We are exploring and sharing user stories from the world of independent publishing to discover and showcase creativity, inspiration, knowledge and the details behind the stories that make them remarkable.
Meet Brenna Holeman, the woman behind the inspiring travel blog This Battered Suitcase. She is originally from Canada and has visited nearly 90 countries, but is now living in London and realizing her other dream of becoming a writer. We sat down for a talk with Brenna about her first book, which consists of 20 different letters based on people who have either influenced or inspired her travels. Her passion for writing and what it takes to get started with blogging, and the importance of building a strong community and engaging an audience.
Hello, Brenna! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us. For people that aren’t familiar with This Battered Suitcase, could you please walk us through the story of how you got into blogging?
Brenna:I got into blogging twelve years ago because I just wanted to connect with friends and it was a fun thing to do. In the beginning, I didn’t really know what blogging was, and I didn’t realize the community behind it and the effect that it could have. I started out with a platform called LiveJournal. At the time, it was very popular alongside MySpace. I experimented a lot with writing and photography. Back then, after taking photos on my camera, I’d have to get them developed at a store and then scan them onto my blog. It was really a passion project, but over the years, I realized I really loved putting together blog posts. Even then, as I was doing that, I still didn’t realize that there was this huge community, and I certainly didn’t realize that it was a business and that people were making money out of blogging.
I’m so glad that I got into blogging then and that I got into blogging purely because I loved the idea of writing online and reading other people’s writing. If I had known that some people get into it for money or that it is a huge industry, who knows? Maybe it would’ve been different. Right? I don’t think I would’ve ever been one of those people who was like, “I’m going to start a blog because I want to make money.” I’m glad that I got into it kind of naively if that makes sense.
Then, in 2008, I switched from Livejournal to Blogger, and I registered This Battered Suitcase. Then again, through blogging, I discovered how I like to write and what I like to write about, and it was only in 2013 when I finally understood, “This is a huge business.” By then I had switched to WordPress, which is a bit more professional. Again, it was incredibly naïve of me that I didn’t know that this was a massive business where other travel bloggers were doing the same thing but were being given press trips and were advertising on their blogs. I always had just done it because I loved traveling, I loved writing, and travel blogging was a great way to combine those things.
In 2013, I started to focus on making This Battered Suitcase a great community, where people could get involved via social media. It has always been very important to me that the blog not only inspires people to travel but to write more. I continuously try to keep the quality of writing as high as possible, which is why I never got into the sponsored posts, or I never accepted things for free purely so I’d have something to write about. It always has been and always will be a passion for me to write, and over the years the blog has developed from being a passion-based project to now being my whole life. The journey has been really slow but because of that, I have been able to develop This Battered Suitcase into in the kind of blog I truly want it to be. The blog is not only about the where and the how of travel, it’s about the who and the why.
Have you always wanted to become a writer?
Brenna: Growing up, I was very much into books and started reading at a really early age; I was constantly immersed in that world of literature. My mom is a writer and has been published many times in Canada and worldwide, so everybody would always ask me, “Do you want to be a writer like your mom?” I remember thinking, “Well, nobody’s asked me if I want to be a stockbroker like my dad.” So I started to weirdly rebel against writing, even though I loved it so much and I always did it. To some degree, I experienced a bit of teenage angst as everyone just expected me to become a writer like my mom. That turned out to be quite foolish of me since I’ve always loved to write, but it was only in my late-20s that I realized I could turn my passion of writing into a career.
How would you describe your style of writing?
Brenna: At the moment, my style of writing is extremely personal because I think blogging is a very personal thing unless you’re only writing guides or how-tos. I often say that people read a blog because of the blogger behind it. Hopefully that doesn’t come across as egotistical, but I believe people read blogs to relate to the person writing it. I also try to be as evocative as possible. Since I focus mostly on travel writing, I try to bring a place and its stories to life.
What inspires you to write in general?
Brenna: I would say that interacting with people inspires me. I know it might sound incredibly clichéd but what I mean by that is I love hearing other people’s stories. I love sitting down with someone and getting to know them, whether it´s at the local pub or someone I meet on my travels. I don´t remember where this quote is from, but it is the best way for me to describe my source of inspiration: “Every single person in the world knows something that you don’t.” I love learning from other people, and I think something my mom taught me from a very young age, as a writer, is to listen to those little moments and listen to those little clips because it’s in the small details of life where you’re going to find your story.
Could you please tell us about the process of making your first book, from idea to final publication.
– How to get started
Brenna: I think it’s one of those things that as writers, whether we’re journalists or bloggers or we write fiction or whatever we do, there is this thing where a lot of us say, “Well, I’m writing a book,” or, “I want to write a book.” And so I decided I was tired of saying that and that I actually wanted to write a book. So a few years ago, I started to investigate master’s programs because I knew that I was perhaps not as diligent as I needed to be in order to write a book on my own, and I needed a bit of support in the beginning. I’d also never studied writing in a professional sense, never taken a creative writing class or had anybody professionally edit my work. I found this program in Creative Non-Fiction Writing at City University in London, which was great because it’s two years, and I felt that was a nice amount of time to both study, learn a lot, and then take the time to write as well. I didn’t want it to be a rushed process. It did come down to having to be completely self-sufficient because, of course, you attend classes, write essays and stories, and edit other people’s work, but at the end of the day, it comes down to your own perseverance and how much you really want to write a book. So for me, that was what the biggest hurdle turned out to be, actually sitting down to write the damn thing. Really carving time out of my life because I was working, blogging and trying to have a social life in London and still traveling once a month if not more. So I had to sit down and write. Once I learned that – it sounds so stupid that I needed to learn to take the time to write in order to write a book – but once I got over that, I was able to start the real work on the book. The worst part was writing the first draft. I just needed to get those words down on paper, and even though they were terrible and I hated what I had written, at least I had done it and at that point, with 65,000, 70,000 words, the fun started. I realized how amazing it could be to actually go in and start to edit and play with it. I’m still in the editing stage, and on my third draft of the book. I absolutely love it, but yeah, the hardest part was to just get those words down on the page, and I think in order to do that, you have to set goals, and you have to set either a time limit or a word limit or whatever it is, but you can’t keep saying, “One day, I’ll write a book,” because it will never happen. You have to just open your notebook or your computer and start.
You have transformed your blog into a book, which consists of 20 letters to different people, who have either influenced or inspired your travels – how did you come up with that idea?
At first, I was trying to write a traditional travel memoir or a travelogue, but I realized very quickly that I was trying to write a book that I didn’t love. I kept coming to a standstill because I kept thinking, why is my story special? Who cares that I traveled quite a bit? That’s cool for me, but why should anybody else care? I had to think, what is going to be my hook? What is going to really get somebody to want to pick up this book and find it unique and pick it out of a hundred other travel memoirs like it? I think that actually ties in really nicely to blogging since everyone also talks about how important it is to have a niche to focus on. Yes, I think you do need to have a niche; you do need to have a hook, but it may not be the hook that you think. It might not have to be so distinct. You might not have to say, “I’m a solo female vegan backpacker, who only goes by foot through India.” It maybe doesn’t need to be that specific, right? I started to think, what could be the hook in my book, and what has sort of made my blog stand out a bit more. I realized it was connected to a series I do on my blog called, “The Last Time I Saw You.” These are written in kind of a letter style. Readers really connected with the stories, and people would write to me and say, “When is the next series coming out?” or people even approached me at conferences and stuff, and were like, “Oh, I love that series.”
I started thinking, yeah, other people like them and I love writing them, so I decided to write this new book based on that structure. The book is an epistolary, which is a series of letters. There are twenty letters to different people who have either influenced or inspired my travels. Some of them I’ve met on the way, some of them were virtual strangers; some were family members, friends, or ex-boyfriends. Another interesting discovery in the writing process was to see that my hook came in the structure of my book. That’s what I mean when I say, it might not be some huge thing, it might be something a little bit more subtle that kind of gives that unique spin on either the book you’re writing, or the article you’re writing, or the blog that you’re writing.
Did you experience writer’s block during the process of creating your book?
Brenna: Yes! I went through severe writer’s block where I hated everything that I was writing, so I just stopped writing. It became an absolute chore to me. Not only writing the book but blogging, too. If you looked through my blog archives, you could see the dip of when I went through that. I remember being in South Africa last year, and I had to turn in a story for university, and then I knew technically that I had that summer off from my master’s. I thought, “Oh good, now I don’t have to write anymore.” That was about a year and a half ago and to me, that was terrifying. I realized that something was really wrong, and I needed to shake it up; that I needed to take a step back and remember that passion I had for writing and remember why I was doing it. I completely changed the structure of my book and started to rewrite it because I knew something was off. It took me a few months to get over that writer’s block, and I found a big part of getting over it was clearing the clutter in the rest of my life. It sounds really silly, but for me, I needed to just make sure that there was nothing else in my life bothering me, like deadlines that I needed to meet or even emails I hadn’t answered. I just needed to get all that out of my life and focus all on that blank page and start writing. It definitely took me a few months, and as I said, I needed to create a schedule for myself. It sounds really weird, but for me, I realized that the place I felt most inspired was in fact my local pub. I would come in every day and write for three or four hours and get so much done. Everyone at the pub started to call me Dickens and joked that I was writing this book, but that’s where I found my inspiration, and that’s where I found my space. I needed to find where I found the most inspiration and where I felt most comfortable.
Before you started on your book, did you make a plan for when to be finished with the final publication?
Brenna: As I did it initially as part of my master’s degree, I had to turn in a minimum of 60,000 words to my university. Obviously, I had that timeline but I also knew it wasn’t going to be finished by then. I ended up essentially turning in more like 75,000 words, and the final draft is around 80,000. But for me, right now, I’m not working on it. I needed a small break. I think it’s important to take small breaks from your writing once in a while. Sometimes you get too immersed in it that you kind of fail to see something that might be staring you in the face. My manuscript is currently in a proverbial drawer, and I’m not touching it for the next couple of weeks. I’m going to take it up again soon, and my new timeline to be finished by December of this year; I’d like to be happy with the final manuscript by then. Well, it’s never final and we’re never totally happy, but you know what I mean.
Are you going to be a published or self-published author?
Brenna: I am interested in both traditional publishing, self-publishing and the aspect of independent publishers. I want to experiment. I want to try contacting agents and try speaking to publishers because I think that will be an interesting learning process. Sometimes I struggle with the idea of taking a more traditional route in publishing, as I’m so involved in the writing community online that I may want to self-publish. Especially now, I feel I owe so much of my success to people who are already reading my blog. I will always be a person who wants to go to a bookstore and buy a book off a bookshelf and smell the new book and hold it in my hands and marvel over the typeface and all those things. I love all of that. But there is, to me, a new kind of… loyalty? I’m not sure if that’s the right word, but loyalty to the online community that I’m a part of as well. There’s also something that’s really fascinating to me about self-publishing and doing it online and doing it myself since I’ve built this business from the ground up on my own. I know my audience. I know the market of the people who would be interested in reading this book. I don’t know; it kind of scares me to hand that over to a publisher who might say, “Change the title. Change the cover. Change this. Go to this person. Do this.”
I don´t feel there is a rush to publish, so I’d rather wait and do it the right way, which is why my plan is to spend the next six months to a year considering and playing around with the possibilities whether I´m going to become a published or self-published author.
When starting out your blog, This Battered Suitcase, what did you do to get yourself and your work noticed?
Brenna: My story is very odd because I didn’t realize that anybody was reading it at first. Even until 2013, I didn’t know there were Google Analytics or statistics. I really was the most naïve blogger out there, and I would judge who was reading my blog purely over comments I was getting on posts and the occasional email from people. I always thought, “How are these people even finding me?” I finally realized, “Oh, every other blogger is on social media and really promoting their blog and using SEO.” I remember the first time I heard the term SEO, and I was so embarrassed because everyone was talking about it at a conference I went to. I was like, “I have no idea what SEO means.” Clearly, I wasn’t doing it. Then in 2013, after that travel blogging conference, I did get more involved. I started using social media, and for me the most successful platform has been Facebook. So now, I do think about those things, social media and SEO and analytics. I definitely think of them a lot more because I realize that the more exposure I get with the blog, the more exposure I can potentially get with people who’d want to read my other writing or a book or something like that. As much as I’d like to say, “I’m not in it for the stats or to make my blog the most popular one out there,” I do understand from a PR and marketing perspective that it will help me in the long run. At the end of the day, though, I’m always going to do it. If everyone stopped reading my blog tomorrow, I’d still write in it. I started with no readers and I loved it then, so I’ll always love it. I’ve written something like 714 posts on This Battered Suitcase. It’s not like I’m going to stop anytime soon.
I think the best way to get noticed as a blogger is to write the best that you possibly can. The Internet is saturated with blogs. A lot of them even stopped creating content, but they still might be benefitting from all of those SEO searches. If you want to create a blog, and your goal is just to get noticed right away and to rank really high in Google and all that stuff, that’s great. People can play the game and do that, but I think the best way to get noticed and to keep those readers is just to consistently produce high-quality content. Whether that’s writing, photography, whatever it is, be the best you possibly can be in whatever field you’re writing in and take the time. It’s better to post once a week or even once a month but post a really amazing article than to pump the blog full of just SEO based articles or things that have no heart. Because you might get those initial hits, but you want to keep people around for the long run.
How often do you post content on your blog?
Brenna: I had grand plans of posting two or three times a week but, you know, life gets in the way. I do have other things going on because I currently make no money directly through my blog, meaning, I have absolutely no sponsored links, ads, nothing. Everything I post on there is for myself and for the readers, which means I do a lot of other freelance writing, so I make money indirectly through my blog. At the moment, I usually post about once a week. Now that my master’s is finished, I’m back to those grand plans of twice a week. I think it’s very rare I’ve gone without posting once a week. When I first started out, I was posting almost once a day, but I think everyone gets very excited with their blog when they first start, so maybe that was a bit ambitious.
There’s a ton of articles about the right time to post content on your blog. Is that something you consider when posting new stories on your blog
Brenna: Again, I was naïve in the past. I didn’t think about this at all when I started, but there is some truth to it. I definitely made the mistake of being too excited or too eager to post something, and so I posted it on Friday at 4 p.m and it fell into the black hole of the internet as people are less likely to read blog posts on Fridays and Saturdays. Friday afternoon, Saturdays, those are the worst days to post. Sunday can actually be okay. Not a lot of people are online on holidays. Now, even with my social media, I pay attention to when most of my readers and followers are online, and the same with blog posts. Monday and Thursdays have turned out to be good days for me to post and get a good response from my audience.
You have explored nearly 90 different countries and are currently living and working in London. How do you combine everyday life with traveling the world?
Brenna: I definitely miss traveling a lot. Almost every day, I think, “Should I give up this life in London, strap a backpack on, and be nomadic again?” Because I loved it. I felt so free. I traveled fairly continuously for almost seven years. I did stop and live in Japan and other places for awhile, but I do miss the traveling. However, I feel that London has been an incredible city to balance those feelings. Now, as I’ve gotten a bit older, I’m wanting to settle. Settle’s the wrong word; perhaps I want more of a base and want to build a career and not just get by on hotdogs and bartending and scrounging up whatever money I can. I find London to be a really good place for that, a really good base because, first of all, the city itself is so exciting. There is always something to do. I try my hardest to explore as much as I possibly can of London and go out a lot. Even on my own, I go to museums, I go to shows, I just walk around the different neighborhoods because there’s so much to see, and I think because the city is so diverse, it kind of satiates the craving I have to travel. On top of that, London is a fantastic city for flying to other places or traveling around the UK; it’s really well connected. It’s incredibly easy to get around Europe. Even if I go back to Canada, it’s not too bad. I personally don’t know if I’ll ever live and work in London forever, but traveling will always be a huge part of my life. I will always try to travel as much as possible, but I’m learning the joy of smaller traveling or backyard traveling. I’m learning that I don’t need to go to the Himalayas in order to have an adventure. I can just go a little bit further east in London and see so many different things.
You are currently working as a freelance writer for an online travel provider, which is very compatible with your occupation as a travel blogger. How did you get the job?
Brenna: Well, I was very fortunate. I got my freelancing job because I was in the right place at the right time, initially. I was in Dublin to attend a travel blogging conference, and I met my now boss just randomly. We just happened to be having a whiskey at a party, and we ended up chatting. I gave him my card, and then he had a look at my blog, and I think that sometimes we forget that a blog is also very much a portfolio. He saw that I was really dedicated and that I was really involved in the community, and so I started working freelance for that company almost two years ago. It’s really amazing. I’ve met so many people through the job that I do. I do a few other bits and bobs here and there but my main gig is with this one because I really love what they’re doing in travel blogging and with traveling. I think that networking is very, very important in both the blogging and writing communities.
Is there a strong community feeling between travel bloggers?
Brenna: Absolutely. There is a very strong community between travel bloggers, and most of us know each other. For example, here in London, there’s a great community of people who often meet up, and there’re so many conferences. I think I’ve been to eleven conferences in two years, all travel blogging based. You start to see a lot of the same faces. You can also reach out to each other on social media. You can ask somebody to share something, or it’s just sort of an assumed thing that, “Hey, I’ll share your article, and then you share mine.” It’s nice that I’ve met so many people in person who have commented and shared things over social media. It’s wonderful. It’s a really strong community, and I credit a lot of the recent successes of my blog to this group of people. All of the press trips I’ve gotten have been through word of mouth, and other people I’ve met have recommended me for freelance jobs, things like that. We all recommend each other, and even now, some of the work that I’m doing, I hire other bloggers. So of course, the first people I look to are people I know because I know that I can trust them, and I know that I can work with them well. So, good advice to aspiring bloggers and writers is to get as involved in the community as you can because it really is all about who you know, and people are more likely to recommend and hire their friends.
When starting out as a blogger and trying to figure out the best strategy to get people to notice you and your work, guest blogging is a term you see often. We just talked about the importance of network, and in relation to that, what is your attitude towards guest blogging?
Brenna: If it’s a large company, then I won’t guest blog for them. That used to be quite popular, and I used to do it. Again, I was quite naïve because I think writers and bloggers really undersell themselves sometimes. If you’re guest blogging for a large company, you’re giving them an article for free. They could’ve hired somebody to write that, like a journalist or somebody they’re more comfortable paying, because there are still mixed attitudes towards bloggers being categorized as “real” writers. So I would be wary of doing anything for free. However, if it’s another blogger or perhaps an up-and-coming business, I think that’s absolutely fine. Do whatever you’re comfortable with. Some people still do it, but I’ve seen the trend of guest blogging dying out, and not as many blogs accept them. For example, on This Battered Suitcase, I don’t accept any guest posts whatsoever. If you’re an aspiring blogger, definitely do your research before approaching a blogger. Make sure that they do, in fact, take guest posts and guest submissions before emailing them.
A new tactic that I’ve seen people using is to create lists or roundups or features of people, so you can say like, “The 5 Best Blogs for Writing.” Then the person you’ve featured is likely to share your post. That’s a good way to get your name out there. Another thing, of course, are interviews. For the most part, I would say yes to an interview. Whether you’re the new blogger or the more established blogger, I think interviews can help both people.
Lastly, do you have any advice you want to share with well aspiring writers or others that want to pursue a career like yours?
Brenna: In terms of blogging, the number one thing is that you have to love it; you have to do it for the right reason. If you don’t love it, your readers won’t love it. If you don’t like writing it, people won’t like reading it. You cannot go into blogging thinking that you’re going to make money, at least not for the first six months; some perhaps make some in an early stage, which is great, but I would go into it, thinking, “I want to do this because I love it.” The other thing I’d say is that you have to be determined, and you have to just keep going. Again, I wasn’t really trying to build up an audience, and I blogged for many, many years without anybody reading it, so you have to remember that it does take time. I feel like I’m going to say a cliché like, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” but it’s true. You need to build it up and prove to your audience that even if it’s a small audience at first, you are going to keep doing this, and you’re going to be reliable; there’s nothing worse than following a blog and then all of a sudden, they stop without notice.
So be passionate, be determined, and at the end of the day, do whatever YOU want to do. Honestly, you will read 1001 posts about how to blog, what to write, what not to write, how to do SEO, how to use social media. At the end of the day, do what makes you happy, and carve a new path. The travel blogging world is indeed saturated, but there’s always room for somebody with a unique voice, a unique perspective. There’s always room for you to be creative and to do something really different. Blogging can be a very intimidating thing, and writing online can be a very intimidating thing, especially when you look at other huge established blogs. However, you need to always remember that you can’t compare your beginning to somebody else’s middle or somebody else’s end.
Photo Credit – This Battered Suitcase
To learn more about Brenna and This Battered Suitcase
go visit: www.thisbatteredsuitcase.com