We were asked by several people at Write! Toronto, where do you get your ideas? This is the most frustrating part of working freelance for me—constantly searching out story ideas and places to sell those ideas. So, I thought I’d give you a glimpse inside my crazy methods. Hopefully you can take a few of my ideas and make them work for you.
6 Degrees of Separation
I’m not sure exactly where this phrase has its roots, but I believe it has something to do with Kevin Bacon. Anyway, the biggest source of freelance ideas I get are from the people I know, and the people my friends know.
A former co-worker’s wife went to Haiti in November with Samaritan’s Purse. He happened to mention it in passing and I asked for an interview. My friend’s wife brought one of her co-workers who had been to Haiti in November also. That connection led to a 2 hour interview over Timmies, and paid articles.
As a mom with three kids, I’m fairly connected with the mini-van set, so when Marcy needed a few ‘soccer moms’ for interviews, she asked me if I knew anyone willing to talk to her. Networking is absolutely crucial in this business. As a happy-to-be-an-introvert writer, I really struggle with calling people I’ve never met and asking for interviews. I find it extremely difficult, but it’s part of the job. I LOVE email. Of course, as my list grows of contacts I’ve made at different organizations, it gets easier.
Facebook is a great place to find sources. Everyone knows someone who’s done something. Many times I’ve put the word out over Facebook – does anyone know someone working in the Canadian Armed Forces or people doing prison ministries. Queries like this almost always garner more responses than I need (though I have a FB network of over 200). You’ll be surprised. People love to share about their life experiences and areas of expertise, don’t be shy. Just recognize that what you share on FB can be spread to a much larger community.
Watch and Listen
Writers are people who ask questions and like many other traits, it’s a double-edged one. Asking too many questions can get you in trouble, but usually people are flattered by your interest.
Often the best story leads fall in your lap because of a casual mention from a friend or at a party. Mags Storey was on CTS recently and mentioned that she’d been at a party where someone had been bragging about being part of a hacker ‘gang’. What a great story! People love to talk, and writers need to be really good at listening. My brother’s so and so started this great business and donated all the profits to charity. This guy in my church used to be in a biker gang. All those ‘wow, that’s interesting’ moments are potential stories.
Of course, the easiest story leads are the ones assigned by editors because usually they come with sources and contact information. Check out our post From On Spec To Assignment. Also, I’m not above name-dropping when it’s appropriate. Mentioning to one editor that you’ve written for this publication, or that one, can garner you assignments if you can work with a short deadline. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
I love reading headlines. I have installed a couple of toolbars on my internet browser that give me the latest headlines throughout the day. You have to filter through all the celebrity gossip, but those headlines were how I knew about the cholera outbreak in Haiti and the upcoming one-year anniversary of the earthquake. So when my friend mentioned his wife’s mission trip, I knew instantly that it would be a relevant story to readers, and timely for editors.
I’m also a Facebook follower of every publication I write for. It’s an easy way to keep tabs, and occasionally they’ll post that they’re looking for something specific. Just by keeping my eyes and ears open, I’ve been fortunate to find several opportunities.
Not Every Story Is Worth Pursuing
I’ve also passed on great stories because I knew I couldn’t sell them anywhere. I write for enough of the Canadian Christian publications, it’s not hard to keep tabs on their feature stories. I have the opportunity to hear the stories of men freed from the bondage of drugs and alcohol, but I also hear enough of them to know when something isn’t unique. Unless there’s something ‘saleable’ about their story, I’m probably not going to pursue an interview, but I will take notes for later networking. For instance, one man mentioned in his testimony how influential prison ministries were in his journey to turn his life around. I catalogued that, and a few months later used him as a primary source for my story published in the January 2011 issue of testimony “Living Faith In A Living Hell”.
Similarly, my friend’s wife went to Haiti a couple of weeks after the earthquake in Haiti with a DART team. He offered me an interview then, but I never followed up on it because EVERYONE had already written first-hand accounts of the earthquake at the time.
Everyone has a story to tell, and you may be the person to tell that story.
Where do you get story ideas? Leave a comment.