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How To Find Stories Where You Don’t Live

Intro from Jay Allison: I once wrote some narration for a documentary that sounded like I had quoted it from someone else who said it a long time ago, so now I quote myself: “Heed the traveler, for he sees more clearly your home.” I think of this line every time our APM interns or Transom Story Workshop participants play their pieces for us. They always uncover things about this place we never knew, even though we’ve been living here for years.We asked them to tell us how they do it, and we’ve compiled some of their tips on ways to find stories when you’re new to a town.

Bianca Giaever, Atlantic Public Media/Transom intern, Summer 2012

Be hyper-social – say yes to everything! Live with as many people as possible! A 65 year old you met at the museum invites you to lunch? Great!

Go outside – I can speak from experience; it’s easy to spend all day in your bed watching episodes of Mad Men on Netflix Instant and never go outside. But just being outside as much as possible, walking around, will lead you to interesting places. Maybe you’ll stumble upon an eight-year-old math prodigy, or a clam digger who hates clams. If you just force yourself to go somewhere, anywhere, your chances of finding a story are on the upswing!

Try to bike/walk instead of drive – This is a sub-section of “Go outside” (see above). When you’re biking you’re out in the world instead of in a shell. I’ve found good stories just from talking to people while I’m resting or getting water. Maybe someone’s playing an accordion on that park bench. If you’re on a bike you notice more interesting things and it’s easier to stop and check them out.

Go to Roadsideamerica.com – It has America’s most bizarre attractions – seven-story tree houses, the world’s tallest filing cabinet, buildings shaped like coffee pots… There’s bound to be a story there!

Carry your recording gear everywhere – always be on the lookout, you never know who/what you’ll come across.

Don’t give up! – Just keep trying to record things, especially when you’re thinking that no one wants a microphone in their face, all the good stories are taken, and you’ll never have a job with benefits.

Lauren Ober, Transom Story Workshop alum, Spring 2012

I am a compulsive bulletin board reader. You might even say I’m a bulletin board whore. In coffee shops, doctors’ offices, grocery stores, churches (who am I kidding? — I never find myself in a church), etc. Any bulletin board I find, I will linger over it, reading every business card and event posting. Often, I will take the notice off the bulletin board. I realize this is dubious, but I don’t want anyone else nabbing my hot scoop, right? However, in our digital age I have begun taking photos of bulletin board ads with my computer phone. Though it is not nearly as satisfying.

I have found many stories from bulletin boards. Once I found a story about a girl who was collecting used underwear door-to-door for a college art project. She was also soliciting donations via a bulletin board ad. Jackpot! I’m currently trying to pitch a piece about a ridiculous bike race that I read about on a bulletin board. If nothing else, bulletin boards let you know what a community cares about. Where I live, I have come to understand that my community cares about lactation/lactivism, banjo lessons and yoga, yoga and more yoga. Not particularly inspiring, but a good starting point.

Joel Supple, Transom Story Workshop alum, Fall 2011

Having a deadline helps. So establishing some kind of deadline situation if there is no external one might be a good idea. It helps push you to pursue angles and ideas that you might not normally have looked into, and so leads you to people or stories that you may not have expected.

Katie Klocksin, Transom Story Workshop alum, Fall 2011

At the risk of stating the obvious: I’ve had good results calling people on the phone. In the age of computer screens, calling someone communicates that you really want to talk to them. It’s such a personal, direct way to interact. Even if you’re calling from a different time zone, you can quickly establish a rapport with a potential subject and it doesn’t matter that you’re far away. I’ll find people by doing google searches for topics or groups I’m interested in, then call and give a brief description of myself, and my project. I’m usually delighted and humbled by how readily people will talk with me and open up. People really want to tell their stories! A phone conversation also helps me get a sense of how the person might sound on tape.

Amy Gastelum, Transom Story Workshop alum, Spring 2012

Craigslist—it’s good for a laugh even if you don’t find anything.

Go to the local bar and tell the bartender you need a story. Even if he or she doesn’t give you a good story, they may tell everyone there that you’re looking for one.

Drive around and stop frequently—don’t just drive to drive. You don’t know where you’re going, so slow down and stop anywhere you feel slightly interested. Then go talk to people.

Google random things you’re interested in with the town or cities’ name in there too.

Fake-flirt with strangers to get them to tell you a good story. Chances are they’re trying to use you too so don’t feel bad.

If you see something you’ve never seen before (like a salty old man emptying his lobster trap), talk about your ignorance and show them how excited you are to finally be seeing this amazing thing. Then, ask a lot of questions and look people in their eyes. And don’t interrupt. It can feel hokey, but at least you’ve got the ball rolling. You’re talking to someone.

Joanna Solotaroff, Transom Story Workshop alum, Spring 2012

Tell anyone and everyone what you’re doing. Most people connect to radio somehow and I’ve experienced a genuine enthusiasm from most people. If they express any interest I tell them that I’m looking for a hot scoop and that it’s hard because I don’t know anyone. People have typically wanted to help me and will connect me to their friends or rack their brains for ideas or events.

Go with what you know. I work in the non-profit sector so I felt like I knew who to talk to and how to access the information I needed when I decided to do a piece on homelessness in Cape Cod.

Community papers, school calendars, church newsletters, and alt-weeklies are great.

Community events are also great. Generally, attendees are invested in their communities and know about what’s going on.

Mary Helen Miller, Transom Story Workshop alum, Fall 2011

Go to church. It’s one of the easiest places to introduce yourself to random strangers. If they have a coffee gathering after the service, even better!

Some people may find it morally questionable to attend religious services to find a story. I had my reservations, too. But once I got a taste of what the Episcopal Church in Woods Hole had to offer in terms of story ideas — a 91-year-old tap dancer, for starters — there’s no going back.

But in all seriousness, I grew up going to an Episcopal Church and felt comfortable there. It wasn’t a big deal for me to go to a service, and it ended up being a nice way to meet friendly, helpful people.

Will Coley, Transom Story Workshop alum, Fall 2011

Keep your eyes open for what interests you. We see stuff that we like all the time: radio is a great excuse to find out the story behind it. I saw and liked a metal fish sculpture outside a bait shack, which led me to find the sculptor and interview him.

It’s also worth thinking about the multiple networks you already have. Consider which of your Facebook friends or professional contacts might know someone near where you are (think “six degrees of separation”). I found that this was the fastest way to connect with folks. It means that someone is introducing you and almost vouching for you. And be sure to name drop a lot. Frequently use “So and so said I should contact you because you know all about…” The alternative, “cold calling”, is tougher and more time consuming… but not impossible.

re: local publications, I’d add other online tools like local news blogs, Meetup.com, Twitter, etc. People who are already connecting around their passions usually want to share them with others.

J.P. Davidson, Transom Story Workshop alum, Fall 2011

When I landed in Woods Hole, I started a daily practice that helped me stay on top of what was going on locally – here’s how:

First, search for local news and information sources. Find as many local blogs, newspapers, magazines, newsletters, organizations, branches of government, Twitter feeds, and podcasts as you can. Next, create automatic funnels that drive all that fresh content to you. I used RSS feeds via Google Reader, email subscriptions, and Twitter. Services like Feed43 and Feedburner can help if you want an RSS feed or email subscription for a site that doesn’t already offer them. Google Alerts can be helpful too, especially if you’re interested in a particular topic – and you can get pretty specific with these. If I wanted to know the next time Ira Glass is mentioned on Transom, I could create an alert for “Ira Glass site:transom.org”. Now that you’ve got all this topical, local content coming at you, you need to scan and refine the results. Scan through everything, and go deeper on whatever piques your interest. Make note of where you’re wasting your time, and make changes accordingly. I had a Google Alert set up looking for stories in Baltimore recently, and I found I was getting a lot of sports news I didn’t need, so I modified my search terms to “Baltimore -Orioles -Ravens” and my results got way more relevant.

Admittedly, this robotic method won’t be for everyone, but I found it really handy to get through a lot of local material in a short amount of time. Combine that with a liberal dose of pounding the pavement and talking to the humans, and you can’t go wrong.

Lori Ann Brass, Transom Story Workshop alum, Fall 2011

I found networking to be helpful. For example, I know many people who vacation on the Cape, so when I knew I was moving to Woods Hole to attend the workshop, I started asking them questions: Who’s the most interesting person you know? Who’s doing unusual creative work? Once I arrived, I posed the same questions to anyone who would talk to me: vendors at farmer’s markets, even a woman standing in line at a french bakery. Another approach is to ask yourself: what about the area interests you? what’s peculiar to the Cape, for example, that you don’t find elsewhere. I found networking to be helpful. For example, I know many people who vacation on the Cape, so when I knew I was moving to Woods Hole to attend the workshop, I started asking them questions: Who’s the most interesting person you know? Who’s doing unusual creative work? Once I arrived, I posed the same questions to anyone who would talk to me: vendors at farmers markets, even a woman standing in line at a French bakery. Another approach is to ask yourself: what about the area interests you? What’s peculiar to the Cape, for example, that you don’t find elsewhere.

Comments

  • barbara allison

    8.07.12

    Thanks, Jay! Now I know. Ma

  • Alex Weiser

    8.08.12

    Great stuff – thanks! My question is the reverse: how can you see as a traveler would in your home?

    My gut says it involves a lot of the above advice. Perhaps, most importantly, it helps to change your mindset, by forgetting what you “know” about your home (ignorance!), traveling to new places (because you can only every be six places), and talking to new people.

    Would anyone like to add some insight?

    Thanks!

    Alex

    • Kye Yves

      12.16.12

      I just recently left the country for the first time on vacation. I wandered more in Berlin in three weeks then my local friends had in five years. I realized that that was how little I knew about my home city. So when I got back, I did a few things to feel like a visitor in my own town:
      -See if there’s a local couchsurfing group. I’m lucky enough to live in the east bay where there’s a lively community of both locals and travelers getting together almost every weekend. It’s a great way to meet new neighbors and see what travelers are up to.
      -If I’m feeling like a lazy day. I’ll often go to a cafe with a notebook and pen and sometimes my recording gear and I’ll put up a colorful sign at my table that says: “I love conversations with strangers, feel free to pull up a chair and talk” or “Tell what your favorite ice cream flavor is” – any little ice breaker that piques interest.
      -I really enjoy going to events at cultural centers in my city. There’s always a diverse mix of ages and experiences.
      -Take public transit and leave the iPod at home. From my 10 years of riding the bus wherever I’m living, I’ve struck up conversations with an amateur tattoo artist (who offered to ink me right there), teen siblings going to visit their other brother at the juvenile detention center, a man who practiced the trumpet in a field just outside the city, and even someone who claimed to be a huge pop star in Japan (which turned out to be true!)
      If you have an all-day pass, just get off at random stops and wander around and see who you meet.
      -rent some travel books from the library for your area and take ‘tourist’ days.