A few months ago, the online world buzzed with the news that Amtrak had decided to offer “residencies” —  a writer’s competition that offered free travel worth up to $900. Thousands applied, including me.

Amtrak arriving at the station

Amtrak train arriving at the station, East Glacier, Montana

The odds were stacked against winning, but the marketing campaign succeeded in reigniting my old dream of seeing the USA via train, a dream shared with my husband Stuart, who joined me in planning a BookTourAnniversaryPalooza. We started a long conversation about where to go, whom to see, how to have fun celebrating our 45th anniversary, which scenic vistas to look for, and, last but not least, how to arrange book talks and book signings for Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. After some research, we determined that the 30-day Rail Pass was our best option.

We’ve returned now after spending 28 days in July riding the rails. It was an amazing trip! Our best-laid plans succeeded almost flawlessly and unto them many spontaneous gifts were added. I can’t possibly describe a trip of this richness in one post. So I’ll treat different topics in the upcoming weeks. Today I just want to focus on authors and offer some tips on how to combine a book tour and a train trip.

Five Tips for Book Touring Authors

1. Travel by train only if you are prepared to move into slow time.

Don’t travel by train if you are trying to cover maximum territory in minimum days. The trains in this country are seldom efficient, so build in extra time and NEVER count on the train to deliver you to an event on the timetable printed in the schedule. Think of these verbs: meander, ponder, and tarry. These adjectives: leisurely, rhythmic, and surprising. These nouns: revery, rust, and majesty.

The landscape along the Pacific coast and through the Rocky Mountains will more than compensate. The movement from hectic to slack will take you deeper into thought and imagination, making you more open to serendipity in life and in writing.

Through the train window between Oakland, California, and Portland, Oregon

Through the train window between Oakland, California, and Portland, Oregon, on the Amtrak Coast Starlight Superliner.

2. Budget for the trip in a way that fits your pocketbook.

To keep the costs of train travel reasonable, place the trip in the “Travel, Entertainment, and Education” tabs in your budget, not “Profit from selling books.” If you do that, you will find the expenses transform from “expensive business cost” to “reasonably priced vacation.” You and your accountant will have to figure out what, if any, tax write off applies.

We are still doing the expense documentation for the trip, but I am pleased with the results so far. I spoke to about 400 people, many of whom had not heard about my book before. I had four speaking events that paid honoraria and sold all the books I carried in my suitcase plus fifteen more my publisher shipped midway through the tour. In addition, my Amazon rankings bumped up modestly and looked like this during the days on tour:

Amazon rankings July 1-28

Amazon rankings July 1-28, the peak day was July 12, just after my visit to Third Place Books in Seattle

3. Call upon your friends and relatives for help.

Facebook and Twitter can produce amazing stories. Facebook, in particular, does something very valuable in addition to offering you a place to share (selectively — don’t overwhelm) pictures and highlights from your journeys. The search function allows you to search for “friends in Seattle, Vancouver, Chicago,” etc. What an easy way to see who you may want to see and who may want to see you.

I started planning this trip after receiving an invitation to speak in Vancouver, BC, July 13, which we then decided would be the “Anchor” location. We got serious about reserving hotels in April, and I made up a Google Doc so that Stuart and I and some of our hosts could edit the plan as it unfurled. Planning took a lot of time because it involved phone calls and emails to multiple people whenever we needed help with lodging, venues, and transportation.

Our dear, dear friends helped us so much. Sometimes we asked them and sometimes they volunteered. We tried to be low maintenance/high gratitude guests, and we were overwhelmed by generosity so many times.

The numbers show a portion of how much help we received along the way.

The numbers show a portion of how much help we received along the way.

4. Document with photos, diary, receipts, and social media.

A trip like this is an investment, not only in your writing, but in your life. It has not just helped you reach a wider audience and sell some books, it gives you a rich vein of material for new writing. I bought this little pocket notebook in Santa Barbara and filled it up. It fit snugly into my little travel purse next to my passport and smart phone, the other essential tool for documentation and sharing.

The travel diary.

The travel diary.

5. If you plan to include visits to National Parks in your trip, . . .

Start reserving lodges a year in advance if possible. We were amazed that our first choice lodge in Glacier National Park was booked three months before we wanted to go. The agent suggested a year’s planning for these highly attractive locations with very short tourist seasons. Also, if you get off the train, you may want to rent a car for travel within the park. We didn’t do that and were saved by a good shuttle driver who helped us navigate successfully using his services and other public conveyances. Plus our feet! I was very glad for a good pair of hiking shoes.

I’ve just scratched the surface of all the wisdom gained from this trip. So please jump in to ask more questions. I’ll not only comment, I’ll go into more depth in future posts.

If you were going to plan your own writers residency on a train, what criteria would you set for yourself?

Shirley Showalter

36 Comments

  1. Audrey on August 6, 2014 at 1:44 pm

    sooooo jealous!! Ken and I are train lovers and took Amtrak from Martinsburg, WVA to Chicago to Sacramento last year. This year, Amtrak to New Orleans to Tucson. Can’t wait!

    When we returned last year, I said “I don’t need to FLY ever again”! We recommend trains to everybody we talk with about traveling.

    Audrey

    • shirleyhs on August 6, 2014 at 2:18 pm

      Audrey, I agree that training (is that a verb??) is preferable to flying in many cases, especially since it’s so hard to fly from the Shenandoah Valley to anywhere else without having to make three flights. We did choose to fly to Santa Barbara at the beginning of our trip, however. We arrived by 2 p.m. That quick way of traveling all across the country got us prepped for enjoying the slow way by train up the Pacific Coast.

      Amtrak to New Orleans to Tucson sounds like a great trip too. I’d love to hear about it when you return. It takes a long time to digest so much input, doesn’t it?

  2. Elfrieda Schroeder on August 6, 2014 at 1:46 pm

    Wow, what a great experience Shirley. I marvel at how practical you are in summarizing all of this for other potential touring authors. Wow, the train trips I have taken! I could write a book…….!

    • shirleyhs on August 6, 2014 at 2:25 pm

      Elfrieda, I imagine you have had some amazing train experiences. I’d love to do the Canadian railway version of this trip. I heard other travelers extol its beauty, especially of the ride through the Canadian Rockies.

      I would still like to visit Winnipeg and Kitchener/Waterloo some day. Let me know if you have any ideas for me. 🙂

  3. Laurie Buchanan on August 6, 2014 at 1:46 pm

    Shirley — No matter how you slice it, 7,000 total miles with 4,000 by train, is a heckofa lot of miles! I’m exhausted for you.

    The tips you’ve provided in this post for potential book touring authors are exceptional. The most eye-opening one for me is the Facebook search feature you shared that helps you look for friends you may want to see, or who may want to see you, in a specific location. I had no idea!

    My favorite part of your 7,000 mile journey was when I got to meet you in person at Third Place Books in Seattle where you read a chapter from your memoir and fielded audience questions. That was terrific. Simply terrific!

    • shirleyhs on August 6, 2014 at 3:15 pm

      Laurie, YOU were one of the huge delights of this trip. Traveling all the way from Boise to Seattle to attend the reading. I loved this post describing your own trip:http://tuesdayswithlaurie.com/2014/07/15/blushing-in-seattle/ We packed a lot of good times into our short time together. It left me wanting more.

      I hope all my readers sign up for Tuesdays with Laurie through the link above. You have one of the very best blogs in my opinion.

      • Laurie Buchanan on August 6, 2014 at 3:23 pm

        Aw shucks. Now I’m Blushing in Boise 🙂

  4. Saloma Furlong on August 6, 2014 at 2:16 pm

    Shirley, this sounds like So. Much. Fun. I love traveling by train. I think part of what I like is the slower pace of life, as you described. Thank you for sharing part of your journey.

    If I were to plan a trip on a train, my criteria would be to get as much enjoyment and meaning out of it as possible. It sounds like you did just that.

    Welcome home. I wish you a smooth transition into everyday life.

    • shirleyhs on August 6, 2014 at 3:19 pm

      Thanks, Saloma. So good to see you appear here. I hope we can have a good long chat comparing notes on our travels sometime soon.

      You are good at wringing joy out of travel. I look forward to hearing your stories.

  5. Kathleen on August 6, 2014 at 2:26 pm

    Yes to taking a small notebook for tracking dates, people, and experiences. I have done this through the years, and it helpful for jogging my memory!

    And yes to early reservations. We already have Glacier reservations for the summer of 2015 and discovered our preferred Yellowstone lodge is already sold out. Wow!

    I have enjoyed seeing Stuart and your photographs and posts on FB. Thank you for the visual and verbal voyages this summer!

    Kathleen

    • shirleyhs on August 6, 2014 at 3:44 pm

      “Visual and verbal voyages.” What a great way to describe how art and travel come together, Kathleen. And you should know. Your own contemplative photography has taken me on many a voyage. I hope you and Laurie find each other and follow each other. Both lovers of minimalism’s beauty.

      As for the lodges, wow, that’s even worse than I thought — in Yellowstone. One thing we discovered was that sometimes there are last-minute cancellations. We were able to book a room, the last, in the hotel we had been told previously was sold out.

  6. Victoria Noe on August 6, 2014 at 2:35 pm

    Shirley, I just got back from an Amtrak trip to NYC for Writers Digest Conference. My trains were late both ways, but I always build in extra time, so it was ultimately okay.

    I didn’t enter the Amtrak residency contest. I wasn’t willing to give up the rights to my writing sample for a roomette. I do most of my travel on Amtrak. I don’t like to fly, but I also like the solitude. I eat my meals in my roomette most of the time so I can read or write without taking too long a break. Sometimes I need the break, but if I find myself on a roll, forget it.

    I’ve done overnight trips over the years to Denver, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, New York, Boston, Atlanta. I plan to check out the remodeled Pullman Car Journeys in the future to New Orleans.

    Something to remember when booking roomettes: The farther out you book, the cheaper it is. Traveling this way is transportation and overnight accommodations and meals, all for one price.

    I joined their “frequent flyer” program years ago, so I’ve accumulated enough points for a free roomette twice. That helps, too.

    And with my daughter going to school in London in a few weeks, I’m looking forward to the British trains!

    • shirleyhs on August 6, 2014 at 3:54 pm

      Viki, thanks so much for adding these great suggestions: the Pullman service to New Orleans: http://www.travelpullman.com/packages.html and the idea of becoming a Frequent Traveler. We signed up for that program too. And we definitely will do future train trips.

      Two summers ago I went with two women friends to England and used BritRail passes. They are more convenient than Amtrak’s passes because you can just use them at will instead of booking registrations in advance. Enjoy your time on the rails wherever you are. I could easily do trains for all long distance travel.

      Looking forward to your reports from the conference you attended. Thanks for stopping by.

  7. Sherrey Meyer on August 6, 2014 at 3:27 pm

    Shirley, having traveled via Amtrak cross-country to TN from OR twice in recent years and another trip coming up in 2016, I readily underscore all you have said here. But I love the slowing down, the small town stops, the dining car meeting someone new every meal, and yes, keeping a notebook handy for jotting down scenes I see, people who might be a good character in that historical novel I’m going to write, and things that come to mind for my memoir. It’s a true joy, so Bob and I believe, to go by rail.

    Best of all, for us, was the trip brought you to us in Portland for a face-to-face meetup! It was a lovely morning to be with you and Stuart as you spoke at Portland Mennonite Church and to visit afterwards.

    • shirleyhs on August 6, 2014 at 3:58 pm

      Your mention of the dining car makes me smile, Sherrey. I too enjoyed the “community seating” which turned strangers into dining companions. That’s a feature I failed to mention and which some people don’t care for.

      And meeting YOU and Bob was another highlight of our trip. You are just as friendly and engaging as your website and blog posts suggest. We had a lovely, too short, visit. Hope to connect again. Thanks for the visit.

  8. Richard Gilbert on August 6, 2014 at 6:53 pm

    This sounds so great, Shirley. You went in the right spirit for train travel, which other rail travelers have advised me about. Funny how much this is in tune with my blog post today, a review of Patricia Hampl’s Blue Arabesque, which is about taking time, looking, loafing, refilling the well.

    • shirleyhs on August 6, 2014 at 7:14 pm

      Not the first time we’ve been in synch, Richard. It’s always fun to observe.

      I’m off to see what you’ve written. I know it will be good. I’ve read two Patricia Hampl books and liked both very much.

  9. Kathleen Pooler on August 6, 2014 at 7:16 pm

    Shirley, I love traveling by train and have thoroughly enjoyed experiencing your Book Tour Palooza vicariously through your posts and Facebook photos and updates. I love how you took the Amtrak Residency concept and did it your way. Clearly , it takes advanced planning. So happy to hear all your plans came to fruition both personally and professionally. Your tips are excellent. Thanks for sharing.

    • shirleyhs on August 6, 2014 at 9:32 pm

      Hi Kathy! You have been launching your own memoir, Ever Faithful to His Lead, in the month I’ve been traveling. It’s been exciting to be part of your journey. I look forward to putting a review online and hope others here will want to read about your story of transformation.

      And, while a book tour like this one does take a lot of planning, it’s possible to do shorter trips. Amtrak has a 15-Day Pass also. 🙂

      Shirley

  10. Bruce Stambaugh on August 6, 2014 at 9:11 pm

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful advice. I look forward to your other posts. I assume you didn’t win the Amtrak residency award.

    I’m glad you and Stuart had a great time. We may be checking in for specifics if Nev and I decide to do something similar.

    Thanks, again.

    Bruce

    • shirleyhs on August 6, 2014 at 9:35 pm

      Hi Bruce. Welcome here, as they say in Canada. 🙂

      Glad to share from our experience any time. And guess what? We are planning another trip, this one by car. Hoping to be in your area in late October. Looks like October 25 for Gospel Bookstore in Berlin, Ohio.

  11. April Yamasaki on August 6, 2014 at 10:57 pm

    Dear Shirley, What a privilege to be part of your wonderful tour! I love the way everything unfolded and to read your recap here. I’m sure you came back with many stories and hope you’ll share more of them on your blog.

    • shirleyhs on August 7, 2014 at 6:34 pm

      Dear April, you are one of the many saints of the journey who worked hard to make it possible for a stranger to find a warm welcome in Abbottsford, BC. Thanks so much for putting together a lovely evening conversation about writing as spiritual journey. It was a Sacred Pause along the way.

  12. melodie davis on August 7, 2014 at 9:37 am

    Loved your list of train-related attitudes to adopt: “Think of these verbs: meander, ponder, and tarry. These adjectives: leisurely, rhythmic, and surprising. These nouns: revery, rust, and majesty.” Having done two train trips this summer on short notice to help my mother after surgery etc., I came to appreciate this slow attitude. It even helps you sleep in coach–when you are relaxed and not too worried about when you get there.

    • shirleyhs on August 7, 2014 at 6:39 pm

      Thanks, Melodie. Starting my career by teaching parts of speech seems to have hung on. 🙂

      Thanks for reminding me of the connection between the Shenandoah Valley and Elkhart, IN, via train. I’m thinking of doing that one in October, but I’m not sure about leaving my car in Morgantown. Any advice?

  13. Carol Bodensteiner on August 7, 2014 at 5:40 pm

    I love train travel and applied for the Amtrak residency after you mentioned it, Shirley. I wasn’t selected, but train travel is back up on my list. I took a month-long train trip about 15 years ago. You’re so right about how a trip like that can fuel your writing. One of my favorite experiences was the dining car, where I met so many interesting people from many countries. Since I traveled alone, I had the pleasure of filling out many tables. Enough “characters” to fill many books.

    • shirleyhs on August 7, 2014 at 6:47 pm

      Yes, Carol. Lots of characters on a train, and the “community seating” rule is a perfect way to meet them. Think of the many mysteries that use a train setting, including this one from Alfred Hitchcock. Notice the first class dining car arrangements!https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J1iSS5r0OVE

  14. Melanie on August 7, 2014 at 9:00 pm

    Thanks for all the great tips. I’m not ready to meander just yet in life, but am a bit envious of your trip. I’ll keep this in mind for some future date. And it was so good to see you on your tour!

  15. shirleyhs on August 8, 2014 at 10:06 am

    To every thing there is a season. You are doing a great job of planting and pruning and enjoying early harvest. The late harvest will find you too, I know.

    Meeting you in person was a great highlight of the trip. You have a huge fan in Virginia. I’m eager to buy YOUR book when it comes out, and I’m doubly impressed that you hosted and connected me in the Portland area when you had your own writing/editing deadline. Thank you again.

  16. Barbara McDowell Whitt on August 8, 2014 at 12:44 pm

    Shirley, I thought of you and Stuart during Ken Burns’s Part II of his Mark Twain documentary when “America’s best known author” did so much train travel.

    I have looked at Amtrak’s user-friendly site regarding what to bring and not bring in your baggage (particularly, clothing needed for your trip that will fit into two 28x22x14 bags that don’t exceed 50 lbs. each). How did you manage the copies of Blush that you took with you? Will you (or you and Stuart) pack any differently for your next trip?

    I also read on Amtrak’s site that Fido needs to stay with someone back home unless he is a proven-need service dog. However, it looks as if two Amtrak lines in Illinois are experimenting with dogs on their trains during the summer of 2014.

    • shirleyhs on August 8, 2014 at 1:14 pm

      I haven’t seen the Ken Burn Mark Twain documentary, but I know I would enjoy it. Is it an older one or a recent one? On DVD?

      On packing: we put the 21 books mostly in our one large suitcase (probably larger than the specs, but no one questioned it). They do weigh your bags when you check them (which we did three times) and they are strict about the 50-lb. rule. Both of us could have taken LESS clothing than we took. We were able to do laundry at two of the home overnights, which helped a lot. Overall the luggage worked out well: one standard airline-size carry-on bag, one large bag. I backpack (my computer and several books and notebooks fit here nicely) and one small document bag (Stuart wished he had brought his own larger computer bag several times.) My little purse was very handy. I wore it around my neck for security.

      Dogs: we saw one very-well behaved service dog on the train. No others.

      Thanks for your good questions. Hope these help you and other potential train travelers.

  17. Tracy Lee Karner on August 9, 2014 at 8:01 am

    Is Amtrak giving you a commission on ticket sales? I think they owe you.

    When I book my ticket (I’m sure it’s the only way for me to travel cross-country or do a tour!) I’ll be sure and tell them that you’re the one who sold me.

    This is a lovely and thoughtful post, Shirley. I’ve had to adjust not only my tours, but my whole life to the concepts you defined (I love your word choices!)

    “Verbs: meander, ponder, and tarry. Adjectives: leisurely, rhythmic, and surprising. Nouns: revery, rust, and majesty.” I’m tweeting that (linking to your post, of course!).

  18. shirleyhs on August 9, 2014 at 10:14 am

    You are sweet, Tracy. Guess what one of my activities was on the top bunk of our roomette? I listened to the Kindle voice version of your book Toward Daylight: Becoming a Writer Despite Everything. I want to put up reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, but let me just say I enjoyed the book and hope some day to use the travel guide to New England portion of it on another trip.

    Glad you loved the parts of speech. You are a role model for how to live graciously in the slow lane.

  19. Emma on August 9, 2014 at 11:19 am

    I am so jealous. Fantastic post. Thank you for sharing all your ideas. You might enjoy my post on the Dublin Writers museum. Emma.

    • shirleyhs on August 12, 2014 at 5:07 pm

      I DID enjoy that post, and now I want to go to Dublin! Thanks for this comment. I left you one also. Would love to keep in touch.

  20. […] our BookTourAnniversaryPalooza, on Amtrak, July 1-28, 2014, we had hundreds of such moments, large and small. Here’s a […]

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