I Want That Job - Guidebook Author

It's not all glamour and it'll never make you rich. But then that's really not the point. Dan Bailey talks bivvies, bad puns and sleeping in the car with prolific walking writer Ronald Turnbull, an author with 30 book titles to his name and a regular contributor to the outdoor mags.

Ronald on The Cobbler, 139 kb

Name Ronald Turnbull

Age 61

Based in Dumfriesshire

Relevant qualifications? A-level English. And I once climbed Window Buttress (Skye) with WH Murray.

'Salary' The one consolation for everyone who isn't lucky enough to be an outdoor writer is: outdoor writing is often very poorly paid. The rest of the time it isn't paid at all. It was a proud moment when I hit the top of Personal Allowance and became a real live taxpayer. These days I'm raking in a bit over £15,000.

Perks and holidays? Occasional discounts and even freebies by way of outdoor gear and books. Holidays? None. Or, looking at it the other way, all the time.

Further info? See my website.

'It's not a proper job, so what's the relevance of proper pay? What hourly rate would you require for the Fasarinen Pinnacles of Liathach?'

Ronald on Stob Ghabhar, 98 kb
Ronald on Stob Ghabhar
© Ronald Turnbull

What grounding did you have in the outdoors before deciding to make a career out of it?

My family's been in the hill since the 1850s. A cousin, Ronald Turnbull Hudson, fell in the Devi'ls Kitchen in 1904 and is reckoned as Snowdonia's third-ever mountaineering fatality. I was a committed enthusiast at the age of eight. A bit of climbing in student years, once led at Hard Severe, and a dozen or so proper Alpine peaks, including the Mittelegi Ridge of the Eiger (which is now considered a very easy route). As for hill running, I was given a FRA Long Distance Award for a continuous run over all the Donalds (Southern Scotland 2000ers) in 10 days - a record that nobody's bothered to beat yet.

What does a good day out on the hills involve?

At least one night. It's a nuisance coming home between hills and going to bed.

Your work is witty as well as knowledgeable, and you seem to enjoy language as much as hills. Do you have to love your both your subject and your medium to write about the outdoors full time?

Not at all, there are plenty of us who don't have any affection for our wonderful language and a few who don't seem to much like hills either. But given that 60% of my time is spent at the screen, to have fun there as well as on the summits is a big bonus.

What got you started in outdoor writing?

Saving weight. A small notebook and a pencil and write a trip story, ounces lighter than the heavy book (Dr Johnson's Scottish Tour) that my mate David was carrying. These days David carries a Kindle.

How long have you been at it?

It comes out at about 25,000 miles.

On the Meall Garbh arete, Tarmachan Ridge, 115 kb
On the Meall Garbh arete, Tarmachan Ridge
© Ronald Turnbull

Did you ever stop to work out your hourly earnings, or would you rather not know?

It's not a proper job, so what's the relevance of proper pay? Put it another way, what hourly rate would you require for the Fasarinen Pinnacles of Liathach?

'There's enormous satisfaction when someone emails that they've spent a first night in a bivvy bag, or really liked the Ailnack ravine at Glenlivet, or climbed some scramble that they didn't think they were up to'

As well as authoring books you also write for the hillwalking media. In terms of subject the two clearly complement one another, but is there an economic imperative too?

Ideally, on any trip I'm simultaneously writing a walking guidebook, a picture book and gathering words and pics for a daywalk type piece for an outdoor magazine. At which point, the National Minimum Wage starts to tremble at my near approach. It doesn't always work that way, and in general there's a trade-off between money and fun. A book like The Riddle of Sphinx Rock was pure fun to write, and go up Great Gable another four or five times for - half a summer's work and it's earned me a couple of hundred pounds. Contrariwise, at the moment I'm actually earning that much in a (12 hour and no bed) day revising walking routes in Dorset for the AA. Sleep in the car, out at dawn, cover three short routes, grab a bar meal before they close the kitchen, and off to the next lot of walks while drying the wet clothes on the dashboard.

Granite and Grit cover pic, 173 kb

Your canon is a mix of straight-up guidebooks and rather quirkier and more unusual offerings (things like The Book of the Bivvy or Granite & Grit). Did you actively seek out this sort of variety in your output?

I like to be working for three different publishers for when one of them goes bust.

What are the attractions of writing the less pedestrian books, and where do you get your quirkier ideas from?

All my books are pedestrian, ho-ho (you walked into that one Dan). Well, take The Life and Times of the Black Pig - a biography of Ben Macdui: a bit about my early years, a bit of history but the research stops the moment I get bored, an excuse for a few more walks up Ben Macdui, a few snidey remarks about birdwatchers: it gets printed for me with tasteful endpapers, I give it to people for Christmas, and it makes me a bit of money. Does that explain it at all?

Geology seems to feature a lot; is this something you know a fair bit about?

I've been climbing /scrambling / walking on the stuff for 50 years (since Middle Fell Buttress Langdale, age 10). A lot of time in my early years was at Torridon, where the stuff's helpfully colour-coded: stripey grey gneiss at the bottom, red Torridonian sandstone, white square-cut quartzite at the top. For about 30 years I waited for someone to write the book to explain it all for me. Nobody did, so I wrote it myself. And that was such fun I've now done a sequel: Sandstone and Seastacks, which is about coastal geology, including chalk, and fossils, and the more recent bits like the Jurassic that don't feature in the fells.

Book of the Bivvy cover pic, 109 kb

So, in some of your books, does history, legend etc. Do you enjoy the sitting-and-reading type of research as much as the striding-out variety?

Yes – and I also enjoy the explaining stuff: taking out the boring bits, finding a vivid way that really explains things. Working out that granite crystallisation really is the same as fudge rather than toffee: that's as pleasing as the new route on the back of Beinn Eighe (Thin Man's Ridge, Severe, 1971) or the photo with the walker just crossing the skyline on the little bump. Someone said about Granite and Grit, at last he understood the difference between granite and rhyolite. That really did make my day. And of course there's enormous satisfaction when someone emails in that they've spent a first night in a bivvy bag, or really liked the Ailnack ravine at Glenlivet, or climbed some scramble that they didn't think they were up to.

As for the more conventional guidebooks, what for you makes an interesting project?

An interesting bit of hill ground. I really got lucky: when I came along, Cicerone Press had lots of 'Pub Walks in Boring Old North Lancs' type books but nobody'd done the serious walking / bit of scrambling guides for the Cairngorms or Ben Nevis & Glen Coe. Too bad Dan, twenty years too young. I think there's still Wester Ross...

Can you talk me through the life cycle of a typical RT guidebook from commissioning to research and writing... then production and printing eventual appearance in the shops. What does each stage involve, and how long does each take?

It starts with an email to a publisher: here's something I fancy writing about (Geology for Hillwalkers, a book about bivvy bags, Walking Highland Perthshire) - would you like some details? And I'll paste in the blurb (back cover copy) as it's quick to read and ought to convey what the book's about. Usually they say hmmm, sounds quite interesting, send the details, occasionally they say Dan Bailey's already doing that one. So I send the synopsis, which is the contents listing, the Introduction, half a dozen photos, bit of text. And they say well really Ronald, but yes maybe it is a goer. Then there's about two - six months when they've agreed in principle but not sent the contract yet. If I trust them I start work anyway.

For Walks in Highland Perthshire, a guidebook due out in spring 2013, I spent Summer Autumn Winter Spring and the following Summer walking and photographing (it's a fat book, nearly 100 routes). Then there's generally about three months checking, tidying up, inserting bad puns and deleting them again, drawing maps, photoshopping the photos, checking the Gaelic, generally making a book. Then off it goes to the publisher, 48 hours before the contract deadline, sometimes even earlier.

After that there's about three months where it's liable to come back like an ill-digested cheese: queries, page proofs, arguing with the editor about semicolons and stuff. Can be longer: Granite and Grit required interplay between text, images, and image captions, and it took about 12 months to get through the editing and page layout. And then there's three months during which I forget that thing I wrote last year, and suddenly six copies thud down onto the doormat. Up to 11 months later the first royalty payment arrives. And every six months after that, the royalty payment gets slightly smaller...

Do you have to do a lot of updates for reprints, and is this as enjoyable as the original research?

No, it's a pain, and unpaid.

Cloud inversion on A' Bhuidheanach Bheag, 112 kb
Cloud inversion on A' Bhuidheanach Bheag
© Ronald Turnbull

What does the research stage involve? Are there typically lots of trips away, and how do you accommodate these into home life?

Just after they say "You mean like that chap what's he called Wainwright?" they go: "and do you walk all of the routes yourself?" I try not to sound too insulted as I say yes of course I blooming do the routes I'm a blooming guidebook writer. There's not much call for guidebooks to Dumfriesshire so mostly I'm working 2 - 3 hours drive away from home: Southern Highlands, Lakeland. Usual scheme is, off at dawn, full day on the hills, night out on the hills, another full day on the hills, back home at dusk. My final Perthshire trip was good. Drive to Blair Atholl. Bus to Dalnacardoch Lodge up the A9 - the driver said next stop was Dalwhinnie but I managed to persuade him otherwise. Up to the A9 Munros by a route from the south east (Cama Choire), steep-sided corrie, looked good on the map, looked even better at 8pm in low sun. Bivvybag on A'Bhuidheanach Bheag, and these grassy Drumochter Munros may be a bit dull but they're jolly comfy to lie down on. Dawn mist rising to 3000ft level, me at 3050ft level, great photos and a fogbow. Down to Gaick and out to Glen Feshie bothy. Day 3: up Minigaig, over Leathad an Taobain, down to Blair Atholl, bar meal, quick snooze in the car, home before midnight. Accommodating to home life? I usually remember to take my boots out from the back seat rather than leave them as an unwelcome presence for when Clare sets out on a business trip next morning.

Stob Ghabhar bivvy, 85 kb
Stob Ghabhar bivvy
© Ronald Turnbull

Are you a slave to weather forecasts?

Yes, because I'm always after the photos as well as the walk. The occasional day in the rain is actually relaxing, as the camera goes into the rucksack and I can just enjoy the walk. The days when I get home late because of the weather are when it's end to end sunshine and I stayed up till sunset taking pictures.

Wild camps, wild weather, long days on the hill – how tough is this job, physically?

You said it in the question. It's a soft, contemplative sort of life. Apart from the nights on the passenger seat of the VW Polo.

These days words aren't much use without pictures, and an eye for composition and some facility with cameras are prerequisites of the job. Is this side of the process hard work, and do you enjoy it as much as the research and writing?

I came into this as a writer. In fact I never carried a camera: memory makes a better job of the pictures than a camera can. But I soon found I needed photos to go with the words else I couldn't sell the words. So I wrapped my grandfather-in-law's old SLR camera in a plastic bag and got going. And since then I've been learning to take photos. It's great to have something so interesting to learn, so long after I left school. A pink sunrise shot of Sharp Edge on Blencathra: it's the old hunt n gather thing, fair old substitute for a bloody hunk of elk stuffed in the rucksack. And of course I have an unfair advantage, it's quite hard not to take a few good photos when you sleep over on the top of the hill.

What are the highs of being a guidebook writer?

Days and nights on the hill. Getting a cracking dawn photo. The occasional appreciative email from a reader. Slipping a really bad pun past my editor. Getting clean in the sea after four sweaty days living in the back of the car when one of the walk routes goes across a beach – and not even having the hassle of drying the swimsuit on the car heater cos it's the nudie beach at Studland.

And the lows?

Being edited by someone with Ideas about Punctuation.

Would you ever swap this job for something else?

No way. I'm unemployable.

Finally, what's the single most important piece of advice you'd offer an aspiring guidebook author?

If there's an area you know and love and spend lots of time in, and Dan Bailey didn't already write the guidebook, and you're a half-decent photographer, and you don't actually need to make any money, then yes, okay, give it a go.

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