Gina DeCaprio Vercesi is a New York-based adventurer, storyteller, and nature girl. Chronicling journeys on land, water, and snow, her work has appeared in publications including Sierra, Delta Sky, Travel + Leisure, Virtuoso Life, the Boston Globe, United Hemispheres, Islands, Yankee, Lonely Planet and more. She joins us this week to share her story and what has worked best for her in developing her freelance career.
Share with us how you got your start in travel writing and what the journey has been like for you.
I took a rather circuitous route to arrive at my career as a travel journalist. Back in 2009, I started a family nature club called Kids Unplugged—My daughters were 3, 5, and 7 at the time. I’ve always been a passionate naturalist and the club was a way for me to help other parents get both themselves and their kids outdoors. We met twice weekly and I began blogging about our adventures. Fast forward a few years and Kids Unplugged morphed into a family travel website that focused on places where parents and kids could forego their digital devices in favor connecting more deeply to the world around them.
Shortly thereafter I decided to venture into the freelance world. The idea of monetizing my blog never appealed and I needed to figure out a way to turn my passion for writing and travel into income. Funny sidebar—one of the first books I bought to start learning the lay of the land was Tim’s Travel Writing 2.0. Two other excellent resources for those just getting started are Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing by the eponymous Don George and Travel Writing by L. Peat O’Neil. I also began reading all the work I could by accomplished travel writers as a way to hone my craft—travel writing, especially narrative tales and essays—is an art form that differs greatly from the chatty, conversational style I employed in my blog. Finally, I found an amazing teacher, Amanda Castleman, who has become my dear friend and mentor. Amanda’s students range from newbies just fledging the travel writing nest to veteran writers looking to take a deeper dive into craft.
2. Being a wife, mother and travel writing can be a challenge. How do you balance family life with your travels and your writing career?
I have three daughters who are now 15, 13, and 11 and they alternately deplete and replenish my soul on a daily basis. The boundaries between my work and family life are constantly blurred and I have to be extremely disciplined with my time. I’m often at my desk for an hour before everyone gets up in the morning and then get right back to it once the girls are out the door for school. I spend the hours they’re not home on the work that requires the bulk of my concentration—writing, researching, interviews, and pitching—and the afternoon hours answering emails and organizing my to-do list. Having my desk in the kitchen means that work always beckons, yet afternoons are spent driving them to and from activities, overseeing homework, debating screen time, and trying to get dinner on the table, so oftentimes any ambitions I have for getting work done during that time end up being unrealistic. Discipline is key. I have to have a tight game plan or that precarious house of cards comes crashing down.
Beyond the actual writing and pitching, an obviously huge part of this gig is the travel. The fact that I waited until the girls were older to launch this career helps a lot. They’re old enough to come home after school without me here and the big girls keep half-an-eye on their younger sister. I try to schedule the bulk of my travel during the school week when they’re gone all day and aim to limit my travel to once a month. In that vein, figuring out how to pull multiple story angles from each trip is essential in making being away worthwhile. But the bottom line is that my husband is amazing. When I first started out and there wasn’t a great deal of financial ROI, it was harder for me to justify being away from home. Now that my pitches are being accepted and my travels are turning into saleable stories on a regular basis, my absences make more sense.
I also have the best, best friend someone could ask for. She’s a writer, too, and she and I are constantly co-parenting each other’s kids as a way to enable one another to get our work done.
3. We all know networking is important, what type of networking has benefited you the most in your writing career?
Developing and nurturing real relationships is probably the most important part of building a freelance career whether it’s with editors, other writers, or travel PR folks. You never know when one connection will lead to another. Keep in mind when building these relationships, especially with editors, that it’s essential not to limit your conversation to shop-talk. I think connections become deeper and more valuable when I’m not focused on angling for an assignment.
Though it isn’t for newbies, the bi-annual Travel Classics conference offers invaluable one-on-one time with multiple editors from some of the field’s top publications. It’s a juried conference, so participants have to have written for upper echelon publications to be considered.
4. What advice would you give to someone just starting out as a travel writer?
I think that the most important thing to remember about this gig is that there’s no quick route to success—there’s a ton of proverbial pavement pounding involved and if you’re not a fan of hard work and putting in the time, you’re on the wrong track. Start out small, but always aim high. Journeys you’ve already taken and your knowledge of your local area can become excellent grist for the beginner’s mill. Pitch your ideas to less prestigious digital and print publications and work to build up your portfolio. Once you have a solid selection of clips to present to editors, you can start move up to the next level.
I can’t emphasize enough how essential it is to develop and nurture relationships, both with editors and other writers in the field. Blind pitching, which new writers will be doing a LOT, can suck, but once you have a relationship with an editor, things start to get a lot easier. That doesn’t mean that all of your story ideas will result in assignments, but at least you’re no longer firing completely into the dark. It’s also essential to read—a ton. Find the publications where writers’ voices sound similar to yours and the types of stories that are being run pique your own interests. From there, start sleuthing for the people who assign the stories. I often snap pictures of the mastheads of magazines I’d like to pitch when I’m at newsstands or bookstores so that I can go back to my desk and search for editor contact info.
Sometimes Google is a good tool to accomplish this, but you often have to turn over a lot of stones before finding an actual email for an editor—and in that vein, don’t start at the top of the masthead, assistant and associate editors are your go-tos at first. Utilizing various social media platforms is another avenue to developing editor relationships. I’ve befriended several editors this way. I like the ‘lists’ feature on Twitter and have a list I titled ‘editors extraordinaire’ where I’ve compiled a bunch of editors’ accounts. I watch what they’re sharing, tweet links to good stories I’ve read in their publications and tag them, and even reach out via direct message with a quick, “Hey, I’d love to send you a query would you mind sharing your email,” note. The worst someone can say is no and my grandfather used to say, “Always ask, you never know what you’re going to get.” Lots of editors are on Instagram, too, so spending time there is also a good idea.
Finally, in the midst of this virtual world we live in, never underestimate the importance of face-to-face contact. Any time—and I mean ANY—you have the opportunity to meet an editor in person, whether that’s at a conference, a media event, a press trip, whatever, make it happen.
5. What are 3 of your favorite travel memories?
As often as I can, I travel with each of my girls individually. This past summer, my middle daughter and I sailed with UnCruise Adventures to Panama and Costa Rica, a trip which involved transiting the Panama Canal. One afternoon we traveled by dugout canoe to visit an Emberá Quera village not far from the Caribbean entrance to the Canal. Using a mixture of Spanish, English, and Emberá, my daughter and a clutch of Emberá girls managed to communicate with one another, laughing, counting, and figuring out the words for things like colors, flowers, and foods. Living in our present society, which is plagued by divisiveness, I am forever grateful for the ways travel can create bonds between cultures and for any opportunity to give those types of experiences to my kids.
Last fall I visited the westside of O’ahu, an untouristed area of the popular island that is home to one of the archipelago’s largest populations of native Hawaiians. During the trip I had the opportunity to hike out to Ka’ena Point, a sacred spot where souls are thought to leap into the afterlife, with two members of the renowned male hula school Kei Kai o Kahiki. Along the way, La’akea Perry, the hula kumu (teacher) shared stories about the ancient people of the area and he and his student performed a traditional chant and dance overlooking the sea. Afterwards, we floated in tide pools carved into the volcanic rock by the crashing Pacific.
Earlier this month I traveled to Helsinki to work on a story about Finland’s sauna culture. While I was there I visited Kaurilan, a traditional sauna located about thirty-minutes northeast of the city that is housed in a 19th century cabin in Helsinki’s Old Meilahti neighborhood. A friend and I arrived a bit before nine on a snowy evening and entered the candle-lit cabin where several women wrapped in big towels were sitting around a wooden farmhouse table chatting and eating bread. They showed us where we could find towels of our own and guided us to the wood-heated sauna, encouraging us to embrace Finnish tradition of going in the buff. The owner, Saara Lehtonen, greeted us from her perch on the top bench and proceeded to throw ladleful after ladleful of water onto the glowing stones, sending löyly, steam, into the air, so hot it took our breath away.
Gina spent the summer hiking ancient forest in British Columbia, exploring the jungle near an abandoned Panamanian penal colony, and shucking bivalves with oyster farmers in coastal Maine. She lives near the Hudson River with her husband, three daughters, and a very good dog. www.ginavercesi.com.