Charlene Peters has been a freelance writer for the past twenty years–and has seen a lot of changes to the travel industry during that time! From the Boston City Guide Examiner to Gatehouse Media, Charlene has worked for a number of travel and media publications and has recently shifted a lot of her energy into blogging about travel and spas. In our interview today, she talks about getting her start in newspaper writing and shares her advice on how to make a living doing what you love. Enjoy!
How did you get started in the travel industry, Charlene? What have been the keys to your success?
I began my career in the travel industry with a love for adventure and a degree in photography. Twenty years ago, I began to freelance as a travel stock photographer, but wanted to add writing to the mix. In my late 30s I went back to school and got my B.A. in writing, literature and publishing, with a minor in journalism at Emerson College. During my schooling, I went abroad for a summer program and studied art history between Venice and Bruges while staying in a castle in The Netherlands as a home base. The experience was inspiring. Once I returned back to Boston, I ordered business cards with my title as “travel writer” to assume the position, if you will. I also worked as an intern at a travel magazine titled Intermezzo, and because I was their “ultimate” intern, having years’ experience brought to the table, the publisher rewarded me by sending me on my first press trip to Carlisle Bay in Antigua. I was among a group of established travel writers and the experience was thrilling. I had found my passion.
Tell us a little bit about your media career and your freelancing job at the Boston City Guide Examiner. What is working there like?
Although I wanted to land a permanent position with Intermezzo Magazine, the staffing was skeletal and I was totally frustrated; I had to abandon the prospect of working there after my internship. As a single mother, what I required was a regular job close to home and with benefits. While searching for a job, I also had a goal to send out 30 pitches a week to magazines. Dealing with rejection was difficult, but I didn’t let that stop me. I finally got a freelance assignment for North Shore Living Magazine, and it paid pretty well. From there, I got a response on a job at a local Community Newspaper Company. For the next few months I freelanced, writing arts-related feature stories for very little pay, but it did eventually pay off – with a lot of persistence on my end. It seems they were seeking an arts editor on a part-time basis, and because of my study abroad experience, I was the perfect fit. Working at the newspaper in the town where I lived was a perfect fit for my lifestyle, and it soon evolved into a full-time position that offered more potential for me to write about travel. One of my feature stories was about a wine-tasting podcast that took place in a local restaurant, where I began my interest in learning more about wine. From there I began to create my own travel adventure to Napa and Sonoma, California, where I met with winemakers and sommeliers to learn as much as possible.
As far as working at the newspaper, now called GateHouse Media, I have established myself as a syndicated travel columnist – something extra I do that is not part of my job description but it fulfills my passion. The pay is barely livable, but the perks in travel opportunities balance it out so that I’m not totally depressed about my low pay. I’ve been working at the newspaper for 9 years. I still write for Examiner on occasion, but not regularly as I have founded my blog: SipTripper.com and write everything wine-related on this, and my spa-related articles are now on my website Spavalous.com. The rest of my travel is on my syndicated GateHouse feature, Taste of Travel.
What advice do you have for budding writers who wish to become freelancers? What do you wish you’d known when you started that you know now?
My advice for budding writers is to either secure a job as an editor in a regional magazine or in communications, and freelance on the side. Better yet, get a really good paying job doing something you love outside of publishing — and freelance on the side, using your vacation time to journey the world. And then take that each journey and focus on marketable aspects and pitch to numerous editors of magazines, newspapers and online venues all over the world to get as much traction out of one visit as possible. By retirement age, you can travel write full-time if you so desire, and you’ll be established by then.
How should a writer approach an editor? What are the “rights” and “wrongs?”
I wish I knew the answer to this question, but it varies with each editor. As an editor, I get some pitches, and I always respond. If somebody has done their research, presents a piece that needs little editing and includes good images, I’m open to looking at it. I wish all editors were as open-minded. But they’re not. I recently had an editor-in-chief approach me at a travel conference and ask me to write regular wine articles for his elite magazine. But when I followed up with him, he kept putting me off and I have no idea why. I may never find out what happened, but every few weeks I would reach out, and this went on for several months. I have finally given up, disgruntled, confused and disgusted in the fact that I was led on by this editor. I’ve also had a bad experience with Saveur Magazine. The editor wrote back, seemingly excited about a story I pitched on a balsamic vinegar producer in Modena, emailed back and forth and then dropped the ball. I found out later he was in Italy, probably writing the story personally. That one experience was enough to crush me, but you have to take these experiences and learn. And then some editors respond very quickly when it’s the right story for the upcoming issue, such as Relish Magazine, which also pays quite well. I’ve had great experiences with these editors, but get more rejections than hits. The most important message I can offer is that you can’t take it personally, as there will be many, many rejections in this business. After 10 years of travel writing, I still get more rejections than not, but I also haven’t pitched much at all, as I have my own portals for my travel stories and my full-time job takes up much of my time.
How do you see your income mix changing in the next 5 to 10 years?
I’m ready to embark on a new adventure and am planning to head to Paris this fall to get my Master’s Degree in Global Communications. Publishing is a really tough business to further your career, so I am ready to move on from the newspaper business. I will continue to freelance as a travel writer and hopefully get a steady gig with a travel magazine, newspaper or online venue that pays well enough, but I will also work on two books: my Spavalous book and my compilation of stories from my Taste of Travel features. I’d also like to explore Europe as much as possible on weekends and breaks while living there for one year while in school. My hope is that my income level multiplies by 3 to 5 times the pitiful income I make at the paper, and that wouldn’t be unrealistic. Communications positions usually pay more. But know this: I don’t regret working in the newspaper business because it was a way for me to grow as a writer, make connections and prove my abilities as a travel writing specializing in wine, food and spa.
What has writing Spavalous, your book combining your passion for travel and spas, been like?
I am still writing this book. I had written one version, but once I attended the Maui Writer’s Conference and met with a few agents, I took it in a different direction. The next year, I attended the same conference and scrapped the next version as well. At this time, I’m focused more on my Tastes of Travel book, which is basically ready for an agent – I simply need to find one and it takes time. Once I secure a publishing house, I can move forward and work on Spavalous, hopefully with an advance so I can take the time necessary to write it the way I envision it to be. Eventually, I’d like to lead tour groups for Spavalous travel adventures and through SipTripper, wine destination tours. With my experience in traveling throughout the U.S., Caribbean and Europe, I can bring much to the table in perfecting tours suitable for those who want to sign on for theme-related luxury excursions.
When it comes to travel, Charlene Peters is always on the lookout for a compelling story, whether it be a profile on a destination, its culinary/wine scene or spa/health & wellness aspect. As an award-winning Editor of Special Features for almost 9 years, Charlene produces the Marblehead/ Swampscott-centric Arts & More section for GateHouse Media, which includes writing a full-length feature story each week. Once a month, she writes a syndicated column, Taste of Travel, focusing on destinations around the world, with recipes/wines indigenous to the area. In addition to her full-time position, Charlene freelances as Boston City Guide Examiner, reviewing wines from around the world, profiling restaurants in the Boston area and covering various lifestyle events and travel. She writes about visits to spas all over the world for her website: www.Spavalous.com and book-in-process, “Spavalous.”
Interview conducted in May, 2014 by Kristin Winet.