share tips, information and contacts. It can sometimes be difficult to locate the one ‘right’ person to assist you and other journalists can often save you time and effort in a new endeavor if they share their experiences.”

Not everyone wants or needs to get paid to write. Ask most beginning novelists about that. 

After I no longer had a Frommer’s guide to write, I still had the travel and travel writing bugs. I waded into social media with my first Twitter account and made friends with travel “tweeple” from all over the world. I actually met a Twitter friend for coffee when I visited Austria.

From there I started my travel blog. I had enjoyed writing about places I visited so much I continues to write a weekly column, sometimes two. I limited to places that you could visit in a day. Most were in the mid-Atlantic but when I went to Europe and other places around the US, I filed photos and a story just the same. Some people have figured out how to monetize their blogs. I never bothered because I got too busy with other stuff. 

Travel writing is its own reward, of course. You go to new places—or see old ones in a new light.  It was fun being a tourist in my own state. It’s how I got to see the Edgar Allan Poe house for the first time, as well as the Blacks in Wax museum. I learned a lot about the history of places where I was already familiar, including Fort McHenry and Fells Point.

Writing about the places you’ve been is, in my opinion, even better than posting your photos about a trip on Facebook or Instagram. You can record your emotions or write down the name of that little bistro you want to go back to. That’s why I started my blog, to remind myself of the incredible places right down the street I had enjoyed so that I could share them with others. My blog got me inside the Inn Boonsboro on an icy February day. Romance readers know this B&B is owned by Nora Roberts—and only paying guests are allowed inside. My blogpost racked up 10,000 visits in a single day.

My visits prompted a new way of writing for me, too. I turned my trips into novels. A visit to the battleground in Sharpsburg inspired a historical novel. A visit to the Garrett County Historical Society Museum sparked a historical angle to my first romance novel. And a comment on a cruise ship was the jumping off point for another novel that has just been released.

And there are plenty of others still in progress — with Ocean City, Annapolis, and Baltimore City as their backdrops.

There is one controversial decision you have to make as you begin your new career as a travel writer—

Should you accept free accommodations, meals, admission passes? Sometimes it’s the only way you can afford to do your research but some of the big organizations, including the New York Times, won’t accept an article from an author who has ever accepted anything free. Frommer’s allowed me to take anything as long as I remained impartial in my reporting. 

What you decide is up to you.

I want to thank my fellow travel writers for offering their thoughts on some of the ideas I presented here—including Leslie Atkins, Barbara Beem, Renee Skarlew, Melody Pittman and Renee Gordon. And thanks for the invitation to speak tonight.

I’ll leave you with one last quote, this from my travel writing hero Rick Steves. 

“Travel, like the world, is a series of hills and valleys. Be fanatically positive and militantly optimistic. If something’s not to your liking, change your liking. Travel is addicting. It can make you a happier American, as well as a citizen of the world.”

Don’t take up travel writing unless you really love to travel—no matter what.

Because “no matter what” is going to happen. 

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