Create Lively Stories with Details and Quotes

Susan Orlean

To capture the details of place, dialogue, and your own emotions, take notes. That’s what I learned from Frances Koltan, Travel Editor at Mademoiselle magazine when I was a guest editor there. She encouraged me to write down phrases, descriptions and impressions in the moment.

As we rode a bus through Mexico City, she asked to see my notes. I had jotted down the names of plants and flowers, historical details, and images that impressed me. I later incorporated them into my article.

On one of our excursions, I wrote about the landscape: “On the road to Texcoco, the land is dry, and scattered plantings catch my eye. There are cactus and red pepper trees, fields of corn and emerald-green seas of alfalfa. A mule team draws a plow through fields that are fringed by telephone poles.”

In another scene, I described the faithful approaching the shrine of Guadalupe on their knees. “A child carries gladioli. A man spreads out newspaper pages so that his wife will not scrape her knees.” Today, I might snap a photo of the scene that I could look at to remind me of details.

Throughout the trip, I recorded unusual lines of dialogue in my notebook, as soon as I heard them, like the intended compliment from a Mexican host when our group arrived: “I’ve never seen such a chunk of beauty.”

Susan Orlean, author of bestsellers The Orchid Thief and Rin Tin Tin agrees— she jots down quotes as soon as possible. But when she’s working on a story she doesn’t take notes right away. Instead, she focuses on establishing relationships with people and taking everything in. Like many travel writers, she writes her recollections at the end of the day, while the details are still fresh.

There’s a balance. If you have a great memory, you can get away with less note taking and type the day’s events up in the evening. Either way, a small notebook and pen will serve you well when you’re on the road. I always have one with me, even when I’m close to home.

Follow the Editors’ Guidelines and Be Ahead of the Game

Tip #7: Follow Submission Guidelines and Read the Publication

Top Ten Tips

Most publications tell you exactly what they want and how to send your submissions. Follow their directions! And don’t submit without reading the publication cover to cover. When possible, read the last six issues at a minimum, sometimes available online or at your local library.

To find submission guidelines, google the name of the publication and “submissions” or “writer’s guidelines.” They’ll tell you the kinds of pieces they’re looking for, word count, and whether to submit as an attachment or paste your piece into the body of the email. They may also tell you what they pay. (A caveat: There are some outdated submission guidelines floating around on the Internet. For example, the old submission guidelines from the New York Times Travel Section tell you about an end-page essay that hasn’t run in years.)

But there’s a lot of valuable guidance from editors available on the web. Here are three examples. If you google “Ladies Home Journal submission guidelines,” you’ll find the email address for submissions, lead times for publication, average article length, and more. The Smithsonian magazine’s writer’s guidelines tell you the magazine will only accept proposals via its online form, and that you’ll hear back within three weeks regarding your proposal. The Sun magazine will only accept hard copy submissions sent to the street address on its website.

Sometimes submission guidelines list upcoming themes. Skirt! magazine, for instance, lists monthly themes for the print edition of its magazine. Anthologies like Traveler’s Tales tell you which anthologies they’re soliciting for, along with deadlines.

If you follow the guidelines the editors provide — from word count and form of submission (email, snail mail, etc.) to content — you’ll be ahead of the game.