One of the frequent topics popping up in magazines devoted to writers and writing is how and where to get ideas for stories, be they fiction or non-fiction. That should not be a problem for anyone who intends to be or is writing for publication. It is for many writers because they are looking into the skies for the big literary bomb to be exploded in hype they can peddle to the highest paying markets. That is a mistake.
Not even in aiming for the mass circulation periodicals is it necessary to be searching for the unusual or sensational. Instead, you will find ideas leading to publication anywhere in your routine activities: talking to people in different places, reading, watching something on the boob tube, or even in thinking. James Thurber got his idea for one of the most famous short stories of all time when he realized that he was often fantasizing himself in heroic acts, and he learned from research that he was not alone in that indulgence; rather, it is common to the inner lives of people. The result was and still is a short story that has been immortalized for a long time in American literature classes and anthologies, and that recently was used to produce what was inevitably going to be a fascinating motion picture: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”
In a previous article for WritersWeekly I recalled the way I got an idea leading to my first article sale in 1953 while I was in my college junior year. I was in a feature writing class taught by a successful freelancer who challenged us to produce ideas for articles and write them. I remembered that during a class in public speaking, in order to minimize any of our own problems, the teacher had told us the story of a man who had lost his cancer-ridden larynx (“voice box”) to necessary surgical removal and taught himself to talk again by producing deep belches from his abdomen and forming words on them: a technique he taught to other larynx cancer victims in an organization he founded called “The Lost Chord Club” (chapters of which continue to exist). Bingo! I had the idea for an article that I sold on the first trip out to a magazine publisher.
As a writer you should be reading non-stop, and reading will produce article ideas, if you will think of it as a source for what to write about instead of only what you are perusing for your own education or entertainment. One of my writer friends got an idea for an article while reading the yellow pages of a telephone directory. Why should he have been using the phone book for reading material when there are millions of periodicals and books? He was waiting in an office to be seen by a physician who was always behind in his appointment times and who was too cheap to provide reading material, and my writer friend had forgotten to bring along something to read. He had read somewhere that if a writer has nothing else to read, he or she will read the phone book. So, he asked the physician’s receptionist for the office phone book, not stating he wanted it for reading purposes, lest she tell her M.D. boss that the patient waiting to see him was nuts.
In the yellow pages my writer friend noticed a confectionary store ad that somehow got by the telephone company people: “Look up Mike Sass for good candy.” Bingo! He had an idea for an article describing off color phone book ads that got by the censors. The article practically wrote itself, and he sold it with no trouble.
Get the idea for ideas? Instead of seeking the big literary bomb in the skies, look at what you find in the commonplace, because there they are everywhere, and from there they produce saleable articles and short stories that do not even have to be hyped.
Burton H. Wolfe has been writing and selling articles and essays for 60 years. Among his books are three that have been used as basic sources for study in high school and university classes: The Hippies (New American Library), Hitler and the Nazis (Putnam), and Pileup on Death Row (Doubleday). You can contact Wolfe via his email address: bhwolfe(at)msn.com.