Carolyn Heller, a fellow freelance writer over at Hotel Scoop, has written two travel guide books and has contributed to over 50 publications. As an American ex-pat living in Canada, she also blogs regularly at LivingAbroadinCanada.com. Today, we talk about what “not” to do when you’re starting a freelance career and what it’s like to put together a guidebook. Check out her portfolio here and enjoy!
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got involved with travel writing. How did you turn freelancing into your full-time profession back in 1996?
When I started freelancing, I did exactly what everyone tells you not to do. I quit my day job. I’d been working in marketing for a small software company near Boston, where my job involved writing and lots of traveling, and I gradually realized that while I didn’t care much about the software business, I loved to travel and write.
To get started, I took two classes at my local adult education center – one was a general introduction to travel writing, and the second was called “The Business of Freelancing.” Led by an editor at a local high-tech publication, the freelancing class taught me about developing story ideas, writing query letters, and basically how to treat your freelancing business as just that – a business.
During the freelancing class, I wrote a travel article that I sold to several major U.S. newspapers, including the Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, and Miami Herald. So I thought, “Hey, I can do this!”
I knew, though, that I’d never be able to devote any time to freelancing if I still had a regular job, particularly since I had toddler twins at home. Fortunately, we’d been pretty good about setting aside savings, we had a part-time nanny, and my supportive spouse said, “Go for it!”
After I gave notice at my job, I kept in touch with the instructor of the freelancing class, who moonlighted as a travel writer. Not long afterwards, she told me that Fodor’s was looking for someone to help update a local guide and passed along the editor’s name. That turned into my first guidebook commission, and my freelance business was launched. And since a colleague’s generosity helped me get started, I try to remember to “pay it forward” – sharing contacts and job leads whenever I can.
As both a blogger and print writer, how does the process of writing for digital publications differ from writing for print publications?
Whether you’re writing for print or online publications, you still have to tell a good story. You need to begin by crafting a sharply focused pitch – what’s the story, why that story is timely and right for the publication, and why you’re the best person to write it. While many people say that you need to write short when you’re writing online, I’ve found just as many places that encourage you to take more space for a good story, since you’re not constrained by a specific page count. Being able to supply photos as well as text has always been important in selling an article, but it’s now essential for most digital publications.
How many projects are you typically working on at one time? How do you balance the different assignments in addition to your regular life?
It depends on the types of projects that I’m doing. When I was researching and writing my books (Moon Handbooks: Ontario and Living Abroad in Canada), that work was all-consuming, and while I did take on a few small assignments, my focus was all book, all the time. This month, I have lots of smaller projects – I’m writing a dozen short articles and editing a guidebook chapter – so it really varies.
When I first started freelancing, I had young kids, and I found it quite hard to step over the piles of toys and mountains of dirty laundry to sit down at my desk. I constantly felt I needed to try to manage some of the chaos at home, but ultimately, that anxiety was keeping me from writing. I realized that I had to treat freelancing as a regular job; if I were at the office, I wouldn’t be doing the laundry, so I began to set a regular work schedule, when I’d sit at my desk and at least try to write, laundry be damned!
With small children, I had to be especially organized, since my workday was confined to the time that they were at school or with a babysitter. Now that my daughters are grown, I can be more flexible – taking off for a run or a yoga class or lunch with friends – and then sitting back down at my desk. I still find that the discipline of keeping semi-regular work hours helps me be more productive and creates more of a separation between “work time” and “play time.”
What are you hoping to do with your writing in the next few years and how do you see your income stream changing?
Like many writers, I expect that my income will come increasingly from a mix of self-directed projects and work for other publications.
These days, it’s critical for writers to have their own self-directed projects. For example, I developed LivingAbroadinCanada.com as a companion to my book of the same name that Avalon Travel published in 2008. I’ve created lots of new content about Canadian travel, culture, life, and immigration, and as the site’s traffic has grown significantly, I’m now working on ways to monetize that content.
Guidebook writing has long been a major component of my income, and there’s lots of gloom and doom in the guidebook industry right now. Even as more information becomes available online, however, I think there’s still a huge demand for the type of content that guidebooks provide, particularly the “big picture” of a place and its culture — whether this information is delivered online, via an app, in an ebook, or through some type of technology that hasn’t been invented yet. It’s easy to get details like a museum’s hours online; it’s often harder to figure out how that museum fits into the culture of the place. Traditional publishers may no longer have a monopoly on information delivery; we writers just have to find new ways to provide our readers with – and earn income from – this content.
When you were putting the new Moon Handbooks: Ontario together, what did you learn that you wish someone had told you years ago when you were starting out?
By the time I started researching Moon Ontario, I’d already contributed to dozens of guidebooks and written a book (Living Abroad in Canada), so I knew what I was getting into. My publisher requested that I create an outline for the book as part of my project proposal, so when I got the contract, I already had a plan for getting started. The most difficult thing for me was that I end up discovering far more interesting places and experiences than I could include in the book. I wish someone had given me tips for reining in my research and getting my book to market sooner!
What’s it like living as an American expat in Canada?
For my writing, it makes absolutely no difference. I’ve written for publications based all over the world, and it doesn’t matter where I live. When we first arrived in Canada, though, I was surprised to learn how many things were different than what I’d known in the U.S., from foods I’d never tasted (mmm, butter tarts!) to much bigger cultural differences in health care, immigration, and other social issues. I’ve enjoyed getting to know my adopted country, and my family and I now hold dual US/Canadian citizenship. After nearly 10 years, Canada definitely feels like home, but I still have lots of places to explore. Up next, an epic cross-Canada train journey from Vancouver all the way to Halifax!
Carolyn B. Heller is a full-time freelance writer specializing in travel, food, and culture. She’s written two books, Moon Handbooks: Ontario and Living Abroad in Canada, and contributed to more than 50 travel and restaurant guides for publishers including Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, Moon, and Zagat/Google. She’s a correspondent for Forbes’ Startle.com travel site, and her articles have appeared in LonelyPlanet.com, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, FamilyFun, Real Weddings, Hotel-Scoop, and Perceptive Travel, among others. An American who relocated to Canada in 2003, Carolyn blogs about Canadian travel, life, culture, and immigration issues at LivingAbroadinCanada.com. Based in Vancouver, she’s eaten her way across more than 40 countries on six continents. Follow her adventures on Twitter @CarolynBHeller.
Interview conducted in March, 2013 by Kristin Mock.