Pre-Research: Finding Facts to Back Up Your Brilliant Idea

You get an idea, whether for an article, story, poem or play and think, wow, this is the best thing I’ve ever thought of. I can’t wait to start writing. You grab your paper, your laptop or iPad and start spewing out words. Oh yeah, this is good. Your dinner gets cold, your dog is whining at the door, and your phone is ringing, but none of it matters because you are inspired. Isn’t this one of the greatest parts of being a writer?

My house is loaded with pieces of paper on which I wrote these brainstorms. But most of them haven’t gone anywhere because once the heat of inspiration cooled, I lost interest, or more likely, I realized I’d have to do a lot of research to make them fly.

Those of you who do only “creative” writing might be tempted to tune out here, but don’t. You need information, too. I’m still troubled by the poem which required me to search hard to find out whether that earth-moving tree-smashing thing I wrote about was a bulldozer, backhoe, tractor or what. In my not-yet-published novel, I did extensive research on earthquakes and tsunamis so I could make my fictional disaster as realistic as possible. I couldn’t just make it up.

When you’re pitching a nonfiction book or article, you need information for your query. That’s something I didn’t used to do. I would propose to find out all kinds of things if I got the assignment, but I didn’t realize no editor would go for the story unless I already had some information to share. For example, if I wanted to write a travel article about things to do in Newport, Oregon, I needed to know what they were and name them in my query. Because I live here, I already know, but what if I was writing about how to buy a timeshare in Newport. I don’t know anything about that except that lots of people do it? I cannot offer the editor a bunch of guesses and questions. I need facts.

Back in the olden days, I’d start with the phone book and make a list of people to interview. Now I’d probably do a Google search. When I search for “Timeshares Newport, OR,” most of what comes up is companies trying to sell timeshares. You can read what they have to offer, but know that they’re biased. They are not going to talk about problems, scams or hidden costs. Where do you get an unbiased view? Time to brainstorm again.

You can talk to somebody who owns one. Search for organizations or associations that focus on your topic. There are a lot of them for both users and sellers of timeshares. “Articles about timeshares” will bring you a list of articles that have already been written on the subject. Also look for books about timeshares. Amazon offers Timeshare Vacations For Dummies, among others. Don’t overlook the library, where they have actual books you can read for free. Many libraries even rent e-books now.

There’s more to the Internet than Google, of course. Click here for a list of search engines you might want to try. You’ll notice the list does not include Wikipedia, which can be a great source or a terrible one. The information is provided by readers who may or may not know what they’re talking about. Whatever you read, make sure it’s not just advertising or content spewed out by writers who haven’t done much research themselves.

I could write about research all day, but this post is getting too long. The important thing is to get your facts from a source that is as close to the beginning of the information chain as you can get. You can toss out a question on Facebook–I have–and read everything you can find online, but the best source is still a live human being. Your online search may give you enough information to take your original burst of inspiration to the next step, getting an assignment. Even if your research leads you to decide you don’t want to write this piece, look at the bright side. Now you know a lot about timeshares. Maybe someday, you’ll write a novel that takes place in one.

Happy hunting. Now go write.


Smoking Hot Prompts for Fourth of July

Fourth of July is over now, but if you pay attention, the holiday offers lots of writing possibilities. For some reason, some of the most dramatic days of my life happened on the Fourth. All could be turned into fiction, nonfiction or poetry. I’ll bet you have some Fourth of July memories, too, or just some lessons learned from the fireworks that got out of hand, the potato salad that went bad, or the barbecue that was the most fun you ever had. Maybe just watching the people at the public events stirred up some story ideas. Now, when the holiday is fresh in your head, is the time to put your Fourth of July thoughts into words and get them ready to send out well ahead of the deadlines to be published next summer.

Here are a few ideas to consider:

• My worst/best Fourth of July
• Ten ways to make your Fourth of July better
• Ten things I will never do again on the Fourth of July
• Ten tips for having fun with your children on the Fourth of July
• Fourth of July celebrations gone wrong.
• How fireworks have changed over the years.
• As the fireworks flashed and crackled, she swore she would not ______________
• He stared into the campfire and _________________________
• He watched the child run across the sand into the water and _____________________
• The dog raced across the sand, nose down, tracking a smell. In a minute, he smelled it, too.
• The thing that scared him the most _______________________________
• Oh no, she thought. Not again.
• In the middle of the fireworks, I suddenly _______________________________
• The old woman paraded down the street between the trained dogs and the marching band wearing a red, white and blue tank top and a pink tutu . . .

Now go write!


Three tips: Writing classes, ‘Quiet’ book, body parts

Click this:

I try not to promote myself too much here, but I have to let you know that I have four online classes for writers starting new sessions on Aug. 1. In each class, students receive weekly email lessons and assignments which are due the following week. I offer extensive critiques of student work and responses to questions any time throughout the course. My students, both online and in person, have gone on to publish extensively, and I welcome the chance to help you do the same.

I have two new classes, Create and Maintain a Successful Blog and Writing and Selling Freelance Articles. Returning are two of my favorites, How to Write and Sell a Column and Reviews and Opinion Pieces. For an overview of all four classes and to sign up, visit http://www.suelick.com/Classes.html.

On the Classes page, you will also find information about my editing and critique services. I would love to help you with your writing.

Read this:

I just finished reading Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Cain has done extensive research on personality types and the differences between outgoing folks who like to be surrounded by people and quiet folks who prefer to spend their time alone. Although this is not specifically a book for writers, it does offer fascinating insights into how people are wired, and it might give you something to think about as you write about real or imaginary characters.

Try this:

(borrowed from poet Barbara Drake’s workshop)

Pick a body part and come up with as many different metaphors for it as you can in 15 minutes. For example, I used my elbow in our workshop the other night and called it a hinge, a right angle, a bend in the road, etc. If one or more of these inspire a poem or something else, shut off the timer and keep writing.

Now go write


It’s raining writing ideas

Have you noticed that today, Oct. 31, 2012, is loaded with subjects to write about? No matter whether you write, poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, articles, blogs or even screenplays, if you can’t find something to write today, you aren’t looking.

Hurricane Sandy has been amazing and horrible. When nature comes at us full force, there’s nothing we humans can do to stop it. Please join me in praying for all those suffering from this super-storm with its rain, wind, floods, fires and the subsequent destruction and shortages of electricity, water, food and everything else.

Now, let’s put on our writer hats. My 90-year-old dad said last night that he keeps imagining what he would feel if this happened to him, if everything he owned was suddenly wiped out. What would you do? Can you imagine yourself in that situation and write a poem or story about it? Might a character in your novel encounter a flood or hurricane? Take notes on what’s going on and use it in your writing.

Does this event bring up memories of something that happened to you or a loved one? Has there been something about Hurricane Sandy that especially horrified or inspired you? Something that made you angry? Write about it. Can you think of article ideas for how to cope with a disaster such as a hurricane, how to be safe, how to decide whether to evacuate, how to stay in contact with loved ones, how to deal with insurance, bank accounts and other matters? Write an opinion piece, research an article, or pull together a query letter.

While the hurricane has occupied most of our attention, did you know that British Columbia suffered a huge earthquake over the weekend and it triggered tidal wave warnings all along the Pacific coast, with measurable surges in Hawaii and the western U.S.? So many stories could be told there, maybe even making a connection with the hurricane or with previous earthquakes and tsunamis. Remember Japan?

If that isn’t enough to write about, the election is less than a week away, and it’s Halloween.

Get off the Internet, grab your keyboard or your pen, and start writing.


Getting ready to write

How do you prepare for a day’s writing? It seems there are as many ways as there are writers. Where, what and how you write makes a difference. When I worked at newspapers, I didn’t have much time for messing around. Deadlines loomed, and the guy in the next cubicle was concentrating on his own writing. I’d lay out my notes around the  keyboard, type a heading, and then go to the bathroom.

Wait, what? Go to the bathroom? Yes, for two reasons. I didn’t want to have to run to the ladies’ room once I got rolling, and I needed a minute to organize my thoughts. Often my opening lines came to me in that three-minute trip.

It doesn’t have to be the bathroom. One could go down the hall for coffee, or, if working at home, do what I just did and put away some stray clothes and start getting dressed. I was putting on my pants when I decided what to write about. Some people do yoga, some pray, some knit, some go for a walk. It doesn’t matter what you do to prepare to write, but your brain has to be free to think. No media, no talking, no texting. I have closed my Internet connections, opened a fresh screen on my computer, and placed hot tea on the warmer beside me. I’m ready.

I don’t have a deadline today, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need to write. I have plenty of half-finished projects and lots of notes scribbled on scratch paper that I can expand into stories or poems. I can always outline a new article or a query to get myself an assignment.

Writing muscles need regular workouts. You’ve all heard the advice to “write every day.” Actually it doesn’t have to be every day. Maybe you’re a Monday, Wednesday, Friday kind of writer or just weekends. That’s okay. Set a schedule and stick to it, whether you do it before work, while the kids are at school, or when everyone else is asleep. People rarely understand when you say “I have to work” or “I have to write.” Do it anyway.

Like an athlete, a writer needs to warm up. Creativity gurus Julia Cameron, Natalie Goldberg and others recommend “morning pages.” Just write whatever’s in your head. Don’t worry about whether it’s beautiful or correct or publishable. If you can’t think of anything, you can even fill a page with “I can’t think of anything to write.” But honestly, there’s always something. Write about what’s bothering you. Write about something you read or saw on TV. Describe something that happened to you yesterday.

One exercise I’ve been doing this week came from Poets & Writers’ series of prompts. They credit this one to poet Linda Gregg. Every day for a week, you briefly describe six things you see each day. They can be absolutely ordinary things to which you usually don’t pay attention. At the end of the week, pick two of those things and write a poem about them. I have been amazed at how many things there are to notice in my house, especially my living room. I can already see that I’m going to write about more than two and it won’t necessarily be poetry. There are essays, articles and short stories in those things I’m seeing, things like the flute I never play, the tambourine I bought in Portugal, the stained carpet, or the dog sleeping on her smelly blanket on the floor.

I’m never going to run out of things to list. If I exhaust one room or even my whole house, I’ll simply change location. Meanwhile, having filled several pages of my journal, I’m warmed up and ready to tackle the day’s writing project. As soon as I go to the bathroom.

Get comfortable and get started. Write.


>How many angles can you find?

>A triangle has three angles, a rectangle has four, a pentagon has five, but an idea for a newspaper article can have as many angles as you can think of. I’m currently in the process of creating articles, blogs and other outtakes from the pet-related chapter of the book I’m writing on childless women. So far, I’ve got 19 angles about people’s relationships with their pets. I haven’t even gotten into choosing pets, training them, feeding them, breeding them or health concerns.

Some ideas may be more viable than others. For example, what will I do with the note about dogs watching while we have sex? Hey, doesn’t yours? Our dog gets this sappy grin on her face, and I don’t know what that’s all about. But there are angles with stronger legs, such as pet custody in divorce cases and why pets are easier to raise than children.

Think about something you love or that at least fascinates you. How many ways can you spin it? Brainstorm awhile and you’ll be surprised.