What Is the Camino de Santiago?
The Camino de Santiago is a road that Roman Catholic pilgrims and others have walked for about 1, 200 years. The word camino means “trail,” “way,” “road,” “path,” or “street” in Spanish. Santiago means Saint James (one of the twelve disciples of Jesus) in Spanish. Thus in English, El Camino de Santiago is usually translated as The Way of St. James.
The destination of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage is a beautiful cathedral built on the legendary burial place of St. James. It is in the city of Santiago de Compostela, a city is in the mountainous province (or autonomous state) of Galicia in northern Spain, near the Atlantic Ocean.
The truth is that there are at least twelve major routes to Santiago de Compostela. For example, one comes north from Sevilla in southern Spain; another starts in Lisbon and goes through most of Portugal. One starts in Paris, weaving south through France.
However, the most famous route is the Camino Francés, which is about 500 miles long. It starts on the French side of Pyrenees, crosses those mountains, and then goes across most of northern Spain. It is the route I took three times, and the one on which the book WALK: Jamie Bacon’s Secret Mission on the Camino de Santiago is set.
In Chapter 2 of the book WALK, there’s a brief explanation of how it was that St. James’s body ended up in Spain, and why he’s been the patron saint of Spain for hundreds of years. Please understand that a lot of the information about the Camino de Santiago is based on legend and is not historically verifiable. Still, various places on the pilgrimage trail have been influential in European history, and knowing about them often makes the walking experience especially interesting to pilgrims.
Over the years since the legendary discovery of the grave of St James around 800 AD (or CE), millions of people have walked the Camino for many reasons. In medieval times it was primarily a Christian religious pilgrimage, and devout people walked it to receive indulgence (a reduction of punishment for sins) once they reached the cathedral. It was sometimes a trade route.
In the 21st century, many people walk the Camino for non-religious reasons, yet still to reflect on their lives.Over the centuries, participation in the Camino de Santiago has waxed and waned. Since about the 1980s, the number of walkers each year has increased steadily. In 2019, according to the records kept in the Santiago pilgrim office, 347, 578 pilgrims from many different countries completed the Camino.
Why I Wrote WALK
Have you ever decided to do something and when someone asked you why, you simply shrugged for you had no good, logical, sane, quick, socially acceptable answer? That happened to me with my first Camino experience.
Briefly, I learned about the Camino de Santiago in early 2000s from a co-worker who’d walked it. Just listening to her account, I found myself saying, “I want to do that!” And when she said she wanted to walk it again, we set a date to go a few years in the future.
As 2008 approached, I began reading Camino history. I studied websites and blogs. I ordered guide books. I bought an aluminum-framed pack, a lightweight sleeping bag, boots, first aid, a broad-rimmed fabric hat, and miscellaneous other things. I started walking around my town and hiking up hills. I found someone who wanted to stay in my house in southern California while I was away. And then I booked a flight to Europe.
In early September 2008, my friend and I found ourselves in St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a tiny town in the French Pyrenees, about to embark on an adventure that dramatically changed my life.
I won’t write trip details here. Bu in those weeks of walking, I found I loved the simplicity of the pilgrim life—you just get up in the morning, put on your pack, walk as many kilometers as you choose, find an albergue or inn, and go to bed exhausted. I was wowed by the beauty of northern Spain, the companionship of fellow pilgrims, the quaint villages, the hearty pilgrim meals. I learned about Catholicism, medieval art, Gothic architecture, European history. I suffered plenty with boots that didn’t fit well, a too-heavy pack, the end-of-summer heat, and sleep deprivation due to snore-noisy albergues. But I was hooked.
The experience was expanding, freeing, and gratifying. I wanted to introduce friends and relatives, especially my grandchildren, to the experience. I looked around for children’s books on the topic. I found very few. That led to thinking I should write a kid’s book about the Camino. How hard could that be? How long could that take? Oh, I was naive!
How I Wrote WALK
So I began this children’s book writing project. I wrote slowly, haltingly, and with plenty of procrastination. It was a project I would worked on for a month or two, and then I turned to some other interest, or some other priority. In those years, I also made the decision to a make a dramatic change in my lifestyle based on how I felt on the Camino. I decided to give up my home altogether and become a house sitter for people who worked in places that interested me. That lifestyle gave me some of the variety and freedom I’d felt on the Camino.
And off and on I continued to work on drafts of WALK, which was then called “The Peregrino Kids.” Honestly, I didn’t know what I was doing. Although I’ve written plenty of academic papers and dabbled in journalism, I had little experience with writing fiction.
“They say” you should write about what you know. I needed to know much more about the Camino: I went back on the Camino Francés twice more—in 2011 and 2013. I joined Camino groups, including the excellent American Pilgrims of the Camino (website link). I made friends with other pilgrims.
It only made sense, too, that I should also learn basic Spanish. Occasionally, as I house sat in places around the American Southwest, I signed up for Spanish classes at community locations like colleges or institutes. But because my lifestyle was nomadic, I rarely had more than one term in one place. I’ve taken beginning Spanish at least three times in the last decade!
“They say” a writer should be well-read in the genre in which they are working. Well, in the time and location in which I grew up (in India), my access to children’s fiction was limited. And in college, I prepared for high school teaching and never took a course in children’s lit.
So once I decided to write a children’s novel about the Camino, I needed to learn about that genre. In order to get up to speed with contemporary children’s lit, I made what I now consider a brilliant choice: I read the gold standard of children’s books—more than 300 of the Newbery Award and Honor books. The Newbery, an award established in 1922, is given annually to what is deemed by a committee of librarians as the best children’s or young adult book by an American writer that year. Reading through those Newbery books was one of the best project I’ve undertaken. Almost every one was inspiring, compelling, honest, creative, and informative.
However, I still did not know how to write fiction. I started writing my book without any outline, though I knew the characters were going to places on the Camino. In the multiple drafts I did, I created many more characters than appear in the final version. And over those years, I went down topical rabbit holes I would never have explored if I had not been writing—for example, I researched man-hole covers because I thought the main character would be interested in those. Jamie was, and he took pictures of them, but those did not make it into the final book. Despite what might be considered wasted time, I think now that all the different things I chased and learned paid off by extending greatly my general background of knowledge.
Around 2012, when I thought the book was pretty decent, began looking for a publisher.
But I made a fatal mistake: I had supper with my friend Marianne, a screen writer.
We sat talking, one evening in a restaurant in Silver Lake, CA. She asked me to tell about my book. She listened thoughtfully as I spilled out the story. Then she said, “Esther, you’re not going to like what I’m going to say.”
I braced myself, expecting her to say it as deadly boring.
She said, “Esther, you don’t have a plot in that book.”
What?! I almost fell on the floor. How could she say that? I’d just told her the plot!
Quietly enraged, I asked what she meant. A plot is not a series of events that happen from one place to another, she explained. That might be a travelogue or a memoir, but it wasn’t a plot. A plot is the structure of a book that emerges from the deep-seated conflict within or outside a character. A good plot requires tension and intensifying situations where a protagonist must deal with more and more challenging situations.
She was right, I finally decided: My book did not have a plot. I seriously considered giving up the project altogether.
Instead, knowing I had a several month house sit in Santa Fe coming up which would provide uninterrupted time, I reluctantly went back to the drawing boards. I bought an excellent book on screen writing and followed its recommendations, creating 22 steps of plot development. I made an actual outline. I humbly wrote out answers to the questions the author posed. And I also researched the steps of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey.
And that, friends, was why and how Jamie Bacon got a secret mission and fell into the sequence of problems he faced in WALK.
How I Published WALK
Most new writers, when they think their manuscript is complete and polished, first seek an agent who can be their conduit to an editor and publisher. We new writers read the books and articles about how to write dazzling query letters intended to demonstrate our skills and convince agents of the power of our story. We research the individuals and literary houses that represent our genre. We make lists and send out those darn query letters. A few writers are successful with that endeavor and land an agent; legions of others are not.
I was in the latter category, and after querying 57 agents, editors, or publishers and hearing resounding silence in return, I seriously considered self-publishing. I contracted with Jennifer Lawson, a sensitive watercolorist and Camino pilgrim, to create graphics for the cover. I hired a graphic designer friend to begin laying out the pages. Another friend worked on the map for the book.
But then, for a year, an agent show up to represent my books (I had another book on house sitting to sell to a publisher as well).But WALK still did not find a publishing home.
In fall 2019, while house sitting in Albuquerque, NM, I decided once again to move ahead with independently publishing WALK. Then in early 2020, the whole world experienced the restrictions of the pandemic. I had to give up my travel plans. There were no real distractions.
That was when I fretted my way through the hundreds of decisions, repeated editing, corrections, proofreading and proofreading again. I found someone who could prepare the manuscript in ebook formats. I spent hours and hours on these tasks. Without guidance from anyone with experience, I took the steps involved in publishing/ printing: getting an ISBN for each format, selecting a printer (I chose to work with KDP/ Amazon and IngramSpark), setting a publish date; determining pricing in various currencies; and so forth.
I was exceedingly grateful my graphic designer was a friend who lived nearby, for together we worked through the not-very-user-friendly systems to upload the manuscript to the printing companies.
Eventually I had a proof-copy of WALK in my hands. I’d chosen flat finish—that had to go. I changed to glossy. I did another proofing and of course found more errors. We up-loaded the text again. And again. Every time we saw something else that could look a little better.
Finally I ordered a box of 40 books. It arrived. The box was so heavy, I had to push it from the living room into my study area. I opened it, and the sight was thrilling.
How I Am Marketing WALK
Marketing is perhaps the most daunting challenge indie-publishing writers face. Having had some experience with failing at marketing with prior book projects, I decided to undertake this opportunity with the intention that my guiding priority would be that the marketing be fun for me.
I planned and executed a Zoom book launch that went brilliantly, for I hired a top-notch consultant to guide and advise me. A talented friend was the MC; a savvy woman was my tech-support. My grandchildren, now almost 16 and 18, participated by reading aloud from the book. And we played a little game with the audience during the launch. The feedback from those who attended was supportive.
My marketing strategy, I’ve decided, is word-of-mouth. I’m not planning to spend a great deal of money on ads, or videos, or social medial for I don’t use Facebook or Twitter or the other popular apps, although I sure appreciate when people who do use them want to post about my book.
My target market, at least at the beginning, is former pilgrims who have walked the Camino and the children in their lives. Over time, I plan to focus on other market targets, like home-schooling parents, and, in the pandemic, the new school pods that are springing up around the country. I know a substantial segment of my market may be in Europe (France, Germany, Spain mostly) and in South Korea and Brazil—countries that send many pilgrims to Santiago.
I’m taking a long-range view on marketing. Because my book is fiction, it won’t go out of date. I’ve given up acting with urgency, with feeling I must rush, push, seize every opportunity, grasp at every straw. Instead I plan to do at least two things a week for the next three or four years. Tim Grahl, an internet guru who teaches about book publishing, once wrote that there are two important numbers for authors who are also independent marketers: the first number is 365—meaning you need to keep on working steadily all year long; and the second number is 10,000—which is roughly the number of books you need to sell to reach a critical tipping point where a book will continue to sell itself without a huge amount of additional effort.
It’s my intention to respect and go for those numbers, but again, from a place of steady non-urgency.
So my publishing journey, my book’s camino, is underway. As of this writing in November 2020, I’m thrilled with the responses, commendations, and reviews WALK has gotten. I’m even more thrilled that I feel solid, relaxed, and appreciative that my commitment to marketing remains strong and trusting. And yes, I am having fun.
As Jamie learns to say on his Camino: ¡Ultreia and suseia! Onward and upward!