CHANCES ARE YOUR day-to-day life isn't all that exciting. That's one reason true-life features remain a staple of magazines, newspapers and Web sites. We love to read about other people's lives, especially when they have a fascinating story to tell.
As a writer, however, there's more to finding, researching, selling and writing true-life features than meets the eye. In addition to the excellent reporting skills that are needed to master the genre, you must have the ability to tell a good story and to put your reader in the subject's Crocs, heels or sneakers.
Everyone has a story to tell, right? But the person herself, the inherent drama of her story, and the market you're pitching will all determine the salability of your topic. Often, but not always, the subject of a true-life feature will reflect a publication's readership. Think about it. Sports Illustrated runs stories about athletes who have overcome the odds to forge stellar careers; college alumni magazines run features about their noteworthy alumni; and parenting publications include stories about parents who have faced particular child-rearing challenges.
While freelancer Lisa Collier Cool covered a wide range of topics early in her freelancing career, she chose to focus on true-life features, including true-life medical dramas. "I really love to tell a good story," says Cool, an award-winning freelancer and past president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. "And I think it's the thrill of the hunt to find a great story and sell it."
You may find subjects in your day-to-day life simply by keeping your ears open. For example, a business client of mine had talked about her daughter's chronic disease and the struggle to obtain the correct diagnosis. I wound up pitching her story to a variety of markets before I sold it to Woman's World. I've found other story subjects simply by reading my local newspaper and by letting friends and family know I'm always on the "subject prowl."
Cool finds potential stories in a variety of ways. Because she often writes medical dramas, she has contacts at a number of hospitals who get in touch with possible story subjects. She also brainstorms topics and then researches databases like LexisNexis (www.lexisnexis. com) looking for story subjects.
"Sometimes I find what I imagine, and sometimes I find something totally different," Cool says. "One time I was reading Outside magazine, and it had a really good story about hikers who had been struck by lightning and survived. I thought, that sounds like a good topic--maybe I could find some woman who's been struck by lightning and sell it to a woman's magazine." In Cool's online research, she found a Web site that included articles about people who had been struck by lightning, including a piece about two women who had been hit while indoors, working on their computers. Cool sold that piece to Reader's Digest.
Pitching the piece
When pitching a true-life feature, include enough details about the story to give the editor a sense of its inherent drama and why readers will be interested in it. "I usually have some news story as the starting point," Cool says. "I rewrite it in my own words, and will use some of the quotes from the news story if there are some good ones--with the idea that when I sell the article, I'll do my own interviewing and get my own quotes."
Freelancer Anita Bartholomew, a former longtime contributing editor to Reader's Digest, has written hundreds of narratives and dramas for the digest and other major magazines. While Reader's Digest often gave Bartholomew stories to cover, she still had to do some preliminary research and write a proposal before receiving a formal assignment.
"My way of doing proposals for narratives," she says, "is to start with the action: Give the opening paragraph or two, summarize the rest of the story, and explain why the story meets the parameters of the magazine. If you were to read one of my narrative proposals, it's not much different from the back-cover copy for a novel--except, of course, that I give away the ending."
Researching the story
If you're writing a simple service story (e.g., "10 Ways to ..."), you can do all of your interviews by phone or e-mail. For these true-life features, though, a face-to-face interview is preferable. "I like, if possible, to go to the person's home and see them in their own environment," Cool says. "Failing that, I do a phone interview and try to go over their story in a great deal of detail. I tell them my editor is a stickler for detail."
What if you're dealing with an emotional or sensitive subject, such as when your subject has lost a loved one? How do you handle that? "You have to get out of the way. It isn't a matter of what you do or don't do but of actually being sensitive and empathic," Batholomew says. "Let your empathy for the person guide you. Understand that the person wants his or her story told--accurately and completely--or the person wouldn't be talking to you. Listen, encourage, don't be afraid to gently interrupt to ask for details or other explanations.
"If you don't have genuine empathy, if you can't put yourself inside the skin of the person who's telling you about what might have been a harrowing personal experience, you won't be able to do the story justice. Remember that for the person you're interviewing, it isn't a story. It's life."
Don't be afraid to ask "obvious" questions that remain unanswered. For example, if a former boyfriend was stalking a young woman and she didn't call the police, ask why not. Maybe she had called them before and they'd said they couldn't do anything--or maybe his father was chief of police in her small town. The more questions you ask, the more information and detail you'll have about the story.
Even if you're an excellent note-taker, recording your interviews is essential. When Bartholomew travels for a story, she takes along a video camera. "I take video of everything, no matter how mundane it seems, so I can reconstruct events later. If the subject says, 'My car hit the tree on the corner,' I have a video of that tree. If I hear on the 911 call, 'Subject is heading east on I-25, turning off at exit 12,' I have a video image of that intersection," Bartholomew says.
"That means that, when I set about writing the story, I have the kind of detail that paints a picture in the reader's mind. Likewise, when I'm interviewing several people at a time (which I like to do for stories that involve a number of people), I videotape so I know who's said what, who's disagreed with that view of events, who has some fresh insights (and also, of course, who I'm quoting)," Bartholomew adds.
During your research, let your subject(s) know that you may be back in touch with follow-up questions. (Even if you don't have them as you're writing, chances are that your editor will later!)
Writing the piece
Before you begin writing the story, review your transcripts, videotapes and any other information you gathered while researching the piece. "Get every piece of paper that relates to the story, every police report, court document, statement, transcript--whatever's available," Bartholomew says. "If there was a 911 call, get the tape. Get as much detail as possible and you'll make the story come alive."
A compelling lead will help draw readers into your feature. "In school, you learn to start at the beginning, but sometimes the beginning is the worst place to start," Cool says. "Sometimes it's better to start at the middle or near the end and even at the end and go back. I think it's generally good to start with one of the most interesting things regardless of when in the story it happens."
It's not just the beginning of the story that is important; a true-life feature should tell a story, not just report what happened. "A good dramatic nonfiction narrative should have the same elements you'd expect to see in a work of fiction," Bartholomew says. "An incident causes your protagonist(s) to take action toward an objective, overcome obstacles, and deal with a twist or two."
"Readers should have reasons to be emotionally invested in the outcome and should have some plausible concern that the protagonist may not reach the goal. Usually (but not always, depending on the magazine), your editor will want only stories with an emotionally satisfying ending."
Remember the classic rule of writing, "Show--don't tell." It's the details that make the story come alive. "It's really important to have little scenes to help people visualize things," Cool says. "Instead of [a subject] saying she was bullied at school--that would be telling--I'll describe a particular incident where a kid in hip-hop pants comes up to her at the bus stop and calls her 'funny face' and shoves her on the ground, and the other kids laugh and she's embarrassed."
When it comes to ending the story, use as much care as you do in writing the lead. Don't just stop. Look for a twist, insight or quote showing how this experience changed the person, Cool suggests. That will give your story--and your readers--a sense of resolution.
Kelly James-Enger, a contributing editor at The Writer, is the author of Six-Figure Freelancing: The Writer's Guide to Making More Money and Ready, Aim, Specialize!: Create Your Own Writing Specialty and Make More Money! She lives in Downers Grove, Ill. Web: www.becomebodywise.com.
For Kelly James-Enger's example of a "truelife" feature query that resulted in publication, go to The Writer Web site and click on Online Extra.
James-Enger, Kelly. "Telling a real story: how to find, sell, research and write true-life articles." The Writer Nov. 2009: 26. Academic OneFile. Web. 8 Nov. 2009.
Gale Document Number:A209105134
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