Hello and welcome to chapter three on story ideas and research methods. I’m sure many of you have a knack for writing or I sincerely hope you are finding this a help. Now, let’s get down to digging for terrific story ideas and making them come alive with dynamic research.
Having a good idea is one of the most important starts to writing. Research is one of the most important parts of writing a good story. The word also means many things in creative non-fiction:
- Keeping track of ideas and finding them
- Library Research and Internet Research
- Gathering Research
- Finding Sources
Let’s start with how to find story ideas.
You may be the type of person that is already brimming with many ideas and that’s why you’re taking this ebook. Perhaps there’s one burning idea you’ve been waiting to develop and that’s the reason.
Whatever your reason, you must have ideas to write. Even keeping a shopping list is an idea and when using creative non-fiction, can turn into an extremely interesting topic.
I was discussing how people find ideas when we first worked on this ebook. Throughout my career in teaching, finding ideas is one of the common threads of discussion in journalism schools. Throughout my professional communications career, executives and journalists will spend hours in meetings at times – just discussing ideas for stories.
Ideas are an extremely important thing. Many working environments where writing is needed also must have a diverse group of people so the ideas become diverse. The exception to this is if it’s a community newspaper pertaining to one group of people – or a magazine focused on single mothers. In the latter case, it may help to have many single mothers working at the magazine.
Whatever the publication or opportunity to get your creative non-fiction published, creating ideas is essential.
When a friend and I were discussing how people find ideas, we mentioned how important it is to draw from every aspect of your everyday life. People (and writers especially) are inspired by everything happening around them. Well, perhaps not everything – but, if something peaks your interest – go for it!
In journalism schools all over the world it’s a hub of ideas. Students like you get their first chance of working in a “think tank” of ideas. Ideas are questioned and challenged, argued and approved, discussed and debated. You will have the opportunity to create this atmosphere online, with the prejudice line broken. You won’t be able to see the face of the person talking to you – to be persuaded by beauty or what you perceive as lack t. It’s a true democracy where people can voice their opinions and get feedback – as long as you can type, can afford an Internet connection, or have access to a computer.
In the professional writing world, some publications and news agencies pay top dollar for people to conduct focus groups and editorial boards just to diversify their contacts and create story ideas.
While I was working for the CBC back in 1995, I was a Diversity Journalist – one of my duties was creating editorial boards to discuss news coverage and forgotten story ideas, as well as expand their contact base.
You can hold your own focus groups among friends if you feel stumped for ideas. This can be formal or informal. You can throw an “idea party” where everyone there must come with one idea they haven’t seen covered often, if at all in writing. While you’re sitting around with friends and family, pay attention to the things they say, the things they’re concerned about. Being a good listener will make it easier to be a good creative non-fiction writer.
There are so many ideas you can come up with just by listening to others.
As well, don’t forget that many journalists get their ideas by paying attention to radio, TV, movies, the Internet, books, video games, newspapers and magazines to name a few. The media can inspire you to produce more media.
Ben Yagoda in the Handbook of Magazine Article Writing mentions that many writers get their ideas while in the shower. I take showers, but I also get many ideas while taking quick breaks from work. I get ideas while eating, while walking, while on the bus or driving. This goes back to what my colleague and I were talking about – you can draw ideas from every part of your everyday life.
Here are some solicited words of advice for keeping track of ideas:
- Keep a small notebook to write down ideas
- When you have an idea, write it down if you think it’s important
- Depending on how comfortable you feel, share your ideas with others – even if someone else steals it, they won’t write it exactly like you would unless they’ve plagiarized (we’ll get into ethics later)
- With the before mentioned, remember there are some ideas that are so fresh and new – you should keep them to yourself and only share them with people you trust
Keep in mind the ideas you will be sharing with me in this ebook are yours – not mine. It would be unethical of me to steal any of your stories. This would simply make me look bad. I have a business and don’t want that.
We’ll get into ethics more later, but many people in the publishing industry are honest contrary to popular belief. Yes, there are always a few bad apples in the bunch. However, because being a successful writer of any genre, including creative non-fiction is based so much on reputation and spending a lifetime building one – in general, people don’t stab others in the back. Keep this in mind and keep paranoia down.
Wow….that was a lot to say about story ideas. The crazy thing is there’s more to say too. This subject could last for days, but let’s move onto library research. As well, that’s another thing to mention about how to get ideas – sometimes just browsing around a library can create loads of ideas – it’s called serendipity.
Library and Internet Research
Libraries and librarians can be your best friends as a creative non-fiction writer. It’s good to develop the skills of library research yourself, but librarians can really help when you’re stuck. As well as being trained and educated professionals, they’re also usually great at customer service. They love books and media as much as you do. That’s how they make their living.
Again at the CBC, I actually worked for awhile as a Media Librarian in what is known as Visual Resources. This was a library where all visual media was kept and was used by journalists, producers, writers, researchers and editorial assistants. It was basically an archive of stock tape of CBC broadcasts.
As you may have noticed what I have done throughout this chapter with me, I’ve made reference to books that you might be able to find in your local library or on the Internet. I highly encourage you to read all books and Internet references mentioned, as well as to refer to the bibliography that will be included at the end of this ebook.
Speaking of books, there’s a great one filled with many listings called The Internet Handbook for Writers, Researchers and Journalists by Mary McGuire, Linda Stilborne, Melinda McAdams and Laurel Hyatt. This book includes many links to resources you can use on the Internet to find out background material to your story ideas.
Also, libraries are the places where you can find the huge dictionaries you may not be able to afford or the Farmer’s Almanac to create story ideas on upcoming events like anniversaries.
In most libraries around the world, there are also computers where you can use the Internet. You may be at one of them now learning this chapter. Most of these computers, such as the ones in Canadian libraries, allow you to access the local and national databases of resources. Also there are links to resources where you can access resources all over the world and suggestions for finding ideas:
- www.nytimes.com/learning – offers an “On This Day in History” archive that is great for doing stories on anniversaries.
- There’s also The Optimist’s Guide to History and Pro Football Chronicle
that give you information on important dates in history for stories
- To get out of a writing rut, try reading things you don’t usually read, like
Aeronautics Monthly or Modern Ferret
- Shake up your life to come up with interesting stories
- Take a vacation or a break
- When finding sources, good places to start – ProfNet (www.profnet.com), sponsored by PR Newswire
- Again, when finding sources, ExpertSource (www.bsuinesswire.com), backed by Business Wire
- Ask other writers – you can connect with other writers through I, the American
Society of Journalists and Authors, the Periodical Writers Association of Canada, etc.
- Use professionals for expert advice, there is probably an Encyclopedia of
Associations at your local library
- Public Relations people or PR people can be your friends for stories. Places like the University of Southern California have databases of experts: (HTTP:// uscnews.usc.edu/experts/index.html)
- Guestfinder (www.guestfinder.com) can put you in the direction of people who are experts
- Go through your own contacts
Simple ways of doing research include using popular search engines like Google.com and Yahoo.com. These search engines will give you access to many books.
The Internet itself has many resources that can be helpful. However, keep in mind just like with books – you must use the information with caution. It is sometimes said few people are more cynical than writers – this is not true for all, however, if you possess this quality, use it to your advantage. There are many ways to check if information you receive is valid. Always get at least a second opinion if you can, unless you’re sure the first opinion is accurate. Go with your heart, gut and head when finding information – you’re credibility as a creative non-fiction writer counts on it.
Gathering information is a difficult task and sometimes becomes a burden. For some writers, this is the best part of writing, for others – they can’t stand it. I recommend reading The New New Journalism book I mentioned before to find out how many writers of creative non-fiction handle research, but I will go into some points here.
With creative non-fiction, as also mentioned in Writing Creative Fiction, it can take days, weeks, months, even years to research a story. Think of Julia Roberts in the movie Erin Brokavich which won an Oscar for best actor. If you haven’t seen the movie, she spent years investigating an environmental scandal that resulted in a law suit.
There are stories you will do creatively that will take you anywhere from minutes (depending on how fast you type)…..to years. It depends on what your interests are and how complicated the story. Something like a memoir for example is something you may be 40 years old and still writing, expecting to publish in another 40 years. Patience is an important thing to have with writing.
However, you may be working for a literary magazine where stories are produced month by month. You may also be working for a newspaper’s Lifestyles section where stories are produced on a daily basis. You may also have your own website with advertising and earning a comfortable living and writing all day long as many stories as you can churn. As you can see, the situations vary.
Tom Wolfe, a pioneer in creative non-fiction, also known as the New Journalism, once said that you practically have to sleep with your subjects to really get to know them. Literally, this need not be true, however, this does raise an important point that Dan Wakefield mentions in his 1966 book called Between the Lines about the new journalism:
I am writing now for those readers – including myself – who have grown increas- ingly mistrustful of and bored with anonymous reports about the world, whether signed or unsigned, for those who have begun to suspect what we reporters of current events and problems so often try to conceal: that we are really individu- als after all, not all-knowing, all-seeing Eyes but separate, complex, limited, par- ticular “I”s.
With traditional journalism, many times a reader can sense the complete detachment involved in the reporting. Why so many readers love creative non-fiction and why so many writers love doing it is because it creates connections in this world where six degrees of separation means a lot. The more we know about a person, the better we can connect to them and the message they’re trying to get across.
So, you don’t need to get into bed with your sources, but you do need to understand them….to just about get to the point where you can read their minds. You’ll see more why this is important when we get into internal and external dialogues in chapter five.
Your research should help you to find sources. Through Internet searches, looking for people in the library, the person you talk to at the hot dog stand, your dentist, the sales associate you bought your shoes from – all these people are potential sources.
With the style of story for your writing, such as a memoir or personal piece, you may not have to go far or search wide for your sources.
An important tip that an extremely kind man told me at the Innoversity Creative Summit in Toronto, Canada (Innoversity being another word for diversity), was to keep a contact list.
We all have contacts – some of us may have the Queen of England on our list, some of us may have the butcher’s name down the street. Depending on the story, all contacts are equally important. I recommend using a spreadsheet or finding special database software to keep your contacts handy.
Make sure as you keep this list, you also keeps notes about this person so you can remember them. Keep in mind this contact list could become public so use discretion when taking your notes about someone.
Finding sources is also about networking. Networking, or also simply put, getting to know as many people as you can, is important as a writer. Although writing can be a solitary service, you still need to take some time out of your schedule getting to know people. We’ll expand on how to organize your time as a writer in chapter eight.
Finding story ideas can be one of the most exciting aspects of creative non-fiction writing. You can find them anywhere, and as mentioned above they are the main ingredient in cooking your stories.
Research can be done in a variety of ways. The most popular ways among many writers is using libraries and the Internet – all which can be found at your local library
– or you may even want to draw from the library of books you have at home. If you’re researching something which can become the type of story you would like to expand into a book – you might want to own the book and there are many second-hand bookstores, independent bookstores and places like Indigo, Chapters and Amazon.com which can supply you with what you need. When we get to the business part of writing in chapter 11, we’ll talk about how you can make writing your business and write off many of your expenses with your taxes.
Finding sources and keeping a contact list is something that will help you move from a good writer to a terrific writer. Use a software package to create your contact list. Many PC computers have Microsoft database software which is a program I’ve used and find helpful. Whatever you choose to use, especially if you’re a MAC or Linux user, the important thing is to make sure you keep track of your contacts because sometimes when faced with blocks for ideas – all you need to do is browse over your contact list for brilliant ideas to come.
Come up with the story idea you would like to do for the final assignment in this ebook. Refer back to the first chapter for mention of the final assignment. To refresh your memory, it is a story of no more than 10 pages based on the different story styles explained in chapter one.
Next, develop a backgrounder for your story idea. A backgrounder is like developing a bibliography of sources, books, songs, newspaper and magazine articles, etc. that will aid in developing your story idea.
The backgrounder should contain the following:
- One half-page outlining your story idea
- Pages including your sources list
- Plus, a bibliography
After you’ve done this, post your backgrounder on your personal website and I will be marking it with the same criteria as chapter one’s major assignment if you send me the link.