There are stories everywhere. Any idea could probably be a story if you had enough time and stamina, but I try to expedite the process a bit.
I read whatever I can: lots and lots of newspapers, magazines, literary journals and trade publications. I go to the public library and pick up books that look interesting, whether they are novels or manuals. Consumer Reports really interests me; it makes me think about the things people use in their lives.
I listen to the radio while I cook and clean. I’m procrastinating, avoiding writing, but I sometimes get ideas from my ongoing, frustrated relationship with WBAI, an alternative radio station in New York City. I may hear someone interesting on the radio and try to track that person down – even if I have no need to do a story. I’ll call and say, “I don’t know what I want exactly, but could I take you out for a cup of coffee? Could we have a conversation?” Spending time with many different people is a way to come up with great story ideas.
I like to insert myself in situations – identified as a journalist but not necessarily working on a story – to educate myself. After my book “Random Family” came out, I spoke at conferences for social workers and youth workers. At these conferences, I signed up for every mailing list, so I’d receive notices for their workshops. One was called “How to Handle Traumatized Children.” I attended, not knowing whether it would become a story, but I was sure that by the end of five days there I would have 10 story ideas. An idea might be a simple profile of an interesting social worker. Or it could be an analysis of how the skill sets that social workers are encouraged to adopt both liberate and confine them.
I keep story files. I clip and file whatever strikes me: new slang words, fashions, particular towns and neighborhoods, someone’s turn of phrase. My idea files are full of things that interest me, in ways that often aren’t clear to me. Some story ideas hit me immediately when I meet a person who engages my interest. Other ideas take years to develop in my mind, and even longer to sell to an editor. My story files provide the ammunition to convince an editor, to explain why a story is worthwhile. They allow me to draw from a whole pack of information, not just one or two anecdotes.
Major stories come to me through my straying curiosity. Even as I lose myself in that story, I’m keeping track of new people and ideas that surface during the fieldwork – half hunches and ideas that I hope to explore, eventually.
Adapted from a presentation at the 2003 Conference on Narrative Journalism, “Developing Topics Into Stories.” Edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call.