Wednesday, August 6, 2008

First Class Travel on Other People's $$

Did you know that a book contract can be the equivalent of a free ticket to an exotic location? The inspiration for that discovery occurred as the result of a trip to Alaska in 1987. I had been invited there back when they had money for an “Authors to Alaska” program. In the course of my travels, I was introduced to Alaskan artist, Barbara Lavallee, and decided it would be fun to work with her. I created a series entitled “Imagine Living Here.” The first book was This Place is Cold about Barbara’s home state (which I had traveled all over). The second book was to be This Place is Dry about the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. To plan the trip I called the Arizona tourism people, asking them what we should see there. Lo and behold, they offered us discounted hotel rates since we were doing public relations about the state. Aha! This was the first glimmer of how to see the world without breaking the bank.

There is no substitute for a nonfiction author than first-hand experience. You have to be there to know how a place feels, and smells, and tastes. You discover delightful details that add credibility to the work. Cowboys wear chaps on the desert to protect them from the Jumping Cholla cactus spines. Llamas on the altiplano of Peru wear colorful tassels in their ears like earrings. Why? Because it’s an open range and each rancher brands his own llamas with a particular color.

The farther we went, the more freebies we got. Over the years I worked with tourism agencies for Brazil, Japan, Australia, Uganda, Kenya, Turkey. Barbara and I cruised the Amazon, trekked Machu Picchu, snorkeled on the Great Barrier Reef, did game drives on the Masai Mara, explored the caves of Cappadocia, to name a few of our adventures. Despite the fact that we live 4000 miles apart, we became very close friends. A broken tooth in Cuzco, pneumonia in Rio, a back spasm in Australia, were great bonding opportunities. Our products: This Place is High (Andes), This Place is Wet (Amazon Rain Forest), This Place is Lonely (Australia), This Place is Crowded (Japan), This Place is Wild (East Africa). Each book is a narrative about a location as seen through the eyes of an author and artist.

These trips required extensive planning, working months ahead of the actual travel dates. At first, I had to submit a letters from my publisher proving that we had an assignment. For later trips, I could show books. All countries gave us something, although some were more generous than others (Australia was the most generous). While traveling we took hundreds of photos, and hours of audio-taped interviews. I avidly collected literature from everyone I met. As Barbara later said about the trips, “We ate dessert first!” After we got back, there was the hard work of organizing the material into something coherent and meaningful. It helped to have a thesis for each book, going into the project. I have a number of friends who do travel writing but they have to write about particular travel experiences and the places are preselected. Not many children’s book authors approach these tourism people but they certainly rose to the occasion for us. Although much of the trips were “comped” additional expenses were also tax write-offs. So if you’re not rich, it pays to be smart!

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