"Getting Started in Travel Writing" with Pat McCarthy

Thursday, October 19, 2000

Moderator is Mel Boring, substituting this week for Kristi Holl. Mel is the author of numerous books and magazine articles, plus a frequent speaker at conferences and online chat rooms.

Pat is Pat McCarthy, author of four books and many articles for both children and adults. She enjoys travel writing, and her work has been published in Chicago Life, Northwest Parks & Wildlife, Capper's, and others.

Names color coded in blue are viewers who had questions.

Interviews are held on Thursday nights, 9-11 p.m. Atlantic/Canada, 8-10 p.m. Eastern, 7-9 Central, 6-8 Mountain, and 5-7 Pacific

Moderator: Good evening, everyone! I'm Mel Boring, subbing tonight as moderator for Kristi Holl while she is visiting her daughter for family day at college. Tonight I'm happy to introduce to you Pat McCarthy, who will talk to us about "Getting Started in Travel Writing." Pat has published many travel articles, and has published a number of books as well. Pat will show you how to find those travel writing opportunities right in your own hometown. WELCOME, PAT!

Pat: Thanks, Mel. I'm happy to be here!

Moderator: Tell us first, are there different types of travel articles?

Pat: Yes, there are several kinds. The one most people think of first is the destination article. That's the travel article that focuses on one place in detail. But some of the other kinds are easier to sell. How-to, roundups, special interests, side-trips. And some articles are pegged to historical dates or holidays. Other kinds include personal experience articles and journey articles. I've already told you what the destination article is, so let's talk about some others. The how-to article just gives travel-related advice: how to travel with kids, how to pack, how to buy camping equipment... Lots of possibilities there. The roundup article talks about several places with something in common. For example, Native American museums, best golf courses, 6 places to beat the heat. Special interest articles are geared toward an interest such as camping, golf, history. The side-trip article is a short one that features a place within easy driving distance of a city. Historical articles may be pegged to an anniversary, such as all the articles about Pearl Harbor on the 50th anniversary of the attack. Journey articles tell about the trip itself, rather than the destination. It might be a trip across Route 40, or a loop around a certain area. The personal experience article is often hard to sell, because many are not well-done. People just want to send in their diary of their fishing trip, etc. That's just a general introduction to different types of travel articles.

Moderator: Pat, what should you do before a trip, if you're going to write a travel article?

Pat: Research! Find out all you can about the place where you're going. Get guidebooks, maps, look it up online, talk to people who've been there. Get a pretty good idea of what you want to do and see while you're there. But be flexible. Often you'll run into interesting local festivals, meet people, and see thing you didn't know about. Be sure to pack notebooks, pens, a small tape recorder, camera and film.

pixie: Those of us who travel many miles (800 or more on a vacation) take a lot of pictures and write down a lot of things about our journey. Can this can be turned into a story? Does it matter in what order it is written so long as it makes sense?

Pat: Well, you need some sort of structure so it does make sense. I'll get to the actual writing of the article in a little while. First I'd like to tell you what to do while you're there. Like pixie says, you need to write down a lot. Every day try to remember as much as you can and get it down. You may want to talk it into a tape recorder. Take notes while you are visiting different sites, talking to people. Get as much literature as you can: brochures, local newspapers, photos, postcards. It's a good idea to take some manila envelopes with you, and mail this stuff home. Then you don't have to worry about getting it into your luggage. Talk to as many people as you can, especially natives of the city or town. And take lots of photos, even if you don't plan to use them in the article. They'll help remind you of what you saw, and make it easier to describe things. Use your tape recorder to record typical sounds: hula music in Hawaii, Celtic music in Ireland, even people talking.

Moderator: How do I write the article then, once I've made the trip?

Pat: Well, get out all your manila envelopes, look over the brochures, the photos, listen to your tapes, and get into the mood of the place. Write down what you want to cover. Sometimes it helps to narrow your focus. For example, when I went to Ireland, I couldn't write about everything in one article. So I concentrated on the slow pace of life on the West Coast. I tried to make the reader understand what it was like to be there. After all, most people read travel articles because they'd like to go where we have been. Some read them to help in their planning, and some because that's the closest they're going to get. Your lead or opening paragraph needs to set a mood. Use description, without going overboard. Don't get too flowery. Choose good verbs and adjectives that evoke an image. Use all your senses. Think how it looked, sounded, smelled, etc. Decide on a logical structure, and make some sort of outline. Doesn't have to be the kind your English teacher taught you. Just get down the major points in a logical order. When you get to the end, try to tie it all together and emphasize the point you were trying to make. It's often good if you can come back full circle and mention something that was in the lead.

james55clinton: Do you study State Department reports on terrorist before foreign travel?

Pat: James, I haven't done a lot of foreign travel, but I would certainly take that into consideration. I didn't go to Northern Ireland. It's safer in the south. Besides, I was working on genealogy, too, and my ancestors are from there.

Moderator: Pat, you mentioned openings. I noted in your Cumberland Island article, you opened with, "Sunny beaches, sweeping sand dunes, shady woods, and old ruins." Just the kind of opening you talked about! Do I need photos for every travel article, Pat?

Pat: No, you don't always have to have them, but they add something and often make the article easier to sell. With modern 35 mm cameras with auto this and auto that, it's pretty easy to get acceptable photos. Or you can often get them from the chamber of commerce, or a travel bureau, as long as you give them credit in the article. If you do take your own photos, try to get a mix: buildings, scenery, people. Also try to get different kinds of shots: some close-ups, some medium range, some wide-angle shots. Variety helps. There are magazines, like Chicago Life, that run several very short travel stories in each issue. They don't use photos with those.

Moderator: Pat, do editors want PEOPLE in MOST photos, or not?

Pat: I think that depends on where you're writing about. A story about Chicago or St. Louis might not need people shots as much as one from Africa, Alaska, or Ireland, where the people might look and dress differently. And you certainly want some shots of buildings, landscapes, and objects, without people.

Moderator: How can I then sell an article?

Pat: Ahh, that's the hard part! First of all, don't expect to start with Travel & Leisure or National Geographic. In travel writing, you have to start with the smaller markets. The big travel magazines won't even look at your stuff, if you don't have clips of published travel articles to send. Local and regional magazines are good. My first travel articles were in Capper's, a Midwestern general interest magazine, that uses lots of short articles, including travel. Those two articles were about festivals in my hometown of Greenville, Ohio. One on the Steam Thresher's Reunion, and the other on Annie Oakley Days. Get a copy of Writers' Market to find markets for your work. And nowadays, you can find all sorts of magazine guidelines posted online. Find smaller magazines that will look at complete manuscripts. Capper's will, and so will Chicago Life. Of course, they don't pay like Travel & Leisure. Make sure they take articles about the area you're writing about. Some regional magazines only use material about their own area. When you find one that seems to want material about the place you went, take a good look at their guidelines: length, style, slant they want. Even better, send and get copies of the magazine, or go to the library and read it. See if the articles are written in a style similar to yours. Try to tailor your article to the magazine's needs.

Moderator: I read your article about the threshers' reunion, and I see the picture had people who really added to it!

Pat: Yes, Mel, I like that photo. The old farmer in his bibs made that picture.

pixie: How many words are required for an article?

Pat: pixie, you need to check the guidelines for different magazines. It can be anywhere from 300 words to several thousand. You might want to start with shorter articles.

Moderator: The travel magazines all want a query with published clips. I haven't published any travel articles. What do I do?

Pat: Well, you don't have to sell to a travel magazine to start with. Almost all magazines use some travel pieces now and then, and some use them a lot. Choose some that will look at complete manuscripts, and after you sell a few of those, then you'll have the clips you need. The hardest thing is selling the first couple of articles, but DON'T give up!

Moderator: Pat, you were talking to Pixie about length; I've noticed that many of your published articles are fairly short. "Mysterious Medicine Wheel" is about 400 words. Does a travel writer always have to visit the actual place for a destination piece? Could you just research it, then write about it?

Pat: I suppose you could, for a short piece, but I think you almost have to go there in order to capture the flavor of the place. You can write a factual article about a place from research, but I see a travel article as an interpretation of the place, through the eyes of the writer, which means for a true travel piece, I think you should go there.

Moderator: In addition to visiting a place, what are other sources for finding out about the place?

Pat: Well, books, of course, other magazine articles, and the Internet is a great resource. Lots of good photos of places there. And you can send for information from travel bureaus.

Moderator: Can you expand on that intriguing genre of "How-To" travel articles, in addition to packing and traveling with kids?

Pat: Well, there are all sorts of possibilities. An article on how to get the best air fares. One on how to travel cheaply in a certain area. An article on how you can exchange homes with someone in another country for a month or so. (There are programs set up for that.) An article on how to pursue a certain hobby on the road. How to travel with a wheelchair... Anything you've done, you can tell someone else how to do.

36:14 Moderator: Pat, I was most intrigued by your article, "Earthwise: Dinner at Ding Darling" Great title! Tell us about that article. Was it for an adult magazine?

Pat: No, it was for Children's Digest, but I think I could write it for an adult magazine as well. It is about Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, off the west coast of Florida. But more specifically, about the water birds who make their homes there. And I narrowed the focus even more, to how the different birds feed.

Moderator: You obviously visited Ding Darling to write the article. Did you also take those marvelous photographs?

Pat: Yes, I went through a lot of film! Photography and birding are my two biggest interests, other than writing.

Moderator: Do you often use your own photos? And do editors pay more for that?

Pat: I use them whenever I can. Yes, they pay extra for photos. And they don't usually buy all rights. I wouldn't sell all rights to a photo. I will to an article, because I can use the same information and write another article.

Moderator: How much might I expect for, say, a 500-word article, for a small, more local magazine?

Pat: Not a lot. Anywhere from $20 - $100.

Moderator: And about what do the "biggies" like TRAVEL AND LEISURE pay?

Pat: They pay $4000-$6000 for a longer article, $100-$500 for a short piece.

Moderator: Are travel articles always seasonal? Could you write, for example, "Christmas in Alaska" in July?

Pat: You can write it in July, but they probably won't use it till December! Which reminds me, you have to really think ahead with seasonal articles. The magazine probably needs them at least 6 months in advance, but lead time varies, so you need to check their guidelines again. They usually say how far in advance they need them.

Moderator: Can a travel writer write about golf courses if she or he isn't a golfer?

Pat: I would think so, as long as he/she researches them, and talks to people who have played there. I think you would want to use quotes from golfers for that sort of article.

Moderator: How interested would travel magazines with a national readership be in side trips to such places as the Devonian Fossil Digs here near my own hometown?

Pat: It might depend on whether you are fairly close to a big city that people would be visiting. If so, they often like stories about places within an hour or so drive. Would also make a good sidebar, with an article about the bigger city.

pixie: If a person likes to travel a lot, how can they write and make it pay them to do this? (Travel and write, that is?)

Pat: Well, they need to sell what they write to make money, obviously. And if you have your writing set up as a business, the expenses are tax-deductible. But the IRS might want to see evidence that you are submitting articles. Even better is a go-ahead on a query letter. For my article, "Pathway to the Past," for Northwest Parks & Wildlife I queried before I went to Alaska to see if they would be interested in an article on totem poles around Ketchikan. They asked me to do a 500-word piece on Totem Bight park in Ketchikan. That's evidence that I planned to write about the trip. You can often write several articles about one trip, too, pixie.

Moderator: How realistic would it be for me to expect that a magazine would pay my way to a place in order to write about it? (-:}

Pat: Well, Mel, if you find one that will do that, let me know and I'll go with you! Seriously, there ARE magazines that do that, like National Geographic. But I doubt that any of us in here need to worry about that for a long time...myself included!

Moderator: If you wrote several historical articles, say, around the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, would you submit them all to one magazine, or different magazines?

Pat: I'd say different magazines, unless it was an article and a couple of sidebars. Maybe I should talk a little about sidebars. They often are a good supplement to a longer article. And it's a good way to get factual info, like housing, restaurants, etc. in without breaking the flow of your story. A side-trip story about a small attraction near a major destination could be a good sidebar.

Moderator: Could you make a "Me and Joe" article work? If so, how--or shouldn't you even try to make it work?

Pat: First, "Me and Joe" is a derogatory term editors give to a diary-like story of someone's trip. But you could do a personal experience story about some aspect of a trip you've taken. It has to be very well written, so it doesn't sound like that essay the teacher always had you do, the one on the first day of school about "My Summer Vacation." And you have to find the right market for it. It has to be a magazine that takes first person articles. Many of them don't, unless you are a famous person.

Moderator: How much have your years of elementary school teaching helped your travel writing, Pat?

Pat: Gee, they've helped my children's writing more! One way they helped travel writing was by giving me three months to travel in the summer!

Moderator: Any special surprises happen to you when writing travel articles?

Pat: Well, when we were in Alaska, we went to church one Sunday morning and met a couple who invited us to come for dinner and spend the night! That was pretty nice, since we had been camping in a tent for weeks!

Moderator: How exactly would you use a tape recorder in preparing to write a travel article? What would you record, and what problems might pop up?

Pat: I have used it in the evenings, when I was too tired to write. I'd just talk through the day, what I'd done and what I'd seen. I've also used it to record music that made a nice background and kind of brought the whole scene back to me when I started writing. The problem is that there's always a possibility of malfunctioning. I never use a tape recorder when I'm interviewing people, but that's personal preference.

Moderator: Where are other good places to get guidebooks about a place?

Pat: Well, I use AAA and the library, plus I've bought them in bookstores, too.

Moderator: Your words, "make the reader feel he or she is there" are very wise words, Pat. Are there special techniques to use in doing that?

Pat: Well, I'd say to use all your senses when you're taking notes: listen, look, feel, taste, smell. Then use specific sensory words in your description. Note lots of details.

Moderator: If I need to begin travel writing with articles about my own hometown, will I likely overlook places/things outsiders would be interested in?

Pat: I guess that's possible. If your town puts out a yearly schedule of events, that's a starting place. Then think of things in your area with historical significance. For example, the Treaty of Greenville was signed here with the Indians. Annie Oakley grew up here, Lowell Thomas and Norman Vincent Peale lived here. Those are the kinds of things you can look for.

JACKJ949: Pat, is there a set number of words in a travel article or does it depend on the trip, etc.?

Pat: Jack, it depends on the magazine and what they want. Some are several thousand words. Some only a few hundred. Of course, you have to focus on one small thing in the short ones. Check the magazine guidelines for writers, either in Writers' Market or you can find many of them online now.

james55clinton: Must travel articles be upbeat or can you discuss disappointments?

Pat: James, I think you need to be honest about things that are disappointing. For the most part, I'd try to keep it upbeat, but I would include the downside, too. Again, different magazines want different things. Some want only the bright side.

Moderator: Could you tell us about one disappointment in one place, Pat?

Pat: Yes, Killarney! There is an old historic abbey called Muckross Abbey. We wanted to go see it, and when we got to the gate, they waved us over into a parking lot. Then they said it was 5 pounds (or something) to ride the jaunting cart back to the Abbey. We asked if we could walk, and they said it was two miles. Being stubborn, my cousin and I walked the two miles. When we got back there, there was a parking lot full of cars, who had come another way! We thought that was a real rip-off, because at that gate, they led us to believe that was the only way to get there! But that was my ONLY disappointment in Ireland.

Moderator: Can a traveling companion come in handy to help you on the trip toward writing about it later?

Pat: I think so. They can help you remember little details you might have forgotten to write down. But it has to be someone patient, who knows you're going to spend a lot of time writing notes, taking photos, talking to people.

Moderator: I want to "chew off a big bite" here: What might be a logical structure for writing a travel article about Washington, D.C., for instance?

Pat: Oh, gee. Right off the top of my head, I think you might do it in order of the tram stops. That's one way. Or you might want to slant it toward certain memorials and monuments. Or about the things kids would enjoy most.

Moderator: You mentioned children's magazines earlier. What are a few children's magazines that are also interested in travel articles? And how would they differ from adult travel articles?

Pat: I don't know if they would call them travel articles, but Children's Digest has bought several from me and I consider them travel (like the Ding Darling one.) I've sold several to Children's Digest. One was on the thermal wonders of Yellowstone, and one on glaciers in Alaska, all with my photos. Highlights sometimes does articles about places. And some of the Scholastic magazines used in schools do travel. One way they differ is in the way they are written. Easier vocabulary, shorter, simpler sentence structure. Another is trying to find an angle to interest kids, like the Ding Darling article. I thought they'd be interested in the very different way the birds feed.

Moderator: Tell us about your books, Pat. Are they for adults or children or both?

Pat: Mel, so far I've sold four, and they are all YA biographies. Adults seem to like the first one: Daniel Boone: Frontier Legend, published by Enslow Publishers. It came out last January. The second one, Thomas Paine: Revolutionary Patriot and Writer, will be out January 1, 2001. Then Abigail Adams, and I'm working on Henry Ford. However, I'd like to do some nature books for kids, too. Also fiction. There aren't enough hours in the day! I'm busier since I retired from teaching! Guess I have too many interests!

Moderator: Have you also traveled to places like Daniel Boone country, or Thomas Paine's home, in writing your bios?

Pat: I've done some traveling in conjunction with the books, but I can't afford to do too much. And they don't send me anywhere! I went to Daniel Boone's area, which is close by. And in a week, I'm going to the Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. Thomas Paine was influential in politics in three countries: England, France, and the U.S. I've been to those places, but it was before I wrote the book.

Moderator: Of all your trips and travel articles, is there one that was the MOST fun, and/or the article easiest to write, Pat?

Pat: The article on the West Coast of Ireland seemed to almost write itself. I loved it there and felt a real connection with the place, since all my dad's family came from there. It was great to be in the places they had been, and the people in Ireland are so friendly! I love Alaska, too. I've been there twice and want to go back.

Moderator: "Quiz question," Pat. (-:} What do Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Currituck Lighthouse and a Great Egret at Bodie Island have in common?

Pat: Hmmm. They are all on the Outer Banks of North Carolina! I think they were all photos in my article on the Outer Banks. Right?

Moderator: RIGHT! Tell us about that article. How did you come to writing it?

Pat: They've moved Cape Hatteras Lighthouse since then. I was there again this summer. I went for a week with 11 other people. We rented a huge beach house. I'm a regular writer for the Darke County Profile, a local magazine. When Diana, the editor, heard I was going, she said, "You can do an article!" So I did. It's a great place. I love watching the birds and photographing the lighthouses there.

Moderator: What I think I hear you saying is that most often you are headed to a place to vacation or such and you--or an editor--decide to write a travel article about it. Right?

Pat: That's really the way I've done it. I haven't pursued the big travel magazines. I've got too many other irons in the fire. But I do enjoy the travel writing, and it helps with expenses. Not enough to pay for the whole trip, but when I go to some neat place, I want to share it with people. So I enjoy writing about it, and using my photos to complement the writing.

Moderator: So, whenEVER we happen to be going ANYwhere on ANY trip, should we think "travel article"?

Pat: Sure, why not? Even if you're staying home, your area is "travel" for someone from somewhere else.

JackJ949: Are there other places you're thinking about writing about, Pat?

Pat: Jack, I want to do articles on Hannibal MO, Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia, and the Everglades, to name a few. I have good photos from all those places. By the way, most magazines use slides. A few use color prints, now that it's easy to scan them, though.

Blue Phantom: Are there specific tax deductions we non-travel writers might not think about?

Pat: Well, mileage, hotel accommodations, meals. I think you can only take half the meal cost. But I think you need to write an article about the place and try to sell it in order to do that.

Moderator: Pat, someone once said, "Travel is broadening." Tonight, you have broadened our writing horizons in getting us to think about travel writing and I for one am seriously considering it. THANK YOU so much for sharing so much with us!

Pat: Thank you, Mel. I've enjoyed it, and I hope some of you will go out and write a travel article!

Moderator: Our time is up, please all come back next time when Kristi will be back! Good night!

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