A travel writer who stays put
Freelancers can gain an edge with editors when writing about the area they live in and know intimately
Published: May 29, 2012
When most people hear that I write for Fodor’s and Michelin, they typically assume I have a passport full of exotic stamps and a packed suitcase at the ready. But the truth is I rarely stray more than a few miles from my front door for an assignment, and on most days my passport and suitcase stay tucked away until my deadlines have passed.
A story advising New York City-bound readers to check out Lady Liberty is going to fall flat, but pitching an editor on "The Secrets of Lady Liberty" might connect.
Instead of globe-trotting for stories, I spend my word counts introducing readers to the must-see finds and off-the-beaten-path gems right here in my hometown of Washington, D.C. Along the way, I’ve discovered that when it comes to travel journalism, the old adage about writing what you know—or in this case, where you know—still stands as one of the most effective ways to keep busy and stay in demand.
“When you travel, you want to feel immersed in a place, and that’s what local writers bring to the table,” says Arabella Bowen, executive editorial director at Fodor’s Travel. Fodor’s, like many publishers in the field, makes a priority of hiring writers who live in the cities it covers. “Local writers know how a city ticks,” Bowen says. “They know the difference between being there in the summer versus living there in the off-season.”
This insider status gives you an edge when it comes time to sell your expertise and your stories. “I really want to feel like I know the soul of a place all year ’round,” says Bowen, who started her career penning titles for the Rough Guides series.
Bowen’s first book focused on Montreal, her home at the time. Soon after, the London-based company sent her to cover a handful of other locations, giving her a few months at a time to explore the new destinations. It was these contrasting experiences, she says, that helped her understand just how important a true local is to creating a multidimensional final product. “Can you truly get a sense of the soul of a town in two months?” she wonders. “It’s possible, but very difficult.”
Being the first to notice
On a purely practical level, local writers also avoid struggles with distance and time zones when it comes time to fact-checking and updating information. It’s much easier to know if the cotton-candy-colored storefront is still pink when you actually walk past it on your way home, or whether the food cart at the corner still uses smoked sea salt on its fries when you stop there to pick up lunch.
Physical and figurative proximity to your subject matter makes all aspects of reporting easier. It also means you can discover that a local haunt has changed its name simply by going about your day. Information like this makes you all the more valuable to your editors. “We have people on the ground who we get updates from all the time,” Bowen tells.
Marketing yourself as a local expert against the backdrop of a struggling economy can also help you offer additional value. As personal travel budgets shrink, some people look to the places nearby to satisfy their wanderlust. Pitching features and investigating guidebook companies as a local expert can help you embrace this trend.
“We aren’t only gearing our books for vacationers,” explains Amy Lyons, editorial director of travel at Globe Pequot Press, a publisher that hires local writers almost exclusively. “Our books are for locals. We want readers to discover places in their own backyards they never knew existed. Putting a local face to a guide resonates with the reader. It’s like getting advice from your neighbor, and you can feel the love for the destination in the writing. You know it’s written by an insider. It’s a key marketing point for us.”
Jodi Helmer knows firsthand the value of being on the ground. “You rely heavily on PR people when you are not local or a destination is not familiar to you,” says the travel writer, whose credits include AmericanWay, AAA Living and Hemispheres. “Editors want writers who really went to a destination, not just writers who read about it in a press release. ”
Reducing your reliance on press trips is another bonus of living in your destination. Although alluring, press trips almost always require a letter of assignment to participate, which means you have to sell a story based on an experience you have yet to have. If the trip turns out not as advertised, you may be left with a completely different story than the one you sold, or no story at all.
Find the fresh angle
The other, far more expensive alternative is traveling on your own dime—a pricey endeavor when you factor in the cost of airfare, lodging, food, entertainment and other activities. Your own dimes buy you far more when you stay close to home and, as a rule, you need far fewer of them.
“When a new modern art museum recently opened in Charleston, [S.C.,] it only cost me my time and a few dollars to check it out,” says Helmer, who also teaches travel writing and encourages her students to sell stories with local angles. “I walked away knowing if I should pitch it, and I could offer my editors good, solid information about it if I did.”
Approaching your hometown like a place you’ve never seen before is the first step in moving beyond the press release. For those breaking into the field, Helmer suggests querying with basic stories about your corner of the world—think “10 great travel options” in your town for starters—as a way to build clips and prove yourself in the travel arena.
Make your pitches stand out by offering a way to experience or view popular attractions through a different lens. A story advising New York City-bound readers to check out Lady Liberty is not going to catch an editor’s eye, but a query about the secrets of the Statue of Liberty just might. Here in my hometown of D.C., the Smithsonian museums draw crowds year-round. Suggesting that visitors to the nation’s capital include it on an itinerary hardly counts as an earth-shattering tip. But what many tourists don’t know is that when hunger pains get in the way of the exhibits, homemade gelato can be found on the lower level of the National Gallery of Art, and authentic Native American dishes can be enjoyed at lunch at the National Museum of the American Indian’s Mitsitam Native Foods Café—two tasty tidbits that demonstrate the importance of a local voice.
“Read your local paper, read the visitor’s guide, use social media to find out what’s going on in your neighborhood,” Helmer advises. “Travel writing isn’t just about the destination; it’s writing about people and trends. It’s hard to get those stories if you are not immersed in the local culture. Your stories are more vivid when you know the destination well.”
In addition to insider tips, good local-travel journalists also offer a perspective that can’t be obtained through armchair reporting. “I obsess over context,” Bowen says. “When you really start to navigate the world as a travel writer, you experience and compare places to each other. Stay at different hotels in a destination. Get a sense of different rooms, different neighborhoods. Emphasize how people really live in a city.”
Bowen points to blogging as one of the best way she knows to begin navigating the world as a travel writer. The Fodor’s editor suggests using local interests and destinations as fodder for online posts and as a tool to sharpen voice, tone, interests and skill. She also advises taking—and posting—lots of photos along the way. “Travel is such a passionate experience that you need to find out what you are passionate about writing,” she stresses.
Margaret Littman navigates both of her hometowns, Nashville and Chicago, with this kind of passion for her subject matter. As a result, she has built a successful career around providing locally focused travel content for magazines, books and, most recently, for digital iPhone/iPad guides as the author of the popular Nashville Essential Guide app. Littman says helping her readers uncover things to do in their own backyards is one of her favorite parts of specializing in regional-travel journalism.
“It’s the kind of travel writing that I like to do,” says Littman, author of the The Little Black Book of Chicago, The Dog Lover’s Companion to Chicago, and several titles for the Moon Metro series, among others. “Other travel guides are more for armchair travelers. People can’t necessarily go out and do the things they are reading about. I think it is super fun to show people stuff they wouldn’t think of doing otherwise.”
While local traveling can be professionally rewarding, it, of course, is not a paid vacation. “People often say to me, ‘Oh, my God, they pay you to do that?’ ” Littman says. “But if you have 150 listings, that means checking 150 addresses, 150 phone numbers, 150 Web addresses, 150 opening hours and 150 prices. It can make your heard hurt after a while. I love it, but parts of it are not glamorous.”
And if you swap your passport and suitcase for a subway fare and an overnight bag, you might discover the joys of this growing specialty within a specialty.
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Freelancer Beth Kanter specializes in local travel. Her articles have been in many publications, including
American Baby and
Shape. She has written two travel books about the Washington, D.C., area, and contributes to the Fodor's and Michelin guidebook series. Web: bethkanter.com.