Writing a Memoir: Here’s What Worked for These Travel Writers

Writing a Memoir: Here’s What Worked for These Travel Writers

Traveling the world while getting paid to write about it is the ultimate dream for many writers.

Kim Dinan and Jo Piazza are two writers who have made that dream come true. Both have recently published travel memoirs reflecting on travel, love and marriage.

Dinan wrote The Yellow Envelope: One Gift, Three Rules, and A Life-Changing Journey Around the World about the journey she and her husband took after quitting their jobs, selling everything and leaving their life in Portland, Oregon, for a trip around the world.

Before they left, friends gave them a yellow envelope with a check inside, encouraging them to distribute the funds to people they met along the way. Her book tells the story of their journey and the people they met, and shared the money with, along the way.

While Dinan and her husband were married for years before their journey, Piazza’s memoir How to Be Married: What I Learned from Real Women on Five Continents About Surviving My First (Really Hard) Year of Marriage is more of a honeymoon tale.

Piazza, a travel editor and globe-trotting reporter, made her way around the world with her journalist husband asking people she met along the way for their marriage advice. It was fitting since the couple met on a boat in the Galapagos Islands where both were on assignment and married three months later.

Read on to see what worked well for these writers in publishing their own travel memoirs.

How to begin

Before heading off, Piazza spent a lot of time doing preliminary research on the themes she wanted to explore. She studied the history and sociology of marriage and interviewed marriage experts and feminist writers like Erica Jong.

On the road, she interviewed hundreds of people, typically setting up interviews ahead of time. But she stayed open to letting her travels take her in new and unexpected directions.

“I set up a lot of the interviews beforehand, but many ended up being serendipitous as the best interviews usually are,” Piazza says. “Case in point, I went to India to research arranged marriage and then a tuk tuk driver told me I couldn’t leave the country without going to the place where the women rule to interview the matrilineal Khasi tribe in Meghalaya. Obviously, I extended my trip.”

Have a field plan

Once Piazza was in the field, she took notes and recorded interviews in a variety of ways, from typing on a laptop to handwriting in notebooks. When she was hiking Kilimanjaro, she even plotted chapters in her head, hurriedly recording them on paper whenever she had a chance.

While people were eager to open up to her about love and marriage, she found finding good translators, especially for such a sensitive subject, a bit more difficult.

”The trickiest part was when I would have to use a translator, especially male translators translating for women,” Piazza said. “It was a big problem for me in Tanzania and Kenya because I knew they weren’t telling me everything the women were saying. I just knew. I had to switch translators several times.”

While Piazza had a specific plan when she left home, Dinan wasn’t intending to write a book when she set out on her trip, so she didn’t conduct formal interviews along the way. However, she did journal extensively and, when it came time to prepare to write, she pored over her journals, blog entries, and emails, and racked her memory. She also printed out hundreds of photos she took on the trip, displaying them around her desk to immerse herself in her travels.

“I was amazed at what I could remember when I sat down and let my brain wander back in time,” Dinan says.

Writing a proposal and finding a publisher

The Yellow Envelope was Dinan’s first book. She started with a very rough draft, getting her thoughts out on the page without concern for style or typos. After she wrote around 60,000 words she set the draft aside and began her book proposal, which took a month or two and included a query letter and sample chapters.

Then, she went online and used AgentQuery.com to assemble a list of around 30 potential agents. She sent out her query letter and received some requests for the full proposal. Eventually, she had two agents offering to represent her, and she selected one.

Working with her new agent, she polished  the proposal and her agent began shopping it around, eventually finding a home with Sourcebooks. Dinan detailed the whole process on her blog.

In contrast, Piazza already had an agent she had worked with before, Alexandra Machinist. Though Piazza’s previous novel, The Knockoff, was published with one publisher, her agent shopped Piazza’s 100-page proposal for How to Be Married around with a variety of publishers, eventually placing it with Harmony.

Marketing can be a full-time job

While Dinan and Piazza had different strategies to write their books and get them published, they had one thing very much in common: marketing their books was a huge endeavor.

Dinan’s publisher assigned her a publicist, but she also chose to spend a lot of time promoting her book.

“From my perspective, I’m doing everything I can to get the word out about my book,” she says. “The way I see it is, I’ve spent years working on this book and if I don’t throw myself into publicity in the same way I threw myself into writing the book then what’s the point?”

She planned a DIY book tour around the U.S., meeting blog readers and their families and friends along the way. Her marketing efforts include radio and podcast interviews, book giveaways, targeted Facebook ads, using writing group connections and more.

“I’ve been saying ‘yes’ a lot and that’s great — but it’s been hard to manage the paid writing work I do to pay the bills with the time it takes to do book publicity,” Dinan says. “Let’s just say I’m learning a lot and I’ll have a better idea what to say yes and no to next time.”

Piazza is also spending a lot of her time marketing, saying it can be a full-time job for an author. She also uses her personal connections to help spread the word, asking friends and colleagues to read the book and post about it.

“We’ve been incredibly lucky to get great reviews for How to Be Married right out of the gate and a lot of press has been very interested in the book,” Piazza says. “But I will say that getting publicity for a book is often harder work than writing it.”

Writing a travel memoir isn’t easy, but for these two writers, their perseverance led to the opportunity to share their experiences of life, love and travel with readers. And each used different strategies to research, write and publish, showing there are a number of ways for a writer to find success in the world of travel memoir publishing.  

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5 comments

  • Paul says:

    Thanks for including the marketing and promoting aspects of book publishing. This effort varies widely between publishers.

  • Mary says:

    Great article about the entire process. I like the information about the interpreters and writing conditions. As I writer, I’m not sure I would have anticipated those problems. The experience of these two authors really underscores the point that you’re not done when the book is done. Thanks.

  • You are living the dream that most want and you have given them more of a reason to continue pursuing it.

  • Excellent article. These writers did the writing but also plunged full force into research, pitching, rewriting and publicizing their books. I wish them both success (and they just sold their books to me!).

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