Not that long ago, my editor assigned me a travel story on Middlebury, Vermont—an upscale, outdoorsy community in the central part of the state that in recent years has quietly become a foodie’s destination.
However, just as I began my research, I met with a prospective writer who’d just spent two years living in Middlebury. I told her about my story, and she gushed with ideas. The restaurants to visit. The chefs I should meet. The other personalities I needed to connect with. Over a single cup of coffee, the story just poured out. When I returned to my office, I told my editor I had a better writer for the Middlebury assignment.
Sure, it hurt to lose the story, but I knew the piece was in better hands. I could have done all the Googling in the world in advance of my visit, but I never would have known the community like she does. I would have sounded like an outsider—the kind of writer who parachutes in for a couple of days and maybe hits all the right spots, but never gets the nuance of the place.
You see, there’s real value in local knowledge. For an editor, it’s as good as any currency. Thanks to sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, and even Facebook, readers are bombarded with information. But what they don’t get a lot of, and what editors crave, is a sense of place. What it is and what makes it what it is.
When writers can bring to their stories a deep knowledge about a place, they can step back from simply recommending the highlights and ruminate on what’s always drawn people to the area–all of which will add strength to your story.
The call to an area known for its mountains, for example, may be more than just its tall peaks. Perhaps it’s a certain sense of freedom that comes with being so close to nature. A writer who’s from that area will have an innate understanding of what that all means.
A nice example of this comes from esteemed travel writer and frequent Yankee contributor Wayne Curtis, who, in a recent story he did for us, beautifully sets up his piece about New Hampshire’s Lake Umbagog.
Wayne has traveled and written about Maine and New Hampshire extensively. He knows both states and is able to write about them with an unrivaled expertise. In this piece, he creates a sense of place by establishing Umbagog’s mood and remoteness. From the start, we know are in the hands of a thoughtful writer.
“Generally speaking, a howling wilderness does not howl,” Thoreau wrote. “It is the imagination of the traveler that does the howling.” Even sealed in a car, you’ll hear that howling as you approach the town of Errol in far northern New Hampshire, the gateway to Lake Umbagog. The region is even a long drive north of the White Mountains, and the houses get sparser and the trees along the roads denser as you go.
Umbagog straddles the New Hampshire/Maine border and gets its name from the Abenaki word for “shallow water.” Errol has grown slightly in recent years, with the recreation industry its chief engine. Fishermen, canoeists, and kayakers now all vie for spots under the bridge amid the frothy headwaters of the Androscoggin River, formed where Umbagog escapes the hills and heads for the sea.
You’re hooked, right?
You can do the same thing. Sure, we all want that exotic National Geographic assignment, but to get there, you need to start with where you are. And that place is the region you know best. Maybe better than anyone.
See what makes your home special. Explore its uniqueness and bring that local knowledge to your writing. When you do, you’ll catch an editor’s attention. Heck, you may even take an assignment away from them.