Connecting Texas books and writers with those who most want to discover them
Each week Lone Star Literary profiles a newsmaker in Texas books and letters, including authors, booksellers, publishers.
Kay Ellington has worked in management for a variety of media companies, including Gannett, Cox Communications, Knight-Ridder, and the New York Times Regional Group, from Texas to New York to California to the Southeast and back again to Texas. She is the coauthor, with Barbara Brannon, of the Texas novels The Paragraph Ranch and A Wedding at the Paragraph Ranch.
Tui Snider is a travel writer and blogger specializing in offbeat sites, overlooked history, quirky travel destinations, and haunted places. She lives in the Metroplex area with her husband.
On Memorial Day weekend—the traditional kickoff to summer vacation season—we wanted to share with you a profile of a Texas travel book and its author. After a bit of Googling and bookstore combing, we landed on an unexpected choice. Unexpected Texas was written and published by freelancer Tui Snider in 2014 and has been a favorite with Lone Star readers ever since. Snider visited with us via email last week.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Tui, you grew up in Washington state and came to Texas from the Port Townsend, Washington area—which is a beautiful region of islands and ferries, and is a very literary area with Copper Canyon Press and plenty of bookstores. What brought you to Texas, and when?
TUI SNIDER: What brought me to Texas? A man! And no one was more surprised than me. After moving something like sixteen times in ten years, and living in far-flung places (including Belgium and Italy) I decided to settle down for good.
I also decided to give up on men.
Well, along came Larry! We met online and he courted me from afar. We used to have dinner dates via Skype. He’s a great cook and I’d see him eating all these wonderful meals, while I’d be eating cheese and crackers.
Long story short, a couple years later we were married at Scarborough Renaissance Fair in Waxahachie, Texas. Cheesy as it sounds, I finally found my handsome prince! To top it off, our house has a turret and gargoyles, so it looks like a little castle.
Your first book—a travel guide—is called Unexpected Texas: Your Guide to Offbeat and Overlooked History, Day Trips, and Fun Things to Do Near Dallas and Fort Worth. How did the book come about, and what kinds of information can readers find in the volume?
Shortly after moving to Texas, I was offered a writing gig through connections I made on Twitter. The job was to write three articles a week about fun things to see and do in the Dallas–Fort Worth Area. Of course, at that point in time, I was so new here that I had no idea what to write about!
This made a great excuse, however, to lurk in libraries, visit bookstores and go exploring. My husband and I started taking road trips every weekend. Before long, I had plenty to write about.
To me, the “unexpected” aspect to Unexpected Texas is all the quirky, offbeat and overlooked goodies travelers miss out on by sticking to main roads. I believe there is something unexpected to be found every where you go, you just have to know where to look.
However, when I pitched articles to magazines showcasing all the unique places I found in north Texas, none of them would bite. “Keep your articles typically Texan,” one editor told me. “Readers don’t want this weird stuff,” said another. “Give them what they expect.”
In 2013, however, I participated in the A to Z Blog Challenge. This is an annual event in which bloggers are challenged to write 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, throughout the month of April. I chose “unexpected Texas” as my topic and wrote posts on my favorite quirky sites, including the “Jesus in Cowboy boots” of Paris, Texas, the space alien grave in Aurora, Grand Saline’s Salt Palace, and Fort Worth’s replica of Da Vinci’s Last Supper that’s made from life-sized wax figurines!
Much to my surprise, these unexpected Texas blog posts were well received, and the biggest fans of all were fellow Texans. It was such a great response that I decided to write a travel guide to all these offbeat and overlooked places, and instead of giving people what they expected, as the editors had advised, I did my best to give readers the unexpected.
After the book came out, the moment that gave me the most validation was when a judge for the 22nd Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards remarked, "I love your quirky, conversational writing style. Your entries pack in a great deal of advice, research and fun: I now want to visit a lot of the places you mention!" I took that as a great big permission slip to keep writing books, and I haven’t looked back since!
Generally speaking, what did you personally find to be unexpected about Texas?
First off, there is so much more to Texas than all the clichés and stereotypes suggest! I was also struck by the deep connection and strong sense of identity so many people have here, as well as how much state history the average Texan knows. In fact, the first time I flew down to visit Larry, I found myself instinctively glancing around for the customs area and reaching for my passport!
On a personal level, the most unexpected thing to arise from Unexpected Texas was when a friend of mine who is an avid genealogist discovered that my great-grandmother lived in Texas. I was so excited when she told me. This made me an unexpected Texan! As silly as it may sound, I like knowing my roots run deep in the Lone Star State, and that I can rightfully claim it as my own.
I was also delighted to learn that our state dinosaur, Paluxysaurus jonesi, is arguably the largest creature to have ever roamed the earth. Everything’s bigger in Texas, right? Meanwhile, my husband and I continue exploring every chance we get, and Texas continues to offer up unexpected treasures. I don’t see an end in sight!
What was your path to publishing Unexpected Texas like? How long did it take from concept to books in hand?
In 2012, I attended DFWcon, a wonderful writing conference here in north Texas. At the time, my goal was to publish a memoir about the 5 years I spent on a tiny island off the coast of Washington State. The island had a population of 7, we were completely off the grid, and I kept a diary. It was quite an adventure!
Even though I have yet to publish that memoir, I did attend DFWcon three years in a row, during which time I took copious notes, asked lots of questions, and learned a lot. I always knew I wanted to write a book, but it was DFWcon that encouraged me to take the self-publishing route.
As I mentioned earlier, after completing the A to Z Challenge in 2013, I decided to test the waters and write Unexpected Texas. However, I didn’t just publish a book with the “if you build it, they will come” approach. I used all the strategies and techniques I learned at DFWcon along with all the other research I had done on my own.
As a result, Unexpected Texas hit #1 on Amazon’s DFW Travel section two days after it was released on March 2, 2014! Three years later, it continues to be a bestseller.
My father was a professional editor, so he comes out of retirement to edit my books. He does not pull any punches, either! Sure, his letters start, “Dear Twink,” but then he tells me to quit abusing commas and to read page 47 of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. He also adds witty remarks and family anecdotes in the margins, so I end up saving his edited manuscripts as keepsakes!
Other than the editing, I do everything myself, including cover design and formatting the interior. That’s certainly not required, and I know plenty of self-published authors who farm out those aspects. I just find those things fun, and am constantly learning new tips and tricks!
By the way, people often assume I used Photoshop to put a red cowboy hat on top of the Eiffel Tower replica on the cover of Unexpected Texas, but I did not. That red hat is what makes the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Texas, taller than the one in Paris, Tennessee.
Paranormal Texas, your second book, is also an offbeat travel guide. In this title, you take readers on a tour of allegedly haunted places in Dallas and Fort Worth. What sparked your interest in this project and how did it come about? As for the paranormal topic, is there one scary ghost story about DFW that we all should know to tell around the campfire?
Research for Unexpected Texas included reading about offbeat and overlooks places in advance, seeing them in person, then talking to locals once I got there. One of my favorite questions to ask people is, “What’s something interesting about your town that most tourists have no idea about?”
For some reason, this often prompted people to tell me where their town’s paranormal hot spots were and to share its haunted history. For instance, nearly every building in Granbury’s historic town square has a ghost story attached to it, and unlike in some places, shopkeepers are quite open to discussing their paranormal experiences. Also, like Denton, Granbury offers an excellent haunted history tour on weekends. After a while, I realized I’d collected enough north Texas ghost stories to create a travel guide to haunted places. That's how Paranormal Texas was born!
It’s hard to pick just one favorite ghost story, but here’s one I especially enjoy because it involves none other than Steven Spielberg. He is even on record with the Dallas Morning News with this tale.
Back in the 1970s, Spielberg visited Jefferson, Texas, while researching locations to shoot his next film. That night, he returned to his hotel room quite late. While getting ready for bed, Spielberg casually tossed his briefcase onto a rocking chair. The briefcase, however, immediately flung itself back at him, as though someone had thrown it.
Although puzzled by this incident, Spielberg brushed it off and climbed into bed. He had barely drifted off when he felt a tug at the sheets. When he opened his eyes, he saw a little boy standing beside him. “Would you like some breakfast, sir?” the little boy asked.
Well, that was the final straw for Mr. Spielberg! He leapt from bed, turned all the lights on, gathered up the rest of his crew, and drove down the road to another hotel.
Interestingly enough, the next movie Steven Spielberg released was Poltergeist. Makes you wonder, right?
What role did the Internet play in marketing your books? You appear to be a very early adopter of social media such as Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. How many hours a day do you spend online?
Since I work from home, I’m actually quite strict about how much time I spend on social media. What works for me is to treat social media as if it were a physical place. In fact, I like to think of it as a global coffeehouse.
Obviously, if all I did was hang out at an actual coffeehouse and talk about my writing projects all day, I’d never get anything written. (I used to own a coffeehouse, so this metaphor really hits home. I’ve seen plenty of would-be writers do just that!)
What I do instead is to visit Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, email and so forth on a daily basis, but only after my work day is over! I sometimes pop in during my work day, but not for long. I like to start socializing online around 5:00 p.m. while making dinner, and I usually log off by 8:00 p.m. There are exceptions, of course!
While I do look at social media as a marketing tool, its primary function for me is social. Twitter, especially, offers me much-needed camaraderie with other writers. In fact, I find Twitter so helpful that I now give a presentation called “Twitter for Writers: How to Make Your Tweets Matter.” This talk is specifically geared to help other writers use this amazing tool without getting frustrated and overwhelmed. (I’ll be giving this talk next at the Authors Marketing Event in Houston this July!) I’m also working on a book along these lines for helping people deal with social media overwhelm, because I think it should be easy and fun, not frustrating!
In following your social media I’m amazed at the volume of travel that you do. How many days are you on the road each year, would you say?
That’s a good question! My husband and I rarely turn down a chance to travel, and I keep a small bag packed at all times. If you count up all the spur of the moment weekend trips along with the longer journeys, we’re probably on the road two or three months of the year.
That said, I can be quite the homebody. I truly believe that travel is a mindset and my motto is, “Even home is a travel destination!”
In 2016 you were selected to be the Langdon Review writer-in-residence. What was that like?
Wow. It was amazing and inspirational! The Langdon Review weekend is an annual literary conference that has become a major highlight of my year. The people who attend are just so talented and well read. Being chosen as their writer-in-residence last year was a major creative boost!
As the writer-in-residence, I stayed in Granbury, Texas at HeavenHill Guesthouse. I had the place to myself for two whole weeks. There was no Wi-Fi, so it was a great chance to unplug and reconnect to my creativity. The guesthouse is walking distance from downtown, so I never felt lonely. I even brought home the stray cat that adopted me during my stay!
The Langdon Review creative residency inspired me to have my first photography show there in Granbury, and even to record a ten-song CD of original music. (I play several instruments and have been writing songs since I was a little kid, but had never recorded a CD before.)
Part of the residency required me to do community outreach, so I led a PhotoWalk through Granbury’s historic town square. I also created a self-guided walking tour through their historic cemetery that explains the meaning of several symbols you can find on the headstones there. The local visitors’ center in Granbury, Texas, now offers this as a free brochure.
Unexpected Texas largely covers an area within a couple of hours of the Metroplex. Have you ever considered covering the rest of the state with different Unexpected Texas volumes?
Oh, sure! However, when I was writing Unexpected Texas, my husband owned a boat shop, so we could only take road trips on weekends. This disappointed me at first, but I soon realized we weren’t the only people with that limitation.
It’s frustrating, for instance, to buy a book called 25 Fabulous Weekend Road Trips only to find that 20 of them are too far away for you to reach on a weekend! So I decided to narrow my focus so that a person living in the Dallas–Fort Worth area could easily visit every destination listed in Unexpected Texas and Paranormal Texas without spending the whole trip driving.
That said, I’d love to branch out and write about more places in the state. I’ve also discovered many more places within the Metroplex that I would like to share with readers. My “Texas to-do” list is never-ending!
What’s next for Tui Snider? I understand you have another book that you hope will be published in 2017. Can you tell us about it?
Sure! After a lifetime of exploring historic graveyards and several years of earnest research, I’m finally releasing a book called Understanding Cemetery Symbols: A Field Guide for Historic Graveyards. The book is currently available for preorder on Amazon and will be officially released in August. I’m so excited!
Even though many of our ancestors were illiterate, they often placed symbols on their headstones with meanings that have become forgotten over time. My desire is to create a cemetery field guide people can toss in their car, then reach for when they visit a historic graveyard.
Learning the meaning of these forgotten symbols has greatly enhanced my own trips to historic cemeteries. Not only is it fun, but it creates a connection to history I don’t get in any other way. I’m also creating two companion workbooks for Understanding Cemetery Symbols, one for taphophiles (folks who enjoy exploring cemeteries) and another for ghost hunters.
Aside from that, I’ve got quite a few creative projects lined up, including a book about a rash of UFO sightings in Texas in 1897, a book about unusual graves (and the stories behind them!), and even another music CD. In addition, I recently taught courses based on my books at TCU, and I love speaking at libraries and conferences. If any of your readers want to keep up with me and my projects, I invite them to drop by my website, , and say hi!
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Excerpts from Tui Snider’s UNEXPECTED TEXAS
The state of Texas and I got off on the wrong foot. It wasn’t the stark prairielands that depressed me; it was the human side of the landscape. On the first drive home from DFW Airport in the fall of 2009, the endless procession of strip malls, donut shops, “breastaurants” (à la Hooters) and churches lining the highway gave me the impression that all Texans did was eat junk food, leer at women, then repent on Sunday.
Shortly after my move, an online travel magazine recruited me to write about the Dallas–Fort Worth region.
After plowing through a pile of travel guides, almanacs, and history books, my perception of Texas began to change. As if I had misjudged an acquaintance, I realized that Texas has great stories to tell, but only if you ask the right questions. My earlier assumptions, based on the veneer of Texas, had blinded me to its depth. And while I wasn’t sure what to do with it, I began amassing quirky history and lore about this fascinating state.
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