A Lucky Strike in France

If you want to become a travel writer, be ready to jump when you discover a timely story.

By Dave Fox
On a train in the Netherlands

I’m not sure how Kattina and I managed to spend five days in France, oblivious to the fact that the country’s transportation system was in chaos. France was having its biggest rail strike in years. We didn’t hear about it until the night before we were planning to catch a train.

Kattina scopes out car rentals at our hotel in Beaune.

Kattina scopes out car rentals at our hotel in Beaune.

We had driven across the border from Germany with Kattina’s mom and German uncle. The four of us had traveled through the Alsace and Burgundy regions. In the morning, Kattina and I were planning to head off on our own for the rest of the summer, but we suddenly found ourselves wondering if we’d make it out of town.

Kattina found a solution. While I was trying to decipher the news on French television, she poked around on the Internet until she found a car rental that was cheaper than the train tickets we were about to buy. Thanks to the strike, we ended up having a far better journey.

As a travel writer, I jumped on this story. I’d been planning to write articles about the Auvergne region where we were headed, an area of France with 80 extinct volcanoes. The immediacy of the rail strike, however, added timeliness to the tale. So I contacted an editor I work with at the Straits Times in Singapore and asked if she could use it. She liked the idea of the strike as a story hook.

Four chains of ancient volcanoes dot the landscape in central France's Auvergne region.

Four chains of ancient volcanoes dot the landscape in central France’s Auvergne region.

Always be on the Lookout!
If you want to break into travel writing, it’s always good to keep a story’s timeliness in mind. It might be a breaking news event, like the French rail strike. Or it might be about a trip you took several months ago that fits with an upcoming holiday or festival – an article about Irish folk music for St. Patrick’s Day, for example. If you have what is known in the news business as a raison d’être, a “reason to be,” you’ll have a much easier time selling your tale.

One of the frustrations beginning freelancers encounter is they stumble upon stories that will work best if published right away, but they don’t have editors they can contact who they already have a working relationship with – editors who will read their e-mails and get back to them right away.

When a train strike scuttled our original plans, Orcival, France (estimated population: 256) became my writing base for three days.

When a train strike scuttled our original plans, Orcival, France (estimated population: 256) became my writing base for three days.

If you run into this situation, don’t fret. You can try pitching the story to newspapers anyway. Or you can post it on your blog. Writing under a tight deadline – even a self-imposed deadline for your own website – is great practice. You’ll write more efficiently when paying assignments come along later.

Meanwhile, pitch other, less time-sensitive stories to editors now. Once you’ve published a couple of stories and an editor is familiar with your work, he or she will be more receptive to pitches that need attention right away when those stories come along.

As for the original article I planned to write, about climbing France’s volcanoes, my rail-strike version of the story didn’t have enough space to fit in all the details. I ended up writing a very different story than I had planned before my trip began. But that’s okay. I can still write and publish a different version of my volcano article elsewhere, and I can do it under less time pressure when I’m not in the midst of a busy trip.

(I took a day out of our time in Paris to write the train strike story. Rearranging your travel plans is something else you must be ready to do if  you want to do this sort of travel writing.)

Give Yourself a Deadline!
It’s been many years since I’ve worked as a news reporter. I’ve missed the adrenaline rush of tight deadlines, and the challenge (emotional as well as intellectual) of writing an article that’s a bit less polished but that goes to press in time. So the other night, I gave myself another deadline, just for the fun of it.

I watched Algeria play Germany in World Cup Soccer until 1 a.m. Then, when the game was over, I stayed up for another hour and slammed out a blog post about the Algeria-Russia match I had watched a few days earlier in Paris with a bunch of Algerians.

Was it my best writing? No. But I had fun challenging myself to blast it out before bedtime.

If you spend too much time polishing your tales, if you bog down in perfectionism and struggle to finish your stories, this is a great way to break out of that cycle.

Give yourself one hour. Then, put the story on your blog in whatever condition it’s in when those 60 minutes are up. Imagine a newspaper editor hovering over your head, saying they need to fire up the printing presses.

Do this and you’ll be in great shape to write when you find a breaking story and an editor who wants to run it right away.


You can read my French rail strike article on the Straits Times travel website.

Want to break into freelance travel writing? My new online workshop includes more than three hours of instructional videos, exercises to hone your skills, and a fun online discussion forum where you can ask me questions and share your stories for feedback from other students. And you can use this coupon code to save $40 off the regular price!

Published on Tuesday, July 8, 2014

2 Responses to “A Lucky Strike in France”

  1. Art Segal
    August 31, 2014 at 6:02 AM

    I enjoyed the French rail strike article in Straights Times. Cool.

    • August 31, 2014 at 12:37 PM

      Thanks Art! I’m glad you enjoyed it!

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