Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Interview with a Travel Writer...Sheila Scarborough

This weeks interview is with Sheila Scarborough, a dedicated blogger and travel writer who has been a fulltime freelance writer for the last year. With a award winning travel blog (Family Travel), paid blogging positions at Perceptive Travel and, plus an article recently published in National Geographic Traveler (Finding True Florida, March 2007), Sheila is clearly a travel writer on the move.

Hi Sheila and welcome to My Year of Getting Published. With all you’re blogging and writing commitments, I’m really pleased you were able to find time and answer a few questions.

1. Did you always want to be a writer ? How did you get started in writing ?

I've always enjoyed writing, from my earliest days in school. Getting the words just right was important to me in class papers and assignments. My teachers, and then my college professors, were always complimentary of my writing skills, but I just thought they were being nice.

When I spent a few years as an Associate Professor at the University of Florida, I discovered that a lot of students were average writers at best, and I really noticed the few who could make words jump from the page. They had a distinctive voice, and I realized that I did, too.

While I was in the Navy, I won an essay contest for an article about network-centric warfare, and then had another piece published on work-life balance for seagoing mothers (the two items are on this page of my Web site.) That's when I began to wonder if I should take a shot at full-time freelance writing.

2. What do you consider your first big 'break' as a travel writer?

My first paid break was when the (US newspaper) San Antonio Express-News published my article "Navigating Tokyo with a 'tween," about my daughter and I visiting Tokyo and climbing Mt. Fuji. It had been turned down or ignored by numerous publications, but that paper gave me a shot.

I also want to give credit to Teresa Plowright at's Travel with Kids -- she let me write a short series of guest posts, including photos, based on our family road trip of the American South.

3. Why did you start blogging and how has it helped your writing career?

An old high school friend of mine, Dwight Silverman, is a staff writer and tech columnist for the Houston Chronicle -- he writes TechBlog. When I told him I was considering a career as a writer, he insisted that I add a blog to my mix of work, and that I ensure that I had some sort of online presence. Since I had no other work and no one would take my Tokyo story, I threw myself into my Family Travel blog.

There's no question that my blogging work is an essential part of my writer's portfolio. It gets my thoughts out there, unedited and phrased exactly the way I want them to be, for good or ill. There are over 100 posts worth of my writing in one blog alone, about places all over the world. I still do print media work and work for online pubs, but I love blogging and I'm careful to write quality stuff, just as I would for any publication.

I started the blog on the BootsnAll travel Web site because

1) It was free!

2) There didn't seem to be a family travel blog there already, and

3) I would have a built-in audience of travel readers.

It's worked out well, even the rather boring name of the blog -- "Family Travel." As it turns out, it was great SEO, but I was embarrassed initially because I couldn't think of a more imaginative name.

By the way, I'd never heard of BootsnAll until I went to a panel of travel writers at the annual Texas Book Festival, a terrific event here in Austin. I emailed a couple of the panelists, to thank them for their presentations, and I've kept up with them.

I recommend that aspiring writers or bloggers go hang out at events/conferences where there are other writers/bloggers, even those not in your genre. You'll learn amazing things.

4. Where else are you blogging at the moment ?

I'm the blogger "Mother Road" (a play on the nickname for the famous Route 66 from Chicago to LA) on the new Disney Web site My family travel blog for them is Kid Trippin' and we're working hard to build up the site.

For travel topics that are more cultural or even quirky, I'm one of three bloggers on the Perceptive Travel Blog, a part of the great travel webzine Perceptive Travel. I can really let my hair down there, since it isn't just kid stuff!

Finally, I blog about motorsports; I call it "using both sides of my brain." Sounds strange, I know, but I landed a great gig for a blog called The Driving Woman, writing about the drag races at the Gatornationals in Gainesville, Florida, and I fell in love with the sport. Now I write for Fast Machines and, mostly about NHRA drag racing but I'm starting to get into NASCAR (stock car racing) as well. I wrote a blurb about being a NASCAR newbie that was great fun. It's an enjoyable change, being a sportswriter, with a whole different vocabulary and audience.

5. Where to from here?

I'm starting to develop relationships with editors so that I can toss ideas back and forth without a formal query; I have to tell you, it takes a lot of the general aggravation out of freelancing. Once they trust you to do good work, on time, and you trust them not to screw up your work, life is pretty pleasant.

Like most writers, I'd like to do more work for the major glossies (and not just because they pay more, although that sure is a factor.) I've had one piece in National Geographic Traveler and have another assignment for this summer, so I hope to see that relationship continue. I'd actually like to do more online work and blogging for the major pubs, as they start to move in that direction and I prove that I can deliver quality work.

I'm also breaking into food writing, which is getting interesting because although I'm a fairly knowledgeable and enthusiastic eater, I don't particularly like to cook.

6. What advice can you give aspiring travel writers ?

Read and study the craft, both travel essays and books (anything by Bill Bryson, and William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways) and the major travel magazines. You may not care for the style of some of the pubs, but you'll sure get a sense of what they cover and how they do it. Do your homework.

Learn to notice details. It is those little anecdotes, bits of history, parts of conversations, smells, sounds, etc. that make your work come alive.

Have a thick skin. Rejection isn't personal. Don't be too afraid of the telephone; sometimes emails or snail mail gets lost, so do some follow-up and speak to a human. That's how I got the Tokyo article accepted -- my emails weren't answered, so I called the newsroom switchboard, asked for the travel editor and discovered that the position was vacant (meaning my emails were in some electronic holding pen somewhere.) I was connected to the acting editor and he asked me to re-send the article.

Don't be a psycho stalker or pout when you're turned down, but don't be a doormat either.

7. Finally, what is your favorite place and why ?

Gosh, that's hard, but I'd have to say Hong Kong. It's all the best things about a vibrant city rolled into one -- I just adore it.


For more on Sheila’s journey as a writer, check out her article The Long and Winding Road to Freelance Success at


Previous interviews:

Graham Reid
Candy Harrington
Terah Shelton
Rudy Maxa
Shannon Hurst Lane
Wendy Perrin
David Whitley

Sphere: Related Content


Sheila at Family Travel said...

Hi Liz, and thanks for the interview. I actually sound like I know what I'm doing!

Really, you just have to research the field for a few months and then jump right in and be ready to look stupid.

I would also tell your readers not to worry about the "exotic." Write about that wonderful backroad that you know so well, near your hometown. So many locations have been "done," so look for the unique place that you alone can make come alive.

Yvonne Russell said...

Hi Liz
This is a great series. Great to read about Sheila.

Travel writing is one of my key interest areas, so I found some great tips and advice here.


karasw said...

as always, i love this Q&A.


Hi Yvonne and karasw, thanks for the comments. I'm learning lots from this series and happy that others are enjoying/learning as well...

Sheila, you sure do sound like you know what you're doubt there's been a lot of 'blood, sweat, and tears' along the way. Congrats on your successes thus far...

Cheers, Liz

Andria said...

This is a very nice post, and I want to see how others react to this.

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