Thursday, May 20, 2010

Travel writing rules for the road


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A few years ago, Professor Newton, who teaches the Sicily Photojournalism class, offered some advice. He was just back from a trip to Greece, where he saw older people sitting on the tour busses looking out the window, unable to make their way to the Acropolis.They were so near, yet so far.
“You’ve got to travel and see these places while you can still walk!” he said.
My husband Dan and I are heeding his call, and we are traveling in France right now. While we can still walk. And, as we usually do, we’re putting together stories to sell to newspapers travel sections and magazines when we get home. Here's my travelwriting lecture, updated from the road.
Before I go on a trip, I usually have three or four ideas in mind, and I do a lot of research about my destinations, so I know a lot before I go. I read everything I can find. I talk to people. This is a must if you want to be a travel writer, because stories don’t just pop up. I look for trends: two or three of something; or I look for aberrations: one and onlys. Oldest. Newest. Unusual, unique. Mom and Pop.
The screwdriver museum? Mais oui! An exhibit on absynthe? I am so there. I try to talk to people a lot, so there are voices in my stories. And since most places have been written about a lot, you need to find different themes.
I look for interesting little places that don’t get written up much, or for offbeat activities in familiar places, like beachcombing on the Thames in the center of London, which ran on the front page of the Boston Globe travel section. Or the oldest perfume maker in Florence, which I sold to Gourmet. Or a weird museum in Worcester that focuses on armor, which was published in Yankee.
Sunday travel sections are good places to get started as a travel writer, because they come out 52 times a year, and most take (and, unlike most websites, pay for) freelance work. I look for stories that are the right length for those sections, about 800-1,000 words. Dan takes the pictures. Sometimes I query editors, other times I write the pieces “on spec,” that is, I write the stories and then try to sell them. When you’re writing for a travel section or website, this is probably the best policy.
Mondo Multimedia
This trip we’re traveling as full-on multimedia travel writers. We’ve got a MacBook Pro laptop, a Canon G-11 digital camera and a Sony Cybershot, both of which also shoot video, along with a couple of IPods. This makes a huge difference in what we see and how we report our stories.
For example, yesterday, we stopped in Aix-en-Provence and wandered the streets to find the Cathedral St.-Sauveur, a hundreds-year-old church. It was late afternoon, and a young boy, maybe 14 or so, was having a music lesson on the cathedral's bellowing organ. I could describe what it was like to sit in an ancient sacred edifice, dark and cool, as the boy played, hitting the occasional wrong note, his teacher stopping him now and then. And it was a totally unplanned moment. (I've posted the video above.)
The downside is that I’m not very good at shooting and editing video, so I need to develop this skill. And it’s not clear whether an editor will pay for these little moments, even though she may want to post them on the website. In fact, s/he probably won’t. That’s a problem.
I try to write for an hour every day when I’m traveling. This is not easy, but it’s a good idea to capture the day while it’s still fresh, and you remember the details. And I take notes wherever I go. Along with my equipment, I bring several manila envelopes for brochures and receipts and a couple of small reporter’s notebooks. I also bring my old fashioned composition notebook, a writers notebook that I buy for a buck at Wal-Mart, and this serves as a journal. I have dozens of these books, which I started filling when I was in my early twenties and traveling in South America. These journals are great to work on in a cafe over a glass of wine or cup of coffee.
So many students try to write travel stories just from researching the web. This is not travel writing. It may get the job done at the last minute, but nobody’s going to pay for-- or publish--that work. To be a published travel writer, you have to get out there and travel, and then tell the story in your own way. Go to places. Soak up the scene. Be open and curious. Take a lot of notes. Ask questions. Dive in. Work hard. Travel writing is way harder work than most people realize.
Learn about art! If you haven’t taken Art History 101, you should do so before you leave UMass. The cathedral I was in yesterday? I learned about the architecture of cathedrals in that class. In fact, if you don't know anything about art, you have no business traveling in Europe. Here's a lovely little Chagall mosaic found in a small church near Nice.
It's actually a wonderful thing to learn about and love art, especially if you're going to be a travel writer. It's a great gateway into other cultures and it's what makes an educated person.


Learn a language. I’m shocked at the number of Americans I've seen in restaurants who make absolutely no effort to speak the language, and actually expect the young waitresses to know English. Imagine someone from France doing that in Amherst?
I'm speaking a bit in the restaurants and bakeries and museums, thanks to the nuns I had in Catholic elementary school, from Mademoiselle Fontanilla in high school, and from my UMass French teacher, Donald Dugas.
In fact, on this trip, I am realizing, even after 30 years, how much I owe my UMass profs for what they taught me about the world. Even if I wasn't always the greatest student! They made me read The Village in the Vaucluse! Jean-Jacques Rousseau! Learn the imperfect-conditionelle!
Take advantage of all the great teachers you have at UMass!
One more rule.
If the sign says it's closed, push on the door.
We grabbed a bus down the coast from Nice to see a small chapel on the waterfront in Villfranche. Its interior was designed and painted jazz-style by French filmmaker and artist Cocteau, and dedicated to the fishermen of the town. It's unlike any other chapel you'll ever see, a work of modern art, crazy and lovely. Movie scenes on the wall, the ceiling a pattern of black and white.
But when we got there, the sign on the door read: Ferme (closed) for renovations.
I was bummed! My story was shot!
But you can't give up. I pushed just a leeetle on the door and this is what we found: a couple of young art restoration workers, who were refinishing the walls. They were working in the quiet evening, with jazz guitar on their boombox, and said we could look as long as we didn't touch anything. Glad I pushed.
Another incredible moment.

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