Ideas for Articles and Profiles by Jackie Houchin
I’m not a fiction writer, but I still get asked the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” Of course they mean, where do I find interesting people and events to write about, but that’s okay, I know what they mean.
When I first started writing for a local newspaper, the editor sent me out on specific story assignments – a quadriplegic who’d lived 20 years on life support (that actually turned out to be his mom’s story), a man who built model airplanes, a woman injured at a car repair shop, a sculptress who made marble look sensual, a market-window muralist, an orchestra conductor, a trailer park scandal, a middle school with security issues, burglaries at a church and a neighborhood market, and my recent 3-part story on Women in the LAPD.
He also assigned profiles on local businesses, including several restaurant reviews (yum and yech!), and a calendar of community events. Easy, right? Just go where I’m told. Yes, that’s true, and I did get some “spin-off” stories from those assignments.
But what is interesting is that I began to “see” my own stories everywhere. A man in the Starbucks line in front of me had a crossword puzzle on his T-shirt. I commented on it and we started talking. I learned that he created personalized puzzles for businesses, individuals and magazines. (One job was for a young man who used the puzzle to propose to his girlfriend.) He and his business made a great story!
Driving from Costco one day I saw a man walking a giant Tortoise. A slammed on the brakes and pulled to the curb, utterly fascinated. I set up an interview and photo shoot and after spending a delightful morning with the two friends, wrote, “Walking Newman.” It made it into the Los Angeles Daily News – front page!
Browsing in the Flintridge Bookstore one morning, I noticed their barista making a latte for a customer. He showed an unusual amount of pride as he handed over the cup. Turns out, he was a “latte artist.” He (and the bookstore) allowed me to take notes (and photos) on each step of his creative process, including the foam artwork atop the brew. They still have a faded copy of the newspaper story in a frame on their counter.
While pumping gas one afternoon, I noticed a small faded sign across the boulevard that read “Adventure in Postcards”. When I finished, I investigated, and found a little shop crammed full of antique and collectible postcards. Thousands of them all categorized and labeled in shoeboxes and shelves. The reclusive (for health reasons) woman gave me a fascinating interview, photo and resulting story.
Friends & Family Referrals
Friends are also great sources for story ideas. I wrote a series on a local Toastmasters chapter at one friend’s suggestion; two stories on a Pet Detective who, with her bloodhounds, finds lost pets (another friend’s idea), and the exciting experience of a young swimmer in the “Escape from Alcatraz” competition (my granddaughter’s friend). And from the elderly neighbors of another friend, I got a tender story and some wise observations on life.
Collectors & Hobbyists
“Crafty” people always make good subjects. I discovered a woman who sews winter blanket-coats for dogs, and vintage (1920’s) dresses for women. Another woman has a vast collection of Santa Claus figures.
My hubby is a hot-rod enthusiast. His contacts netted me stories about car owners and clubs (one donates to the City of Hope, another collects toys for needy kids at Christmas). A man stopped by to admire our flashy-red Roadster in the driveway and began talking about the vintage airplanes he restores. I got some terrific photos and a story about his current plane (and the ones he’s crashed).
I’ve written several stories on a local Alpaca rancher, one on a magician who teaches kids about books, another on a man who drives a cesspool pumper truck (oh the things they find in those portable potties!). A tour of a beachside lifeguard station – with a few true life rescue-stories – made another fine story.
A family-owned Art Glass company promised to be an interesting profile in itself, and then I heard the grandfather tell how he earned his apprenticeship restoring the ancient glass in England’s Canterbury Cathedral after WW II. (It still gives me shivers.)
My farrier (horseshoer) and my large animal vet were fodder for interesting equine stories. The artsy photo I took of the farrier ended up in Country Magazine, the equine dentistry shots on the Vet’s website. Note: it helps to be able to “shoot” your subjects.)
Pay attention to those banners in your neighborhood announcing upcoming events or shows. I’ve written several stories about festivals, breakfasts, and shows at a local institution for the developmentally handicapped. The American Legion once hosted an official “flag-burning” ceremony I wrote about. An elementary school drama club and a new horse trail dedication got ink too.
I also scope the morning newspapers and group newsletters for upcoming events that sound fun or informative. (Art exhibits, author signings, workshops, expos.) From local pet announcements, I wrote stories on Pet Scanners and Protecting Pets in Hot Weather. An announcement about an FBI Agent speaking Identity Theft made another story.
There are always things to write about the organizations you belong to. The speaker’s bureau of our local Sisters in Crime has set up many author panels and workshops that I’ve written about (or at least blurbed). THIS Writers In Residence group has gone on “outings” that were fun to write about (A class on hand-gun safety at a local firing range, and a trip to the famous Greystone Manor for a reenactment of a murder – see them archived in this blog).