Travel writing

Here are a few books and sites I find useful for travel writing. This list is part of my curriculum for





"A reliable
is vital.
Never rely
solely on
spell check."

Samuel Johnson once said, “man must bring knowledge with him, if he would bring home knowledge.” So too, the best travel writers research exhaustively before leaving on assignment. They already know the top three ice cream shops in Rome, temple etiquette in Thailand and the best camping spot in Big Sur. Their discovery starts where the guidebooks leave off, taking readers that much farther into an area's heart.

Immerse yourself in the destination. Pore over maps. Ransack though not one – but many – guides. Search the web. Read travel writing and fiction set there. Watch films. Dissect the local paper. Request media kits from the tourist office, chamber of commerce or visitors bureau. Set up interviews with key figures. Talk to your friends and acquaintances. In short, be an expert before departure.

Some travel writers compile their own “guidebooks”, snippets culled from different sources, then photocopied or printed with large margins. They then scrawl notes onto the preliminary research. While composing, it's easier to locate material this way, rather then constantly flipping through a scribbled notebook.

Journalists write not just with their hands, but with their legs, according to popular wisdom. “Reporters, like wolves, live by their paws,” is another version of the maxim. Ian Frazier used the latter to remind colleagues that “reporting is a collaboration between mind and motion,” in The Best of American Travel Writing 2003. “When the mind is dull and out of ideas, extra legwork can provide inspiring discoveries, and when the legwork is lazy, the mind can disguise that with embellishments added later.”

Indeed, post-trip data mining can illuminate a weak piece, but never compares with going prepared. Research is essential, so knuckle down before traveling, when it's of use to you, as well as readers.

Key volumes
A well-prepared travel writer should have some essentials to hand: dictionary, thesaurus, book of quotations, atlas and almanac. Many include the Bible and style manuals, like the AP's or Elements of Style by Strunk and White, as well. Following are a few suggestions.

Quotations can help start or conclude a story with pizzazz. They add color, familiarity and depth to a piece. You needn’t use the whole massive chunk, sometimes a brief allusion works well, like slipping in "take the road less traveled along Oregon’s coast" or "ladies who lunch will adore the Miaow Cafe".

Published since 1855, Bartlett's Familiar Quotations is the classic trove of epigrams, wit and wisdom. The last edition came out in 1992, striving for modernity with J.K. Rowling and Jerry Seinfeld.

A reliable dictionary is vital. Never rely on solely spell check, which can’t distinguish between 'bear' and 'bare'. Editors become quickly aggravated with grammar and spelling errors, seen as very amateur mistakes. Of course, a certain amount of slippage is normal, but you must strive to submit the cleanest copy possible. The twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary is considered the best, but at $1,295, it breaks most freelancers’ budgets. The compact version weighs in at $276, but the company does produce more affordable options. Penny-pinching writers prefer Merriam Webster’s free on-line dictionary and thesaurus.

The Merriam-Webster's Geographical Dictionary is a fine addition to a professional’s library with 48,000 listings of mountains, lakes, towns and countries. The larger maps photocopy well. Webster’s Biographical Dictionary is another good reference, supplying brief synopses of famous people (and handy pronunciation guides for those tongue-twisting names).

Almanacs provide quick, current information. The genre’s grandpappy is The World Almanac and Book of Facts, published annually since 1886. It still dominates the field. The New York Times Almanac focuses heavily on US current affairs.

Finally, invest in a decent map book, like Rand McNally Goode's World Atlas, which is packed with thematic maps showing temperature, precipitation, population density and to name a few.

AAA guides
The automobile club provides simple maps and guides, concentrating on accommodation and restaurants.

Blue Guides
History, art and archaeology receive lavish and loving detail here – and you can trust the scholarship implicitly. Sparse practical information includes suggested walks.

Cadogan guides
This 80-strong series has a sleek new look with color photos, essays and longer listings. Aimed at "culturally minded, independent travelers".

DK Eyewitness
This series would be better named "Eyecandy", as it’s packed with gorgeous photos and diagrams. The text is entertaining, divided into easily-digestible chunks.

A middle-of-the-road option for travelers who crave comfort, not cutting-edge excitement.

Another respected series with over 300 titles and a substantial web presence. Tends to gloss over culture in the rush to review hotels and eateries.

The Adventure Guides plug exploration, both physical and cultural (I'm currently writing Rome and Central Italy). This modest company publishes other series too, including the Nelles and Best B&Bs.

Insight Guides
Two-hundred glossy titles with plenty of photos and magazine-style articles. Insight tries to use local writers and editors, always a plus.

Let’s Go
Its Europe book is the world’s best-selling travel guide, but Let’s Go – with its buoyant backpacker mentality – doesn’t suit all tastes. Written by Harvard students, it gets both grittier and giddier than some adults enjoy.

Lonely Planet
These slightly-funky guides still cover hostels, but also mention splurge options too. LP has an excellent world travel writing series including Jan Morris and Dave Eggers, as well as phrase books.

Michelin Guides
These no-nonsense guides may soon be available on PDA. The website offers features and driving directions.

Moon Publications
The Handbook series is revamping at the moment, but remains a strong, slightly alternative brand in the Americas. Some guides include pop-out laminated maps and color photos.

Rick Steves
This prolific, middlebrow author has written 24 wry guidebooks, including the famous Europe through the Back Door and Best of Europe.

Rough Guides
Smart, savvy guides popular among the 30-something crowd. The series includes excellent books on computers, pregnancy and world music.

Time Out
Linked to the trendy "what’s on" magazine chain, these books contain top-notch venue info written by locals.

These renowned guides compile thousands of user-reviews about restaurants. Highly authoritative.

Guidebooks sometimes lift material from each other: the same tired restaurants with barely-rephrased reviews or identical inaccurate descriptions of a small town. Remember these books are not the font of all knowledge. In some cases, a stressed-out, inexperienced author may have covered too much unfamiliar ground too quickly. So double-check information wherever possible.

On-line options
The Old Farmer’s Almanac on-line in abbreviated form.
Yellow and white pages directory for America. Has reverse look-up (so you can check numbers).
Free reference site with 370,000 searchable texts, including Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, the Columbia Encyclopedia, the King James Bible, Shakespeare and poetry.
A user-generated site with some savvy.
Archives from the world-class British Broadcasting Corporation.
Over 25,000 biographies of significant folks.
The complete Encyclopedia Britannica free, plus selected articles from top magazines.
Recycles material from Fodors and various glossy American magazines like Conde Nast Traveler.
Calendar of past literary events, searchable by date.
Guide to customs and etiquette of 36 countries.
Searchable information from the US Census Bureau.
Free article search among 300 publications, including USA Today, Science News, Ebony and the Vegetarian Times
The liberal Guardian newspaper in England still has free archives, including quality news and travel stories.
Links to American papers with online archives and their costs, if any.
Search for experts, scholars and think tanks.
Index of online phone books from over 150 countries all around the world.
The International Herald Tribune, now part of the New York Times stable, has free online archives.
The Internet Public Library contains reviews of sites and links.
List of international dialling codes.
The US Army’s studies of various countries.
Database of news, legal and business information, and public records. Day pass $75 or purchase individual articles from $1 via credit card. Free search.
Searchable maps and driving directions.
More searchable maps and driving directions.
U.S.-based online news, linked to Newsweek, The Washington Post, NBC and Bill Gates' media empire.
Travel news and a database of stories published in all five magazines: National Geographic, Traveller, Adventure, Kids and Explorer.
The CIA World Fact Book contains country profiles.
Weights, measures and temperature conversions.
Fantastic portal to reference books and sites.
Calculates time zones differences.
Extensive city and country guides, plus frothy features, linked to the populist Daily Mail in the UK.
Network of top travel writers' articles on a searchable database.
Advice and article links on hotels, restaurants and tour packages.
Travel Health Online offers destination and health advice
An online community with hotel and accommodation reviews
Entertainment and travel advice. Broad, but patchy.
Currency converter.

"Try to skim
three or four
before a
major trip."
sometimes life
material from
each other.
So check

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