Writing Stories -- Real
Looking to hone your writing skills? Here's
a way to do exactly that and get paid while you do it. What's the catch? I
am suggesting you write stories about the local histories of your area.
Every state has at least one city large enough to support a local paper in
need of articles, and these may be the ones that will get your name in
"But I write fiction!"
Writing about an actual event means an
article with a beginning, the middle, and hopefully an emotional and moving
ending. That's telling a story. If it is peopled with characters whose
motivations you can explain, or whose emotions you can describe, it means
readers will see these people through the lens your article creates. This
makes the story happen. It will also put some cash in your pocket, and
establish your name.
What stories – and who wants them?
Beyond the breaking news, which is why
newspapers employ full time reporters, a newspaper's main staple is articles
about upcoming or current events. These are limited in length, though, and
most times the promoter of the event will provide the paper with everything
needed to write that story.
Since we want to write stories, we want to
focus on a certain type of upcoming event – one which will often only see
print if a freelancer offers it to the paper. We want to focus on the
upcoming anniversary of an event that happened long ago.
This is an attractive chance to do exactly
what we do with fiction - to tell a complete story, peopled with real
characters in a descriptive setting that all our readers can relate to. And
as it has already happened, it gives us a chance to tell a complete story,
Stories sell – and stories have character(s)
If you think history is boring, it's likely
because you think of it as names and dates. For example, nearly everyone in
America knows Columbus discovered America in 1492. The Mayflower landed at
Plymouth Rock in 1620. The American Revolution happed in 1776. All facts -
but no story. By telling the things that happened to people involved in any
one of these events, and you have a story.
Unfortunately, history as we teach it
today, is boiled down to 'just the facts, ma'am.' It becomes dry, and choked
with dust. Perhaps for years you heard how your great-grandparents married
and settled in your home state -- again, just facts. But perhaps, you
happened to ask the right person the right questions, and found out they
eloped, leaving home at seventeen. They moved from Germany to central
Nebraska, and never saw their parents or family again. Still facts, but now
you know enough to ask why? What forced that drastic action? Were they
happy, or sad? Were they certain they were seeking a new fortune, or angry
at someone? Or were they running away? Those questions are what any reader
old enough to understand the emotions and the realities of being seventeen
might ask. If you answer those questions in your writing, it will keep them
reading to the end of your article.
Selling these stories, or these articles,
demands the same things: an intriguing situation, peopled with real
characters, grappling with events or emotions we can all relate to. Most of
all, though, the reader demands an ending, too.
How does it all work out?
The understanding all readers have when
starting a story is that the writer will tell us how it all turns out in the
end. And that's where most non-fiction loses people. We too often tell
chronological details, and since people live on, we try to tell them
everything. It then becomes an effort to sort through the details, since all
are presented with equal value.
Remember, you are covering an event, not
writing a biography. Tell the story, not the history. Tell a story linked to
emotions, actions and settings. Paint the picture of the scene with words,
because it may be long enough ago that there are no pictures. Or tell us
what the scene means, since we may have seen the pictures of Grant and Lee
at Appomattox Court House, but may never have considered the emotions hidden
by those stoic old faces peering out at us across the years.
These are things we will understand,
though, because emotions are still the same.
But these people lived years ago – who
When you study history, you will learn an
important truth: human nature defies changes in time and technology. The
things that motivated people 100 years ago look a lot like the things that
motivate us today. Food, shelter, and survival are still as important now as
they were when the Mayflower landed in Plymouth, and when the first settlers
landed at your community.
As those basic needs are met, the struggle
might shift to family, fame, and wealth-building, but that also hasn't
changed in centuries. These same issues will be just as prevalent when we
establish a space colony or an undersea research center. Whether our heroes
are fighting for their lives or fighting for acceptance, the more the
readers can see them as real people, the more the reader will identify with
Our job as writers is to get beyond the
dust that has choked the story, and find the real people. Along the way,
you'll learn how to relate a compelling story that people will read to the
end. More importantly, by seeing how people respond in real situations,
you'll learn how to breathe actual emotions into the fictional characters
that people your stories.
That creates a compelling can't-put-it-down
story. Learn to tell that story in non-fiction, and your fiction writing
will benefit, too.