Where do story ideas come from?

 

 

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Love this bookstore kitty! Sometimes my best ideas come to me from taking a hooky day, fleeing the apartment and computer

 

By Caitlin Kelly

By this, I mean ideas for blog posts and for journalism and non-fiction.

Broadside now has more than 2,000 posts, beginning on July 1, 2009, when I chose to make reference to my native Canada, as it’s Canada Day.

Since then, as longtime readers know, I’ve touched on a wide range of subjects; the two posts readers choose every day (!?) are about my meeting Queen Elizabeth aboard the Royal yacht Brittania at the end of my covering a Royal Tour as a Globe & Mail reporter and what it was like to be sent away to boarding school when I was eight, the youngest child at my Toronto school.

My theory about why those two are so steadfastly popular, day after day, year after year — both are highly specific life events many are curious about and few, certainly meeting the Queen, will experience.

I blog a lot on writing, journalism, travel and how and why people behave as they do, inspired by pretty much anything: an overheard remark in a cafe, a walk in the woods or a conversation with my husband.

My goal, here, is to engage you and, when possible, spark a bit of lively conversation.

Some of my journalism work arrives as assignments, i.e. an editor chooses me to write a story for them. But much of the time it’s up to me to gin up some fabulous idea and sell it to someone with a decent budget, for me usually no less than $1,200 to $1,500. I do occasionally write for less, but it has to be quick and easy.

 

 

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Our recent trip to Santa Fe gave me some fresh ideas

A few stories I came up with and how:

 

In June 2018 I got a diagnosis of DCIS, an early and treatable form of breast cancer. Like many events in my life, it became fodder for several stories. This one, in The New York Times, about medical touch and this one, on the UK website, The Pool, about how many people have no idea how to talk to people who get cancer.

I watch Jeopardy a lot and enjoy the variety of contestants; one man mentioned a highly unusual Brooklyn children’s charity he volunteers with; I recently sold a story about it to The New York Times about an after school program focused on boat building.

 

 

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As someone who loves to travel but hates turbulence, I did a lot of deep research on it for this piece (again) for The New York Times’ travel section. I got the idea because, as they say in journalism, three’s a trend — and I’d noticed three recent reports of commercial flights having to divert from their original destination because of turbulence.

For Marriott magazine, I focused on one of my passions, setting a beautiful table for entertaining.

And, because so many journalists get fired — 1,000 lost their jobs recently across a number of digital platforms and print media — I pitched this fun piece about the long-standing friendships that often evolve and last for decades from these crazy workplaces. It ran on the website for the Poynter Institute, which teaches journalism skills to working professionals. It came about because my very first staff job, in my 20s, led to a friendship with the now only remaining staff photographer for the Globe & Mail — when the building we’d worked in together was torn down (of course) for new condos, Fred grabbed a souvenir white brick for me.

I’m still trying, so far without success, to sell a fantastic story from rural France, about a family run manufacturer in business 155 years.

In the past week — whew! —  I pitched five story ideas: one came out of a personal experience (what’s called a “service piece”, not very alluring but of service to the reader through practical tips) to Real Simple magazine; a personal health-focused essay to Self; a big deep dive (i.e. lots of original reporting) to American Prospect; two ideas to The New York Times Magazine and another to a Times editor in the Metropolitan section.

I also did six interviews by phone for my first story for cjr.org, the digital side of Columbia Journalism Review; the idea came out of a new book my former book editor tweeted about.

A cautionary tale about border crossing

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By Caitlin Kelly

Horrifying story about Customs and Border Patrol from The Intercept:

In retrospect, I was naive about the kind of agency CBP has become in the Trump era. Though I’ve reported several magazine stories in Mexico, none have been about immigration. Of course, I knew these were the guys putting kids in cages, separating refugee children from their parents, and that Trump’s whole shtick is vilifying immigrants, leading to many sad and ugly scenes at the border, including the farcical deployment of U.S. troops. But I complacently assumed that wouldn’t affect me directly, least of all in Austin. Later, I did remember reading a report in February about CBP targeting journalists, activists, and lawyers for scrutiny at ports of entry south of California, but I had never had a problem before, not in a lifetime of crossing the Texas-Mexico border scores of times on foot, by car, by plane, in a canoe, even swimming. This was the first time CBP had ever pulled me aside….

Cooperation didn’t earn me any leniency. Next up was a thorough search of my suitcase, down to unscrewing the tops of my toiletries. That much I expected. But then a third officer, whose name was Villarreal, carefully read every page of my 2019 journal, including copious notes to self on work, relationships, friends, family, and all sorts of private reflections I had happened to write down. I told him, “Sir, I know there’s nothing I can do to stop you, but I want to tell you, as one human being to another, that you’re invading my privacy right now, and I don’t appreciate it.” Villarreal acknowledged the statement and went back to reading.

That was just the beginning. The real abuse of power was a warrantless search of my phone and laptop. This is the part that affects everyone, not just reporters and people who keep journals…

Around the three-hour mark, I became completely passive. Confinement in a blank room is a soft form of torture, especially if you suffer from a crippling caffeine addiction, as I do. They were “fresh out” when I demeaned myself by meekly requesting coffee. For a long time, I sat slumped in the chair with a mounting headache while Moncivias finished typing up his report on me. He would pause, carefully consult something on my phone, and then go back to typing. This went on for another hour.

It was around 4 p.m. when Moncivias finally finished up and informed me, anticlimactically, that I was free to go. I couldn’t wait to get outside because the detention area was freezing. No wonder Spanish-speaking migrants call CBP detention la hielera — the icebox. I took my phone and laptop and silently packed up my luggage, which still lay disemboweled on the desk, underwear and all. Pomeroy was gone by this time. As I was walking out, I said to Moncivias and Villarreal, “It’s funny, of all the countries I’ve been to, the border guards have never treated me worse than here, in the one country I’m a citizen of, in the town where I was born.”

“Welcome back to the USA,” Moncivias said.

 

If you care about press freedom — hell, any civil rights — make time to read all of Seth Harp’s story.

It is chilling.

Taking a breather

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By Caitlin Kelly

People fantasize about freelance life — no boss! no meetings! no cubicle! no commute!

All true.

Also — no steady income! no security! no workday!

One great pleasure, though, is disappearing when we can find the time and money to do so.

So we’re off to Jose’s hometown, Santa Fe, New Mexico, my first visit there in 20 years, right after we met.

We’ll visit childhood friends, hike, get a massage at 10,000 Waves, play golf.

Relax.

Jose just finished photo editing for the U.S. Open, held in Pebble Beach, California — sitting in the hallway of our one-bedroom New York apartment. His workday stretched from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. for a solid week. I don’t know where he gets the stamina!

I’ve spent the past week pitching a lot of stories, all of them to new-to-me markets, and now await (I hope) a few assignments to come back to.

In American life, workers feel lucky to even get two weeks’ paid vacation, while Europeans are accustomed to five. Working freelance, we generally take five or six weeks, although three-at-once is the most we can do because of Jose’s work.

So ready to recharge!

No laughing matter

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Want to write for one of these? Good luck, kids!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Hey, what’s more fun than punching down?

Apparently, nothing, thanks to the appalling lack of judgment by executives at Netflix who have ordered eight episodes of a TV series to — wait for it — “prank” job-seekers.

You know, like yanking away the cat toy just as it pounces.

Gaten Matarazzo, a child actor starring in Stranger Things and way too many commercials, signed up for this steaming pile of garbage.

A reaction from Inc.com :

You know him as one of the kids dealing with the Upside Down on Netflix’s Stranger Things, but if you see him coming now–you should be the one to run. Gaten Matarazzo is producing and starring in a new prank show, Prank Encounters, and Netflix just ordered eight episodes. Deadline describes it as follows:

Each episode of this terrifying and hilarious prank show takes two complete strangers who each think they’re starting their first day at a new job. It’s business as usual until their paths collide and these part-time jobs turn into full-time nightmares.

Do you know what I have to say to this? No, no, no, and no.

Sure, we love to laugh at people’s misfortune–America’s Funniest Home Videos–made a fortune off people falling off step ladders and tripping over the dog. But, there’s a key difference here: people in that show submitted their own videos–they were laughing at themselves. This show sets people up for public entertainment with unasked for humiliation.

And it does it in a very vulnerable time of life–job hunting.

 

Looking for a job, or part-time work, or freelance work, is emotionally and intellectually exhausting — certainly if you are over 40, 50 or beyond when age discrimination already severely limits options for many people.

Just cancel the whole thing.

And, while we’re at it, for anyone interested in the brutal and absurd economics of freelance writing — witness the endless virtue-signaling, wagon-circling and knife-sharpening of late over an American magazine writer, now on staff at The New York Times Magazine (basically writers’ Everest, the coveted and unattainable peak of pay and prestige) and her crazy pay scale.

Some people have leaped to her defense — she works so hard! — while others simply wonder how so many other hard-working and talented writers are now, instead, desperately grateful to get paid even 25 percent of what she said she earns.

 

It’s a madhouse.

 

Work truly can be a four-letter word.

Can women handle 10,000 words?

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Frozen out…

By Caitlin Kelly

Just a taste of the obstacles so many women writers still face.

This, from Vox, quoting the editor in chief of The Atlantic magazine, Jeffrey Goldberg, which is considered one of the most prestigious outlets in American journalism:

 

It’s really, really hard to write a 10,000-word cover story. There are not a lot of journalists in America who can do it. The journalists in America who do it are almost exclusively white males. What I have to do — and I haven’t done this enough yet — is again about experience versus potential. You can look at people and be like, well, your experience is writing 1,200-word pieces for the web and you’re great at it, so good going!

That’s one way to approach it, but the other way to approach it is, huh, you’re really good at this and you have a lot of potential and you’re 33 and you’re burning with ambition, and that’s great, so let us put you on a deliberate pathway toward writing 10,000-word cover stories. It might not work. It often doesn’t. But we have to be very deliberate and efficient about creating the space for more women to develop that particular journalistic muscle.

 

I really don’t have a lot to add to this.

I will say that any woman, like me, who has already written and published a non-fiction book — mine are each around 100,000 words — is fully capable of producing a terrific magazine piece one-tenth that length.

This kind of gate-keeping is annoyingly prevalent, and the magazines still deemed career-making in choosing and promoting their writers are extremely difficult to penetrate. When top editors are male, many keep choosing the guys they know already, not the fantastically talented proven women beyond their narrow purview.

His comment, not surprisingly, provoked a torrent on Twitter. The women writers I know, admire and respect flung up their hands…business as usual.

Here’s an analysis of it from The Cut:

You don’t even need to leave the Atlantic’s archives to see how wrong it is to believe the journalists in America who do this Very Special Thing are “almost exclusively white males.” (It’s Sisyphean to list all the writers out in the wider world he’s overlooked.) But it is also sadly true that Goldberg’s record on this front is better than the one that preceded him, when, of the 17 issues directly before his tenure, only three of the cover stories were written by women. That’s fewer than the number of men during that same time period who wrote cover stories AND attended Yale at some point during the 1980s, as did the magazine’s then-editor-in-chief James Bennet. (Boola boola to you, Messrs. Haidt, Beinart, Frum, and Rauch!)

It’s also painfully obvious that some of the most interesting magazine-style journalism is happening, of course, at places that don’t have cover stories. The Atlantic is the most Establishment of the Establishment magazines, and the fixation on a print cover story as the sacred, locked tabernacle to which only a few are granted a key is revealing of a certain value system. (As is the notion that high word count correlates with quality or importance.)

 

If this issue is of interest to you, to see how many women are getting their work published, read the VIDA reports; VIDA is a 10-year-old organization founded on the principle of getting more women published.

 

 

A fallow field

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By Caitlin Kelly

Two of my favorite journalism assignments in 2018 involved a six-hour drive from my home in New York to farms in Quebec, near Montreal. I worked in French and learned a lot, quickly, about agriculture, thanks to Messieurs Bachand and Bousquet.

A city girl, I’ve never lived on or worked on a farm, but I love one farming concept deeply — the fallow field.

The field left to recharge, empty, after being over-planted.

Welcome to my brain!

I started writing for a living as a full-time undergraduate at a demanding university, juggling term papers and exams with assignments for national magazines and newspapers.

I didn’t take a break until I was 30, completely worn out and — very fortunately — financially able to do so for three blissful summer months while living in a small town in New Hampshire.

I haven’t written much lately.

Many people dream of “being a writer”. The part often overlooked is the tremendous hustle required to sell that work.

I send out pitches for stories to various editors — five last week, three this week — and wait for replies, whether a paid/work/yes or a no…meaning more pitching and still no income.

I look daily for story ideas and, with some, do initial unpaid pre-reporting to see if there is a saleable story; one I’ve been chasing for six months and which (yay!) prompted an immediate “I’m intrigued” reply from an editor I’m dying to write for.

My latest book proposal is now with two editors at major New York City publishers, so I also await their decisions. I may apply for another fellowship, the application due June 26.

 

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It’s been eight years since Malled was published.

 

I’ve recently attended two local networking events, as I’m long overdue getting out to meet local businesses that might be able to use my writing, editing, blogging and coaching skills. I enjoyed both events, but whew! It’s also tiring being charming to strangers.

Instead of writing all the time, I’ve been reading a lot (even fiction! Station Eleven, by fellow Canadian-in-NY Emily St. John Mandel), and going to the gym and shopping for some new summer clothes for a June vacation in Jose’s hometown, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

It’s disorienting to write less, mostly because that’s where the money eventually comes from!

But I’ve also been coaching other writers (details on my Welcome and About pages here), a nice income-producing break from word production.

 

Because one’s brain just gets tired!

 

Rest, recharge, relax…

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One of my addictions — shelter magazines!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s a long weekend here in the U.S., Memorial Day, and that means — for some — a three-day break from work.

Things have been quiet-ish here for me: lots of pitching of story ideas, attending local networking events and following up with the people I’ve met there — and (!) waiting nervously to hear from two editors about my book proposal.

In an economy where so many are self-employed, work can dominate every day of the week unless you set tight boundaries. It’s also tough for many people with high-pressure jobs to slow down and just rest.

I hope you’re making time for this as well!

Here are some of the ways I rest, recharge and relax:

 

Exercise

 

I try to get to spin class three times a week, 45 minutes in the dark with great music. When not being lazy, I also lift weights, skate at a local ice rink and go for walks. I need the social aspect of being around others as much as the cardio and stretching. I may get back to playing softball, even with a runner to fill in for my bad right knee.

 

 

 

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The walkway next to our town reservoir

 

 

Nature

 

We live at treetop level, eye-to-eye with blue jays and with ready access to gorgeous walking trails along the Hudson River or the nearby Rockefeller estate (750 acres that one of the nation’s richest families donated for public use.) I love seeing the world change with the seasons — our local cormorant is back at the reservoir!

 

Friendship

 

Little kids get play dates to look forward to. Adults need them too! I make sure each week to set up at least one face to face meeting with a friend, over coffee or lunch. I’ve been working alone at home, with no kids or pets, since 2006. It gets lonely. I also make time for long catch-up phone calls with old friends in Canada (for whom [?!] long distance rates still somehow apply.)

 

Meditation class

 

This is a new thing for me, held every Wednesday morning at 10:00 a.m. in the chapel of our church and led by our minister’s wife. This all sounds starchy, I’m sure, but it’s a truly powerful place to share ideas and insights, to sit still in silence, to learn and to build community. It’s women only, ranging in age from 40s to 80+, and we usually have eight to 12. It’s good to have a standing date with one’s soul.

 

Therapy

 

After my breast cancer diagnosis last June, even a very good one, anxiety has become an unwelcome new companion. Therapy helps.

 

 

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Found this 1940s diner on a great road-trip last summer, on Long Island’s North Shore

 

Travel

 

Always my favorite! We just took a quick two-day trip to Montreal, a five-hour drive door-to-door from our home, and it was a perfect break. Sometimes a change of scenery is just the ticket.

 

Reading

 

Escaping into a great book is a perfect way to de-compress.

 

Hey, leisure rhymes with pleasure!

 

How about you?

All the best British cop/crime series: must watch!

By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve been bingeing of late on British crime and cop shows, so much so it sometimes feels like all-Nicola-Walker all the time.

I just finished the amazing 2015 series River, about a London policeman named John River — who has an unnerving habit of seeing dead people — which also starred Walker as his partner, Stevie. I then watched the final episode of Unforgotten, starring Walker as the lead investigator on a cold case of the murder of a young woman in a small town.

I like a few qualities of these shows: the focus on solutions and complications, rarely on endless gratuitous violence; little to no gun play and much more psychological story-telling than the usual cops/street chase drama and glimpses of beautiful British settings.

In every show, also unusual, the police are shown as human beings with their own complicated emotional lives — whether with their spouses, parents, siblings, children or co-workers.

Some of my favorites:

 

Broadchurch

How can you resist anything with Olivia Colman? This series, initially set in Dorset, with the second season also shot in Somerset, Devon and Berkshire, stars Colman as detective Elie Miller with David Tennant as her partner. The settings are spectacular and the familial twists add to the tension.

Unforgotten

This series stars Nicola Walker as DCI Cassie Stuart and her partner DCI Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar.) The opening theme music is especially haunting. I’ve watched the second and third seasons; both involve complicated plots and multiple characters.

River

This one might be my favorite, now four years old. The premise, a partnership between an older man with some significant mental issues and no friends or family and his fellow detective partner, a younger woman (with a secret) from a crime-ridden family, is interesting enough. I loved Swedish actor, Stellan Skarsgard, 67, as the lead, an actor I haven’t seen much of since his super-terrifying role in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — although he has appeared in many of the Avenger films.

Nicola Walker, 48, is surely one of Britain’s best-known and most-seen actresses on television — less so in film.

The Daily Telegraph critic raved “Creepy yet ultimately uplifting, River stands alongside London Spy, Humans and Wolf Hall as one of the year’s best home-grown TV dramas.”[21]

 

Shetland

The windswept and isolated landscape alone made me want to hop into a very small airplane and go see it for myself. So much of the appeal of these shows, as someone living in an American suburban town, is the dense interplay of characters living in small towns in impossibly picturesque places.

The Bodyguard

From its terrifying opening episode, this one is full of twists and turns, following the life of bodyguard David Budd as he guards a politician whose values he loathes, played by Keeley Hawes.

The Tunnel

I would watch French actress Clemence Poesy read a recipe card. She’s amazing in this two-season series, (an adaptation of The Bridge), which involves detectives from France and England after a body — cut in half — is found lying at the exact midpoint of the Chunnel, forcing both nations to investigate and work together despite cultural and linguistic differences. Poesy plays a woman who is somewhat autistic, maybe even someone with Aspergers’, whose single-mindedness confounds many of her co-workers but helps her be a great cop.

Happy Valley

Starring Sarah Lancashire, (who, like Nicola Walker, also stars in Last Tango in Halifax), as a weather-beaten divorced small-town policewoman in the Calder Valley, West Yorkshire in northern England. Between the thick accents and speed of speech, you might need sub-titles! Her character, Catherine Cawood, lives with her sister Clare, a recovering alcoholic and heroin addict. Cawood’s adult daughter committed suicide after being raped and impregnated.

I know…this all sounds horribly grim! But Cawood is a great character and every scene is shot on location.

 

Grantchester

Edward Norton! Need I say more? He plays Sidney Chambers, a small-town minister helping local detective Geordie Keating, solve crimes. A much less grim and dark series, with lots of humor and domestic issues as well. Also set in 1953, so lots of period costume and details.

 

Endeavour

This is — of course — the detective’s first name, an Oxford drop-out. Set in 1968, 1969 and now 1970 for the latest season, it offers gorgeous glimpses of Oxford and surroundings. His partner’s name is Fred Thursday and they drive around in a stunning vintage Jaguar.

 

 

Niksen, farniente, lassitude. REST!

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I lay for long lazy hours alone on this beach in July 2017 in Croatia. Heaven!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s all sort of sad, really.

In this recent New York Times story — putatively touting the benefits of doing absolutely nothing, aka niksen — the whole reason for doing nothing is…to be more productive:

 

More practically, the idea of niksen is to take conscious, considered time and energy to do activities like gazing out of a window or sitting motionless. The less-enlightened might call such activities “lazy” or “wasteful.” Again: nonsense.

We at Smarter Living have long been fans of taking regular breaks throughout the day, as study after study shows that feeling drowsy, exhausted or otherwise mentally depleted during the workday drastically hinders performance and productivity.

In other words: Whether at home or at work, permission granted to spend the afternoon just hanging out.

 

Insert my very loud scream right here.

 

I did something unthinkable to the old me today.

I skipped the second jam-packed day at an annual writers’ conference: missing appointments and new potential clients, not seeing old friends and basically wasting the money I paid for all of it.

Instead, feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, I stayed home, alone and quiet.

I didn’t do this to become more productive!

I did it because I was tired.

I really needed to rest.

I did this because my body told me to sleep 9.5 hours last night, which I gratefully did.

I did it because I cried to a friend in a NYC tea room, worn out with anxiety.

We live in a time when millions of us are being forced into economic precarity — aka the “gig economy”, a phrase I loathe. Because this kind of work is always somewhat unpredictable (I lost my two anchor clients overnight), and can be poorly paid, one is very reluctant to turn away income, to slow down, to just….be still.

Which makes it even more important to just do that.

Nothing.

And plenty of it, dammit!

 

Do you find it hard to slow down, unplug, unwind and just rest?

 

Reframing rejection

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One of my coffee-stained notebooks from my last staff job. Laid off, not fun!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Rejection to a writer is like blood to a surgeon — a messy and necessary part of every working day.

— Anonymous

 

Does anyone anywhere relish rejection? Not really.

I recently interviewed for a dream job — didn’t get it. I applied for a very well paid corporate job and was interviewed, didn’t get it. Jose and I both applied for very good journalism jobs at major outlets in D.C.

Not even an interview.

So, yeah, we’re quite familiar with the concept!

My first two books were each rejected by 25 publishers before a major NYC house took each one on. So, even after a lot of rejection, you can achieve a goal.

If you don’t give up.

 

 

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My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions

 

 

An interesting piece by Adam Grant  on this topic in The New York Times:

A good starting point is to remove, “It’s not you, it’s me” from your vocabulary. Sometimes it really is them! But the real reason to ban that phrase is because most of the time when we get rejected, it’s not you. It’s not me either. It’s us.

Rejection often happens because of a lack of fit in the relationship: Your values were a mismatch for that interviewer, your skills didn’t quite suit that job, your ratty conference T-shirts failed to overlap with the taste of your decreasingly significant other. New research reveals that when people are in the habit of blaming setbacks on relationships instead of only on the individuals involved, they’re less likely to give up — and more motivated to get better.

It also helps to recognize that our lives are composed of many selves…When one of your identities is rejected, resilience comes from turning to another identity that matters to you.

This is the only way I’ve really stayed sane through so many rejections.

While American life is determined to reduce us all to more productive automatons, who feel guilty if we do anything that’s not income producing, we are all so much more than that!

When my ideas are rejected — as they are all the time,  by which I mean every week, sometimes every day! —

 

I’m still:

 

— a much beloved wife

— a welcomed neighbor

— a valued friend

— a member of my spin class

— a member of my church

— a wise contributor to many on-line writing groups where others seek advice

— athletic and flexible and strong

— multi-lingual

— a traveler

— a very good cook and hostess

It looks as though my latest book proposal will get looked at by an editor. I should be more excited, but until it sells, if it does, I’m holding my fire.

It was roundly rejected last year by multiple agents, which — I admit — left me really frustrated and dejected.

 

How well do you handle rejection?