4. WHAT DO I NEED TO KNOW? RESEARCHING THE FACTS
Now you move from foreplay to some intense interaction. You make a list of the people who have the answers. For Hardware In Her Blood, I only had to do an in-depth interview with the woman I featured. The Santa story required interviews with 12 Santas, both amateurs and professionals, and a woman who ran a Santa Training program. But to write the story on home invasions I was required to talk to the spokeswoman for the Vancouver Police Department, a psychologist, an expert on home security and a cross-section of elderly people.
When you make your list of people who have the answers, it is important to come at the story from several angles. This has multiple advantages. By looking from different perspectives you come up with one, new and interesting to you. You eliminate angles that don’t really work and focus on the ones that do. And if you plan ahead and well, you are able to get enough material to write not one but three stories about the subject – each from a different angle for a different publication. I did this with the Santa story – first I wrote about emotional wear and tear on Santas for a National Magazine and then wrote an article on the training and physical challenges for a regional newspaper. Ideally, your research should give you enough material to publish the same story from a different angle for a local, regional, national and international market. Then you really begin to get a bang for your buck! Or in this case a buck for your bang!
Although there is never a better source of fact than the ‘horse’s mouth’ a story will always benefit from some astounding statistic that makes the reader say “I don’t believe it”. Here is where Stats Canada comes into play. If you are writing for an affiliated periodical, you will be able to access researchers at Stats Canada who will do the digging for you and feed you everything they find on the subject you request. It’s billed to the periodical’s account. If you’re on your own, the Internet will get you there, eventually. Don’t forget your local library or university library, government departments and local and national archives as sources.
The publishing business is run as lean as a cholesterol free meal these days. Don’t assume their staff will check your stats or your editor will think this part of her job. You’re responsible for any mistake, so I recommend you substantiate your claim with at least two, preferably three sources before including your research. If you’re quoting an expert, then trust her to know her facts. If she’s wrong, she becomes the fall guy, not you. However, you’re the one who caused the editor the problem that makes him decide working with you is too much trouble. Get it right, make your story precise and probe the depths. Tempt the editor into opening the door and inviting more of your work in.
3. WHAT’S YOUR ANGLE? RESEARCHING TO QUERY
You have your idea and now you’re on a mission. You know you can’t publish anything in a reputable paper or periodical that isn’t factual. If you love puzzles, digging for information and making cold calls, this is as good as foreplay.
Your first step, if you’re writing for income, is research just enough information to confirm the truth and flesh-out an idea you can use. You want to establish the credibility of your story. You might phone a woman and ask her if she really does have the biggest doll collection in Canada. It might mean calling operator to ask if a Bucking Horse Dude ranch really does exist and get a phone number. A second phone call nets you the information that Mr. X is the owner, and a call to Mr. X at an agreed upon time establishes that yes, he really does serve just French and German tourists in the middle of the Saskatchewan plains. Now you have your story idea and the facts you need to query an editor. You won’t invest any more time into the story unless you know there is an editor interested, if not committed.
If you just want to get your work in print, you may go ahead and put in the time and effort to write the article and search for an editor when it’s finished. It might take you 25 tries and two years but you get it published. The third way this article might get written is if you query it to a publication and agree to write it on speculation. Often, if the editor is not familiar with your work or questions the topic, they might make this offer. If you’re confident about your ability to turn in an audience-grabbing story, accept spec by all means.
Less Is More
A few years ago, women who had embraced Simple Abundance raced to buy Sarah Ban Breathnach’s Something More. I hit the bookstore with the same toothy smile of anticipation as the twenty women in line ahead of me. As I worked my way through the book, I waited in vain for my body to pebble with the gooseflesh that announces one of my epiphanies. Breathnach’s premise that I excavate my past like a highly organized archeologist lacked appeal. I figured I’d uncover a noxious landfill with no value other than excessive gas. I have learned that being my best self does not require digging more up, but tossing more into the landfill instead.
Over the years, I have been steadily letting go. At age 25 I finally let go of the need to be manipulated by my mother, by taking a shaky stand over the phone. When I hung up freedom felt like nausea. Guilt was the first garbage I threw out … or up. Over the next ten years the garbage containers in the house filled with my throw-a-ways. I tossed the need to say “yes” to everyone and everything, the hunger to be liked by all; my need to take responsibility for everyone plus their dog and their cat. I gave up the idea that what I did had to be perfect; the idea that what I did mattered to anyone but me. A pile grew in the back yard as I emptied this trash from my life. My streamlined persona became noticeable and others tagged me with labels like rebel, introvert, anti social and made noises that indicated I was bucking the system.
I hid from their disapproval in Crohn’s Disease for a half a decade. In the process I let go of most of my intestines, all of my modesty, my idea that I always had to give more than I took. I dumped any thought that I was indispensable – the kids still grew up and the cats found another lap to lie on.
I eliminated the compulsion to host trés eleganté dinner parties that left me standing on swollen feet washing delicate china till 2:00 a.m. When my children begged me to make Christmas simpler so they could enjoy it, I threw out the social paradigm that it had to start in October and end with a bout of stress induced flu in January. From 30 to 40 years old I discarded so many of society’s upside down beliefs, I became a junk collector’s dream.
As forty slammed into fifty my refuse pile became a neighborhood eyesore. It was time to move. I heaped on the bustle of city life, the constant round of people, places, interruptions and noise. I eliminated a big house, abandoned, with relief, ornaments and furniture that sat for six years in storage. I gave away my obsession with time, and let go of expectations of people and myself, and refused to take ownership of their expectations of me. The crash of my short-term memory helped me to minimize multi tasking. Burnout forced me to walk away from duty to the church, begrudging contribution to the community and empty my life of people who had moved on while I insisted on hanging on. I left city life and returned to my roots, where I found the confidence to be still, to sit in silence, to quiet my mind.
A year later I eliminated a second home, the long drive between two provinces and the numb bottom that came with it. I’m one woman in one house with loads of time I won’t give away. But I will lend it – to meditation, quiet walks, writing and domesticity, a good talk with friends, a helping hand to family.
The bulldozer came and lifted the junk out of my virtual backyard into a garbage truck that trundled it away. I hope there is no one at the dump picking through the accumulation of misguided thinking I discarded, in hopes of taking something home. I lived too many years among the toxic waste of what society said was right or wrong. I am free, having tossed the belief that there is a right and wrong and replaced it with the knowledge that there are just different ways of doing and being. I am who I want to be not by digging down into the bones of my past but by paring my life down to the bone.
2. WHO WILL BUY? RESEARCHING YOUR MARKET
The best way to find your market is become familiar with it. This means reading what they publish. If you want to write travelogues, read magazines that publish them. If you want to tell about a local farmer doing something amazing, look for similar stories in local publications. You can do this research in the library, in the magazine section of a large bookstore, or by bringing up publications on the Internet. Now, focus on a few periodicals or newspapers that appear to publish the type of story you’re interested in writing. Read as many copies of them as possible. Chances are if you have a subscription to a periodical it contains the type of articles you’re interested in writing and you’ve already soaked up their style by osmosis.
At this point you will want to write to the publication asking for their guidelines. Send a Self Addressed Stamped Envelope (S.A.S.E) along, and make the letter brief. In the last few years, most publishers have guidelines on their websites. Going on the Internet is a fast way to get the guidelines.
Compare the guidelines to your own goals. Guidelines give you word count, payment (by line, word count or page), deadlines for seasonal material, editors of different departments, format required and other information you need before you submit.
Ask yourself some questions? Will the amount of work I have to put into the article be justified by the amount this periodical pays? Can I meet their deadline? Am I able to write in the style they require (humorous, experiential)? If you feel you have a match then prepare a query.
This too requires research. You must query according to the publisher guidelines. If you send an Internet query, it will be lost in cyberspace unless the publisher stipulates he will accept by Internet. You would be wise to set a ‘received’ cue on your Internet mail out, so you at least know it arrived. Even then expect 4-6 weeks to go by without an answer, or even acknowledgement it’s been received. At this point you may email again asking for a status report (name article and date queried). This will usually gain you an immediate response. Many times you will hear nothing. You must decide whether to start the process again or give up. A new query or submission might hit the editor’s desk, at a time he is open to your idea.
Make your query as brief as possible. State the subject, why you are qualified to write on it and when you can deliver. Now include research material for the editor you’ve approached. If this is a new market, it is important to add your publication credits. If the list is too long, choose the newest, or those similar in style to what they print. Send photocopies of the tear sheets of several of your articles. Never cut around the article, but tear out the entire page that contains publication, name and date on the top or bottom.
In a query letter you sell your article by proving it is timely and you have an interesting angle and know who has the answers; then you sell yourself.