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Writer On The Road
it's like to be a travel writer out on the
he set out to revise parts of a best-selling
guide to Greece, Paul Hellander, the Australian
travel writer, asked some good questions about
a first big writing assignment. Here are his
questions and my answers, for what they're worth
(posted here with Paul's permission):
I have been given the fairly large task of updating
the sections listed below. The time allocation that
the publisher has indicated is something like this:
Greece 30 days
Greece 15 days
of NE Aegean 30 days
Islands 20 days (I think)
time allocations look sufficient, but
hardly relaxed. You will discover that
this is work, not vacation (holiday). You need
to travel fast both to get the ton of work
done and to get your assignment completed before
the information you collect goes out of date.
Paul: Is it absolutely necessary to
visit every single place and establishment that
is listed in the book when doing an update, or
can the updating be done by phone or by local
literature equally as well?
Tom: I would feel it absolutely necessary to
visit each establishment mentioned in the guide.
As for telephoning, this can be done if you've
neglected to get a phone number or a price or
hours of operation, but you can't judge by phone
the quality, ambience and suitability of a place,
or how it may have changed since last time. And
local literature? Anything in print is already
going out of date, by definition. You want TODAY's
information, not yesterday's.
Paul: Upon arrival in a new place, what
is a good routine to get organised, so as
to optimise to the maximum the minimum time allotted?
Tom: The first thing I do when I arrive
anywhere is FREAK OUT at all the work
that needs to be done in an amount of time which
is usually insufficient. I now expect this freak-out,
and it no longer concerns me. I just get to work.
I sit down with the book and a map and organize
my work by streets so I don't spend a lot
of time going back to the same locales to pick
up places I missed. That is, I don't do all the
hotels, then all the restaurants, then all the
museums, then all the archeological sites, etc.
because often there are several of these establishments
on the same street.
Paul: What is a good routine for maintaining
computer archives - particularly backups?
How have you monitored hard and software security
while on the road? i.e. how do you stop your
equipment from being stolen?
Tom: (a) choose hotels carefully for
safety both from the management and staff and
from other guests
a strong suitcase with a lock, and leave
the computer locked in the suitcase in the
hotel room when you're not carrying it with
you or working in your room
it in the trunk of a rental car when you
must, but insulate it from the heat of the
sun so it doesn't melt!
use the computer in lots of public places so
that potential thieves can mark you as a target
double backups of your work, and e-mail
backups home frequently. (Or leave them on
the e-mail server until you get home.)
some notes and collect some local literature
so that theft of the computer does not mean
having to start all over. After all, work
done is worth more money than the computer.
Paul: Getting around: the obvious
way to travel is by local transport (bus, dolmus,
taxi etc ..) but what other means have you used?
Buses don't always go where and when you want
to and taxis can be expensive.
Tom: I've used every possible sort
of transport: bus, train, plane, rental car,
farm cart, tank truck, Pepsi wagon, motorcycle,
moped, bicycle, boat. I even rented an entire
bus once when I had to catch an important flight.
Generally, I bite the bullet, lay out the money
and rent a car when I'm on a route where I know
I'll be doing lots of driving every day. It may
be a considerable expense, but I shorten the
fieldwork time and thus the number of days
incurring expenses (hotel, meals, etc.), and
I also get the info to the publisher while it's
still fresh. But I don't rent cars in
cities. I walk mostly, with some bus travel and
the occasional taxi. Face it: the big expense
in this work is transport. You will spend
far more on transport than on lodging, meals,
admissions and materials (books, maps) combined.
Paul: Is the money that the publisher
allocates for the task sufficient? Naturally,
I have contacts all over Greece to help out with
accommodation and food, but not everywhere, and
I am going to have to spend a considerable amount
of money on travelling, eating and sleeping.
Tom: About the best pay normally offered
to a guidebook writer these days is US$800 per
week, plus some money for expenses; most publishers
pay even less. Fees of US$400 to US$800 per week
can be fine when one is starting out young and
inexperienced, but it's not a lot to raise children
or pay a mortgage with, and it often doesn't
increase as you gain experience. In any case,
the success of the project depends greatly on
how efficiently the writer works. (See also Guidebook
Contract Offer and Is Guidebook Writing Worth the Money?)
Paul: Did you find that being an author
working for this particular publisher 'opened
doors' anywhere? For example, did you find that
you were given a free meal or a free bed in
the hope that you might be favourable to a particular
Tom: Do NOT try to get free rooms and
meals by saying you're working for a certain
publisher! Do everything incognito. First
and foremost, if a proprietor knows you're an
author he'll EAT YOUR TIME: the morning in which
you had 20 places to inspect will be spent sipping
coffee and being regaled with how great his establishment
is. He'll take you off to meet the head of the
local tourism department, to show off how important
he is: you'll feel like Exhibit A. You will not
be allowed to escape his grip. It's a disaster.
Not only that, but he'll expect a quid pro quo
which you can't deliver. It's far better, both
ethically and practically, to work completely
Hope this helps. Being a travel writer is often
not easy or lucrative, but it's always interesting,
sometimes exciting, and usually very satisfying.