An Interview with Lara Dunston

Talk about a dream job! For the past year, travel writer Lara Dunston and her husband, photographer Terrence Carter, have teamed up with HomeAway Holiday-Rentals to live like locals around the world for an entire year, blogging, writing, and photographing the unique, the unusual, and the local flavors of both the not-so-far-away and far-flung locales. With an illustrious pedigree of updating and contributing to 50+ guidebooks, Lara has certainly cut her teeth in the travel writing industry, having traveled to over 60 countries and written hundreds of articles. See the newest entry on their Grantourismo blog here!

Where do you see your career as a travel writer being three years from now?

I’ve never thought three years in advance in the 25 years I’ve been working. I’m flexible and I love change, so I just do what feels right. If something is no longer fulfilling and fun, it’s time to move on. My career has continually evolved, so that won’t change. I’ll probably be doing more of what my writer/photographer husband Terence Carter and I have been doing these last few years and that’s developing more of our own projects, like Grantourismo, a yearlong grand tour we’ve just completed in partnership with HomeAway Holiday-Rentals, who sent us around the world to stay in their holiday houses and write about our experiences living like locals. I think the future of travel writing is in these innovative projects that capture people’s imaginations. Travel writers need to start to think more entrepreneurially and be more proactive and initiate their own creative projects. I guess I’d like to have done a slew of them three years down the track.

How will your income mix change?

As a freelance travel writer, I work mostly with my photographer-husband, which means we can pitch and sell our work as a package, although we also accept commissions independent of each other. Our income and income mix fluctuates. Every year we’ve worked together has been different from one to the next. We started out as guidebook authors, on 2-3 month contracts, who occasionally wrote magazine stories. When we started to get more lucrative magazine commissions, we took on fewer guidebooks. It doesn’t make sense to spend 8 weeks on a guidebook when you can earn the same amount writing four magazine stories. Unless of course, you can do both! We also write for the web, although digital pays significantly less than magazines, so while that work might be in abundance we’re careful to ensure a balance. From February 2011 until now, 95% of our time was spent writing for Grantourismo, the travel blog that chronicled our round-the-world trip, and that’s where most but not all of our income has come from over the last year.

What are you doing to adapt to the changing media landscape?

What I’ve always done – adapt. I’ve been working in the media in one area or another – film, journalism, PR, the arts, media education, and publishing – since the late 1980s, so I’ve been part of the continual evolution of the media landscape. When I first started making films we were cutting on celluloid, then we had to learn how to edit on tape. Twenty years later I was teaching students to edit on software on their computers. Working in the media is an ongoing learning process, but that’s stimulating, and that in itself is vital to being creative. It’s essential to stay abreast of technological changes, but writers shouldn’t forget that the technology is just a tool that allows us to be creative and tell stories in different forms and formats. Writing for the web, for blogs or sites, or even mobile apps, is just about learning to write new genres. Writers need to stop getting so hung up about the need to learn about SEO and how to use new apps. Just do it.

What advice would you give to someone near and dear to you who wanted to become a travel writer—assuming they had zero credits to their name. (Besides “Don’t do it”?)

I would strongly recommend that above all else, aspiring writers focus on the craft of writing and research skills, read lots of travel writing, write lots of travel writing. Observational skills are important – sit in a place and write detailed notes on what you see to develop those. Start a blog and set yourself writing goals. It’s great for developing discipline and improving your capacity to write, although not for improving the quality of your writing – travel bloggers are rarely constructively critical of each other’s work, so you’ll need to enroll in a writing class for that. Learn how to pitch and start developing contacts and sending out pitches. Then learn how to accept rejection, not take things too personally, and not be precious about your writing. While you’re ego’s recovering, learn how to shoot video or take photos, or team up with photographer, or marry one! Build a solid body of work, and then once you have that under your belt, start to think outside the box and develop your own projects.

Writers keep struggling to find a business model that will allow them to travel in a less frenetic manner than today’s guidebook writer and still manage to make a good living. Your HomeAway Holiday-Rentals partnership seems to be one that has worked. Tell us about that.

Guidebook writing can be frenetic and tedious (especially tasks like checking bus timetables and marking up maps) but at least you get to spend a month or two in a place and get to know it intimately. Magazine stories can be fun but also frustrating because you only spend a few days in a place. That’s why so many magazine stories are the same, because the writers rely on tips from hotel PRs. Take the recent Beirut coverage: Paris of the Middle East, tick; Grey Hotel, tick; Farmer’s Market, tick; nightclubs and bars that have been there 12 years but we’ll still say they’re new and the city is experiencing a renaissance, tick. It was these kinds of frustrations that led us to develop Grantourismo.

Grantourismo began as a yearlong round-the-world trip where we would spend a month in each place, living like locals, getting beneath the skin of the place, engaging with people, doing and learning things, and chronicling it all on a blog. HomeAway Holiday-Rentals had a similar project in mind, we shared our idea with them, and they hired us to do it. We compromised, increasing the number of places and reducing our stays to two weeks at a time, but that was fine. It was a wonderful opportunity. We went on the road in February 2010 and we’ve just finished the trip. It was the most enriching travel experience of our lives. For us, staying in vacation rentals and settling into a place for a while is by far the best way to travel.

In practical terms, apart from getting the chance to actually do our dream project, what the contract with HomeAway Holiday-Rentals offered us was stability and security for a year, a consistent income at industry rates, and creative and editorial control – all a rarity for freelancers. We’ve also been able to gather an enormous amount of content that we can continue to produce stories from, and our plan is to write a book about the experience. For HomeAway Holiday-Rentals, they got a team of writers who were already passionate about their product (vacation rentals), the lifestyle it affords (slowing down, living like locals), and the experiences holiday rentals can offer that hotels can’t (befriending locals, doing a cooking course, shopping at the market and bringing fresh produce back to cook, etc). It was a win-win situation.

I’d advise all travel writers to begin to explore opportunities to work directly with travel companies, but I’d also offer a few pieces of advice: 1) Only pursue relationships with companies you have used and respect whose products you love – we’d already been using the HomeAway Holiday Rentals website and had been booking holiday rentals for years; 2) Reserve the right to be critical when you need to be, negotiate editorial control, and help the company to understand it’s in their best interest; credibility is everything – for both of you; and 3) Budget the project adequately, using industry rates, and use a contract – again, it’s in the interests of both parties; if you’re paid well, you’re going to give the project everything.

You put in more hours than probably anyone I know who is a travel writer, yet obviously they’re productive hours based on how much you get accomplished. What are your time management tips for writers in a world where there are so many potential tech communication distractions—most of them not leading to much (if any) income?

We all work differently to each other and I think the key is to find how you work best. I used to think I could only write well first thing in the mornings, and if I had a late night and woke late I simply couldn’t write. That was BS. The more disciplined I became the more I realized I could write anytime – and anywhere; now I can work on buses, trains, planes, and hotel room beds (when they don’t have desks). Some writers work better in short bursts with lots of breaks, others (myself included) like to do long focused stretches of writing. If I’m writing a long form narrative I will shut down Twitter and turn off the Internet so there are no distractions. I was better at time management when I had a full-time salaried position. I’m not as good anymore and have a tendency to take on too much work – I can never get through my to-do lists and am constantly adding to them! – and then I struggle to get through it all. But for me that’s what life is all about: writing, being creative, sharing stories, and having the experiences that form those stories.

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Lara Dunston has authored, contributed to and updated some 50+ guidebooks for Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, Dorling Kindersley, Footprint, AA Guides, Fodors, Insight, Thomas Cook and Hedonist’s Guides, and published hundreds of travel articles in magazines, newspapers and websites around the globe, from Wanderlust to Get Lost. Based out of the Middle East since 1998, the couple has literally lived out of their suitcases since 2006. From 2010 to 2011, they went round the world on a contemporary grand tour, a personal experiment in slow and sustainable travel, local travel, and experiential travel that they called Grantourismo. They chronicle about their travels on their blog http://grantourismotravels.com/

Interview conducted in January, 2011 by Travel Writing 2.0 author Tim Leffel and edited by Kristin Mock.

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