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I have two cats; a 16-year-old tortoiseshell named Taddy and a very big and very fat—nearly nine kilos cuddly ginger, named Shadow.
Recently, Shadow disappeared for three days. Both my husband and I went out day and night looking for him, to no avail.
Now, it needs to be said that Shadow is not the kind of cat who just disappears. No, this is a cat who loves his food and comes running with the slightest hint of food appearing. I had visions of him either being hit by a car or some unscrupulous person catnapping him. (Why anyone would want a foodaholic cat I'll never know!)
After three days of checking animal shelters and searching the streets, and still no Shadow, I decided to door-knock the neighbors. The third house I called at had heard ghostly meows at all hours, and a ghost cat walking in the house. Hmmm, that sounded like my Shadow.
After four hours of trying to pinpoint exactly where in the neighbor's house he was, the husband neighbor remembered that the day Shadow disappeared, their roof had been repaired. I went home to get my son and my hubby's ladder (heights are not my forte) only to get back out on the street to find my neighbor waiting. We've found your cat, he told me. He's looking down at us from the manhole.
Yes, he was, but it took twenty minutes to coax him down, poor darling. And he's been following me around, and making up for his loss of food ever since. (Incidentally, we called him Shadow because he follows me everywhere.)
Why, you ask, is this crazy woman telling me about her cat?
Whether it be fiction or nonfiction (or both), as writers, we need to be forever on the lookout for ideas. This used to be a major drawback for me. Not so these days. Learning to find ideas does not necessarily come naturally it's something that, with practice, will get easier with habit.
The story about my fat fluffy cat, Shadow, will eventually become a short story, an essay, or maybe even a nonfiction article—perhaps all three. Let's look at turning it into a nonfiction article. First of all, ask yourself if there is a need for such an article. To decide this, answer a few questions: How many other people have lost their beloved pets in this fashion? How many have given up hope (as I nearly did), and how many had no idea where to start? Assuming, as I have, that there is a need for the information, and therefore, an article, you would then need to work out the sort of content you would want to use. Think of some questions that need to be addressed. I find brainstorming is the best technique to work out my content. In this instance (for this particular subject) I could ask:
When a pet goes missing, where should you start looking? How long is average for a pet to be found? Can animal shelters help? Is it beneficial to have your pet micro-chipped? Will animal shelters contact you if your pet is micro-chipped or wears a tag? Is this definite? Is it better to check in person or can you rely on the shelter contacting you? What is the procedure used by shelters and pounds? How does an animal catcher/ranger determine if a pet is a stray? Quotes from animal catcher/ranger/council/shire regarding missing pets. Facts and figures (statistics).
The above list took me just a few minutes to develop, but as you can see, I have the basis for an article. And so, with some research, photos and planting my bottom firmly on my seat, I have my nonfiction article. With a little extra work, I could re-write and sell the article to more than one market, generating additional income. (It is much easier to sell articles that come complete with photographs, so give this some serious consideration.)
Anthologies are a major business these days, and their editors are constantly looking for content. No matter which publication, e-zine or Web site, the majority carry market information. More often than not, there will be at least one listing at any given time, for anthology submissions that are required. Some of these may not suit your current needs, but some, such as the Chicken Soup series, A Cup of Comfort series etc, have ongoing needs for stories. Some have a newsletter to which you can subscribe for notification of current requirements. For others, you will just have to keep an eye open.
At some point in time, maybe not right away, possibly in the future, there will be an anthology or a collection of short stories, or even a magazine that will require Shadow's story to be relayed in one form or another.
Perhaps I should look further back into my past for material? Around fifteen years ago—when my children were very young, my son hid from his terrified parents after running away on a bush walk. He was missing for nearly two hours and we were on the verge of calling the police when the little darling jumped out of a bush and said, "Ha ha, I tricked you!" No, we've never let him forget it.
There was also the time when our family were on holidays, working our way up the coast of Australia, from Melbourne to the Gold Coast. We stopped at Port Macquarie for a few days the same town Alan (hubby) and I spent our honeymoon many, many years earlier.
This particular day, Alan and our two (then) teenage offspring wanted to go to the beach. I had a terrible feeling of foreboding, impending disaster. We went, much to my dismay, and Alan was dragged out into the sea by a King Tide and nearly drowned. I'm waiting for the right anthology to come along.
The trick here is to write these things down. Put them in a box, a binder or even a card file. You don't even need to elaborate. The basics will probably be enough to jog your memory. We are all a wealth of information, memories are a wonderful asset. In addition to providing us with scores of material, they provide emotional links as well. It is the emotional tie that often wins the editor over, so don't dwell just on the facts. Elaborate, and bare your soul.
You can use a similar technique for short stories, but you will also need to fabricate information. For example, I went to my local supermarket for a few grocery items. When I arrived, the police were there taking statements. One of the cashiers explained (to me) that they had been robbed. The thief made his getaway by literally running through the store, then taking a flying leap over some shopping trolleys parked near the registers.
Humor writing is one of my strong points in fact, the Kelly and Tony Mystery Series are all comedy/crime stories. That particular story tickled my funny bone. You guessed right; I turned it into a short story. As Kelly (my main protagonist) has a fetish for tight butts (male of course!) I worked that into the story. The result is a very funny story that I m considering using in my Kelly and Tony novel (as yet un-named).
My unsolicited advice is to really look around you, open your eyes, see your surroundings. Don't just walk down the street, ride your bike or do your shopping instead, witness a story.
Extra tips for finding ideas AND keeping them:
Cheryl Wright is an award-winning Australian author and freelance journalist. In addition to an array of other projects, she writes a monthly travel column for a magazine in the US and is the author of "Think Outside the Square: Writing Publishable (Short) Stories" and "I Wanna Win! - Tips for Becoming an Award Winning Writer". Her debut novel "Saving Emma" was released January 1, 2005 by Whiskey Creek Press. Visit Cheryl's Web site www.cheryl-wright.com