Finding Ideas

The best ideas are your own, rather than assignments from others, because you wrap your ego around your own, and ego drives writers. Some writers are terrific at coming up with story ideas, and you can learn their techniques here.

One day I watched Roy Clark stand on a sidewalk in St. Petersburg surrounded by a gaggle of beginning students. Roy wanted them to understand that they’re living among ideas ripe for picking. He turned slowly in a circle for 30 minutes, pointing and asking questions:

· What are all those antennas on top of Woolworth’s?
· Why are people standing in line in front of a tax preparer in July?
· How do these trees get water when they’re planted in a sidewalk?
· Who shops in that wig store, and what do they buy?
· Why are the concrete blocks in this sidewalk hexagonal, and what’s inscribed on them?

Roy taught our students to question the world around them. If you see that world in terms of stories, basically people interacting for reasons, you’ll find all the ideas you’ll ever need.

Curiosity, attention, a little bravado, and a willingness to break routines lead to great story ideas. You lurk, listen, ask questions, and find experts. You can prowl the Internet, but the best ideas come face-to-face with real people.

The best ideas are subjects that other writers haven’t written about, or haven’t noticed. The following techniques work because they break you out of your routine ways of thinking and dealing with the world.

1. Think larger and smaller at the same time. Enlarge the context to find the larger story in a wider perspective or a longer time scheme. Narrow the context by finding people who exemplify something large. For example, explain a bank merger in terms of its earlier mergers and acquisitions, or explore the effects on stockholders and employees. Find out if any bank merger ever actually improved customer service.

2. Ask experts to explain how ordinary things work, preferably things invisible to the public. For example, how does your city’s water purification system work? What really happens to recycled trash? Why do bee stings sting? How does a wine aerator work?

3. Find the people who operate prominent objects and processes in your community. For example, interview the operator on top of a T-crane. Search out the person who controls traffic lights before and after large events. Talk with football trainers about how they deal on the spot with injuries. Find out how college students game the registration system.

4. Explore your own emotional reactions. If something bothers you or puzzles you, find out why by interviewing people with similar reactions. You’ll discover you’re not alone in your fear of high bridges, stupidly opening junk mail, buying lottery tickets, or wondering if you’re adopted.

5. Think about things, such as a monument, a hangout, or a photograph to find the past continuing to influence the present. After my father died, I looked through all his Navy stuff, and discovered that everything I knew about his role in World War II was wrong. A picture of your mother at your current age will lead to thoughts about what we inherit, and what we don’t.

6. Buy a different magazine every week at random. I learned this trick from Don Murray, the first writing coach. Picture Don as a tall, fat man with a Santa Claus beard, dressed in shorts and shower shoes, facing away from a newsstand rack and reaching back to take the first magazine his hand touched. You pay particular attention to the fringes: little ads, personals, letters to the editor. The randomness leads you to worlds you haven’t imagined, such as the thinking behind professional wrestling, families who shelter strangers’ dying babies, or how grocery stores position candy in the checkout line for maximum profit.

7. Develop a storage system for ideas awaiting their moment, such as a drawer full of 3X5 cards, a notebook, a miscellaneous hanging file, or a computer cache. Encourage yourself to browse in it by not organizing well. Roy Clark calls this “composting,” turning over the trash until it matures. I often bring back great quotes that have nothing to do with what I’m writing, so I write them on a card and toss it into my future drawer. The stash also includes clippings, tapes, jottings, pictures, and parts of machines.

8. Take alternate routes to normal destinations, and try out different modes of transportation, especially slower ones. Leave your car at home and walk to work or ride a bike. Climb stairs instead of taking elevators, take the service elevator, and enter through back doors. The best idea guy I ever knew was Mike Foley, managing editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He jogged five miles every morning before work, taking a different route every time, and jotting down things he saw. I once rode on a bus behind two teenage girls. One girl turned and surveyed the passengers, turned back to her companion, and lamented, “No movie stars here.” Bingo, several story ideas about fame, vanity, and expectations.

9. Your mother taught you not to talk with strangers. Good advice for children, bad advice for writers. So strike up conversations with people you don’t know, even cultivating weirdos. Introduce yourself to airplane seatmates, anybody carrying a sign or wearing a nametag. Wait a minute, you object, I’m too shy for that. I am too, so I say to myself, “I’m a writer, and I have license to talk to strangers,” and just barge ahead.

10. Accept any piece of paper handed to you on the street. Read junk mail. Watch awful TV shows and ask why they appeal to people. Get beyond easy condescension. Ask yourself why some people watch the Weather Channel all day. Why do teenagers who don’t cook watch the Food Channel? Attend get-rich-quick workshops, and pay attention to the audiences. Buy TV gadget offers, test them, and try to get your money back.

11. Lurk in busy places and eavesdrop to find out what people are doing and thinking. High school cafeterias, malls, and baggage-claim areas all have diverse mixtures of people. In a lecture or business presentation, concentrate on members on the audience reacting, and interview them later. Many Silicon Valley companies have a favorite hotel where they lodge candidates for jobs; you can grab scoops in the breakfast room just by listening.

12. Role-play the lives of people with viewpoints different from yours or your readers’. I once spent half a day in a wheelchair, and learned about hazards I never imagined. Bob Graham, the former governor of Florida, used to do manual labor one day a month to understand his public.

13. Extend your personal life outside your writer friends and your own economic group. You might join a Civil War re-enactors group, take a course in blacksmithing, or sing in a chorus. My sister Sandra sampled all the churches in her town by attending services over a year.

14. Make a list of things you fear, and find a way to experience them safely. For example, you might spend a Saturday night in the hospital emergency room just observing. You could design a dinner party that includes a dish that might flop, such as a souffle, and write about the disaster, or about cooks’ anxiety, or about culinary triumph. I’m terrified of damage to my eyes, but I once wrote an article on blinding giants.

15. Move around at any event to get as many viewpoints as possible. Stay far away from anybody jotting in a reporter’s notebook, even if you’re a reporter. Don’t be satisfied with what you learn in the pressbox, or a corporate skybox; get out with fans. Find the staging areas for a parade.

16. My friend Dele Olojede taught me a great technique. He asked for a business card from everybody he met and kept them in a random file. Later, he would pull cards out at random, and call people to ask what they were up to. It’s flattering to get such a call, and you’ll hit about half the time.

All these techniques have the same aim, to dynamite you out of your normal ways of seeing and thinking. Using them, you’ll develop x-ray vision that enables you to see through the noise of everyday life.

But we also need to keep our eye on that ordinary life because it’s just as rich and interesting as some of the oddities above. How do you find stories about ordinary people and ordinary events? How can they be ordinary and yet interesting?

Jim Nicholson of the Philadelphia Daily News used to write a daily 20-inch obituary on ordinary Philadelphia citizens who had two characteristics: they were dead and not important enough to have an obit in the rival paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer. He told me he chose them by closing his eyes and poking his finger onto the list of that day’s dead. I objected, “Wait a minute, you write a feature obituary on an ordinary person chosen at random! How often do you fail?” “I don’t, he replied, “if you’re a good enough reporter, everybody’s interesting.”

“Everybody’s interesting.” Tattoo that on your forehead.

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Published in: on January 19, 2009 at 6:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

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