Monday, September 15, 2014

Being a Travel Writer

We are fortunate to have a guest post by my friend & colleague, the talented, multi-published author who has written about everything from ghost-hunting & serial killers to Anne Rice's vampires. Take it away, Katherine! 

By Katherine Ramsland

I never aspired to be a travel writer, but I love to travel and I write nonfiction, so it was inevitable that the two would merge. For the past year, I’ve published monthly “Crime-trotting” columns for Darlene Perrone’s Destinations Travel Magazine online. This opportunity developed from sheer serendipity.

I met Darlene at the Bedford Springs Resort Hotel in Pennsylvania. Not long afterward, a mutual friend told me that Darlene was looking for writers. Since I was on my way to New Mexico for a Georgia O’Keeffe pilgrimage at Ghost Ranch, I pitched it to Darlene.

I figured that not many people had been to Ghost Ranch, just north of Abiquiu, where O’Keeffe once had a home. This seemed like the perfect place to get photos and anecdotes. But while I was there, I discovered a little-known fact about the ranch. The pair of brothers who’d first settled it had murdered a number of cattlemen to steal their herds. Eventually, one brother killed the other and got hanged for his crimes.

Thus was born my column. Ghost Ranch might have inspired Georgia O’Keeffe in the gentle art of landscape painting, but it was founded by serial killers. Then, in Santa Fe, I located the “first house” in the country. It turns out that a murder had happened here as well. When I wrote about it, we learned that these dark elements appealed to readers.

So, each month I look for places where fascinating crimes occurred that also offer touristy things to do. For example, a large house in Villisca, Iowa, was the scene of a sensational mass murder a century ago, and you can take a tour. Then, there’s the Lizzie Borden house in Fall River, MA, which has been turned into a “crime-scene” bed and breakfast. I also wrote about the Jesse James Farm, where the outlaw is buried and a museum stands, and surprised many people with the story of a massacre at Frank Lloyd Wright’s tourable Wisconsin estate, Taliesin.

One of my favorite stories occurred in Deadwood, South Dakota. This is where Wild Bill Hickock was assassinated under peculiar circumstances. The town retains much of the flavor from those days. It’s had a resurgence of interest since the HBO Show, Deadwood, was developed around some actual people and events.

The column is fun, but there’s a difficult part: deciding when a place is appropriate for “murder tourism” and when it’s not. I’m aware that there’s a Jeffrey Dahmer tour in Wisconsin, for example, but we thought that featuring it seemed tasteless. In fact, I know quite a few places with serial killer associations. However, we prefer incidents where there’s some psychological distance between the event and the idea of a visit. This certainly limits what I can write about, but it’s also a challenge.

So, from my experience, here are the top five things I can suggest for travel writing:

1)    Learn some basic photography concepts and skills. I knew very little about taking pictures when I first started, but since then, I now know a lot about perspective, DSL-R cameras, enhancement software, and best times of day for shooting.

2)    Be vigilant for opportunities. I happened to be presenting at a conference in Tucson, and the driver who picked me up at the airport mentioned a hotel downtown where the John Dillinger Gang had been arrested in surprise ambush. I found a way to get downtown to get the story. It became one of my columns, and the hotel was quite photogenic.

3)    Think about travel practicalities. I can find stories to write about, but if people can’t get there, or it’s set in an inaccessible place, that’s not appropriate for crime-trotting. For example, the house where the Clutter family was slaughtered in 1959 in Kansas is a private home. Yet, it was the subject of Truman Capote’s best-selling In Cold Blood, so it was the perfect tale for my column. Instead of focusing on the house, I had photos from several buildings in town that Capote described in the book.

4)    Focus on variety. I go from Southwestern deserts to the Midwest plains to New England to an international location (my self-designed Jack the Ripper tour). Right after I wrote about the upper crust Taliesin rampage, I traveled to Gibsonton, Florida, where carnival people once wintered, to describe the murder of a man known as Lobster Boy.

5)    Be mindful of the psychology of travel. There are hardcore murder tourists who want the gruesome details, but this magazine does not cater to them. It’s a column that provides the typical traveler with something curious and unique. We don’t want to upset or annoy people, we want to provide interesting glimpses into history and locale.

These are the lessons from my year as a travel writer. Next up is a column on the century-old crime museums of Europe. Crime-trotting can be found at:

Katherine Ramsland has published over 1,000 articles and 54 books. She teaches forensic psychology and criminal justice at DeSales University in Pennsylvania, writes a blog for Psychology Today and a travel feature for Destinations Travel Magazine.

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