There was this bar, this step, and this man . . . it’s all material

Dear friends, I’m typing this on my laptop while lying on my bed, dog at my side, with my right foot encased in a splint and a fuzzy black slipper. I sprained my ankle when I missed a step down from the lobby into the bar at a local restaurant. No, I wasn’t drinking, but it makes for a good story, doesn’t it? Feel free to use it as a prompt and let your imagination go crazy. One woman, all dressed up in Christmas finery, a bar, a guy, a step, a scream . . .

It’s all material. I’m documenting the whole thing because I think it might be good to have a character suffer this malady, especially the first part of it because suddenly you. can’t. walk. Now imagine a bad guy is after him or her or they’re hiking far from home or they’re about to walk on stage . . .

On the nonfiction side, one could write about sprains. How common are they? What are they? How long do they take to heal? What about crutches? It takes a lot of strength to operate them. My arms and ribs are killing me. How old is too old to hop around on crutches? The ER doc never asked if I was okay with them. What tricks can you do to take care of things when you’re alone on crutches, which means you can’t carry anything? Should I sue the restaurant?

Of course, one could write poetry about the frailty of the human body, the ridiculousness of the situation, dealing with pain and disfigurement, and the need to ask other people for help.

Feel free to use any and all of this. Most of my energy is going into simple things like eating and getting dressed, but I am working. Why not? The daytime talk shows are tempting me, but I didn’t break my fingers or my brain, so why not write?

You can read about my adventure in detail at my other blog, http://unleashedinoregon.com.

I signed on here to write something inspiring about starting a new writing year. But you’ve heard it all before. Take some time this holiday week to look at what you have accomplished in the last year and make plans for what you will do next year. Set some goals and make a plan for how you will achieve them. What will you do this week, this month, this year? This is also the time to add up your writing income and expenses for 2014 and set up your record-keeping system for 2015. I use spreadsheets. Use whatever works for you, but keep those records. You will need them in April.

What do you hope to accomplish in the new year? What would you like to see here at Writer Aid to help you do it? I’m here for you. I welcome you comments.

Have a wonderful New Year’s celebration. Stay safe and come out writing.

Now let’s go write.

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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.


Write about where you live

Wherever you are right now, you can find a story. I’m at a Starbucks in Santa Clara, California, the heart of Silicon Valley, and I can tell you it’s way different from the Starbucks where I live in Oregon. The clothes, the people using computers and smart phones simultaneously, the ethnic diversity, even the drinks they order . . . I could write about how Starbucks stores cater to different geographic areas or how the people are different or why the smallest drink they have is called a “tall.”

What makes your hometown unique? What do tourists come to see? What people, places or events stand out? What problems face your town? Scan the newspaper, take a drive, ask around, gather enough information for an article query, an essay, a commentary or a poem.  What seems ordinary to you might not be to folks who live elsewhere.  Start looking around with the eyes of a writer. What catches your attention or makes you ask, “What is that all about?” For example, in northern California along I-5 between the Oregon border and Yreka, there’s a metal cow in a field next to a barn with a big sign that says “State of Jefferson.” When I looked it up, I discovered that years ago people tried to secede from Oregon and California to form a new state.  It didn’t happen, but there’s a story in it. And where did that cow come from? Another story. There may be other regions that tried to form their own states. If you can find out about them, you could expand this into a piece for a national publication.

Also look locally for publications to write for, especially if you’re just getting started. You can find copies in your local libraries, bookstores and coffee shops.  The editors are nearby, so you can meet in person, and the subject matter they cover is close at hand. They may not pay a lot, but whatever you write for them can be resold as is or revised for other markets.  One of my favorite stories in recent years was a roundup piece about the salt water taffy makers on the Oregon Coast. It ran in Oregon Coast Today, and I earned about $200. I could easily reslant it for Northwest Travel, VIA, newspaper travel sections or candy-making trade publications. I could also write about research being done on wave energy, our mayor who is also an artist, our tsunami preparations, the glass floats manufactured here, and lots of other Oregon coast stories.

What’s happening your neighborhood? There are lots of stories just outside your door. Look around.

And then, go write.

***

Please forgive my delay in posting. We are having a family emergency this month, and I don’t know when things will get back to “normal.” Also, my online classes scheduled to start Oct. 30 will be delayed until next year. If you want to get started by reading my Freelancing for Newspapers: Writing for an Overlooked Market book, Amazon has a pretty good discount right now.


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.