Author Beebe Bahrami shares her thoughts on the craft of writing, plus getting 2 books published in one year with Matador’s Julie Schwietert.
1. [JS] How long have you been writing?
I am pretty sure I have been writing all my life, since the time that holding a pencil was possible. As I grew older, I desired to be a writer but did not know how to make that happen.
I did other things but I always wrote everyday, whether it was a journal, poetry, stories, or memoir pieces. When I decided to go to graduate school for cultural anthropology I also made the conscious decision that I would apply this training to become a writer.
2. Do you have any formal training as a writer?
In the sense that I have taken a few writing courses and attended a few writing conferences, yes. In the sense of majoring in creative writing or literature in college, no. I was a molecular biology major as an undergraduate and then switched to social sciences for graduate study.
Throughout it all, I studied languages, which is a great training: it teaches you how language works and informs the way a people think and see themselves. So, I studied the natural sciences and then the social sciences, all with a pinch of the humanities, formally.
I have found for me the best “writing courses” have actually been from living life and from studying other subjects outside of writing—the subjects become the content, insights, stories, and experiences of life that give a person something to write about.
Moreover, the best writing course has been writing for myself every day. For over 25 years, every morning has begun with writing. This has been the case whether I had a 9-5 job, was a college professor, worked as an ethnographic consultant, was a magazine editor, or now, as a full time writer: Every morning must begin with creative, free flow writing.
3. Can you explain the process by which you became a published writer?
In addition to the above, I studied everything I could about the craft of writing, about writing markets, about how agents, editors and publishers like to be approached with writing projects and ideas. I read prolifically the genres within which I most wanted to write.
I slowly honed my writing into a professional format and began to send it out, from query letters to articles on spec. I studied magazines carefully before I sent anything to them to be sure that what I offered was an appropriate fit.
I also crafted book proposals. I treated my dream of becoming a published professional writer as a job before the job actually existed and I did that job every day, writing and sending out material, studying the markets, and reading, reading, reading.
Then, I got a terrific break. It came through both being a writer and a cultural anthropologist, which is why I stress the points above, about studying other subjects outside of, or in addition to, a formal writing program. National Geographic’s books division was looking for area experts to write chapters on their coffee table book, Peoples of the World.
As a cultural anthropologist, I was known for my work in the Mediterranean and Middle East and so I got a work-for-hire contract to write on North Africa and on the Middle East. I worked with a terrific editor who furthered my desire to keep writing. After that break, I fully dedicated myself to the life of a writer.
4. Do you live primarily by your writing, or do you do other work as well?
I do live, now, primarily by my writing. At the same time I have learned that to work for myself and to create my own economy, it is imperative to diversify what I can do and keep my chops fresh. My writing work right now is my main livelihood but I also keep my eye on editing prospects from my former life as a magazine editor, plus I also continue to work as an ethnographic consultant as various research projects arise.
Within writing itself, I also diversify and look at many markets and how my skills and interests can cater to their editorial needs. I have worked as a writer and copyeditor for both corporate and non-profit groups.
Writers are always going to be needed as long as human beings use language to formulate, clarify, and effectively communicate ideas. So, it is important to realize that while I love travel writing, especially books, sometimes I may also write a brochure or a newsletter.
The important thing is to approach each project with passion and a desire to bring out the material in the best way possible. That makes it fun.
5. Tell us a bit about the day-to-day life of a working travel writer.
An average day always begins with writing in the morning. First thing, I wake up and sit down at the writing desk and work on my most creative project. At the moment, I am working on an historical mystery novel and that is what I work on during those delicious first early morning hours.
By mid-morning I turn to other writing. It might be a travel guide for which I have already conducted the on-the-ground research and am then writing it up. Or, it might be a series of travel articles, or a book project I am developing.
If it is a travel guide, that pretty much will take up the rest of the day and all following days until it is done. Travel guides in particular are very demanding: they ask for a lot of accurate information, in succinct finite capsules, in lively but efficient language, and with fast turn around deadlines. It is like running a marathon and you can’t stop running until you send in as flawless a manuscript as possible. I love it. It makes me feel totally alive.
I also dedicate a portion of the day, usually in the afternoon, to looking for new writing opportunities, pitching new ideas, and researching ideas I would like to turn into pitches to selective publications. It is important to keep the flow moving so that once a project is finished, there will be another one to move on to.
An average day of travel writing work when I am on the ground doing the research usually is about 14-18 hours long. I always have my pen, notebook, and small digital camera at the ready for copious note taking. I take notes beyond the scope of the current project too because I am also thinking of article ideas.
I have several long checklists to guide me that I’ve designed for that day, week, month (and that I will redesign each night right before I turn in). I carry on lots of conversations with locals, and pretty much soak up a place from the perspective of a local, a traveler, and a cultural anthropologist and translator.
I always work in the language of the place and so am constantly studying languages and honing my skills in them. This is one reason I have specialized as a writer of the western Mediterranean world of France, Spain, Portugal, and Morocco. I have a long-time relationship with these places, have lived in them all, love them, and do research in their languages.
I prefer to write deeply about a place rather than broadly about many. There are infinite layers of any given place that reveal themselves over a lifetime
I prefer to write deeply about a place rather than broadly about many. There are infinite layers of any given place that reveal themselves over a lifetime. I try to mix it up and make sure I seek out the really local cultural pulse of a place and its people. This is where training in cultural anthropology has really benefited my work as a writer.
Finally, given the physical demands of being a travel writer, whether it is 14-hour days at the computer or 16-hour days on the ground, it is really important to take care of yourself physically. For me, this means a long day of on-the-ground work ends with a 20-minute yoga session in my room.
And when I am spending long days at the computer, I add to the daily yoga routine a visit to the gym, a run, or a surf session. Not only do these activities unkink the knots in your neck, they liberate your mind from its confines and often deliver new ideas and insights. So make sure you have a scrap of paper and a pen tucked in your pocket before you head out for a run!
6. Can you explain the process by which you wrote and pitched your most recent book?
In 2009, I had the delight of seeing two of my books published. Each had a very different process.
They replied that they liked it but that they only published books whose ideas they generated in-house, and that my proposal indicated that I might be the right writer for an in-house project they had, The Spiritual Traveler series. Would I send them a proposal for a book on Spain? It was a very exciting moment.
For me to design a book proposal on sacred Spain was like asking a surfer if they would like to surf in 4-5 foot, tubing waves in 70-degree water. I was on fire. I immediately set about designing the book and sent a polished, many times proof-read proposal, and soon learned that it was a go.
My second book, Historic Walking Guides: Madrid came from a call from a UK publisher, DestinWorld Publishing Ltd., for travel writers who were local experts on various cities in the world. DestinWorld has a unique take on travel guides and creates guides with a strong emphasis on good history that is fun to read and follow.
I answered the call with an email, stating my experience and skills and listing the cities where I had a near native’s knowledge from having lived there and visited there frequently. I soon learned that they wanted to go forward with Madrid and they asked me to outline what thematic walking tours I would design that would best capture Madrid’s character.
Having a passion for Madrid since 1986, this, again, was a very fun task and I sent them my best outline for a book that would really capture Madrid’s personality. Soon, I was signing a contract and readying to do the research.
7. What advice do you offer to aspiring travel writers?
Write everyday. Read everything that is in the area of writing that you like most. Study all the market and craft books on writing. Start sending out queries and well-polished pieces. Realize that rejection is just one step closer to getting published and revise if need be and send out again, or don’t revise but find a publication that is better suited to your story.
Also, get lots of life experience. Learn languages. Get out there and try new stuff, follow your passions and make them your writing expertise. Find your own voice. Everyone has a unique voice. And also, think like an entrepreneur. Look for where you can address a new perspective or editorial need to a publisher.
8. What’s your take on the current market for travel guides and the publishing industry in general?
It is so hard to read. I know that my web publishing has increased and my print magazine publishing has decreased. I also think that the long-established guidebook publishers have trimmed their expenses and pulled back on hiring as many writers as in the past.
But at the same time, really good, smaller and newer travel guide publishers have been born. Moreover, people still want to read and still want to travel, so the demand is still there for good books and articles.
I keep studying the trends toward understanding how the industry is changing. What I see keeps me optimistic that the market will remain, even if its shape alters.
It seems that we are in a big paradigm shift and that the best thing people can do is to stay clear on what they love to do, do it no matter what circumstances dictate, and keep looking for how those skills and passions can contribute to the world that we all are collectively creating.