American Nomad Blog
About this blog
American Nomad covers the best of U.S. travel—from vacation deals to festivals, weekend getaways, travel tips, and more. A seasoned traveler and Moon author, Laura is the perfect guide to help discover new gems when traveling domestically.
- A Southern Girl's Wintertime Adventure in Yellowstone
- One Novelist's Odyssey Across America
- Gearing up for a Family Camping Trip
- Mint Juleps and More at Oak Alley Plantation
- Avoiding Identity Theft While on Vacation
- Money-Saving Travel Tips from Nomadic Matt
- Fashion, Fun, and Convenience for the Modern Traveler
- In Search of Irish Museums Across America
- The Inspiring Journey of a Solo Kayaker
- Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 2
- Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 1
- Experiencing Yosemite with YExplore
- Two Travel Contests Worth Mentioning
- A Word About the TSA's No-No List
- A Reader's Advice About Airport Security
The Truth About Writing Travel Guides
Recently, I shared with you 10 helpful travel writing tips – all of which had originally appeared on the Tripbase blog. In keeping with that theme, I thought I'd offer my own perspective on travel writing, specifically in relation to guidebooks.
Roughly three months ago, Grace Fujimoto, Avalon Travel's acquisitions director, informed me that she was planning to participate in a panel discussion at the Book Passage Travel Writers & Photographers Conference in Corte Madera, California. In preparation, she asked me about my process for researching and writing travel guides.
Happily, I complied.
So, if you're at all curious about what it was like for me to write guidebooks such as Moon New Orleans, Moon Michigan, and Moon Florida Keys (as I can't speak for my fellow guidebook authors), here's the conversation that Grace and I had via email:
Grace Fujimoto: What percentage of the research happens before you go? On the ground? After you come back?
American Nomad: Although exact percentages are tough to gauge, I'd say that I typically tackle 25 percent of my research before the trip (selecting locations, forming expectations, and making appointments and reservations), 50 percent of the research during the trip itself (recording experiences, gathering facts, and making unexpected detours), and the remaining 25 percent of my research after the trip (gathering even more facts and other travelers' opinions, plus following up with the people and places that I encountered during my trip).
GF: When doing on-the-ground research, how much of each day of travel do you spend researching?
AN: When I'm in full-on research mode, I don't do much writing (save for my travel blog posts), so I spend all day and night gathering research and experiences – which usually means exploring CVBs, museums, attractions, activities, shops, events, and restaurants during the day, and experiencing bars, romantic or rowdy restaurants, and other forms of nightlife at night. In between appointments, I spend the bulk of my time making calls and sending emails to potential contacts.
GF: How do you keep track of all the information you gather?
AN: I'm fairly old-fashioned when it comes to gathering and organizing research. Each guide gets its own set of designated notebooks in which I write copious notes (chronologically, of course) regarding every call that I've made, email that I've sent, factoid that I've gleaned, and experience that I've had on the ground. As my husband has often quipped, I'd be in serious trouble if I lost (or misplaced) any of these notebooks. Of course, I also gather tourism-related brochures and guides before, during, and after my research phase – online files are typically organized by region/neighborhood (that is, by chapter in the guidebook), as are hard-copy documents, CD-ROMs, and so forth (which I keep in specific file folders). I also bookmark a ton of websites in a guidebook-specific folder on my laptop – and thanks to the book proposal phase, I usually have a few rival guidebooks on hand for reference (mainly to try including places/activities/tips that my competitors haven't).
GF: When does the writing happen? As you research or in a push at the end?
AN: While I might feel inspired to write during the research phase (when all my experiences and impressions are fresh) – particularly items like callouts and chapter keynotes – I usually don't have the time then to start writing. Unfortunately, most of the writing happens closer to the end of the project – which is why I'm usually late regarding deadlines. Honestly, I'd like to get better at writing the text (at least, a lot of it) during the research phase instead of after – if only to keep my hairs from turning gray!
GF: What is the hardest part of writing travel guidebooks?
AN: I actually have three obstacles when writing guidebooks: meeting deadlines (since the writing is sometimes slow to ignite), overcoming the fear that I won't be original or distinctive enough (as compared to rival books about a particular destination), and ultimately letting the project go (since I despise having incorrect facts in a guide, such as prices that change after the book's gone to print).
GF: What is the best part of writing travel guidebooks?
AN: The best part, for me, is getting the chance to see places in a more in-depth way – somewhere between what a tourist sees and what a resident knows about a given place – and being able to pass along my passion and enthusiasm for a destination to my fellow travelers. As an aside, I also love the book proposal phase – the beginning of a project is so exciting!
GF: What is one piece of advice you would give someone starting a guidebook project?
AN: Hmmm... this is a tough one. What I've said in the past is that while you should be prepared for long hours and little pay, you will also be rewarded with new experiences, the chance to write and photograph places you love, and the pride of accomplishing something for which not everyone has the patience to achieve. If I can offer one more piece of advice, I'd advise the writer in question to include both well-known places (such as the Ernest Hemingway home in Key West) and hidden gems (such as hole-in-the-wall restaurants and bars in New Orleans).
If you're still curious about what it takes to write guidebooks, check out my previous post about the downside of being a perfectionistic travel writer. Naturally, though, if you have any other questions, feel free to send them my way – either by posting a comment below or emailing me at laura [at] wanderingsoles [dot] com. In the meantime, happy travels – and if you're a fellow American, don't forget to vote today – after months of presidential primaries, fundraisers, and campaign speeches, Election Day is finally here!
As always, I’m open to ideas for future posts. If you have any suggestions, burning questions, or destinations that you’d like me to explore in greater detail, please comment below, contact me via laura [at] wanderingsoles [dot] com, or connect with me on Facebook and Twitter.
Disclosure: While I occasionally accept free or discounted travel assistance when it coincides with my editorial goals, my opinion is never for sale, which means that everything written in my American Nomad blog and Moon travel guides is my unbiased reflection of the things that I see, do, and experience while traveling across the United States.
Photo of the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum / Text © 2012 Laura Martone