What I Learned from Writing Guidebooks: There Are No Shortcuts

Melinda Crow

Life coaches, gurus, and successful people may pave your path forward, but you’ve still got to cover the miles yourself.

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Photo by Peter Conlan on Unsplash

While I was researching the four guidebooks I wrote for Falcon Publishing, my family camped. We camped so much that we wore out two camping trailers. Seriously, wore them out like they were little toys made of cheap imported plastic.

Whether we were busting through a weekend of research (because hubs was working full-time), or whether we had a week of his vacation to use, here was our routine:

Step one: Drive late into the night to a campground in the target area — sometimes as far as eight hours from our house.

Step two: Set up our little pop-up tent camper in the dark.

Steps three-five: Sleep, wake up to a quick breakfast, then break camp.

Step six: Hitch up the camper and drive for nine or ten hours within the targeted area, stopping to research specific locations along the way.

Step seven: Repeat steps two through six until our allotted time was up and we had to hurry home so hubs could get to work the next day.

I started the first guidebook, The Rockhound’s Guide to Texas when my daughter Alyssa was three. Four books later, when I finished the first edition of Camping New Mexico, she was eight and could set up and tear down camp by herself. (Mostly she was our busy little helper, but we actually let her do it once after she begged to prove that she could.)

Drop the three of us blindfolded in a campground with a pop-up camper and we’d have camp set up and dinner in a skillet before you came back from checking out the campground’s bathroom. I think we could do it in our sleep because that was the state we were frequently in as we did it over and over and over. And over. For five years.

And yet we still love to camp.

After each camping trip, while hubs went to work and Alyssa went first to mother’s-day-out, then to pre-K, then to grade school, I hacked out the guidebooks. For that first rockhounding guide, I had a template to follow for the entire book because Falcon had started the series in Arizona with another writer. It was fill-in-the-blank writing (no re-inventing the wheel), except for the fact that I also had to research what the heck all those rocks were we had picked up and determine where the next ones might be located.

After two rockhounding books (Texas, then New Mexico), I pitched a camping guide series to my editor. (Even Alyssa understood how smart that move was.) When he asked whether or not I wanted to start with Texas or New Mexico, I answered “Colorado.” I mean, might as well start with the camping guide that had the best chance of selling, right?

There was no template because I was creating the camping series, but I still didn’t have to re-invent the wheel. All I needed to do was put my own spin on it and design a useful template.

Was my writing in that first guidebook filled with awesomeness? Absolutely not. Was it clear and concise and colorful? Not always.

But the repetition and the need to find better ways of accomplishing the work plus the continual search for stronger words to convey the beauty of what we had experienced on those wearisome road trips helped shape me as a writer.

What are the life takeaways from this story?

  • We learn by first imitating someone else, then by doing it ourselves repeatedly.
  • Even a child can master a complex set of tasks with enough repetition.
  • My life as a travel writer has not always been as glamorous as being driven around Milan sipping wine and eating caviar.
  • Had I not spent those five years (and put my family through them) I may not have become the type of travel writer that gets sent to Milan on a week’s notice.

In the Travel Tips section of Camping Colorado, I warn travelers that there are no shortcuts in the state. I explained that roads are hard, passes challenging:

“When you see the word ‘pass’ on your map, picture pioneers struggling against snow and ice, hunger and hardship to make it over the Rockies.”

Think of your own gurus or role models as your pioneers. They made their way through the tough stuff so that your journey can be easier. But ‘easier’ does not mean easy.

More advice from Camping Colorado:

“Paved passes are a bit easier to navigate now, but not a lot. And you might be better off with a pack mule than a motorized vehicle on some of the unpaved passes. On either, be prepared for steep grades, narrow curves, and heart-stopping drop-offs, most without guardrails or even shoulders.”

Others may have paved your way, but you should still expect the road you are on to becoming a better version of yourself to include challenges.

You will need to watch out for narrow curves and steep drop-offs. Keep your dream programmed into your GPS and your battery charged and you will make it, one step at a time.

Oh, and it never hurts to keep blankets and cat litter in your trunk and a guidebook in the glovebox. Just sayin’.

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Waco, TX
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