Beth Whitman is the author of Wanderlust and Lipstick: The Essential Guide for Women Traveling Solo. She has trekked the Himalayas in Nepal and Bhutan, ridden a motorcycle solo from Seattle to Panama, helped build a playground for an orphanage in Vietnam; driven the AlCan Highway to Alaska twice; and maneuvered the back roads of France’s Dijon region in a rental car. She’s had a hand grenade pulled on her in Cambodia, fought off giardia in Southeast Asia; been threatened by Nicaraguan motorcycle police; and been flashed by men from New Orleans to Saigon. When she’s not traveling, she calls Seattle home where she and her husband enjoy riding motorcycles in the summer and a good cup of tea on rainy winter afternoons.
How did you get started traveling?
I started traveling about 23 years ago when I was in college. My first big trip was when I took a semester off from school, hopped in a Pontiac Fiero sports car (that I borrowed from my brother) and drove from New Jersey to California and back. The car was a manual transmission and I swear I only learned to downshift when I got to the West Coast. I couldn’t figure out why the car was so slow going up hill until someone I gave a lift to asked me why I wasn’t downshifting!
My point is that I learned early on that you don’t have to have all your ducks in a row to hit the road. You learn along the way.
How did you get started writing?
I was traveling on and off through much of the 90’s and was doing a bit of writing (on a typewriter!) here and there for newspapers and magazines. At the same time I was teaching travel workshops in the Seattle area to encourage women to travel. A few years ago it clicked that I could reach a far wider audience if I wrote a book and launched a website. So, I started writing pretty much full time to get the Wanderlust and Lipstick books published and at the same time started blogging and added content to my site.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
Well, I think I made my own “break” because I started my own publishing company in order to get my books published quickly. But, the most memorable story I ever sold was to BMW Magazine. I had ridden a BMW F650 motorcycle from Seattle to Panama. 7,000 miles over 9 weeks. Solo. BMW not only loaned me the motorcycle for that journey, but they then paid me about $2,000 for the article I wrote about the trip. That’s when I realized that it was possible to make money as a travel writer.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
My biggest challenge is paying attention to what’s happening around me and wanting to be fully absorbed in the local culture and the desire to take notes and photos so I can document all the details.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Not letting myself get distracted by the dishes and laundry! I work from home and it’s super easy to “take a break” from my writing. Really, compared to most people, I think I am pretty disciplined. If I can sit myself down and just say, “OK, you’re going to work on this article for the next hour,” then I find the time flies by. It’s the sitting down part I wrestle with!
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
The biggest challenge is doing so much of it myself. With regards to the books, I outsource the editing, cover design, interior design, printing, sales and shipping. But it takes time to give direction to all of those folks to ensure that the result is just how I’d like it.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
Up until a few years ago, I had always done other work to make ends meet. I left my day job in 2005, spent all of 2006 writing Wanderlust and Lipstick: The Essential Guide for Women Traveling Solo, and haven’t done anything else except work on Wanderlust and Lipstick-related projects since. This now includes 3 books, the website and tours. I think especially in the beginning, writers need to supplement their writing with other work.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Two come to mind immediately because I read their books when I was just getting started as a traveler. The first was Tania Aebi’s Maiden Voyage. Tania was the youngest person to ever sail around the world — and she did it years ago without GPS. When I read her book, I knew that I could do anything.
The other author is Robyn Davidson who wrote Tracks. Robyn traveled from Alice (Central Australia) to Perth across the desert with camels. I loved her writing and fortitude. She went on to travel across the desert with a tribe of Indians and their camels in Rajasthan. She wrote about it in Desert Places. She did not have a good time on that trip but it was still a fascinating read. Both women inspired me early on.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Don’t quit your day job, but don’t not pursue travel writing just because there are naysayers out there. It’s hard to make a living just writing, but if you can approach the field from multiple angles, anything is possible.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Traveling, of course! Actually, the biggest reward in terms of how I’ve set up my life is the freedom to choose when and where I travel as well as when and how much I work. I can adjust my life as I go and I don’t have to worry about working for someone who doesn’t have the same values as I do.