Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A few nuggets from the idea mine

Since I’m going to be speaking at a writers’ conference in Roanoke, VA this weekend on “Finding Stories in Your Backyard,” I thought I’d double-dip and do a blog entry on the same subject.

Actually, the title is a bit erroneous – there really aren’t any stories in my backyard, except maybe how my lawn mower broke last fall before I was able to get in a final mowing, and tufts of brown grass are now poking up through the snow like a bad haircut on a X-Games skier. Or the fact that three dogs and a cat are buried there.

That may be interesting to me (ever try to bury a Doberman?) but probably not to anyone else. So let me broaden it a bit: “Finding Ideas.”

“But … I don’t know what to write about.”

We’ve all heard that. Most of us have said it. It’s never true.

A good place to start is to take inventory of yourself. What are you an expert in? What are you interested in? What experiences have you had? What’s your background?

The term “expert” doesn’t mean you have to hold a PhD. If you just took your first canoe trip, you’re an expert in taking a first canoe trip. If you grew up in Des Moines, you’re an expert in what it’s like to grow up in Des Moines. If you have a relatively rare medical condition, you’re an expert in that condition.

I think I’ve said this before in another post, but it can’t be repeated too often – nobody else sees the world exactly the way you do. Your voice, like everyone else's, is unique.

And so are your surroundings. One mistake we often make – especially journalists – is taking our home turf for granted. If you’ve been hearing about a certain place, or person, or quaint local custom all your life, you’ve probably become numb to it or them. But that Buddhist temple that looms over Reading, PA (and fades into the background if you live there), might be fascinating for someone in South Dakota.

Here are a few other suggestions:

1. “Nationalize” a local story. A woman in your area has quadruplets. Someone dies of carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty space heater. A farmer tries a new crop. A retiree wins the state lottery. Take those incidents, interview the people concerned, maybe take some photos. Then go on-line and find people in other places who have had quadruplets, or rescue squads that have worked carbon monoxide cases, or innovative farmers or retiree lottery winners. Contact them by phone or on line, stir their stories into the mix, and use your local story as the “broth.” Presto: A “national” story you could pitch to any national magazine.

2. Pay attention to your local media. An idea cannot be copywrited, only the presentation of it. So just because something was written about in your city’s daily newspaper or discussed on the 6 o’clock news doesn’t mean you can’t write about it, too.

3. Try Google Alerts, or the equivalent on another search engine. Set them for a particular town, or subject, or person, and be amazed at what pops up. I found a story about a new use for corn in Kansas on a Sri Lankan site reprinting an article from Indonesia. Honest.

4. Anniversaries are great story starters, and there are a number of "Today in History" Websites that you can use to find out what events happened 10, 20, 25 or 50 years ago. Then play off on that in any number of ways. Jan. 21, for instance, was the 35th anniversary of the Battle of Khe Sanh in Vietnam (find some vets who remember it); the 50th anniversary of Charles Starkweather's murder spree in Nebraska, the inspiration for Bruce Springsteen's dark album of the same name (re-examine the album) and the fifth anniversary of the news that Hispanics had overtaken African Americans as the most populous minority.

Hint: Magazines generally have a three-to-five month lead time, while Websites are often immediate. Consider that when thinking about anniversary-spawned stories.


Beverly said...

One of the things that's puzzled me is how bylined stories can use such similiar language, if not identical. It's understandable when something is credited to AP sources, but now that we have access to papers nationwide on line, I'm struck by how similiar stories sound. Where's the journalism beyond the facts?

On the other hand, for you fiction writers out there, news briefs and advice columns are gold mines. Flesh them out. Your version is just as true as anyone else's.

debsohf said...

Thanks, Beverly. As one of those fiction writers (a published one), with a trunkful of ideas and completed mss that can't find a receptive editor or agent, I'm waiting for the 'reality' craze to subside and for people to rediscover the delights of curling up with a decent piece of non-threatening prose. I'm not holding my breath while waiting, but I do continue to submit stories, because that's what we writers do. We're either the greatest optimists or the most pathetically deluded people in the world. Either way, we can't imagine NOT writing.

debsohf said...

Have a great time at the conference, Darrell. And thanks for all your hard work on behalf of TWB!

Ellen "EJ" Sackett, said...

Super column. Great insights, which seem so obvious once they've been said. I hope you get a lot out of your writers' conference. Bring back more pearls of wisdom! ~ ej

Sean said...

Darrell! Sean Fitz here! Been a while. Sorry.