I feel fortunate to be interviewing Allen Cox. We both serve on the Board of Directors of the International Food Wine & Travel Writers Association. I recently met Allen in person while in Seattle this past August. In many senses, it seemed like kindred spirits or long time friends. Allen’s attention to detail combined with his inquisitive mind and perseverance shine through.
Maralyn: Allen, would you please introduce yourself?
Allen: I am a product of the Northwest and often write about the Northwest. I was born in Tacoma, Washington on the shores of Puget Sound. When I was growing up, this was a gritty port city, a hometown I dreamed of leaving one day. I moved away for most of my adult life, first for college and then for work. I had a nearly 30-year marketing career and began writing professionally late in life. I published my first travel article in a print publication in 2007 and have since published many articles in various outlets and have authored two hiking guidebooks. Today, I’m back in Tacoma. My hometown has shed much of its grit but not its natural beauty or determination. It has successfully reinvented itself as a cultural destination, not easy in the midst of a recession.
Maralyn: What type of writing do you focus on, food, wine or travel or all three?
Allen: I focus on travel, culinary and wine writing. I’m particularly interested in discovering vibrant local culinary scenes – local artisan food producers, winemakers, farmers and the chefs who use their products in innovative ways to express the unique character of place on a plate. I also enjoy writing about destinations that intrigue me, usually a place that has a little known historical quirk, a natural feature that lends itself to outdoor recreation, local arts scenes or communities and people profiles. In terms of wine and food writing, my focus is never critical – I am not a critic, but a travel and lifestyle writer.
Maralyn: What can you share with others as to important tips or suggestions for other writers on writing and finding outlets for articles?
Allen: First, no matter how prepared you are for an itinerary or an interview, always approach your subject with a keen sense of curiosity. This can open up marketable story angles you never anticipated. Ask questions you didn’t plan to ask. Visit unexpected places off the itinerary. Be spontaneous. If you’re on a group media tour, be a pro – always be on time, attend all events, be gracious to your hosts, engage with your surroundings, take copious notes with vivid descriptions and lots of photos, even if the photos are just to jog your memory later in the writing process. In terms of story angles, follow your leads to the core of the story – the more detailed and specific, the better. I usually find a few surprise angles I didn’t count on. From a single destination, it’s typical for me to come away with about five or more story angles to pitch to different markets.
Maralyn: Did you have something specific that inspired you to write in this genre?
Allen: I began as a novelist in the late ’90s. My two yet-to-be-published novels are heavily influenced by travel. They are set in places I have traveled to and populated with characters influenced by people I met or saw. I realized I love to write about my travels and have followed that path to nonfiction travel and lifestyle writing, primarily magazine features and guidebooks.
Maralyn: If you also write articles, do you query for assignments before you write or after the article is done?
Allen: I always query first. Sometimes an assigning editor will ask for an angle I didn’t originally anticipate or specify a word count that differs from the length I would have determined. Querying and landing the assignment before writing the article can prevent a lot of rework. If an editor wants an article on speculation, I usually refuse the assignment unless it’s a market I’m dying to break into.
Maralyn: Do you go to food, wine or travel writers or blog conferences?
Allen: Yes. I love hanging out with other writers. Besides, networking and professional development sessions are extremely important for a productive career, especially as a freelancer. I co-chair Pacific Northwest Travel Writers Conference, an organization that hosts a semi-annual conference called Travel and Words (www.travelandwords.com). I find I always learn something new from the writers and editors who attend and make valuable new editorial, destination and PR contacts. Every worthwhile organization, such as IFWTWA and SPJ, has conferences for members that include networking and professional development opportunities; I attend them if at all possible.
Maralyn: What’s the most difficult part of your job?
Allen: Breaking into new markets is difficult. Naturally, editors tend to utilize writers they know and with whom they have developed a level of trust. When I am serious about getting published in a new market, patience and persistence are key. I pitch repeatedly, unless the editor indicates they are no longer accepting freelance work. I’m willing to accept small front-of-book assignments to prove I can deliver what the editor wants on time.
Maralyn: What is your approach to research?
Allen: Interviews are my primary and preferred approach to research. Secondarily, Internet and library sources come in handy.
Maralyn: Have you learned any inside tips along the way you could recommend to writers/bloggers starting out?
Allen: Learn to maintain relationships not only with editors but with destination marketers and PR contacts. They are often are happy to work with writers to provide information, facts and images, prepare itineraries, suggest story angles, and even facilitate sponsorship of your trip. Also, you need an online presence; create a professional-looking website designed to market you and your work and engage in social networking with other writers, editors, and PR and destination marketing professionals, so they know who you are and what you write.
Maralyn: Have you considered writing a book? If so, could you tell us about the subject and any titles you may have already?
Allen: I’ve written and published two hiking guides for Falcon Guides (Globe Pequot Press). These are series regional guides about trails in my home region: Best Easy Day Hikes Seattle and Best Easy Day Hikes Tacoma. The series is designed to provide details of trails in or close to cities or recreational areas that are easy in terms of length and elevation gain. These were fun to research because I am a hiker and was able to share some of my favorite trails and discover some new ones.
Maralyn: Where can readers learn more about you?
Allen: Visit my website at www.allencox.org.
Thank you Allen for this in depth interview. We appreciate your sharing suggestions and tips that can help all of us.
If you would like to be interviewed, please send me an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finalist in the Writing and Publishing category of the 2009 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, “$uccess, Your Path to a Successful Book,”