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Interview with travel writer Mark Mayo

BONNIE: Mark, you went to Chernobyl and wrote a travel story about it. Why did you pick Chernobyl, and what was your trip like?

MARK: Chernobyl appealed to me for a number of reasons: the lure of adventure (I tend to avoid tourist trails); its general photographic opportunity; and the challenge of getting there in the first place (acquiring government permission to enter the zone, obtaining visas, and the journey itself).

Getting there alone was interesting. We flew from London to Rzeszow, Poland and took a 20-hour train ride to Kiev, Ukraine. We then spent a night in a hostel, from where our guide Yuri picked us up in his Lada the next morning for the two-hour drive to the site. It was truly amazing to see how a former Soviet state has adapted to changing times, and then how a country has tried to cover and “forget” a disaster site and tragedy like Chernobyl.

BONNIE: Were you planning to write a story during your trip?

MARK: Originally, I had no plans to write a story. It was just one of the more bizarre trips that I’ve made. I had plenty of interesting reactions from people who heard I went there, so when I saw the travel writing competition in TNT Magazine, I thought it would work as a story. The magazine targets 20-somethings from Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa living in London.

Knowing that, I figured most of the articles would be about Paris, Amsterdam, Oktoberfest… so why not stand out from the rest?

BONNIE: What did you write your article about?

MARK: I tried to focus on presenting a visual history. I started it with us “entering the zone,” flashed out with a paragraph on the history of the site, and then wove a story about what you see in a deserted city — the empty apartments, the looted shops, the weeds growing through everything. I ended it on a more positive note — that animals seem to be thriving again in the area, and people are starting to be allowed to return to the extremities.

BONNIE: How, where, and when did you get your story published?

MARK: I got it published in TNT Magazine almost exactly a year after I made my trip. They started what is now an annual travel writing competition, which I entered and won the Judge’s Choice award.

Following that, it was published as a feature two-page article in October, 2009.

As it was a competition, I was not paid, but I did win a week-long sailing trip for two in Croatia! My only regret is neglecting to offer photographs with my article. As it turns out, they’d have used those, too, instead of the stock photos they chose to publish. I’ll always remember to offer photos with my stories from now on!

BONNIE: Do you have any tips for readers who might want to start getting their travel writing published?

MARK: First, don’t underestimate your articles. This was my first travel article and it won an award — and they would have happily taken my travel photos as well!

Secondly, take notes as you travel. You can search for facts on Google after your trip, but names like tour leaders, hotels, and small towns you pass through are surprisingly hard to remember a week later, let alone a year.

And, finally, be pedantic, and get someone else to proof-read your story. The biggest complaint of the competition organizers was about entrants who didn’t even bother to spell-check their work. This year, the competition tips section includes the sentence, “Writers who use ‘its’ instead of ‘it’s,’ and ‘their’ instead of ‘they’re’ or ‘there’ stand a good chance of having their work scrunched up and used as a fire starter.”

BONNIE: So what’s in store for you next?

MARK: I’ve just had an article on the Cotswolds region in England accepted by another magazine, and on Thursday I’m off to South America for four months. I’ve got my camera and my notebook ready, as well as my travel blog at www.marksmayo.com, and I’m certainly hoping to get some articles out of that!

BONNIE: Thanks, Mark, and good luck!

[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]

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