Tim Leffel is more than just Perceptive Travel’s fearless leader — he’s also a fearless cyclist, particularly when said cycling involves stops for wine and beer. Also he’s written a book called Travel Writing 2.0. And he does many other things of a writerly nature.
In the July issue of Perceptive Travel, Tim chronicles his journey on Missouri’s Katy Trail in Two Wheels, Two Drinks: Biking Through America’s Heartland. Not that long ago — if you measure time on a cosmic scale, August qualifies — I had a chat with Tim about his piece and how he does his writing thing. I was not even a little bit influenced by the fact that he owns this site, as my unconscionable delay in running this interview clearly indicates. In fact, since then, he’s had another fine piece in the webzine, Sidesaddle Girls at a Mexican Rodeo.
Alison Stein Wellner: So I really did like this piece, but I have to admit I often get bored when I’m reading stories about a long cycling/rafting/hiking trek. Were you conscious of reader boredom as you were writing this?
Tim Leffel: I get bored of those stories too — unless you’re an avid enthusiast, if you’re writing about a hike, a ride, a rafting trip, it’s important to just skip the irrelevant stuff, and include enough details to give the reader a general impression of what it feels like. And that’s the nice thing about doing something like this — when you’re out there for multiple days on end, there’s lots of quiet reflective time, where there’s not anything going on. So you can just focus on what’s interesting about the experience.
ASW: Why did you decide to write about the Katy Trail?
TL: I had met somebody at one of these meet-ups, a place where tourism people meet with travel writers and talk about ideas. I didn’t know [the Katy Trail] existed.
For some reason, I’ve always been drawn to stories like this — I like a real journey that happens at human speed. I can feel it, and smell it. I notice more things about a place when I travel through it in this way. The next thing I want to do that’s like this is a kayaking trip from Central Florida to the Gulf of Mexico.
ASW: Was the Katy Trail what you’d expected it would be?
TL: I did know that was there were wineries along the trail, and I expected it to be mellow — not a lot of sipping and swirling and wine snobbery. But this is a conservative part of the country, so I was expecting it to be more sedate than it was. And then there were those brewpubs and breweries — some of them were really amazingly good, and that just surprised me in the land of Budweiser. The ride itself, and the towns along the way — it was a lot more fun than I expected. Of course, as a travel writer there have been times I’ve been on the reverse side of that expectation!
ASW: One of my favorite parts of the story is when you meet fellow cyclist Charlene. And that made me wonder, how did you take notes when you were busy cycling? It’s hard enough for me to take notes while I’m walking without bumping into things.
“Charlene is riding the whole 225–mile trail, but she’s not your typical spandex–covered road biker with something to prove. Puffing on a cigarette when I pull up beside her, she’s alternating between biking and walking. We chat for a while about where she’s been camping along the way, and the lowdown she’s gotten from one campground owner about which towns to avoid for overnight stays. “I’m not worried about somebody stealing my cart of stuff though,” she says. “I’ve got a loaded pistol in case I run into any trouble.” This seems like a good cue to return to my solitary journey, so I bid her goodbye and she’s soon a dot in the distance behind me.” – From Two Wheels, Two Drinks: Biking Through America’s Heartland.
TL: I pedaled up about a mile in front of her, and then I stopped and wrote it down, Paul Theroux style. In general, I didn’t take a lot of notes along the way — just phrases and impressions here and there. Maybe that’s laziness or maybe it’s convenience. Digital cameras do make things much easier, I can just take a picture of a sign and move on instead of copying down what the sign says. I generally write down notes when I’m having dinner or at the end of the day — I think about what’s made an impression.
ASW: And I have to ask about notebooks — what’s your pleasure there?
TL: I’m not much of a notebook snob, I use the cheap spiral-bound ones that I’ve gotten for swag. I have traveled with a Moleskine, but I don’t like them — they don’t lie flat.
ASW: What kind of research did you generally do for a story before you leave home, and what did you do for this one?
TL: It depends. Next week, I’m going to Chile, and I’m not reading anything, not doing anything, I’m just showing up and seeing what happens. I like doing that when I’m going to city. But for this [Katy Trail] trip I did do research, since there were a lot of logistics involved — I needed a place to sleep each night, I needed to know where the wineries were along the way. In this case, there was a great Katy Trail website that was super comprehensive, it told me everything that I needed to know.
ASW: What’s your writing process?
TL: I have certain tricks to avoid looking at a blank piece of paper, to take the path of least resistance: I wrote the factual stuff first, the history, the details about the trail, whatever I knew I could do quickly and get it out there — that was about a quarter of the article. Then I refer back to my notes. I don’t know if I have a clear voice, but I do have a good irony meter — if something makes me laugh know I’ve got to get it in the story, like the part about the corn cob pipe museum, for instance.
“Coasting into Hermann on a bicycle feels perfectly natural: everything is still on a human scale. In Washington, you can tour a museum that’s part of one of the old brick riverfront factories that has been around since the 1800s—Missouri Meerschaum. It’s “the world’s oldest and largest manufacturer of corn cob smoking pipes.” – From Two Wheels, Two Drinks: Biking Through America’s Heartland.
I wrote the story in bits and pieces, I didn’t write it in one sitting. It was more of a mosaic process. I move things around a lot on the page. I’m pretty brutal about self-editing, I’ll chop [out] three or four paragraphs if they just don’t add to the piece — even if it’s interesting word play. If I cut something and I think I can use it later for something else, I’ll keep it. Although I do think if it’s that’s good, I’ll remember it again.
ASW: And where do you write?
TL: I have a wife and a daughter, and that has a really impacted my writing habits. I do most of my work in my office — it’s quiet in there. I’m like a newspaper or nonfiction writer, I get up every day and log on and do my thing, and then it’s eight hours and I’m done.
ASW: Okay, I have to ask: since you edit the publication you’re writing for, who edits you?
TL: It depends on how tight the deadline is. Sometimes I send it to a writer friend, but usually my wife reads it — she’s a personal trainer actually, but she’s got a good eye — she spots technical problems, tells me that I’ve used the same word three times in the same graf, things like like that. But since I’ve been the editor of this publication five years in January, I’ve developed a pretty good sense about what works and doesn’t. I’ll let some things slide from other people that I wouldn’t tolerate in my own piece. There are good points and bad points about that.
ASW: Any advice for travel writers?
TL: When I was researching my book, the same advice kept coming through. Be a professional, read the guidelines, read what’s in the publication and make sure that what you’re proposing matches. Do what you say you’re going to do. It’s amazing how many don’t do it, but it’s so easy to leap above the crowd by being a professional.
ASW: And how about advice for finding unique ideas to write about?
TL: I think that’s a hard thing to advise people on, since you almost have to have a sixth sense. The important thing is to keep looking for something that surprises you — then you can find a unique angle, but you’ve got to have your eyes open and senses open and look for something out of the ordinary.