The most-frequent question that I get as a writer is probably, “Where do you get the ideas for your columns?”
It’s hard for me to give that questioner a short answer to this, especially when we’re talking face to face at a book signing. I thought that I would go through the process with you for my blog.
For those of you who don’t know, I write a local-history column for five different newspapers in Maryland and Pennsylvania. These aren’t the same column appearing in five newspapers. They are different columns, pertinent to each newspapers’ readership, published in those newspapers. This means I need to regularly come up with interesting history articles on a regular basis.
I routinely go through the old newspapers that service the different areas where my columns appear. Many of these old newspapers can be accessed on newspaper databases that I subscribe to, but others require trips to different libraries that have the old newspapers on microfilm.
I pick a year at random, and I generally start with whatever month the month is when I’m doing the research. There’s no reason for this, other than it helps me gather articles not only from different years but different times of the year.
I start scrolling through the newspapers. I read all of the headlines looking for something that catches my attention. I search for stories about interesting people, unusual events, famous people, local versions of national events, and others. This is where personal preference comes in. My selection of stories is going to be different than someone else’s choices.
One other thing about story selection. I try to find stories that seem to have enough meat that I can turn into a column. If the original newspaper story is short, it had better be fascinating to me because I will probably have to do a lot of research to flesh it out.
As I find the possible stories, I save a copy to my idea file.
I don’t start working on the stories I save right away. When I need a topic for a column, I go to my idea file and look at the different ideas that I’ve saved. If the idea still catches my attention, I may use it.
Sometimes the story doesn’t. There have been instances when I have saved a copy of a newspaper page that had a story on it that I thought was interesting. When I went back to look at the story again, I couldn’t even tell which one was the reason that caused me to save the page.
Once I select the story that I want to work on, I start researching it. The first thing I do is search the newspapers to see if there are additional stories concerning the topic. I also study the people and places in the story to get more background about them. Sometimes, I may interview someone, but often, I can’t find someone living who has something pertinent to say about the story. I may even do a web search to see if there is anything out in the ether that might help me.
I transcribe the information and quotes from my research into a Word document. This pulls together all of my research into one convenient location. I then sort and rearrange the information into roughly the order that I see the story progressing. This will sometimes show me gaps in my research that I need to research and fill in.
At this point, what I essentially have is a very meaty outline.
I start writing, moving from point to point in the outline and including the quotes that still make sense to include. This is another place where individual style comes into play.
I may write about the same thing as someone else, but the story I come up with will probably be very different. Both stories may be fine versions of the same idea. It just depends on whose style appeals more to readers.
So, that’s my process. Nothing too fancy, but it works for me.