Today, Norm Goldman, Editor of sketchandtravel and bookpleasures is honored to have as a guest, the nationally published newspaper columnist and author, Cindy LaFerle. Cindy recently published a book entitled, Writing Home, a collection of essays focusing on home, family and motherhood.
Cindy was at one time editor of a national travel magazine, the Innsider that focused on country inns, B&Bs, and small historic hotels in the USA.
She was also responsible for helping Uncle Ben´s (the rice company) launch its annual Best Country Inns award.
Good day Cindy and thank you for agreeing to participate in our interview.
You indicated to me that the Innsider magazine set a standard of quality for smaller inns and B&Bs. Please explain.
Back in the early 1980s, when Innsider was newly launched, smaller historic inns and B&Bs were relatively new to the average American traveler.
They´d been popular for many years in Europe, as you know, Norm, but most Americans were not as comfortable with the idea of staying in small inn or B&B 20 years ago. The old term guest house had negative, seedy connotations and in some cases, that reputation was justified. Those little “Mom and Pop” guest houses weren´t typically AAA rated or listed in guidebooks back then, and sometimes there was a very good reason for that.
That old reputation was hard for the GOOD B&Bs and country inns to conquer at first, since the average traveler was more comfortable at, say, a Holiday Inn.
Even so, charming B&Bs and country inns were indeed catching on with sophisticated travelers who were familiar with the smaller inns of Europe –but those travelers really had to work hard to research the quality of American B&Bs/country inns. There weren´t as many inn guidebooks back then, either, although COUNTRY INNS & BACK ROADS, by Norm Simpson, were in print
and highly regarded.
That´s where Innsider came into play. We didn´t establish ratings
per se, but we sought out the BEST places we could find, featuring only those that were clean, well-run, attractive and historically interesting. We didn´t feature anything that was sub-standard and therefore set the bar high for other small inns that wanted to attract business. We also worked with professional inn organizations to improve and help standardize the quality of these small inns — without sacrificing the personality and uniqueness that make them so special. As editor of Innsider, I attended with my staff many conferences for small innkeepers and spoke about what made a first-class B&b or country inn. It was great fun.
You also mentioned that you worked as a free lance inspector for
Michigan´s Lake Bed & Breakfast Association. What did you exactly do and perhaps you can elaborate as to what are the ingredients required to have a top quality B&B.
This association was founded to promote high standards for
Michigan´s smaller inns, and I was asked to help establish those. I was part of a small team who were to inspect the member inns. We looked for things such as overall cleanliness in the common rooms and baths; amenities such as tissues, fresh sheets, good lighting for reading, and so on. We made sure that kitchens were exceptionally clean and that breakfasts offered were substantial and/or reflected was advertised. That sort of thing. We had PAGES of items to examine or discuss with the innkeepers on the inspection lists, so I could go on and on. It was all about quality and upgrading the smaller inn for the comfort of guests. If the inn didn´t pass inspection, it lost membership and listing in the state guide.
What is your idea of an ideal romantic inn or B&B, and do you have any favorite romantic inns or B&Bs?
That´s a tough question, but I think a romantic inn needs to be
one-of-a-kind and superbly appointed it should be beautifully decorated and offer a few special things you wouldn´t find in other hotels or at home…. special touches like fancy sheets, larger and lovely bathrooms with good toiletries, comfy chairs and space for reading and relaxing together.
An in-room fireplace is always nice.
Local color is important. The romantic inn should also be located
near a wonderful restaurant and other attractions like good shopping or historic sites and recreational activities. I like to be located in a historic district, say, like Savannah or Charleston, in a gorgeous inn that´s within walking distance of a town.
Here in Michigan, there´s a secluded, charming place called the
Victorian Villa (Union City, Michigan). Staying there is an experience in and of itself, even if you never leave the grounds. Everything is authentically Victorian, exquisite and historic, including the building itself. Innkeeper Ron Gibson stages Victorian theme weekends and teas, including a Sherlock Holmes Mystery Weekend, which are seasonal and make it
a special occasion to stay there. It´s just beautiful and the rooms are large you are staying in a mansion that feels like a Victorian home.
How did you become a travel writer, and how did your experience as a travel writer give you a wonderful background for the kind of work you do now?
I started out (some 20 years ago) as a freelance features writer for my local paper, and had written a few stories about B&Bs (because I´d always stayed in them and enjoyed them). The photographer, who was newly hired to work for Innsider, approached me and told me that the publisher was looking
for an editor who had some knowledge of B&Bs/small inns and could work part-time as editor-in-chief. My son was a baby then, so the flexibility appealed to me, as did the subject matter & although as the magazine grew, it was not as flexible and involved a lot of travel, which was harder to manage with a family.
But during the nearly 6 years I worked for Innsider, I got a chance to see MANY wonderful historic places in this country, and I learned so much. Travel is essential, I believe, for every writer, no matter what genre they prefer.
And, as corny and clichéd as it sounds here, I also learned there´s no place like home. Travel broadens your perspective and also teaches you to be grateful for what you have. Traveling down south for the magazine, for example, we often drove through some very economically depressed areas en route to the historic inns and Civil War battlegrounds we were going to cover and photograph. Things like that stay with you, sometimes even more
than the beauty you find on the way.
Could you tell us something about your recently published book, Writing Home, and why you wanted to write the book.
After Innsider folded due to lack of ad revenue I decided to
work from home and spend more time with my son, who was barely 6 and growing up way too fast. I didn´t want to miss any of that, so I managed to get some freelance jobs writing for local papers as well as national magazines.
That´s when I found I had a knack for writing personal essays and
“slice of life newspaper columns. I found a comfortable niche for myself in that genre. Writing Home is a collection of those short pieces. While they are personal essays, they all chronicle some of the universal themes that touch many of us learning how to let go of children as they grow up; learning how to be a family; watching parents age and die; dealing with midlife crisis in the meantime….One reporter said my pieces were about
finding the sacred in the suburban, and I think that´s a good way to explain my stuff and my new book.
What makes a good journalist, and do you find that today a great deal of journalism is pure and simple sensationalism.
I am really saddened at what has happened with journalism today.
Yes, I do think a lot of what´s sold as “news” is often sensationalized to the point where average readers no longer trust what they read anymore.
Readers often tell me that newspapers, for the most part, are very depressing — and that the top stories make them lose faith in our world. A lot of front-page news makes people feel angry and hopeless. Bad news seems to inspire more bad news, but that is what “sells” papers.
I have tried, at various times, to pitch hopeful stories to various editors because I think there are MANY wonderful things going on in our communities that don´t get press. But you know what? I have been told that people don´t really want to read good news, and that good news doesn´t sell papers. How else can we explain the success of those awful, cheesy tabloids that sell like hotcakes in the grocery store checkout lines, for example?
That said, Norm, I want to point out there are a few papers that are as objective as humanly possible, run by editors who believe in the dignity of the world and the intelligence of their readers. The Christian Science Monitor is one such paper. (I am not employed by them, but I have published several pieces in the CSM). It continues to be well-regarded by readers and
other journalists who aim high.
What advice would you give to anyone who wishes to pursue a career in journalism or travel writing?
You have to be willing to write for smaller markets, just to get
started. You won´t get into the bigger magazines or newspaper right away, so you need to focus on building a clip file published pieces that show you can write and have a sense for what makes a good travel piece. It takes time and diligence, and a lot of writers give up because it is competitive and the pay isn´t so great. Sometimes you have to be pleased just to get a
byline, which is sad but true. Budgets are being cut right and left at newspapers these days, and the first things to be cut are the lifestyles pieces.
If you can put up with this situation and are willing to pay your
dues and start small, you´ve got a chance. I got started in my local daily, with a circ of less than 20,000, and eventually was able to publish my work in Reader´s Digest and other national publications. Keep at it — and enjoy the process. Ask yourself if you really want to write, or you just want to be published — there´s a huge difference!
When you write your various columns, what do you wish to achieve?
I want to make a heartfelt connection to my readers. I want them to feel less alone as they try to make sense of the very complicated lives we are all living &. If someone tells me that they related to a piece I wrote, or that they felt like I was really telling their story well, then I have hit the mark and done my job.
Where do your ideas come from?
Ideas come from everyday life, from paying attention to what is around me. I think all writers have to be, in a way, Zen masters. If you are not focused on what is happening around you if you´re always thinking about the next thing on your to-do list — you are not going to write anything that hits
people where they live.
Would you like to add anything that we have not discussed?
Thank you for asking me to participate here, Norm. It´s very important for writers to share their experiences and help each other along the way. I appreciate this opportunity.
Thanks once again Cindy for participating in our interview and good luck in all of your future endeavors.