I’m not a fiction writer, but I still get asked the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” Of course they mean, where do I find interesting people and events to write about, but that’s okay, I know what they mean.
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 woman injured at a car repair shop, a sculptress who made marble look sensual, a market-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 3-part story on Women in the LAPD.
He also assigned profiles on local businesses, including several restaurants which I sampled and reviewed (yum and yech!), and a calendar of community events.
Easy, right? Just go where I’m told. Yes, that’s true, but 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 the Starbucks line in front of me had a crossword puzzle on his T-shirt. I commented on it and we started talking. I learned that he created personalized puzzles for businesses, individuals and magazines. (One job was for a young man who used a puzzle he created to propose to his girlfriend.) The Cruciverbalist and his business made a great story!
Driving from Costco one day I saw a man walking a giant Tortoise. A slammed on the brakes and pulled to the curb, utterly fascinated. I set up an interview and photo shoot and after spending a delightful morning with the two friends, wrote, “Walking Newman.” It made the front page of the Los Angeles Daily News!
Browsing in the Flintridge Bookstore one morning, I noticed their barista making 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 (and the bookstore) allowed me to take 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”. When I finished, I investigated, and found a little shop crammed full of antique and collectible postcards. Thousands of them all categorized and labeled in shoeboxes and shelves. The reclusive (for health reasons) woman gave me a fascinating interview, photo and resulting story.
Friends & Family Referrals
Friends are also great sources for story ideas. I wrote a series on a local Toastmasters chapter at one friend’s suggestion, and later wrote up their annual competition/awards event; two stories on a Pet Detective who, with her bloodhounds, finds lost pets (another friend’s idea), and the exciting experience of a young swimmer in the “Escape from Alcatraz” competition (my granddaughter’s friend).
And from another friend’s elderly neighbors, I got a tender story and some wise observations on life (plus some original short stories he wrote and a few hand crocheted pot holders she made!).
Collectors & Hobbyists
“Crafty” people always make good subjects. I discovered a woman who sews winter blanket-coats for dogs, and vintage (1920’s) dresses for women. Another woman has a vast collection of Santa Claus figures.
A man stopped by to admire our flashy-red Roadster in the driveway one evening and began talking about the vintage airplanes he restores. I got some terrific photos and a story about his current plane, a Swift (and the ones he’s crashed).
I’ve written several stories on a local Alpaca rancher, one on a magician who teaches kids about books, another on a man who drives a cesspool pumper truck (oh the things they find in those portable potties!).
An insider tour of a beachside lifeguard station – with a few true life rescue accounts – made another fine story.
A family-owned Art Glass company promised to be an interesting profile in itself, and then I heard the grandfather tell how he earned his apprenticeship restoring the ancient glass in England’s Canterbury Cathedral after WW II. (It still gives me shivers.)
My farrier (horseshoer) and my large animal veterinarian were fodder for interesting equine stories. The artsy photo I took of the farrier under a shady tree, ended up in Country Magazine; the equine dentistry shots on the Vet’s website. (Note: it helps to be able to “shoot” your subjects.)
Pay attention to those banners in your neighborhood announcing upcoming events or shows. I’ve written several stories about festivals, breakfasts, and shows at a local institution for the developmentally handicapped. The American Legion once hosted an official “flag-burning” ceremony I wrote about. An elementary school drama club and a new horse trail dedication got ink too.
I also scope the morning newspapers and group newsletters for upcoming events that sound fun or informative. (Art exhibits, author signings, workshops, expos.) From local pet announcements, I wrote stories on Pet Scanners and Protecting Pets in Hot Weather.
An announcement about an FBI Agent speaking on Identity Theft made another story.
There are always things to write about the organizations you belong to. The speaker’s bureau of our local Sisters in Crime has set up many author panels and workshops that I’ve written about (or at least blurbed).
My Wednesday Women Writers group has gone on “outings” that were fun to write about such as a class on hand-gun safety at a local firing range, and a trip to the famous Greystone Manor in Los Angeles for a reenactment of a murder.
These are only some of the places you can find story ideas. Use you natural curiosity, your observation skills, your contacts, and various announcements/notices. Soon you will have more stories than you have time to write.
Re-posted from my Writers in Residence blog, May 2010