When I meet people at parties – which, sadly, isn’t too often these days, because I have two small children and they are assassins of adult fun – we do that thing where everyone talks about what they do. I’m a journalist and this seems to make people say, “Oh, wow, really? What kinds of things do you write?”
Even after more than a decade as a freelance writer and even longer as a journalist, I still find it a difficult question to answer. The short answer is that I write about things that I find interesting. The longer answer is that I find everything interesting: horoscopes, neuroscience, memory, princesses, why clowns are scary, why pain hurts, what boredom can do for us, what makes dolls creepy, why we hate infidelity and yet are still unfaithful, why people are still arguing about Richard III’s legacy, why England loves a red squirrel and hates a grey one, whether it’s ethical to have pets, whether an iPhone still needs to look like an iPhone, whether chessboxing could ever become an Olympic sport.
I’m lucky enough that magazines, newspapers, and occasionally, book publishers, will pay me to find out about these things and then write up what I learned. It’s a pretty great job. The next question that people sometimes ask – if they’re not ready to run at the mention of scary clowns – is how do I get my ideas. Here’s how!
Listen to everyone
So at this party, where I’m standing there with my glass of wine talking to an actual adult about adult things and not Paw Patrol. The person I’m talking to sometimes thinks my job is interesting, but the chances are pretty good that I think their job, or hobby, or book they’ve read, or podcast they listened to, is more interesting. People are gloriously full of information, stories you’ve never heard, ideas that bear thinking about, questions that you’ve also wondered about but never really thought to investigate. Just ask them!
Look for connections and you’ll never run out of stuff to write
One of the most exciting things that happens when I work is when I start to see connections in places that seem distant. When, for example, I’m working on an article about the science of dreams, which then leads to thinking about the cluster of fascinating delusional disorders that happen around sleep, which then gets me talking to a scientist about rare psychological disorders in general, and then we run straight into Princess Alexandra Amelie of 19th century Bavaria, who believed that she’d swallowed a glass grand piano as a child and walked sideways through the halls of her castle so as not to shatter it. It happens.
Research, research, research
Once you’ve got the idea, your quarry, follow it to whatever ground it goes to; you’ve got to make sure that there’s a there there, a substance to that idea that will make other people think, “Oh yes, I have always wanted to know about that!” or “Oh my, I never knew…!”. Books, articles, newspaper archives, documentaries – there’s so much information out there, and at least some of it is accurate. If you don’t know how to find out, ask. Someone else does and that’s what the internet is for, to find people who know more than you do and ask them about it.
Once you’ve found your idea, the hard part is over.