In this month's Industry Interview we speak to Tim Richards, a Melbourne-based freelance writer. Tim is a contributing Lonely Planet author, and creator of several mobile travel apps including Australia by Rail. He blogs at I, Writer and shares travel photos on Google+.
What's your background and when did you start working as a freelance writer?
I have no professional journalistic qualifications whatsoever. I think I’ve always been writing as a hobby in various ways; pre-internet I used to be in various science fiction fan clubs and write in little magazines or newsletters for them for six years. When I came to Melbourne from Perth in 1998 I started doing a theatre review website called Stage Left—which went for six years—and that was a little bit before the era when people were making money out of websites. It was a bit like a glorified hobby but I realise now it was like an apprenticeship in a sense, for the freelance writing, because it got me dealing with PR people. It got me editing; writing; organising; thinking about how these things work online, so I think that was probably a good curtain-raiser.
When I became redundant from an internet company job in 2003, I had just been to New Zealand so I thought I should try this freelance writing thing for six months and see how I go—not just travel writing but freelance writing in general—and I thought I should give it a go to put some money in the bank and I’ve been doing it ever since.
I think the key to good travel writing is an emotional component, so it’s not just about factual stuff like 'I went here. I did that' or fake, glossy brochure stuff that pretends that all travel is perfect
Your writing covers a diverse range of topics. Which stories do you find the most enjoyable to write?
Obviously travel but I used to write pet stories for a while and they were great: you need to be an expert on something you have no idea on regarding cats and dogs; you learn something as you go.
Travel is the main thing, that’s the main way I make money, the thing I love doing. There’s no way you’d be a famous travel writer because you are in it for the money, it’s just such a nutty way to make money partly because travel is so time-consuming, not just money-consuming. A lot of other journalistic jobs you can do from a desk or you can do locally very quickly, whereas travel is time-consuming in a general sense.
I think the key to good travel writing is an emotional component, so it’s not just about factual stuff like 'I went here. I did that' or fake, glossy brochure stuff that pretends that all travel is perfect, but actually going there and observing in detail. Not just observing the way things look physically but also the emotional component and observing your emotional reactions to things, and in the end being able to relay that through writing so that hopefully the person who is reading it knows what it’s like to have been there in that place on that day and has an emotional connection with what you felt. That sort of writing is what I enjoy doing and obviously some destinations or attractions lend themselves really well to that and some don’t so much.
You're also a regular contributor to Lonely Planet guidebooks on Eastern Europe - where else have you travelled and where is your favourite spot?
I will give you the standard answer: there is no favourite spot, they’re all just chalk and cheese. I like everywhere I’ve been for different reasons. Even the places that at first glance you think 'this is a bit challenging', if you dig under the surface there are interesting things.
I go to Poland quite often and to cities like Krakow—where I lived for a bit in the '90s—and when you arrive there you have no trouble figuring out why people like it but you go to Warsaw and you might step out from the central train station and think 'God, where have I arrived?'. It’s not that attractive in that area and there is a lot of concrete in the city because it was basically destroyed in World War II and rebuilt, but once you know the history of the place, once you dig under the surface, once you meet a few locals you start to realise—it is actually one of my favourite cities.
... but you look on the map and there’s still so much to visit, so much to see you can't run out.
I go to Poland a lot, so therefore I have also gone to countries surrounding Poland because I want to build up more material for writing stories, so I have been to a lot of those former communist countries in Central Europe particularly Hungary, Slovenia, Lithuania, and Slovakia. Otherwise, the more obvious places, like I’ve been to Britain a few times. I’ve written stories about Ireland, Germany, France, and Austria. I’m going to Sweden this year and Scandinavia for the first time now that it’s actually relatively affordable because of [the Australian] dollar. I lived in Egypt for two years in the '90s, so while we were there teaching English we went on holidays and saw lots of bits of Egypt, also Syria and Jordan, which are great countries. It’s just such a pity that it’s difficult to travel to at the moment. North America: in the US I’ve only seen Montana and North Dakota, which is very obscure but they were actually great states to visit; in Canada I’ve been to all major cities. South America: I’ve been to Chile and down south to the glaciers and I’ve seen very specific islands as part of that trip and other trips. Asia: bits of China, Shanghai, the Yangtze River, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. I went to Delhi last year and Agra—sort of every continent except Antarctica—but you look on the map and there’s still so much to visit, so much to see you can't run out.
What are your favourite travel tips?
This is obviously a cliché but pack light. I only ever take one cabin-luggage-size bag with me on a trip of any duration. I had it in Thailand for a week, I had it in Europe for eight days, I had it last year for two months but everyone is different and pack light means different things. I don’t mean you just have to take cabin luggage—that won’t work for everyone—but pack as light as you can. You can buy stuff where you are going, you do not need all those shoes. A lot of the places you are going you know you are not going to anything formal so you only really need a limited repertoire of clothes. It’s taken me years to get to that point but I’ve got it pretty well nailed now.
If you can travel with a bit of a theme, if there's something you are particularly interested in—it might be something to do with history or literature or pop culture—a little theme gives you a quest, it gives you something to look for. It might not be everything you do on the trip, for example if you are in Poland or one of those countries you might be fascinated by some of the surviving Communist-era architecture. If you were in Britain, for example, there’s so many well-known TV shows that you might decide to track down some of their locations. I think having little themes, even sub-themes, that may be based on your interests is a fun way of just packing up, especially if you are going back to a place where you’ve already seen all the big sights.
Oh and one more tip: never drink coffee at train stations or on trains.
Do you have any advice for writers looking to join the travel industry?
I would say every person who’s got a travel story published has been published for the first time. Editors don’t care who you are really, they are just interested in interesting stories. If the story is interesting and well written they don’t care whether you have been published a million times or never, so use your observational skills. Really observe, really take good notes. Observe not just physical attributes but emotions, what you feel when seeing a place or doing an activity or whatever it is and then relay that in your writing. I know it sounds easy but it’s hard, it is actually really hard. Note things more than you normally would, including emotions and reactions, and then you have solid material to put together a story.
If the story is interesting and well written [editors] don’t care whether you have been published a million times or never, so use your observational skills.
I always say you’ve got two extremes you should avoid as a travel writer: one is glossy travel brochure writing where it’s just full of insanely over the top adjectives and everything is perfect and idyllic and pristine and tranquil and all that sort of thing (which is just boring because it’s not real and everyone knows travel isn’t perfect); and at the other end it’s what I call the What I Did On My Summer Holiday essay where you just go 'I went to breakfast then I went out the door then I did this then I did that.' It’s very dull with no emotional component, no selection in it, and those two extremes are both not right and somewhere in the middle where you’ve got emotions and its interesting and alive but it's not just a bland brochure either—again, sounds easy but not so easy to actually do.
Check out our other posts in the Industry Interview series: