Inside Travel Writing: An interview with Duncan J.D. Smith

We start MannedUp.com’s series of features on travel writing and blogging with an interview. The acclaimed author, Duncan J.D. Smith, answers questions put to him by Stuart Forster.

Duncan JD Smith before the ruined village of Vathia in the Mani, Greece

Duncan JD Smith before the ruined village of Vathia in the Mani, Greece

What kind of travel related niche do you specialise in and what drew you to it?

Since 2003, when I relocated to Vienna in pursuit of love, I’ve been a travel guide writer.

I’m actually a writer, photographer and publisher all rolled into one, and I share my findings through my own series, the ‘Only In’ Guides.

Each volume (there are eleven in the series to date) tells the story of a city through its unique locations, hidden corners and unusual objects. My audience like the books is a niche one: independent cultural travellers.

Prior to 2003 I worked in publishing but on the sales side selling other writers’ books, notably for the likes of Lonely Planet — valuable experience when it came to creating and selling my own books.

What drew me to travel writing in the first place, however, was the mind-set of my parents and grandparents. Librarians, teachers, travellers and historians, they embedded in me an endearing curiosity about how and where we live — and how our predecessors did so before us.

What recent examples of your work do you want to point people to?

My latest book is Only in Edinburgh published in late 2016 under my own imprint, The Urban Explorer.

The book rallies all sorts of material to tell the story of the Scottish capital: secret gardens and haunted theatres, mysterious monuments and unexpected underworlds, industrial relics and unusual places of worship. It should appeal to city explorers young and old, and I hope it will encourage readers to set out on their own urban expeditions.

When time permits I also write travel articles for print and digital media based either on my own travels or else particular areas of interest. Recent examples include a visit to the ruined military holiday resort of Kupari in Croatia for Hidden Europe magazine, and the story of British explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett, who vanished mysteriously in the Amazon Jungle in 1925.

The 'Only In' Guides

The ‘Only In’ Guides

Which piece of writing are you most proud of and why?

Having studied Ancient History and Archaeology at university I’ve long been acquainted with Greece. One region, however, always remained elusive, namely the Mani in the Southern Peloponnese.

Barred from the rest of the country by the Taiyetos Mountains, this wild and arid peninsula had drawn the legendary travel writers Patrick Leigh Fermor and Bruce Chatwin, and in 2014 it drew me, too.

The resulting article Where God Grew Stones – A Mani Odyssey, detailing my own journey, was written for Hidden Europe and it remains the piece I’m most proud of.

What do you enjoy most about travel writing?

For me it is the combination of disciplines, not only research, writing and editing but in my case also illustration and publication.

I very much enjoy seeing a writing project through from blank page to published book. I’ve long realised that I’m better equipped for a variety of tasks rather than just one.

Travel writing provides me with an opportunity to play to my various interests and being self-employed that approach really is useful.

Do you have a favourite destination?

Of the numerous countries I’ve been fortunate enough to visit, Ethiopia undoubtedly left the greatest impression.

For my fiftieth birthday I made a tour of the northern part of the country with my Austrian partner, Roswitha, and we both loved it.

Geographically the region is part of the Rift Valley, so the landscape there is magnificent. The towns, including Lalibela and Axum, are a traveller’s dream, with rock-cut churches, soaring obelisks, ancient monasteries and colourful tales relating to King Solomon and the lost Ark of the Covenant.

A rock-cut church in Lalibela, Ethiopia

A rock-cut church in Lalibela, Ethiopia

The people are invariably friendly and inquisitive. One day I recall we set off with our local guide to visit a church on a mountain top famous for its cemetery of mummified pilgrims. The three of us set off in the morning and by the time we came back down we were about twenty people strong, chatting and laughing and munching on wild chick peas!

A close second is the Yorkshire Coast. I’m from Sheffield originally and I never tire of visiting the seaside, with its breezy scenery and stimulating history.

What would be a typical working day for you, if there is such a thing?

Being a self-employed travel writer and publisher, every day involves some sort of research.

Writing a guidebook takes me on average a year. Five months are spent researching, with long days spent trawling through histories, maps and magazine articles.

I usually give myself around a hundred chapters in which to tell a city’s story, and I have to get up to speed on a variety of disparate topics, including prehistory, industrial archaeology, idiosyncratic shops, garden history, geography and places of worship.

I sit down at my desk no later than 9am and work through with the odd stretching exercise until around 4pm, when I take a brisk walk through Vienna, where I now live. At weekends I read but I tend to avoid writing.

The incentive to get through this research marathon is the prospect of a month living in the city I’m writing about. During this time my days are very different, with six to eight hours each day spent visiting and photographing locations I’ve read up on. And along the way there’s always the thrill of finding something new and unexpected.

The rest of the year is spent back at my office knocking the book into shape, preparing the maps, writing photo captions, and getting everything ready for publication. Then there’s a month or two promoting the finished product before it’s time to think about which city to tackle next.

Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?

Rarely. I do, however, get fatigued, especially when I’m half way through a book’s five month research period. That’s why I take my brisk hour’s walk each day. It’s a huge help in staving off the aches and pains of desk work, and I usually return with a clear head and some new ideas.

If it’s really bad weather I’ll listen to music to relax. I enjoy anything that creates a meditative mood from Debussy and Sibelius to ambient music by Brian Eno and Biosphere.

What tip or tips would you offer to anyone entering the industry?

People sometimes tell me that I have a dream job and I agree with them. For me be a professional travel writer and explorer really is a dream come true. But one can’t afford to be dreamy about the realities of the work. Sitting in a café like Ernest Hemingway, scribbling notes in a Moleskine and crafting a best seller along the way is only possible for the few. Reality, for the rest of us, is rather different.

The hours can be long, the workplace isolated and the revenue modest – but the rewards are there for the tenacious. I would advise someone entering the industry to find their own distinctive voice first. Writing is for free so finding a niche and scribbling it into shape costs nothing and will increase the chance of finding an audience.

Be a Travel Writer by my colleague Solange Hando is full of practical advice for the budding travel writer and membership of the British Guild of Travel Writers can make the profession a lot less lonely.

 

Which writers inspire you and why?

Most of my reading is travel-related and very varied, from other writers’ guidebooks and blogs to books on history, cooking and religion. All of it makes me consider my own work in terms of writing style and content.

Individual writers who have most inspired me fall into two categories. Modern travel writing heroes include Patrick Leigh Fermor and Bruce Chatwin, the former with his erudite recollections of walking across Europe in the 1930s, the latter with his pared-down observations on nomads (both authors’ published letters are every bit as stimulating as their prose).

From the past I’ve long enjoyed explorers’ tales of derring-do, including Captain Scott’s doomed quest for the South Pole as well as less well known exploits, such as those of the plant hunter Frank Kingdon-Ward, who risked life and limb in the Himalayas to bring back species suitable for British gardens.

What do you aspire to achieve as a writer?

I aspire to two things. Firstly, to encourage the readers of my ‘Only In’ Guides to get off the beaten track and become their own explorers.

The renowned geographer Alexander von Humboldt, who travelled extensively in Latin America around 1800, said he“was spurred on by an uncertain longing to be transported from a boring daily life to a marvellous world.”

Most of us can relate to that urge, I know I do, and I hope my work helps reveal something of that “marvellous world” to others. On a personal level, I aspire to longevity as a travel writer, especially as I’m now probably too old to do much else!

It’s a tough industry, what do you see as its biggest challenges?

In the digital age, the biggest challenge for a travel writer is keeping up with rapidly-changing media fashions. That said, I’m fairly old school in that I believe there is still a place for printed travel guides, especially if they offer niche information and make good gifts. Embracing technological change, however, is a must and I’ve embraced Social Media without becoming a slave to it.

What about its opportunities?

Digital technology is a double-edged sword in my opinion. Simultaneously it has increased audience potential for travel writers through social media, whilst putting a fair few travel writers out of work by making so much travel information available for free.

Undeniably we live in a new media age, where travel bloggers are now as important as traditional travel journalists. Digital technology has had a remarkable democratising effect on the industry and it is far more accessible today. Indeed, many travel bloggers happily pursue non-travel professions and simply post travel-related stories whenever the mood takes them. The world is now everyone’s oyster and that’s a good thing.

Duncan JD Smith

Duncan JD Smith

Are there destinations you are particularly keen to visit and write about?

There are three places I’m keen to visit. My ‘Only In’ Guides have so far all been about European cities.

Recently, however, I secured distribution for the series in the United States so now I have in mind to write a volume on Boston. The scene of key events in the American Revolution, it is one of America’s most historic cities and would be a fascinating place to explore.

I’m also interested in visiting Armenia for its Orthodox Church architecture and music, and Uzbekistan on the Silk Road, for the undeniable romance of places such as Samarkand.

Do you have a website where people can find out more about you?

I’m very happy for readers to find out more about my work at www.duncanjdsmith.com and www.onlyinguides.com.

If you weren’t a travel writer what would you like to be?

I would probably be a gardener since like travel writing it is a profession that combines thoughtful planning, physical graft and a tangible end result. It can also be a solitary task, which is something that suits me.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to Manned Up readers?

When visiting somewhere new, especially a city, always look up and down, not just straight ahead.

So many treasures lie hidden just out of view, which often speak more eloquently of a city’s history than modern shopfronts. If you see an interesting door slightly open (and it doesn’t say ‘No Entry’) why not peep inside?

It might just be a hidden courtyard or a secret garden that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. And always talk to locals if they’re amenable. Mostly they’re an untapped source of tradition and colour, exactly the sort of thing you don’t find in every guidebook. Happy exploring!

 

If you’d like to see other travel writer or travel bloggers interviewed here then why not send us an email.

One Comment

  1. Randy Hollis says:

    I would appreciate seeing these books on destinations in the USA too.

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