TAKE MY CAMEL, PLEASE
A Travel Writing Workshop
MIIS, April 24, 2014
Susan Spano and Evelyn Helminen
“Take my camel,
dear, said my aunt
Dot, as she
from this animal
on her return from
I. Travel Writing Samples:
Read and Discuss
II. Components of a Travel
III. How to Place a Travel Article
IV. Electronic Travel
Coda: Got an idea? Want to bat it
Questions to Discuss
• Where/when does the passage take place (if not explicitly
• Who is the writer? Why is he/she there?
• What writerly effects are used to take you from the page to a
• Do you notice any striking turns of phrase, descriptions,
• In a few words, what is the piece about (besides the place
where it’s set)?
Robert Louis Stevenson
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879)
“Goodbye to All That”
Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1961)
Components of a Travel Story
• The Idea
• The Lede
• Location, Location, Location
• Heavy Lifting
• People and Quotes
• Action and Events
• Underlying Issues
• The Kicker
1. The Idea
• Travel publications keep serving up the usual
• Look for something fresh
• Or a new twist on someplace of perennial
• Where do good travel ideas come from?
Reading, movies, travel talk and travel...
2. The Lede
Usually one short graf that sums up what the
story is about or simply serves as a hook.
“I was seized by the idea of this book while
sitting on a rotten little beach at the western tip
of Crete, flanked by a waterlogged shoe and a
rusty potty. I had the depressed feeling that I
spent my life doing this sort of thing and might
as well end my days here. This is the traveler’s
deep dark night of the soul and can happen
anywhere at any hour.”
- from Travels with Myself and Another, by Martha Gellhorn (1978)
3. Location, Location, Location
Early on, locate your story geographically.
Travelers hate to feel lost.
“The Uffington Horse, as it’s called, inspired
other turf artists in more recent times. Taking up
shovels and spades, they made their marks on
hillsides in Wiltshire, a county about 50 miles
west of London, where the downs roll on until
they descend toward Salisbury Plain.”
- From The White Horses of Wiltshire by Susan Spano (1988):
4. Heavy Lifting
• Other cultural
facets of a place
5. People and Quotes
• Humanize a story and bring it to life
• Include memorable lines in your notes
• Describe people with a few brushstrokes, then use
what they said or did, how they received you as a
Sample People and Quotes
The beery-smelling old Irishman I met at a Laundromat during a rainy bike trip in
County Clare, Ireland.
“Ireland’s a grand country,” he said. “Rain is the
only fault in it.”
6. Action and Events
• Keep readers reading and provide transitions from
one section to another.
Sample Action and Events
• Once I found a scorpion
in my bedspread at a
funky little inn on the
southwest coast of
Mexico. The man who
showed me to my room
beheaded it with the
key, then saved the
body (as an
7. Underlying Issues
• The richest, most memorable travel stories do more
than simply describe places.
• They consider important underlying issues in ways
that are more human and compelling than general
non-fiction or news stories.
• Look for such issues as you do your research; then
weave them into the story.
Sample Underlying Issues
A great example of this is
Incident in Naples, by
Francis Steegmuller (from
Ancient Shore), as much
about human compassion
as about Napoli.
• A magic ingredient capable of elevating even the
most banal subject matter
• Can be arch, deadly serious, ditzy, cynical, whatever…
• Should be suited to the material, meaning your voice
can change from article to article.
• Voice can be cleverly exercised even when you aren’t
using the first person singular.
How do you cultivate voice?
• Start in the research phase,
while taking notes.
• Record your impressions
along with the facts; let
your imagination work.
• Think about how you write
letters, an intimate format
often exposing true voice.
• Let your head rattle, don’t
suppress. There will be time
to clean up the copy later.
9. The Kicker
• Officially closes the story,
bringing the beginning
around to the end, and
• Can be just a line,
referring back to the lede
How to Place a Travel Story
Most newspapers and magazines have writers’
guidelines somewhere on the website. Check
them out to learn the the preferred submission
format, suggested length and kinds of stories
sought from freelancers.
The New York Times
Send proposals and manuscripts firstname.lastname@example.org.
The mailing address is:
The New York Times
229 West 43rd Street
New York, N.Y. 10036
• PLEASE DO NOT SEND PHOTOS.
• The Travel Section will not publish articles that grow out of trips paid for or in any way subsidized by
an airline, hotel, tourist board or other organization with an interest, direct or indirect, in the
subject of an article.
• We buy all rights to articles and will not purchase a piece that has been published elsewhere. The
date of the trip on which an article or query is based should be given on a separate line at the top
of the manuscript. A brief resume should accompany both articles and proposals. No submission
should exceed 1,500 words. Backpage essays should be between 1,200 and 1,400 words.
• Because of the volume of submissions, the Travel section regrets that it cannot acknowledge or
return unsolicited manuscripts or article proposals. If a manuscript is being considered for
publication, the writer will be informed within two weeks. Writers should not include photographs.
2. It’s a Tailoring Game
• Suit the pitch or
manuscript to the
• Studying your target is
paramount. A good pitch
letter reflects familiarity
with the publication and
its table of contents.
• All the better if you
suggest something for
one of the regular
3. Been There, Done That
• Check the website to make sure the
publication hasn’t already covered the subject
you want to suggest.
• It’s all too easy for an editor to say: Sorry we
just did that.
4. Who Do You Know?
• Write to an editor by name.
• If you know someone (anyone) at the
publication, use it as an in.
• If you can get a direct contact, be shameless
about how you introduce yourself. Refer to
someone you both know, a shared experience,
even a brief meeting.
5. The Pitch
• Should include a self-introduction and clips (if
you have them).
• Keep a sharp eye for typos and errors, which
are especially glaring in pitch letters.
• Each idea you suggest should have a hook, a
few details and reasons why readers might be
compelled beyond the innate interest of the
Build Your Own Travel Blog
• Write for the web
• Write in your own voice
• Write stories other people can engage with
• Post consistently
• Encourage comments
• Utilize social media
• Submit guest posts
• Include photo and video
• Collect email addresses