Meeting September 18, 2018
Susan Korah, Susan Hallett, Peter Johansen and Laura Byrne Paquet discussed their experiences as travel writers and offered tips and advice at the September 18, 2018 Media Club meeting at Ottawa City Hall. The discussion began with each panelist providing a brief background and history of their travel writing careers.
Susan Korah noted that her father was a diplomat, so she caught the travel bug early on in life. Travelling exposed her to different experiences, which led to a freelance career in journalism where she covers politics, women’s issues and minority issues. A lifelong journalist she also writes about Canadian and international politics as well as NGOs.
A relative newcomer to travel writing, this aspect of her career began three years ago as an outgrowth of her personal online blog for family and friends. Korah met the Turkish ambassador at a diplomatic function in Ottawa where she told him about her travels to Turkey. After reading her blogs he invited her on a press junket to Turkey. Korah had met Janet Boileau, publisher of Taste and Travel magazine, when she was a guest speaker at a Media Club meeting in 2013 so she contacted her and pitched a story on Turkish cuisine. That was her first big break into travel writing. Since then she has been to Luxembourg, Taiwan and, most recently, the Czech Republic.
When asked about her writing style, Korah said, “I write to give the reader a sense of actually being there by describing the sights, sounds and smells.” She went on to explain that “Travel writing only takes up about 20 percent of my writing. It’s nice to travel, but it’s not very lucrative in terms of making a living.”
Laura Byrne Paquet told the audience she believes in having a ‘day job’ and paying your dues to build up your portfolio and reputation. Her first job was with the Ottawa Business Journal. She also spent four years as a staff writer for the company that is now Ottawa Magazine, as well as occasionally contributing to other publications such as Dreamscapes magazine and the Huffington Post. She spent time writing for an agency and the government too. Byrne Paquet advised, “Have a bread and butter job. I wrote for women’s magazines and had contracts. I also wrote service pieces, which are articles listing things to see and do, providing advice and offering tips on various methods of doing things.” After honing her craft, she started her own online site called Ottawa Road Trips. Her advice? She says, “Find your tribe. Attend seminars and workshops. Find your niche. My site focuses on an area covering up to a three-hour drive from Ottawa, heading east to Quebec and northern New York State.” She added, “Once you have a specialty, you’ll get referrals
Susan Hallett was a marketing writer in Montreal and wrote travel articles for Eastern Airlines and Time magazine. She did government contracts to pay the bills, like writing for Energy Mines and Resources Canada, helping give an overview that the specialists just couldn’t provide. Hallet suggest writers “specialize in something you like or are interested in and make travel fun not as work. She also stressed to find your own style. “I would be a sponge on my travels – taking it all in and not writing about it at all until I got back home. Find out what works well for you.”
Hallet also emphasized the importants of fact checking. To illustrate the point she recalled, “A young journalist was interviewed on TV by Ben Mulroney, who wanted to know a good romantic destination and a good beach destination. On telling him about the horse and buggy rides through Montreal, Ben corrected her, saying ‘they’ll no longer be operational in 2019.’ When she recommended visiting Mexico City for beaches he corrected her again, saying that ‘Mexico City is inland and not near the coast.’
Peter Johansen, who retired from teaching journalism at Carleton University in 2013 has become an award-winning travel writer in recent years. He believes travel writing is no different than any other kind of writing, but can allow for a more creative approach. “One style of travel writing is ‘armchair imagery’ – a guilty pleasure read that is very descriptive, transporting you to the location of your mind,” he said. “Another writing style, called ‘listicles’, are articles comprised of fact-based, itemized lists. These are popular when writing online, since they consist of small chunks of text that fit into a single web page. Johansen adds, “It’s important to have a unique idea that will encourage people to click to the next item on the list.”
“There are two kinds of travel outings,” Johansen explained. “One is a self- organized tour with help from people at the destination point. They (the city or tourism board) organize a trip and you show up. Those organizing the press junket are set up to cover as many items of interest as possible, so it can be very busy. They expect you to get the colour and detail from the junket then go home and do the research to flesh out what you’ve seen. He added that many writers have different needs. When he was doing an article on museums and on a tour of a museum in Germany the guide just let them see one picture in the museum before moving on. They expected him to do his own research at home for the rest of the article.
When someone in the audience asked Johansen “Which is more important – the story of an individual or a destination?” he explained that both are important, but they are separate articles. A caring or personal experience story is a human interest story, which is different from a story about a destination.”
Byrne Paquet told the audience, “You can write about anything. Write about where you have deep knowledge and expertise to fall back on for a quick story. Base your travels on your interests.” She added, “If you can tell a good story and write, you can do it either in print or online. The mechanics are one thing but the craft of writing is transferable.” She also said guidebook writing is hard though, due to the depth of detail required and amount of research that needs to be done.
Hallet’s advice? “Join IAMAT – the International Association of Medical Aid for Travellers. Get a membership. The doctor’s fees are preset with the membership.” Her other suggestion is “Circulate and get to know people. While at the Leonard Cohen concert at Dominion Chalmers Church I happened to be sitting behind the Hungarian ambassador, whom I knew. He invited me to an event. Just show up. You never know how one thing can lead to another.”
Susan Korah agreed. She recommended “Network throughout your career. “One opportunity can come as an offshoot of another.”