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Strangers: A Writer’s Greatest Resource
by Willma Willis Gore

Casual meetings on trains, planes, at the mountain campsite, the zoo, at the restaurant overlooking the shore, on the bench waiting for the bus—these are sources of more contacts for great articles and profiles than I'll ever get around to writing.

I have an overloaded Rolodex, a long e-mail address list, a treasury of business cards, and addresses torn from envelopes. I may not re-contact every one of them, but each is a unique store of expertise. And no matter what vital technical information we can retrieve from cyberspace, the "personal touch" is the one that gets—and sells—the article.

I met a great "stranger" the day I was scheduled for jury duty at the San Bernardino County Court House. When I parked, a young woman in a pickup truck parked beside me. I asked if she could direct me to Court Three.

"That's where I'm going. Come along," she invited.

As we headed for the buildings, Karen told me that she and her husband had a home-based business. Also, she was home-schooling her children so it was difficult for her to serve on the jury. Although her husband was taking over teaching chores that morning, he might get a job call at any moment—the reason she planned to ask the Clerk to excuse her from jury duty.

At the time I was doing a series of profiles of families for the metropolitan daily, The San Bernardino County Sun. I asked for Karen's business card, thinking she, husband and kids might be good subjects. Within days I had re-contacted them. They were pleased to be interviewed, and I sold their "Family Portrait" to The Sun. Karen put me in touch with the provider of the home school materials she used and I later profiled that family.

My local weekly published a short piece about a young mother of four, a graphic artist, who was supporting her family with her talents. In the process of writing a profile on Jody I learned that she was the calligrapher for greeting cards produced by an enterprising 60-year-old who had founded his own business based at his mountain retreat. Jody introduced us and Senior World gave me a go-ahead for a story on him. Following that publication, I queried the editor of a journal for founders of small businesses. My story about John Wiedefeld and his "Inspirations Unlimited" greeting card company was the cover story on the next issue of Dream World magazine.

My hairdresser was a single mom and a Vidal Sassoon-trained barber. After I profiled her she referred me to a dozen additional families who became subjects. Over a period of two years through leads like this and other "satisfied" profilees, sixty-five of my "Family Portraits" were published in The Sun.

As a public service, this newspaper invited its readers to meet the editors and learn how the paper is assembled each day. I signed up. The managing editor, in charge of the meeting, asked each visitor to say something about himself. A man sitting across from me was flanked by two teenagers whom he introduced as his daughters. They were there, he said, because he took every opportunity to introduce the girls to professionals in as many different career areas as possible. What a story for a family magazine! The moment the meeting closed I intercepted Bob and his daughters. They became one of my profiled families and I'm following up with queries to magazines.

So far, any family I've contacted is happy to give additional information when I need it. The reason, I believe, is that all subjects of my profiles or articles see a copy before I send the story to the editor. This keeps the subjects happy, and the editors receive no complaints about errors in what I have produced for their pages.

My habit of checking copy with my subjects was a special help when I lived in a farming community and wrote articles and business features for farm magazines. People who love their work are normally enthusiastic about it and sometimes give more facts about finances, tons of fruit last shipped and acres under cultivation than they really want publicized. Through more than 40 years of marketing magazine articles, I have made certain the subjects of my profiles or the manager of the business I'm writing about see and approve what I've written and have the opportunity to red-line anything I've included. And always with this caveat: I have no control over what the editor may change or cut.

My local TV station one evening reported on women who were learning the Farrier trade. Young girls were shown cradling horses hooves in their leather aprons while they pounded square-head nails through the slots in horseshoes. A magazine, Farm Wife News (now Country Woman) had taken a number of my articles. I knew this one had to be queried. I got the assignment and my illustrated story was given feature placement in the magazine. While at the Farrier school, a part of the Regional Occupation Program (ROP) in Fresno, California, I met a young fireman. He was learning the trade as one he could practice on his days off from the firehouse. He became the subject of a profile for Firehouse Magazine.

Watch your local paper for leads. If the story's dateline shows it is syndicated (from AP or another wire service), forget it. Your best opportunity is the story about your neighbors, just around the corner, the ones the national press hasn't yet heard about .As many stories are available to us as there are "strangers" to meet in our neighborhoods, villages and cities. Helping them tell their stories and be proud of what you write about them turns these strangers into friends. In turn, they always have friends who would like to talk to a responsible "stranger" who happens to be a writer.

© Copyright 2007, Willma Willis Gore

At age 87, Willma Gore is still writing daily (having sold her first article at age 19) with her most recent book Long Distance Grandparenting, released by an advance/royalty publisher in Nov. 2007. She welcomes visits to her blog and website: http://willmagore.com/blog/ www.willmagore.com

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