I’m sitting in Al Capone’s favourite jazz club in Chicago. The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge on North Broadway is an art deco den crammed with golden statues and glittering mirrors where couples drink and flirt. Behind the bar there’s a black-and-white photo of the mobster himself, scowling in a three-piece suit. Beyond that lies a tiny stage where a band is tuning up.
I note all this in my pocket book, catching the details because later I will forget. As I bend above the pages, lost in scrawls, a voice whispers in my ear: ‘Why are you doing all this writing?’ It’s a very good question and one I often ask myself. I turn to see an old face beside me, peering at my scribbles. He has yellow eyes and furrowed black skin and grey curls across his forehead. ‘Well,’ I say, ‘I’m a travel writer. This is what I do.’ He frowns. ‘I don’t know about that. I like jazz. It feeds my soul. Anyway, what are you writing about?’
As it happens what I’m writing, in the twilight before the band begins, is the outline for The Travel Writer’s Way. I’m dashing down a framework for a different kind of guide to becoming a travel writer, based on a series of hands-on assignments that you can do yourself, wherever you are and whatever kind of writer you want to be.
Whether you’re burning to become the next Bill Bryson, eager to blog your way to fame, itching to see your name in magazines or just keen to share your travels with friends, this is a book that can help. You can take it on the road, or use it from home, to realise your dream. That’s because, at its heart, are 12 writing journeys that you can make wherever you are, each exploring a key skill for travel writing – or any kind of writing about place. Around them are wrapped creative and commercial insights from the world’s top travel writers and editors, assembled here to guide you.
I’ve pulled it together from two decades of writing about travel for newspapers and magazines, commissioning articles for atravel magazine and teaching travel writing on courses around the world. During that time, I’ve been the Editor of Traveller magazine and the Director of Travellers’ Tales, a unique training agency for travel writers. From all of this, I’ve learnt quite a bit about how to set out on ‘the travel writer’s way’. This book has a lot of what I can share with you from that. It’s not exhaustive and everyone has their own approach. There’s always more to learn. But it offers a range of skills and ideas that you can make your own, to help you become the writer you want to be.
Taking flight as a travel writer is easier these days than it used to be. The digital revolution has opened a world of possibilities, for professionals and amateurs alike. Making a living may not have got easier, but making a splash surely has. The digital era allows us all to tell our own stories, whether as a blog, an e-book or a stream of tweets. New formats and possibilities are unfolding all the time.
For travellers who don’t want to be full-time writers, this is probably a golden age. You can build a blog in minutes, post on it daily, link to your photos and films online and there, at no cost, you’ve got a multi-media version of your own journey, yours to keep forever. How simple is that?
But at the core of even the newest forms, there’s a need to tell a story well, to capture the feel of a place and the mood of an experience. That’s where a book like this can help you. Whatever new frontiers open in cyberspace, we’ll always value storytellers. And travellers’ tales are among humankind’s most enduring, from the biblical Exodus and Homer’s Odyssey onwards. As to why we tell these tales, that’s a bigger question than this little book can answer. Why are you doing all this writing? Well, I’m a travel writer. This is what I do.
We go to places and meet strangers and make notes and afterwards we write it up, with varying degrees of pleasure and pain, as any seasoned writer will know. This is what we do. And after reading The Travel Writer’s Way, I hope that you will do it too. As for me, I realise after writing it that all the examples in this book are drawn from my own travels: so in a quiet way, this has become a log of my personal journey on the travel writer’s way, and of what I’ve learned in a lifetime out there. Who knew?
But I can’t explain all this to my new-found friend in the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge. So I shut my book with its spidery notes and buy him a glass of beer. We trade smiles and stories. Then the band begins to play.