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Strangers: A Writers 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
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
"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
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
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
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/
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