Saturday, October 31, 2009

Witch City

Salem, Massachusetts - Mom and Dad are in town for Halloween, so we decided to take them to Halloween Central. Witch City, USA. Salem, Massachusetts.

Salem recently came in third place in Lonely Planet's poll about the best place to celebrate Halloween, coming in behind heavies New York City and San Francisco. But neither of those cities hosts a month-long extravaganza like Salem's Haunted Happenings.

For literary buffs, there are readings of Edgar Allen Poe and presentations in the creepy House of Seven Gables. For history buffs, there are re-enactments of scenes from the 17th-century Witch Hysteria. For party buffs, there are haunted pub tours and zombie balls. Ghost tours, pet parades, dream interpretations,  art exhibits, pumpkin carving, fun runs and more.

We actually went up on the day before Halloween because we feared the crowds. We picked up Mom and Dad at the airport, stopped en route for lunch at Kelly's Roast Beef on Revere Beach, and zooped up to Salem. It was Friday night and the streets were bustling (but not packed) with costumed revelers. As afternoon faded into evening, there were more and more people in costumes of all sorts - not just witches, but ghosts, goblins and characters of all sorts. In our regular streetwear, we were starting to feel out of place.

Live bands were playing on a makeshift stage on Derby Street. Artists were offering face painting and tarot card readings. All the Wiccan accessory stores were packed (yes, I'm sure that "Wiccan" has its own section in the Salem Yellow Pages). One creepy guy waved me over to give me a business card. "We're the only store in Salem selling real human bones," he promised. "Finger bones, foot bones..." Thank you, sir, I'll keep you in mind for all of my human bone needs.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

New England in the Guardian!

Somerville, Mass - The BBC Worldwide purchased Lonely Planet about two years ago, with founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler retaining a 25% share (with option to sell at any time). The purchase generated a fair share of controversy in the UK, because it was considered to be "over expansion" by the public company. As recently as last month, British conservatives condemned the BBC Trust for approving the deal.

Now it's in the news that Tony and Maureen have been allowed to extend their option to sell their one-quarter stake. It's not unusual that the original owners would want to continue to play a roll in the company's growth and development. But it has raised questions about why the BBCW would allow them to extend their option to sell, which it is not obligated to do.

For some reason, this has generated speculation that the BBCW is considering unloading the travel publishing company, a rumor which has been flatly denied.

To me, this seems to be a lot of buzz about nothing. But it does mean that Lonely Planet is in the news (in the UK anyway), and look at what book is featured in the article in the Guardian. Beauty!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Standing on the Side of Love

York, Maine - Tis the season to go leaf-peeping in New England. This year I decided to combine my annual fall outing with some political activism.

This past May, the state of Maine enacted legislation giving same-sex couples the right to marry (hooray). Now, there is a referendum on the ballot to take that right away (boo). Polls are showing that the vote is going to be really close, with 48% supporting marriage equality and 48% supporting the elimination of these rights.

I drove up to Maine with a group of friends from my church to canvass Maine voters. Just so you know, canvassing does not mean that we are trying to convince people to change their minds (which is probably a lost cause). Rather, we were trying to locate the supporters of gay marriage and make sure they are planning to vote on this important issue. Specifically, we were encouraging them to vote early (as everybody is allowed to do in Maine), so that Maine Equality could focus their resources on other undecided voters.

Although it was a gray day, Maine was beautiful in all of its multi-colored fall-foliage glory. The surf was up at York beach, and the surfers were out catching the waves. We spent a great afternoon driving around this lovely beach town talking to the good folks of Maine. "Do you support gay marriage?" I asked one resident. "I support marriage for people who are love," he responded. Amen, brother.

It was heartening to see that the vast majority of folks that we talked to planned to vote No on 1 - but that is to be expected in this liberal county. Maine Equality faces a greater challenge in other parts of the state (which is why it's so important to get as many Yorkers as possible to get out and vote!) See also the account posted by my friend and colleague, Susan Leslie, who was out canvassing with her husband and son.

I had the honor of driving up and canvassing with my friend, Marcia Hams, who also attends my church. She and her wife, Susan Shephard, were the first same-sex couple to get married in Massachusetts in 2004, which means they were the first in the country! Marcia shared this video, which was made by her son, who gives his perspective on why we should not be allowed to vote to take away people's rights.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Southwest Rap

Somerville, Mass - Here is another airline-themed video that's making the rounds of the internet (and providing good publicity for Southwest Airlines, no doubt). It's not quite as good as the painted-on uniforms of the flight attendants at Air New Zealand, but it's pretty good.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Did you ever see a manatee?

Somerville, Mass - I was thrilled to read in the Globe this morning that Ilya the manatee is making his way back to Florida, after spending the summer at Cape Cod.

Manatees are good long-distance swimmers, but scientists are baffled about why a Florida manatee would make the 1500-mile journey all the way up to New England waters. "Warmer water is one possible explanation, scientists say, and this year’s record warmth in coastal waters could certainly be a lure," according to the Boston Globe.

This is the second year in a row that a Florida manatee has caused a late summertime stir off the coast of Cape Cod. Last year, a stubborn creature was dubbed "Dennis" by marine mammal fans in that Cape town. Sadly, Dennis stuck around too long and the waters began to chill to uncomfortable temperatures. Although a crew attempted to rescue big Dennis and truck him down to Sea World to recuperate, they were too late. Dennis died of hypothermia before he made it back to Florida.

Fortunately, Ilya is faring better. Apparently he is in better health to begin with. More importantly, he seems to be heading home on his own, as he was spotted off the coast of Connecticut last week. Go, Ilya, go!

I have been in love with the manatees ever since I met their West Indian cousins (up close and personal) last year in Belize (Read about it here). What's not to love about a gentle 1600lb vegetarian giant that floats around - never hurting a soul - except for the 100lbs of grass that it eats every day!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

LP Guide to Travel Writing featuring an interview with yours truly!

Somerville, Mass - All you would-be travel writers, check out the latest edition of Lonely Planet's Guide to Travel Writing, by travel writing guru Don George. This substantial book offers "expert advice on  travel writing from the world's leading travel publisher." Most importantly, this valuable resource includes interviews with established writers, editors and agents (ahem).

You're a fool if you don't rush out and by this book right away. But just in case you you can't wait, here is an excerpt. This is the interview you've all been waiting for... Don George gets down to the nitty-gritty, asking probing and personal questions, and eliciting information never before revealed to the public!

Interview with Mara Vorhees

How did you start off in your career as a guidebook writer?

I was living in Yekaterinburg, Russia in the late 1990s, working on a US-government sponsored foreign aid project. I was becoming increasing disillusioned with the field of international development in general and increasingly frustrated with my job in particular. But I was doing a lot of writing, which I enjoyed.

Living and traveling in Russia, I always used the Lonely Planet guide, but I felt like I probably knew more about that country - or at least the region where I was living - than the authors did. On a whim, I wrote a letter to Lonely Planet, sent some writing samples, and offered to work on the next update. I was completely floored when somebody actually responded. As it turned out, that was the start of a new career.

What is the best way of establishing yourself if you’re just starting out in your career as a freelance guidebook writer now?

Develop a regional expertise: travel, learn the language, develop a network of contacts. Learn as much as you can about that place, so you can demonstrate that you are an expert. And by the way, you'll probably do better if your regional expertise is not France.

How do you think guidebook writers get the numbers to add up in terms of an income?

Guidebook writers get the numbers to add up by spending a lot of time on the road, doing back-to-back and overlapping assignments, and taking on other jobs (teaching, temping, waiting tables, whatever it takes). Many guidebook writers are homeless: they crash with friends or family between assigments and avoid housing costs.

How do you get the numbers to add up?

When I started working for Lonely Planet, I had a full-time "real job" that paid my bills quite nicely. I had a great relationship with my boss, who allowed me to take a leave of absence once a year to work on a guidebook. Eventually, I got laid off from that job, and that was the kick in the pants I needed to transition to being a full-time writer. Now I usually do three full-fledged guidebook writing projects a year, and a slew of articles and other smaller pieces. Also, it helps that my husband is gainfully employed.

What advice would you give to budding guidebook writers?

Take every opportunity to travel and be sure to write about it along the way. Even if it's just keeping a journal. That's a fantastic resource which you will really appreciate when you try to turn your adventures into marketable writing.

Are there any courses or any training that you’d recommend a budding guidebook writer to undertake?

Learn the language! You don't need to be fluent, but being able to communicate in your country will make your job hundreds of times easier. And you'll have a lot more fun along the way.

What are the most common mistakes that guidebook writers make -- in their research and in their writing?

The most common mistake in research is not allowing enough time to cover the destination. It's inevitable that you will discover some new unexpected place that you want to explore, and there is never enough time to do everything. I still make this mistake, even after writing guidebooks for almost a decade!

The most common mistake in guidebook writing is using the book as a soapbox to spout one's opinions. Writers should certainly not be shy about expressing their opinions, but readers get turned off by a preachy, snide or sarcastic tone in the text. They want to learn from the guidebook, but not be lectured by it.

What are the main differences between guidebook writing and writing for a newspaper, magazine, or web site?

Guidebook writing comes in relatively big chunks, meaning that one assignment will keep you busy (and pay my bills) for several months. Assigments from newspapers, magazines and web sites are usually much smaller, occupying a couple of days or perhaps a week. Compensation for these smaller assignments is usually comensurate with the amount of time required, but it does not account for travel and research or - the bane of my existence - sending out pitches.

The writing itself is also different. Guidebook writing is very structured, although there are plenty of opportunities to get creative within the confines of that structure. Depending on the demands of the publication, newspaper and magazine writing often allows for more creativity, writing from personal experience, crafting a story.

What, in your opinion, constitutes ‘good’ guidebook writing?

`Good' guidebook writing is accurate and informative, but it is also entertaining. It is insightful, funny and inspiring. It allows readers to make informed decisions about how they will spend their valuable travel time.

What constitutes ‘bad’ guidebook writing?

The obvious example of `bad' guidebook writing is factual inaccuracy. But guidebook writing is also bad when it states the obvious instead of providing an insightful or informed perspective.

What are the rewards of guidebook writing as a career?

The biggest and best reward of a travel writing career is seeing the world. Travel always inspires learning - even moreso for guidebook writers, who must become experts about their destinations.We go everywhere, we see everything, we have incredible adventures; then we come home with a suitcase full of notes and a head full of stories and histories to share with others.

What has been the downside for you?

Sometimes I get tired. The travel is very intensive. Even when I technically have enough time to cover my destination, I always feel like I could be doing more. The write-up process is also stressful, expanding to fill the available time. As a freelance writer, there is a constant pressure to do more in less time.

What’s the role of the Internet in the landscape of contemporary guidebook/travel writing?

With the proliferation of travel websites on the Internet, there are more outlets for travel writing than ever before. There are also more sources of information than ever before. The web can be a very useful resource when it comes to verifying information for inclusion in guidebooks, but it's no substitute for first-hand experience!

How can would-be guidebook writers best utilize the Web for their own professional development?

Get yourself a blog. Write for your friends at home, your parents, your own amusement. You'll get in the habit of writing for other people's consumption and you will amass a good selection of travel writing samples.

Where do you see guidebook publishing going in the next five years?

I see more interplay between guidebooks and technology. I can imagine that travelers will soon be using digital guidebooks that incorporate audio, video and other elements that we can't even imagine. For example, it won't be long until guidebooks include virtual tours of Ancient Rome or Machu Picchu that allow travelers to experience the place as it was in its heyday. Technology will also make it easier for publishers to put together customized products that fit individual travelers' needs: customized itineraries, thematic walking tours, one-stop trip-planning tools. I also see more interaction between publishers, writers and readers, as the industry takes advantage of the increased opportunity to get feedback from readers.

Any other tips or reflections you would offer would-be guidebook writers?

Remember that life is trade-offs. This is not an easy job. Guidebooks are born of blood, sweat and tears. No, really, we work our butts off. But along the way, we have more than our fair share of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and that's what makes it all worthwhile.

That, and meeting our fellow travelers, who lug those books around, trust our opinions, share our adventures, forgive our oversights (hopefully) and make the planet a little less lonely.