Monday, January 31, 2011

Finding a Good Story Everywhere

By Jackie Houchin

Originally posted published at

[Editor's note: Jackie's blog entry today provides insight into the world of a working journalist. It can also as serve as a mini-handbook in character creation for the working novelist.]

I'm not a fiction writer, but I still get asked the question, "Where do you get your ideas?" What they mean is, where do I find interesting people and events to write about. My answer, like yours, is "everywhere."

Editor Assignments

When I first started writing for a local newspaper, the editor sent me out on specific story assignments: a quadriplegic who'd lived 20 years on life support (that actually turned out to be his mom's story), a man who built model airplanes, a sculptress who made marble look sensual, a window muralist, an orchestra conductor, a trailer park scandal, a middle school with security issues, burglaries at a church and a neighborhood market and my recent 3-part story on women in the LAPD.

He also assigned profiles on local businesses (including a medical "pot" dispensary) and a variety of ethnic restaurants. Easy, right? Just go where I'm told. Yes, that's true, and I did get some "spin-off" stories from those assignments.


But what is interesting is that I began to "see" my own stories everywhere. A man in front of me at Starbucks had a crossword puzzle on his T-shirt. I remarked on it and we started talking. I learned he created personalized puzzles for businesses, individuals and magazines. He and his business made a great story!

Driving from Costco one day, I saw a man walking a giant tortoise along the sidewalk. I slammed on the brakes and pulled to the curb, utterly fascinated. He agreed to an interview and photo shoot, and after spending a delightful morning with the two friends, I wrote "Walking Newman." It was featured in the Daily News newspaper – front page, "above the fold!"

Browsing in the Flintridge Bookstore one morning, I watched the barista make a latte for a customer. He showed an unusual amount of pride as he handed over the cup. Turns out, he was a "latte artist." He agreed to show me how he did it. I took notes (and photos) on each step of his creative process, including the foam artwork atop the brew. They still have a faded copy of the newspaper story in a frame on their counter.

While pumping gas one afternoon, I noticed a small faded sign across the boulevard that read "Adventure in Postcards." I investigated, and found a little shop crammed with antique and collectible postcards, thousands of them all categorized and labeled in shoeboxes on shelves. The reclusive woman gave me a fascinating interview and photo for my story.

Friends & Family Referrals

Friends are also great resources for story ideas. From their suggestions, I wrote a series on a local Toastmasters chapter, two stories on a pet detective who uses her bloodhounds to find lost pets, an exciting account of a young swimmer's experience in the "Escape from Alcatraz" competition and the story of an elderly couple's 75 years together (with several pithy observations on marriage).

Collectors & Hobbyists

"Crafty" people always make good subjects. I discovered a woman who made sweater-coats for dogs and vintage (1920's) dresses for women. Another had collected almost 2,500 Santa Claus ornaments.

My hubby is a hot-rod enthusiast. His contacts netted me stories about car clubs (one donates generously to the City of Hope, another collects toys for kids at Christmas). A man stopped by to admire our flashy red roadster and began talking about the vintage airplanes he restores. I got some terrific photos and a story about his current plane (and the ones he's crashed).

Unusual Occupations

A local alpaca rancher, a magician who encourages kids to read books, a man who drives a cesspool pumper truck (Oh the things they find in those portable potties!) and a team of hunky lifeguards with life/death rescue stories were all great subjects.

A family-owned art glass company promised to be an interesting profile, but the grandfather's tale of how he'd earned his apprenticeship restoring the ancient glass in England’s Canterbury Cathedral after WW II made a better story.

My horseshoer and veterinarian were fodder for interesting equine stories. The artsy photo I took of the shoer ended up in Country Magazine; the equine dentistry shots on the good doctor's website. (Note: it helps to be able to "shoot" your subjects.)

Event Notices

Pay attention to the signs and banners announcing upcoming events. An official "flag-burning" ceremony hosted by the American Legion, a holiday musical at an elementary school and a horse trail dedication (with local politicians present) got ink, too.

I also scope local newspapers and newsletters for upcoming events that sound interesting. An announcement about an FBI agent speaking on identity theft resulted in one story, a local newsletter on pets (and two brief interviews) resulted in "Pet Scanners" and "Protecting Pets in Hot Weather."

These are only some of the places you can find story ideas. Use your natural curiosity, your observation skills, your contacts and various announcements/notices. Soon you will have more articles than you have time to write, and a whole slew of happy editors.

Jackie Houchin is a freelance writer, book reviewer, and theatre critic. She’s a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America and California Writers Club.


Donnell said...

Jackie, inspiring post. Yes, stories are around us everyone. Part of it is letting your mind be open to seeing them. Love the man walking the tortoise! Well done.

The Writing Goddess said...

Great article, great ideas. Jackie rocks!

One nitpicky thing on the blog itself - I find it really hard to read large chunks of text that are centered rather than left-justified. Anyone else?

Kathie Felix said...

TWG: What browser are you using to view the blog? I'm seeing the text left-justified via Firefox.

June Shaw said...

What terrific ideas, Jackie. You sure helped spark my thoughts. Thanks so much.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing the great ideas, Jackie!

Barb Goffman said...

This blog post has me remembering fondly my career in journalism. It's true. Stories are everywhere!

Barb Goffman said...

Kathie, P.S.

The blog's writing is center-justified for me, too, when I read it in Internet Explorer. It's left-justified when I read it in Firefox.

Kathie Felix said...

Thanks for the info, Barb. I'll look into the Firefox v. IE justification issue.

Kathy Bennett said...

Jackie, very interesting post, and I'm glad to see I'm not alone in 'seeing' story ideas in everyday life.