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The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Barbara Weddle
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You may also discover:
1) Nuggets for an article often not found elsewhere.
Nuggets are the unique particles of information you discover inside these printed roadside materials that accessorize and take your article beyond all that is ordinary; it is sort of like finding the prize in a Cracker Jack box.
Discovering little-known data about people, places and things, or "nuggets," may very well be the most valuable service visitor centers and welcome centers offer to freelance writers. If you have a definite subject for an article in mind -- how Lexington, Kentucky, was so named, for example -- finding this information on the Internet should not be a problem. The Internet will tell you that it was named for the first shots fired in the American Revolution at Lexington, Massachusetts. I stumbled across an article in a travel guide I picked up at a visitors center in Kentucky, however, that states otherwise. According to the article, Lexington, Kentucky, was named for a racehorse. The article went on to say that the skeleton of Lexington (the racehorse), housed at the Smithsonian since his death in 1875, had been recently returned to Lexington (the city) on long-term loan. Now, you not only have conflicting information for your article subject, but little-known information as well. You also have another possible article subject entirely -- one about Lexington's namesake, the racehorse.
Similarly, in Alpine, Texas, a professor at Sul Ross University carried a desk up a hill and placed it on a rock outcropping overlooking a mountain vista, where the desk became a study nook for students seeking solitude. I found this bit of information in a local newsletter at a visitors center in West Texas. Now, say you are doing an article on Sul Ross University. Again, the statistics you will need for your article are likely all online, but if you want more -- that nugget or prize in the box -- you will likely only find it, as I did, in a newsy little piece in a local newsletter found at the local visitor center.
Discovering such little-known facts would not have been likely using the Internet alone, because, well, why would you think to look for such topics in the first place?
2) A more accessible or easier way of uncovering themed materials.
If you are contemplating writing a themed travel piece for a family magazine (Family Fun, for example), but have no earthly idea what to write about, or, for that matter, what is even out there to write about, the printed materials at visitor centers and welcome centers can provide you, not only with ideas for themed pieces, but an easier way of structuring your pieces. For example, suppose that glancing through some brochures you picked up at a welcome center in Vermont, you see a promotional statue of a goofy gorilla holding a Volkswagen Beetle (real) aloft in his left hand. The goofy gorilla gives you the idea for a themed travel article on wacky roadside attractions for kids. Without having seen the photo of the statue in the brochure, it probably would not have occurred to you to write such an article.
To structure this same article, all you need to do now is sort through the other printed brochures stashed in your basement (more about these stashes later) that you picked up at various other roadsides across the country. As you do, you may discover that there is a beer-can house in Houston, some half-buried-in-the-earth upended cars in Amarillo, and so on and so on.
Likewise, say, in sorting through some brochures you picked up at a welcome center in Kentucky, you come across one on the Kentucky Horse Park. Mention is made of a new kids' attraction at the Park -- an interactive Kids' Barn. This gives you the idea for a travel roundup on kids' educational adventures. Now, check through your stash again. You will come up with things like Bodies Revealed, an exhibition that explores the human body in a unique way, to star parties in West Texas to Junior Ranger Programs in national parks.
And again, while you might stumble upon all this by browsing the web, it is not likely, for why would you think to look for it in the first place?
The printed materials found at visitor centers and welcome centers often steer you to subjects for articles you otherwise would not have thought of (as with Lexington the racehorse in #1). The mention of a little gem of a theater in one of these printed materials you picked up in a small Mississippi town, for example, can lead you to an idea for an article on playhouses in the South.
The ads in these printed materials are not to be overlooked either. Figuring on putting together a "Weekend Getaway" article on eastern Wisconsin, I picked up a small local magazine while visiting Sheboygan. There was a small ad for the John Michael Kohler Arts Center inside; however, as a long-time Wisconsin transplant, I knew this museum had been covered many times. I was excited, however, by a small notice in the ad on an upcoming exhibit at the museum, however, "The Wisconsin Project," on how two Wisconsin natives, both associate professors of art, were challenging the notion that Wisconsin is a lackluster region through their own postcard photos and vintage postcards. I got in touch with the senior curator at the museum, told him I was a freelance writer, and asked if he would pave the way for me to interview both professors. In the same magazine I discovered an ad announcing the launch of a Little Free Library in Appleton, Wisconsin. As I had never heard of Little Free Libraries, I contacted the editor of the magazine, explained who I was and that I was considering an article. The editor not only explained what they were, but that the concept had originated in Hudson, Wisconsin. She then put me in contact with the high school principal who had placed the ad and knew all about Little Free Libraries.
To uncover the nuggets in the advertisements in these printed roadside materials, you must be extremely observant; they are not always obvious. As with the Kohler Arts Center ad, which I might have ignored because it had been covered so often, the topics the ad led me TO were much more promising as article topics.
The ads contained within printed materials of a particular locale can also supply you with a general feel for the demographic, cultural, and geographic characteristics of a particular region. You cannot always directly visit all the people and places in a certain state that you may wish to write about, and the ads found in these printed materials are representative of the particular region. By reading them you can gain insight into the personalities, lifestyles, educational backgrounds, landscapes and more that bring a certain locale to life. It is difficult for the Internet to give this same sort of insight.
4) Market sources.
A pamphlet or other publication picked up at a visitor center or welcome center can provide you new markets. I picked up an outdoors newspaper in my home state thinking I might find a home for an essay I had written about some Canada geese. I not only found a home for my essay, but received a nifty little check for it.
Potential markets can also be found in the full-size glossies at many of these roadside locations. These bona-fide full-length magazines contain the same columns, back page essays, and feature articles as those displayed in book stores. Many, in fact, are the same as those found in bookstores. The only difference is they are free at visitor centers and welcome centers. And the editors of these magazines are always looking for freelance submissions.
So, what are you waiting for? Each time you cross a state line, including your own, pick up every single pamphlet, brochure, travel guide, newsletter, and magazine you can lay your hands on. None are too insignificant. I have accumulated enough of these materials to open my own magazine stand (not really). I keep them stacked on wire shelves in my basement, organized in neat piles according to state. I refer to them often, and I replenish and/or update them yearly. If you are not on the road often enough to pick them up personally, just write or call the visitor center or welcome center in the state for which you would like materials. They will mail them to you. Be sure it is understood that you want a copy of every single publication they have, however; otherwise, they may only send the basic travel guides, brochures, etc.
As I mentioned earlier, you do not necessarily have to be a travel writer to make use of these materials. They are filled to the brim with ideas and information on everything from astronomy to pet care. No kidding. Using these free materials is only one more method of uncovering article subjects, information for those articles, and markets to send your completed manuscripts to.
This article is not available for reprint without the author's written permission.
Barbara Weddle is a freelance writer living in Wisconsin. She writes travel articles about her road trips throughout the South and articles about the writing life.