I travelled to Oamaru, I wrote a travel book and then – long after ‘Penguins under the porch’ had been printed – I went on a travel writing course. The words horse, stable and door come to mind.
I was actually looking for ways to get ‘Penguins’ reviewed in the UK, but number four in the Google search results was headed ‘TRAVEL WRITING WORKSHOP’ in nice bold capitals. The next workshop was just a fortnight away and I thought – why not?
Peter Carty was founding editor of Time Out's travel section and has written for the Guardian, Independent, Financial Times, Telegraph, Conde Nast Traveller and Esquire, amongst others. He also passes on his skills, experience and wisdom to aspiring travel-writers (and me) via one-day workshops, evening classes and distance learning.
Peter divides his workshops into three main sessions:
- How to write publishable travel feature articles
- The components of travel features and their underlying ideas
- Getting your travel writing into print
If I had to choose just one key word from that outline, it would be ‘publishable’. Go somewhere unusual. Write well. Avoid clichés. Don’t talk about the flight – talk about the destination. Include direct quotes from interesting locals. And when you pitch to editors, make sure you know what they normally publish, and who reads it. People of my age (60+) generally want to know about whale watching, decent hotels and fine dining, not zip wires, yurts and fast food.
To reinforce the points he was making, Peter set practical tasks throughout the day. First, we had to list clichés that should be avoided at all costs: azure skies, sun-drenched beaches, that sort of thing. Next, we had fifteen minutes to write the opening paragraphs of a travel feature before Peter gave us feedback and ideas for improvements.
The biggest challenge came at lunchtime. ‘Here’s a blank postcard,’ Peter said. ‘I want you to go out, get a story, prepare it, polish it – and in the afternoon tea break, write the final draft on the card.’ He also handed out maps showing local museums, attractions and other places that might feature in travel writing. ‘Off you go!’
The workshop venue was the Indian YMCA in Fitzroy Square, London. I know the area reasonably well and quickly hatched a plan. I scurried off to Denmark Street as fast as my knackered old legs would carry me.
Also known as Tinpan Alley, Denmark Street has been part of the music scene for decades. Nowadays, it’s also where the fictional detective, Cormoran Strike, lives and works in the crime novels written by Robert Galbraith – the pen name of a certain J K Rowling.
I paused for breath, stared into a couple of shops, and took the plunge. ‘Hi!’ I said, breezily. ‘I’m writing a travel piece about Denmark Street and wondered if I could ask you a few questions!’
I did moderately well in shop number one. I heard about a local guitar collector who loved to come in and show off his latest purchase. Some of his instruments are worth upwards of a quarter of a million pounds.
For all that, I didn’t get quite what I was after – particularly a sense of living history.
‘Ah!’ said the manager. ‘If that’s what you’re after, you need to go across the road.’ He stared into the shop directly opposite. ‘The owner’s not there, but I can see Dom. Have a word with him – yes, him, that guy near the window.’
Waving my thanks as I slammed the door, I raced across the road and talked to Dom.
‘The first music shop here opened in the thirties, selling sheet music,’ Dom said. ‘That closed in the fifties, when there was a recording studio here.’
‘Where?’ I asked, looking round. ‘Downstairs?’
‘No, right here – in this very room. You see this floor?’ I looked down at the slightly scuffed parquet. ‘This is where Mick Jagger stood when the Rolling Stones recorded their first album. Elton John recorded here. David Bowie lived in a converted van which he parked outside. Black Sabbath shaped their metal sound in here.’
‘Is this common knowledge?’ I asked.
‘Among the fans, yeah. But it’ll be even better known when a blue plaque is put up on the outside wall.’
Dom talked about other shops and studios in the street. Upstairs in one building is graffiti left by members of the Sex Pistols. ‘I wish I could show you, but it’s closed to the public.’
I could have talked to Dom all day, but I had to get back: I had my story.
There was just time to grab a sandwich before Peter’s next session, on pitching to editors. We worked in silence on our proposals, which we then discussed in groups of four or five. Back in full session, Peter balanced criticism and encouragement, probing to see if we could defend our ideas. Then he went through a few publications – print and online – that take contributions from beginners like us. It might be a while before we get a by-line in the Sunday Times.
After the tea break, Peter listened as a few of us read our postcards. The standard was high, which was (a) good and (b) quite worrying. With so many good writers pitching to a limited number of editors, not many will earn a living from travel writing.
But please don’t stop trying. I’m living proof that you can take a hair-brained idea and actually get it published. The only thing I would say is, please go on one of Peter’s courses before you quit your job, travel 12,000 miles and spend a year of your life writing a book – not after. It will be well worth it!
PS: if you want a feature on Denmark Street, I’m your guy.