Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

 

Writing Stories -- Real Stories

By J. Harlowe
2005,
J. Harlowe


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 print.

"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 cares?

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 them.

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.