How-to tips for travel writing – you want to be a travel writer?

The kiwi travel writer enjoys Fiji cruising
The Kiwi Travel Writer enjoys cruising in Fiji

So you want to be a travel writer, you want some tips. Okay first, after teaching travel writing over many years I can tell you most people never get published – sad but true. In fact, that’s why I stopped teaching – it didn’t feel right to be encouraging an almost impossible dream. Unfortunately, as a freelancer, like me, with shrinking travel pages in magazines and newspapers, you will find fewer places for you to send your work to and, the competition is high.

You will also discover that you will not be swanning around the world with free airline tickets, accommodation in five-star hotels, and meals at fancy restaurants – again, sad but true.

I’m sure your friends and family tell you that you write really well, that ‘you should be a travel writer’, that in fact ‘you should write a book’. That may well be true but, and this is a big but, editors do not want articles sent to them that are really like an email or letter you sent your grandmother about your time in Rome; or the one to your girlfriend about the romantic date you had with that talk dark and handsome, very dishy, Greek. These absolutely could be the basis for a great story – just written differently.

Something else that stops people fulfilling their dream to become a travel writer is the discipline and hard work it takes! It’s not just the writing, you will also need to be your own travel consultant, time manager, tax advisor, receipt keeper, bookkeeper, bookings maker, PR person, media and editor chaser, and of course, photographer. Oh, one more thing, you also don’t get paid until the editor actually prints your work – so make sure you have some cash hidden away. I live on a budget so I can travel to where I want to go … not just to the flavour of the month destination, or where I’m invited – in fact I turn down invitations if they don’t excite me!

However, if you love to travel, if you love to write, if you love to take photos, this is a great job: in fact, I think I have the best job in the world. I’m on the bottom of the food chain, but I have a great lifestyle. Sometimes I do get airline tickets and five-star accommodation too but that’s because people know my work and believe they get value for money from me. What’s even more confirming is that I’ve been invited more than once to the same country, or event, by the same tourism agencies.

I started travel writing after a year-long trip, alone with no bookings, around the world, from Alaska to Zimbabwe. On my return to New Zealand I took a short writing class and was encouraged to send some of my travel stories to local newspapers and magazines. To my amazement they were all accepted and cheques sent – I immediately decided I would be a travel writer; it seemed it was that easy. But no, over the following years I received many ‘no thank you’ letters, or, as you will find – if you continue your dream of travel writing – silence from editors. Yes, that’s right, most don’t even answer.

Nevertheless, if you decide to become a travel writer here are just a few tips – I don’t do these all the time, but mix-and-match to suit the occasion, and more importantly, the style of the magazine or newspaper I’m pitching to. As I am not a journalist, I very rarely approach editors before my travels – this is because mostly I’m a traveller who writes, not a writer who travels. Sometimes I have an idea of stories before I go, but usually I just go exploring and stories find me. However this too can be a cultural thing – each country expects different things from writers. For instance, when I have sent stories to the USA I need to use American spelling – seems editors there don’t think their readers can translate from Kiwi, or British, spelling.

Back to that list of tips, and of course other travel writers would add or subtract from this – so, please add your tips in the comments below:

  • Of course, first you have to be a writer – travel writing is just one genre. Read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  • The basics: Learn about the place by talking to locals. Don’t interview your computer or guidebook, your readers can do that for themselves; but they are a good source for the correct spellings of places
  • Don’t write about places you haven’t been to – unless of course, you are doing a story about your bucket list. That’s PR/editorial work, not travel-writing, and you want your readers to know you are reliable for telling the truth.
  • Get lost – the best stories are not always in the main tourist destinations but in the back roads and streets of places
  • Take notes, ask questions, get quotes, and note the colours, smells, and tastes. [I don’t journal when travelling but take copious photos and lists of ideas, and notes on speech, dress for example]
  • Avoid clichés, almost like the plague – although,  see I’ve just used one, because occasionally they’re useful
  • Lose the ‘best kept secrets’, ‘city of contrasts’ and ‘unspoilt gems’.  Why do lodges always ‘nestle’ at the foothills or ‘perch’ vulture-like atop a mountain with ‘breath-taking views’ over a ‘rustic’ village?
  • Find a fresh angle to the story. Rarely will you find a place that has not been written about so find something original to grab a reader’s attention
  • Be realistic and tell the truth – in other words, talk about the filth, the cruelty to horses, the stray dogs or what seems to be, starving camels eating cardboard from rubbish dumps. [Apart from the occasional cropping I don’t edit my pics either – you see what I saw i.e. I also tell the truth in my photos]
  • Read travel blogs, travel writers books and, of course, magazines and newspapers travel pages
  • This should have been my first tip: Read, read, read: Rinse and repeat, often. Good reading will make you a better writer. You will never develop your own voice and style without reading.
think about things
think about things
  • Along with reading you need to write, write, write, even when you don’t want to. Paint a picture with words for your reader
  • Add some historical or political context to add to the point.
  • Thomas Swick wrote in Roads Not TakenIt is the job of travel writers to have experiences that are beyond the realm of the average tourist, to go beneath the surface, and then to write interestingly of what they find … Good travel writers understand that times have changed, and in an age when everybody has been everywhere (and when there is a Travel Channel for those who haven’t), it is not enough simply to describe a landscape, you must now interpret it.’
  • Write about your local area, become a travel expert on your own city. After all, your city is somewhere travellers visit. [When my city, Christchurch, New Zealand had quakes in 2010/11 I was inundated with requests for up-to-date information and I ended up writing many travel webpages for prestigious travel companies and airlines]
  • Don’t forget the adage of ‘Show, don’t tell’ and as Stephen King will tell you, when you read ‘On Writing‘, lose the lazy ‘ly’ words, so ditch the adverbs and flowery descriptions and find the perfect verb instead.
  • Sometimes, others would say always, end with a punch or at least capture the point of the story. Don’t dare say you ‘can’t wait to return’ – it’s been done to death.
  • When your piece is complete, read it out loud. Edit. Read again. Run the spell-checker, and your eye, over the piece, (I print to read from) put your work aside for some hours or days, or even weeks, then read it out loud again then, and only then send it to an editor. But, make sure you have read their publication again and again so you know their style, and if they ask for 800 words that means 800 words. Not 802 not 850 but 800. However, 790 or 736 is usually fine
  • If they need photos, send your best half a dozen, and caption them. If they ask for one . . .  guess what, send one.
  • And, some last points, don’t tell people what you going to write or you can lose the essence of the story. Be like the Nike ad’ and just do it
  • Don’t write for free. Let me repeat that – don’t write for free. If it’s worth publishing, it’s worth paying for. You don’t need a portfolio to start, the editor is only interested in the piece in front of them: I know that from my travel editor days – for one year, for a now redundant Christchurch newspaper
  • A supportive group of hardcore travel writers I know are discussing, on-line right now, how they hate people asking for advice and tips then don’t say THANK YOU within 24 hours – just saying! I say thanks to places who host me: I also send links to all the work I publish that mentions them, and a PDF of a piece I’ve written about ‘how to make the most of having hosted’ me. Once again, win-win.
  • Start a blog, practice writing there, give it away there for free. I have had many invitations to events and countries (and that’s not easy when you live at the bottom of the world so fares are not cheap and time can be an issue) by people who have found me through my blog. And of course you need to be on all social media to urge those eyeballs to come over to read your blog. (See my links here)

See my three books here (two are travel, one about suicide grief)

Heather, the KiwiTravelWriter at work in Wurzburg
Heather, the KiwiTravelWriter at work in Wurzburg

 

Christchurch: nearly a Gothic Revival UNESCO World Heritage Site

web museumAbout two months before the September 2010 quakes, a Christchurch mayoral candidate, Jim Anderton, said if he became mayor he would push for Christchurch to have World Heritage Status for the city’s unique Gothic Revival buildings. It appeared that no city in the world had a more complete collection of Gothic revival buildings of such high quality and so well-preserved.

I attended a meeting, in the Gothic Arts Centre, to hear about such a proposal. He said, “these Victorian buildings date back to the 1850s and, as a group, are of enormous international significance. They represent the outcome of the furthest migration of any group of people in human history.” Apparently, Canterbury was the last and most successful of the colonisation schemes of Edward Gibbon Wakefield.

Anderton continued, “They are more than bricks and mortar, they are at the heart of our city and remind us every day of those pioneers searching for a better world on the other side of the globe.” I left the meeting having decided to vote for Jim because of this proposal.

Repairs and strengthening well underway
Repairs and strengthening are well under way

Early European settlers of course bought their values with them and expressed some of that in their architecture and appreciation of open spaces – which was also happening in New York where Central Park was just being established too.  [interestingly, and nothing to do with the meeting or the Gothic buildings, I believe the land which became the Botanic Gardens was given to the city by the Scottish Deans brother’s – they wanted a barrier between them, and Riccarton, and the new English arrivals – I’m sure many of the local tangata whenua would have liked the same.]

Over three decades many Gothic revival buildings – built in local grey stone – and none of which were exact copies of the English versions . This and the scale as well as the use of timber, started a city with its own characteristics, not a replica of what they’d left.

The Canterbury quakes (2010/11) of course put this UNESCO proposal on the back burner, however, many of the proposed sites consist of the most significant 19th century public buildings associated with the founding of the city have not been demolished because of the quakes: these include Christchurch Cathedral, (although still under review) the Canterbury Provincial Council Buildings, (the only complete surviving examples of government buildings from the provincial period of colonial society in New Zealand) and the former Canterbury University, previously Canterbury College and now the Arts Centre, and both are now being restored and quake-proofed.

The Canterbury Museum had received a lot of quake strengthening work and it suffered minimal damage during the quakes.

Council Chambers
Council Chambers

The 1865 Council Chambers is internationally recognized as an outstanding example of High Victorian Gothic architecture, and on a personal level, is where my first book launch was held and is on the list to be restored, as is the old Presbyterian Trinity Church which for many years has been a restaurant.

St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church (now at Rangi Ruru School), built in a simple, and wooden, Gothic style in the late 1800s: my parents, grandparents, and many more of my ancestors  married in this church – a reminder that not all Christchurch settlers were English.

Other inner-city Gothic buildings surviving the quakes include Christ’s College, and sort of surviving, the facades post office in the square and the former A.J. White’s building in High Street.

Not in the city, but Gothic nevertheless, was a prosaic Gothic building, the old Addington Prison which is now backpacker accommodation known of course as the Jailhouse! Naturally, with my ‘colourful’ background, I have history here too – having picked up people there, who were no longer guests of the state, and have stayed in the backpackers.

*See recent posts about the quakes – an elephant in the room and one about Christchurch as it is.

 

Is there an elephant in the room? Christchurch, New Zealand

 

As part of my upcoming series of blogs about Christchurch let’s first talk about the elephant in the room. In other words, the earthquakes that shook my city in 2010 – 2011.

I left Christchurch some eight weeks after the September 2010 quake, not because of the 7.3 quake or its many aftershocks, but a decision that had been made in May that year. Since then, I have returned to Christchurch on dozens of occasions so, although I have not lived through the many but normal aftershocks, I have closely seen the devastation wrought on my city.

My roots are deep in this wonderful city: my Cornish maternal roots arrived here in 1862, while my Scottish paternal roots arrived in 1873 – and there they remained, planted and flourishing on the stony plains and peninsula ever since. During this series of blogs, I will be talking about Christchurch as it is post-quake, as well as linking it to my past.

My frequent trips down from Wellington, and usually staying in the city centre, means I’ve watched the continuing journey as a new city emerges. Let’s not pull any punches, Christchurch will never be the old Christchurch again. While I mourn this loss I also celebrate the new – as it is emerging. Those seismic shocks have and are certainly changing the face of the city.

An air of creativity and innovation flows through the city but unfortunately it seems many locals are not aware of this, and say they don’t come into the city as there is nothing to do. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Tourists, and those working in the city centre, are well aware of many things to do. Some of it involves quake tourism of course, for others it’s checking out the huge artworks around the CBD, taking their kids to the magnificent Margaret Mahy playground, promenading, dining and shopping along New Regent Street, which I believe, is now Christchurch’s oldest retail area.

One thing I became very aware of during my last visit (February 2016) is how many tourists still find the devastation hard to handle and often only stay a night or two. One of the difficulties for them seems to be they are unsure what is actual ‘quake damage’ and what has been demolished ‘because of’ the quake. (NOTE: I again suggest the council or some other such body create a historic plaque to state “This building is a quake survivor’ for building owners to use).

It also seems that many find the city-wide building sites noisy and annoying, whereas I see them as a sign of vitality of the city and positive growth. Unfortunately, it seems travellers many arrive at the airport grab their campervan or rental car and take off, heading south or west. Many I spoke to said they’d been told by people in other parts of New Zealand ‘there is nothing to see down there.’ Most said they were thrilled they had ignored the ill informed advice.

Nice curves on one of the new buildings
Nice curves on one of the new buildings

To learn about the quake, I can absolutely recommend Quake City, a Canterbury Museum project, on Cashel Mall. Our city centre lost 80% of its buildings, not because they fell down, but because they had to be demolished as being unsafe, this means Christchurch has had much of its history erased.

The sad deaths, from the February 2011 6.3 quake, occurred mostly in two relatively modern buildings which did collapse. The artwork of white chairs as a memorial to them is  on the site of my old church: St Paul’s Trinity Pacific, which growing up as a city kid, was the church I attended, and married in, and in those days was just called St Paul’s: it too was a quake casualty.

So, whether you live in Christchurch, or are visiting for a few days, make sure you see the real city centre and learn our history, not just the oft-repeated, lazy writing about Christchurch, as being conservative, just like England, or other such nonsense, this is a new city, developing new roots, and growing on top of our old foundations.

As well is reading some of the many books, stories, and poems that have sprung up post-quake you can also follow my blogs about Christchurch, so I can introduce you to the new as well is the old. Don’t forget many of our buildings (20% remember) survived, albeit most needing repairs, some major, some minor, but we still have many of our wonderful Gothic buildings in use.

So yes the ‘elephant in the room’, our seismic shakes, have jolted us, have left many traumatised, homes and businesses are gone, but a new, hopefully greener, city is emerging, and despite, or because of, my deep roots in Christchurch I celebrate that new city and feel excited every time something old reopens, or something new opens. Of course I am sad that much of my personal history is gone,  however, looking over my shoulder at something no longer there is wasting time and energy that I prefer to use positively.

Despite now living in Wellington, I’m a Cantabrian through and through, one-eyed, wearing red and black, and cheering on our sports teams, and the rebuild!  However, this does not mean I wear pink coloured glasses when writing about the city. At times I have been and will be critical, especially at locals who voice many opinions about the inner city, despite not having visited the CBD for months, or even years; a heavy-handed government making decisions they have no right to make, or delay; and the Anglican church for the damage their wrecking ball inflicted on the cathedral, and the continuing damage they are allowing by not closing the building to the elements. I believe they caused more damage than the quakes did.

Next week: our gothic buildings.

Thank-you to Breakfree On Cashel for hosting me during part of my stay in the city.

Detail of the Chalice - public art in'the square'
Detail of the Chalice – public art in the square

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bachelor Boys at Orana Park. The world’s largest primates, gorillas

Orana Wildlife Park is New Zealand’s only open range zoo and as soon as I arrived I went to see ‘the boys’ – my main reason for visiting the park yet again. I have been visiting this park for many years, in fact my brother, Roger, helped with fundraising to get the park started. Some years after it started my father had to apologise for his lack of trust in the success of the project and he too loved visiting.

‘The boys’, as they are affectionately called, are three of the world’s largest primates, and Orana park is part of the international zoo based breeding program for Western Lowland gorillas: their role now is to house three of these critically endangered species. These bachelor boys are :Fataki, the silverback and half-brothers Fuzu and Mahali. (Fataki is a half-brother to Mahali too).

orana 2016-02-05 10.44.22They’re housed in the $6M Great Ape Centre – Orana’s most   ambitious project ever was completed in June 2015 just before the gorillas arrived. The habitat enables Orana to hold two species of critically endangered great apes (in separate habitats within the one complex) and the endangered Sumatran orang-utans will hopefully be transferred to Orana during 2016 – when I will return to Christchurch. Add it to your ‘bucket-list’ too.

Raising awareness on the plight of gorillas and orangutan is also a huge page of the park’s role although in the future Orana Wildlife Park hopefully may receive a breeding recommendation.

As you will possibly know threats to gorillas are primarily driven by lifestyle choices such as habitat loss due to coltan mining for electronic devices. Orana Wildlife Park has partnered with Re:Mobile, a New Zealand firm that recycles and re-markets mobile phones, reducing the demand for new handsets and the associated environmental impacts.

So, take any old mobile phone to the park when visiting and put it in the collection box so you too can help.

Orana, a registered charity, is a not-for-profit organisation, and raises 100% of funds for each new development and generating the required funds for the Great Ape Centre was a huge effort by them – well done to you all. See their website to see how you can help as a volunteer, adopt an animal, or donate.

I have more blogs to come about my recent day at Orana Park, but for now for some of my gorilla photos:

Keep up to date with the park and its inhabitants on Facebook … here is the boys shopping list.

Shopping list for vegetarians
Shopping list for vegetarians

NOTE: Many of the endangered animals at the Park do not belong to Orana Wildlife Trust but to the relevant breeding programme which makes decisions about which females are best bred with which males to ensure the most diverse gene pool possible in these captive populations. From time to time animals are moved between various zoos and parks to enhance the genetic diversity of their particular species.

*See recent posts about the quakes – an elephant in the room and one about Christchurch as it is.

See heuse IMG_6616re for more of their conservation activities

use IMG_6712

Wellington’s 1840s shoreline and Maori history walk

Last week I joined a group to walk Te Ara o nga Tupuna – a Māori heritage trail through downtown Wellington, following the old 1840s shoreline.

Our section of the walk took about two hours and started at Pipitea Marae. If you cannot join such a tour, the visitor iSite Centre beside the public library has a brochure that you too can follow. (‘The path of our ancestors’ includes a driving trail around Miramar Peninsula.)

Appropriately the pou at the top of Pipitea Marae, is of Maui – the well-known trickster of Polynesian mythology. It is appropriate as Maui is credited with fishing up the North Island, and the mouth of this fish is Wellington Harbour. The first Polynesian navigators of this area were Kupe and Ngahue who camped on the southern area of the harbour. (Seatoun)

Pipitea Marae was built in the early 1980s on the site of an old village overlooking the harbour and close to fresh water supplies and pipi beds. Pipi are a popular shellfish among many Kiwi. The 1840 shoreline has changed considerably, mostly due to reclamation, which has destroyed many traditional food sources. Other changes, near Waitangi Park have been due to earthquakes which lifted the land.

Plaques set in the footpath show where the water used to reach. Walking along Lambton Quay, the main shopping area in Wellington, we hear stories about the names of many streams which were used particularly for women during pregnancy and childbirth.

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Living the dream is a privilege I value

hh sarawak IMG_2148
Planting mangroves in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo

 

While searching for a document I found this summary of 1999 I’d sent to friends. What a privileged life I lead – be assured I value and treasure it. 

“I have swum in the Nile and Mekong rivers, in the South China and Aegean seas; and in swimming pools in Egypt and Thailand; Scuba dived and snorkeled off the Perhentian islands in Malaysia;

I’ve studied Islam, Buddhism, Hindu and Chinese religions; was silent for ten days in a Buddhist temple and did a cooking course in Thailand.

Learnt to say ‘no problem’ in four languages, read junk novels, inspiring stories and travel tales as well as keeping copious notes for my own writing.

Been offered jobs in Thailand, Malaysia and Laos, and worked for 5 weeks in Athens, Greece. Had a proposal of marriage, a few propositions and some foxy flirtations.

Celebrated four new years…. The calendars for Christian, Islam, Buddhism religions and the Chinese one. Currently the year of the rabbit

Stayed in little villages, large cities and islands.

Climbed . . up into Buddhist temples and down into tombs, up to sacred caves and over narrow planks to boats.

Traveled on planes, camel, horse, bus, songthaew, cars, trishaw, bicycle, dingy, fishing boat, felucca, truck, river taxi, train, and cargo boat.

Slept in beds, bunks, hammocks, fleapits and 4 star hotels, on a concrete slab; on a mattress on the felucca, and on the roof of a hostel in the old city of Jerusalem with 29 others!

I’ve danced. . . on beaches in Malaysia and Israel, in a Cairo hotel, on the banks of the Nile, as well as in Hindu and Buddhist parades.

Experienced monsoon rain and dessert dry; from 48 degrees centigrade in the Valley of the Kings, down to 12 degrees in the hills of Malaysia and needed a blanket for the first time for ages

Been blessed by monks and had water thrown over me by school children, ladyboys and farangs. I’ve played volleyball, frisbee, backgammon, scrabble, cards and petanque.

Eaten pigeon, fresh fish, fruit shakes on the beach, coconut straight from the tree, and copious amounts of rice and noodles. Drank water from the tap every where including the streets of Cairo and am still waiting for tummy problems! Had my hair cut in men’s and women’s shops, by people who spoke no English, as well as under a palm tree in Malaysia and in a garden bar in Athens by an Aussie

Made music with bongo drums, spoons sang Pali chants and both Thai and Egyptian love songs as well as playing drums in a traditional Malay cultural band.

Taught English and swimming; became a grandmother in Malaysia and a mother-in – law in Thailand. And I’ve een called mum, sister and auntie, renamed Hedda, Hezza, fox and H as well as Pouhi.

Ate in night markets, street stalls and fancy restaurants, in people’s homes. . .including the Minister of Health’s’ home in Malaysia!

Prayed in mosques, temples and churches of many religions. Chatted with monks, children, tourist police, street people and shopkeepers.

Witnessed funerals in Malaysia, Thailand and Egypt.

Swam with turtles and tropical fish and the most poison-ness snake in the world! In clean water, clear water, and polluted water; warm and cold water, calm and rough, blue and green; fresh, salty and chlorinated water.

Been to the toilet watched by kids, on swaying trains, in smelly dirty rooms, off the back of boats and developed good thigh muscles on the Asian squat toilets (which I missed when I arrived in Egypt.) Learnt to forgo toilet paper for months and use my right hand for eating and greeting!

Sold beer and bananas on the beach in Malaysia served pancakes, nasi goring and BBQ on the same island and cooked countless meals in Athens.

Been offered hash, opium, and marijuana and changed money and brought cigarettes on the black market.

Met people from all over the world was proud to be a Kiwi, ashamed of many westerners attitudes and behavior. Joined the inverted élite snobbery of being a traveller not a tourist.

Gave blood in Malaysia, broke a toe, and had an allergic reaction and apart from bites have been disgustingly healthy.

And have kept developing my courage and resilience despite fears!

Buddha holds buddha

Wellington sanctuary has 500 year vision to save species

Zealandia is a sanctuary  with a difference:  it has a vision for 500 years – its goal,  to restore  this Wellington valley to its pre- human state. It’s twenty years into the plan!

Only minutes  from the centre of New Zealand’s capital,  and parliament buildings,  it’s a great place  to spend a few hours,  a day  or, take an evening guided walk to check out New Zealand  wildlife  flora and fauna.  I spent a couple of hours there  2 days ago  and here just a few of the many photos I took. (search in this blog for other Zealandia posts I’ve written)

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