Authors: Suzanne & Craig Sheumaker
Today, Norm Goldman, Editor and Publisher of Bookpleasures.com & Sketchandtravel.com is pleased to have as our guests, Suzanne & Craig Sheumaker, authors of A Traveler’s Guide: America’s Living History-The Early Years.
Good day Suzanne and Craig and thanks for participating in our interview.
Please tell our readers a little bit about your personal and professional backgrounds and how you became interested in travel with an historical slant?
I have been a professional writer for over 30 years, beginning as a travel writer and returning full circle back to travel writing. My first career was in a travel-oriented advertising and public relations agency, where I advanced from copywriter to creative director promoting travel destinations, cruises, hotels, restaurants and such.
After nine years, I set advertising aside, focused on public relations at two international consulting firms, became a vice president and ultimately had the opportunity to specialize in the medical field, my great love. (I had originally wanted to be a doctor.)
I then joined the staff of Genentech, the leading biotechnology company, as director of corporate communications – responsible for informing various audiences about the company, its products and its technologies. Apparently I was the first communications professional in the biotechnology field, a fact I did not fully appreciate until my life became consumed by the needs of media reporters throughout the world. I loved the job, but writing became secondary.
After a couple of years, I decided to become a free-lance writer in the medical/biomedical field, with Genentech as my first client. In an odd twist of fate, travel came back into my life over the years as my husband Craig’s career evolved and we traveled extensively. This time around, though, I developed a passion for heritage parks and living history museums – not only in the U.S. but also in Canada and Europe. I’d never been much of a history buff until I began to see history come alive at these sites. Now I just can’t seem to get enough of history travel. For me, it’s like eating chocolate – one taste always leads to another and another and another…
From an early age, it was obvious that I was headed for a career in the visual arts. In college, I focused on graphic design and developed an interest in photography. After graduating from art school, I worked for a couple of advertising and graphic design agencies in Colorado before an offer came to work for a top-level graphic design firm in San Francisco. That company specialized in stockholder annual reports for major corporations such as Chevron, Pacific Gas & Electric, Gap Stores – and we even did the first Apple Computer annual report. From there I formed a partnership with another designer, doing much the same kind of work, but broadening out to include corporate identity and more marketing-oriented projects.
The pivotal moment in my career came with the introduction of the Macintosh computer. Thanks to the help of some friends who worked at Apple, I began designing software interfaces and on-screen marketing pieces. Before long I left print graphics entirely to do interactive multimedia projects for software developers and high-tech companies.
In the early ‘90s, Suzanne and I discovered RV travel. At the same time, I became enamored with panoramic photography. The new electronic communication technologies enabled us to travel for weeks and months at a time, taking photographs while also serving our clients back home. That, in short, is how we got out “on the road.”
The interest in history came from two different sources. Our first RV trip, with our two teenage children, took us to a number of historic places across the US. Also, Suzanne’s mother was connecting her family’s genealogical dots to establish ties to the early Pilgrims. We took her on a trip to Plimoth Plantation, a reconstruction of the original Pilgrim village as it appeared in 1627. There we met her “great, great, great…great grandmother” who was portrayed by a talented re-enactor.
She told us with surprising calmness and assurance in her voice how Puritan convictions had compelled the colonists to accept the risks of an Atlantic crossing and arrive on the shores of a strange land in December with no one to help them except the Native Peoples. It was a chilling and thrilling encounter. We were hooked. From then on, we were living history junkies.
Why did you feel compelled to write A Traveler’s Guide: America’s Living History: The Early Years and why do you think this is an important book at this time? What are your hopes for the book?
Oh my – the reasons are many. As I said a moment ago, I’ve become quite passionate about history travel. Everywhere we tour, heritage parks and living history museums are a key part of the adventure. At first, we just relied on conventional travel guides and auto club books to identify the sites to visit. But that didn’t last long here in America, where we have traveled more than 125,000 miles by car and motorhome in recent years.
All too often, the guidebooks ignored or barely mentioned some terrific places, and their so-called gem, diamond and five-star attractions frequently were a disappointment (rundown, historically inaccurate, too commercial). So we looked elsewhere for destination ideas – the Internet, newspaper and magazine articles, history books, living history organizations, re-enactment groups, advertising literature, etc.
That still wasn’t enough – sometimes we just happened upon a site during our travels or, sadly, learned about tantalizing attractions after we had returned home. Inevitably, both of us began complaining about the lack of a good guidebook to point out the premier historic attractions here in America. Friends and fellow travelers expressed the same frustration. With our career paths, the inevitable question arose: Why not create such a book ourselves? So we did – not because we could but because we should. History travel is not an intellectual pursuit. It is a fun, insightful, unique, vital way to truly understand what it means to be an American.
As Suzanne said, early on we saw a need for such a travel resource. We also recognized the amount of work and research that would be required to do a proper job of representing places that we felt, with few exceptions, were woefully underappreciated. Fortunately between the two of us, we had the skills to do the production; we had the time in our lives to dedicate to the project; and most of all, we had the initiative to get started. We strongly feel, after several trips overseas, that Americans don’t fully recognize the unique and valuable history that is all around them, right here at home. Yes, we are a young country, but the Native heritage goes back thousands of years, and some awe-inspiring pieces of that history are still visible today.
The story of the development and growth of America is unique in the world – certainly worthy of our time and attention as evidenced by the thousands of people from other lands who visit here every year. Also, as concerns grow that many places in the world are becoming more unstable and uneconomical for Americans to visit, we want to be ready to help people explore their homeland. Our hope, of course, is that “America’s Living History-The Early Years” becomes a “must have” book for anyone traveling in the US; but our primary goal is to help ensure that travelers appreciate living history museums and heritage parks.
How long did it take you to write your book? How did you go about planning its contents and presentation? Can you explain some of your research techniques, and how you found sources for your book?
The book took over three years to research and produce. Initially, we thought we would cover the entire spectrum of heritage parks and living history museums in America. However, our extensive research turned up nearly 2,000 places that claimed to be historic or have some component of living history. (This does not include most of the historic homes, which are generally too specific to a single individual or family for our consideration.
We wanted to choose places that would have meaning to the average American.) We decided to break down the list of sites to a more manageable number and to focus on places that related to America’s most formative years – the time before the 1840s westward movement.
That left us with a list of about 750 destinations. Research in the myriad of information sources eliminated all but about 400 to 450, which became the focus of our travels. Many of these we had seen before but visited again; others were new to us.
Our goal was to see them in person and decide for ourselves which ones were the most worthy, based on strict criteria for quality and historic authenticity. (Naturally, we had to allow a little flexibility, since historic interpretation is “subject to interpretation.”)
Our half-day or full-day visits were enjoyed as casual tourists – experiencing what every tourist can see and do – and, through those visits; we eliminated all but 300 of the destinations. This final group became the basis of our book. I’ll let Craig explain how we came to organize the book the way we did.
We knew that virtually all guidebooks are organized by region. That makes sense when the contents of the book have nothing in common (amusement parks, next to historic sites, next to art museums). But since the theme of our book is history, and history in America doesn’t fit comfortably into regions, we knew intuitively that we needed to arrange the sites by subject: America’s Native Peoples, European Colonization, Religious and Secular Groups, Road to Independence, Our New Nation and Opening the West. The next decision was to start each chapter with what we call a two-page Historical Perspective, which is essentially an introduction to the topic.
We knew how important first impressions are, and we felt that it was critical to have at least one photo for each site – some have 3 or 4. In the end, we had about 500 in the whole book. Also, history is full of odd stories and tidbits of interesting information that don’t fit neatly into the description of a particular museum or historic site.
To take care of these, we included sidebar text on pages where there is some relevance. Finally, since this is a guidebook, we needed to make travel planning easy for the reader; so we included a section with regional maps keyed to a directory of all the sites we mention.
That also allowed us to talk about regional distinctions and how they influenced our history. It was quite a juggling act to get all these components to work together, but we feel that we’ve created a unique blend of travel guide and history guide. Notice I used the term “history guide.” Our goal was never to write a comprehensive history book. We just wanted to provide enough information to inspire people to go see for themselves – to satisfy their own curiosity about what happened when, why, and to whom.
What has your experience been like with self publishing?
To be honest, we hadn’t planned on producing this book ourselves. We started out with the naďve belief that established publishers would be excited by the obvious need for such a book and the quality of our effort. We sent out our proposal along with sample chapters to a select, small group of publishers, who either ignored us or sent a “sounds great but not for us” letter.
A friend and published writer told us in no uncertain terms that we should stop that effort and publish the book ourselves. We’d done all the work; why not keep the control? We decided he was right. Nothing has changed our minds. This is challenging but fun, and the reception has been marvelous. In addition to online and conventional bookstores, many of the historic sites are selling “America’s Living History-The Early Years.”
One publisher was so excited about what he saw when he opened our proposal that he called us immediately…and asked if we would work on his projects instead of our own! If we were determined to proceed, he said that we should do the book his way.
We told him, politely, that we appreciated the compliment but that we had a vision of what we wanted to do with this book. He understood, but said that after we “got this book out of our system” we should come talk to him. He also offered to help in any way he could, but when I started asking the inevitable business questions, he implied that we should either be book creators or publishers, but not both.
That sounded like a challenge; so here we are, two years later, with the book recently released and being very well received. Now that we’re deep into the marketing, it appears as if publishing is a new career that we’re adjusting to day by day. Has it been worth it? Absolutely! In our past careers, we’ve worked anonymously, expressing our client’s beliefs and ideas, and making them look good. Now we’re stepping out, and we’re putting our names on something that we believe in.
What challenges or obstacles did you encounter while writing your book? How did you overcome these challenges?
For me, it was the final editing process. We wanted to ensure that all of the information was as accurate and appropriate as possible. So we asked the historians/managers/publicity people at the destinations to take time from their very busy schedules to review the text describing their site, make meaningful changes if needed and authorize us to use our photographs. That required months and many reminders.
A handful of the people took exception to my characterization of their history. So I had to revise the text while not caving into what might be viewed by others as a false interpretation of that history. (There is a tendency among some people to focus only on the good, as though the bad never existed.)
One historian, for example, didn’t like what I’d said about her site’s founder; so I took a different tact. Another simply said: “the photo is fine; the text is not.” I never did learn what the problem was; I just assumed the content needed to be changed; fortunately, that worked.
A third insisted that I needed to say a whole lot more and re-wrote my text to a substantially longer and not-well-stated length; I created a shortened compromise, which was accepted. Several others wanted to mention new attractions at their site. They gave me the details, and I re-wrote the text to accommodate them.
One person was pregnant, didn’t return my calls, had an unexpectedly early delivery, and left no information with others; so we had to start all over with someone else. One was a seasonal employee who was not receiving our mail or phone messages because the site was closed for the winter and their website was malfunctioning. These sorts of things happened about 10% of the time.
Thankfully, most of the approval processes were easy and the changes minimal. In all cases, I made sure that the sites were comfortable with the text and photos before we proceeded. I should add here that there was no cost to them and no special favors on either side. We all just wanted a quality product. That is to everyone’s benefit.
The sheer scale of the project was far greater than either of us had ever confronted. While we had already visited dozens of living history museums and heritage parks, there were hundreds more to see. We knew from the outset that it would take three years of travel, mostly from late spring to early fall (prime vacation season), to visit all the sites we wanted to see. We had the constant challenge of being alert to what was unique and compelling at each site – and making sure that we had more than enough photographs and background information to work with.
Then, after the road trip was done and we were settled back home, there were dozens of tasks to be done. I worked on the book design, photos, map drawings and such, while also finding a printer and planning the book’s production. Also, I took responsibility for contacting all of the sites to get their approvals, so that Suzanne could concentrate on researching and organizing the content, writing, rewriting and refining the text. While individually these tasks don’t qualify as obstacles, when divided between just two people, they seemed like a fairly intimidating mountain – one that we climbed step by step.
As travelers and fact/story-gatherers, what are your biggest challenges on the road?
My part is easy. Craig is the planner. I tell him where I want to go. He figures out the schedule – not just the itinerary but also what we will see in one year versus the next. When we arrive at the destinations, we wander together, seeing everything the site has to offer, asking lots of questions of the interpreters, listening carefully to what other visitors ask/say about the site and its history, collecting all the free literature, buying booklets when needed, taking zillions of photos (both of us, but mostly Craig). We would debrief at the end of the day, with me making notes and Craig organizing/labeling the photos.
I know, it sounds like a long vacation, traveling to all 50 states, touring the most historic and scenic places – everyone’s dream road trip, right? But months of one-night stopovers, with visits in a different town every day, felt like work after the first few weeks. Ask any touring musician. Like anyone else, we had the day-to-day responsibilities of preparing meals, feeding our two traveling cat companions and doing the laundry, which Suzanne did – plus driving, vehicle maintenance and selecting the wine for dinner, which I did.
For each trip, I worked out a very tight schedule that included not only the sites we needed to see each day (keeping in mind that many of them aren’t always open), but also the other interesting attractions and family and friends we wanted to visit along the way. I worked out the distance to each destination, how long it would take to get there, and where we’d spend each night.
Once the itinerary was established, we were more or less free to explore. Since we made no advance contacts, we had to deal with what was at the sites, just like any tourist. If it was raining, we took pictures in the rain. If a portion of a facility was closed, we saw what we could and gathered as much information about what we missed as possible. If we had a mechanical breakdown (vehicle or computer), or some other interruption, we found ways to make up for lost time. If we discovered a new site we didn’t know about, we either worked it in or put it on the list for the next year. (Consequently, our last trip included a few out-of-the-way places that cost us hundreds of miles of extra driving – but we loved every bit of it.)
Will there be any unique ways you'll be marketing your book that is different from how others authors market their books?
One thing that is quite different is our effort to involve the featured destinations. We not only encourage them to sell the book in their shops; we also offer things to help their marketing effort. This includes free stickers to put on the book cover, pointing buyers/readers to the page where the site is featured, and a free countertop stand for them to display the book.
Every day we are learning what avenues are available to us; so we’re trying to take advantage of those opportunities. But part of being independent publishers, without a long history in publishing, is that we can invent and improvise using one part common sense, one part creativity, and one part our own marketing expertise. At this point, just a few weeks into the marketing process, it is impossible to guess at what ideas we’ll have, but the problem is a fascinating one to work on.
Are you planning to write a follow up to this first book and if so what will it contain?
We might. We certainly have much more to share about history travel. This book ends with the early 1840s. Still to be showcased are sites related to the Oregon and California trails, the railroads, the gold rushes, the…well, you get the idea. Whether we take that next step depends on the acceptance of this book and our own willingness to devote so much more of our life to the next one.
I agree with “we might.” If interest in this book continues, we will feel a responsibility to those who share this passion for “seeing history.” There are a huge number of subjects to be explored and many miles to be traveled, and I think that after a year or two we’ll be ready to go again.
Do you believe that your book could be the basis of a television series and have you explored this possibility?
There are creative ways to build a television series on this or any other history-oriented book. But that really doesn’t excite me. In a way, it would defeat our purpose. We want people to travel, not stay home. We want them to participate in the learning process, not sit glued to the TV screen. We want them to interact with history, ask questions and discover new things for themselves.
It seems to me that the European travel expert Rick Steves would be a good model of how to produce TV programs that inspire people to travel rather than stay home. On the other hand, the prospect of becoming “TV personalities” is not particularly attractive to either of us, though he has done a good job of it, thanks to his staff, his preparation and his passion.
What has been your overall experience as published authors and how did you celebrate the completion of the book?
I could say that there is nothing more rewarding than hearing people at the historic sites say, as they have, “this is a lovely, lovely book,” “thank you so much for including us,” “you should be very proud of your accomplishment.” I could also say we are delighted to see that book reviewers are giving us five-star ratings. However, accolades and our own satisfaction with the book are not reasons enough for us to celebrate.
The real joy will come with hearing that the book sells very well over the long term and that, in its own small way, it makes an impact. We want to hear that America is traveling to these heritage parks and living history museums despite the rising gas prices…learning first-hand how much fun history really can be…sharing their experiences with their kids and grandkids…prompting their friends to do the same.
So far, our experiences have exceeded our expectations. We conceived, produced and are now marketing this book with very little outside help. We’ve read books on self-publishing, and we’ve asked questions of anyone who was willing to sit still long enough to provide answers. But for the most part, we continue to make all the decisions ourselves, and our success or failure will be dependent on how good those decisions are. From what we’ve seen, it would appear that we’ve made more good decisions than bad.
As for celebration, I thought that getting our first printed books would be sufficient reason to pop the cork on a bottle of bubbly, but when those books arrived, we needed to ship review copies immediately; then we needed to send out an announcement to the news media; then we needed to fill initial orders; then we needed to mail invoices. In other words, we still have the champagne in the refrigerator. I don’t know what will be the trigger that says it is time to celebrate, but when it comes we’ll be ready.
Is there anything else you wish to add that we have not covered?
Only that we’d love to hear from readers – comments about the book, suggested new places to see, possible errors/disagreements with our text, whatever. Anyone can simply log onto our site and send us an email.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.
Craig: Thanks for the opportunity. We’ve really enjoyed it.
To read Norm's Review of A Traveler’s Guide: America’s Living History-The Early Years CLICK HERE