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How to look for untold stories

One of my primary interests, both in writing and in life, is overlooked, untold stories.

I suppose I hadn’t thought much about how I go about finding these stories; looking for them has been my pastime for years, so I’d never articulated a process or strategy.  It’s just my default position.

But when David Miller straight-up asked me “what are the things you look for when uncovering the stories that aren’t being told?”  in response to a comment I left after reading his article, “14 Ways of Looking at Place,” I decided to sit down and think about how I’d answer this question, and how I might teach other writers to begin expanding their topical and narrative frames.

In order to ground the lessons in a useful way, I’m going to contextualize each strategy by linking it to a specific story I’ve told or am in the process of telling. I’d love to hear whether you find these strategies useful, and whether you have any you’d like to add.

1.  Start with a question.

Setting: Barrio Chino (Chinatown), Havana, Cuba.

Context/Strategy:  My husband’s son and I are walking around Havana; it’s getting late, and we’re hungry. He guides me down a side street, “un cuchillo,” really, and into Havana’s Barrio Chino. At the time (2007), I’m clueless about the history of Chinese people in Latin America and the Caribbean, so my story starts with the very basic question: Why is there a Chinatown in Havana?

Resulting Story: Ni hao, companera

2. Listen to who’s talking…. then go listen to the people who aren’t talking.

Setting: Mexico City, Mexico.

Context/Strategy:  I have just moved to Mexico City. I read the newspaper every day in an effort to learn more about my new home. The op-ed page is full of complaints about campesinos who have come to the city and are protesting on Reforma, one of the city’s largest, most important thoroughfares.  These people snarl up traffic, their makeshift tent cities are an eyesore, they should go back to where they came from. But where is their voice? Why is no one talking to them? I head straight out to the protest and start talking with the men who have come from the country. I learn why they’re there and I get another part of the story–the part that has been silenced.

Resulting StoryWhen All You Have Is Your Body

3. Look who’s having fun, who occupies center stage. Then, look for the people on the sidelines.

Setting:  Carnaval, Brazil.

Context/Strategy:   As I stand above the crowd, I have an unobstructed view of the Carnaval revelers. The people dancing, the ones drinking beer and wearing the expensive shirts that have given them access to this event, are mostly white and they’re mostly young. They’re smiling, happy, ecstatic, even. On the sidelines, the people are mostly dark skinned. I don’t see any smiles. Their shirts are dirty and they’re working. I want to know what that’s about.

Resulting StoryCarnaval. Darkness.

4.  Look at the map.

Setting:    Guanica, Puerto Rico.

Context/Strategy:  I am showing my mom the route we’re going to drive from Ponce to La Parguera. My finger traces along the map and stops at Guanica; I mention that the US entered Puerto Rico from Guanica’s bay in the Spanish-American War. It’s as I’m explaining this that I happen to notice a note: “Ruins of Hacienda Santa Rita.” And in parentheses: “Fatima Convent.” I’ve seen the Fatima Convent sign every single time I’ve driven this route, but I’ve never stopped. This time, we take a five minute detour and end up talking with Sor Ana about the convent, about the decrepit hacienda, about a pilgrimage from Sabana Grande to Guanica. Could we come back to document the event?

Resulting Story:  in progress…

5. Visit the places beyond view. Places no one wants you to see. Places that we’d like to wish away.

Setting:   Perote, Mexico.

Context/Strategy:  People who have an official voice don’t want us to see certain places. Places like prisons, court rooms, crack dens, any place that reveals flaws or suggests culpability.  I’ve visited all of these places, one being the old prison in Perote, Mexico. I walked into cells that felt as if people had just abandoned them: blankets were still on concrete bed frames; magazine pictures of naked and near-naked women were pasted on walls, surrounded by bible phrases, hash marks for the number of days inside, and drawings of monsters and of Jesus.  I happened to run into a man who’d grown up in the prison and he talked about his time there– that far from being terrifying, it was actually comforting.

Resulting StoryGrowing up in a Penal Colony

6. Go to places so mundane as to be of little or no interest to anyone else. Observe situations so quotidian that other people wouldn’t bother writing about them.

Setting:  My mother-in-law’s house; Havana, Cuba;  Conversation over a pedicure in South Carolina; A street party in Havana.

Context/Strategy:  Varied.

Resulting Stories: Various


34 responses »

  1. Keep looking for the stories. Something other than the generic news we receive on a daily basis fascinates me. The main stream media doesn’t seem to have time for research.

  2. I love that you used actual setting from situations you’ve been in – I found this very helpful!

  3. These are all really helpful, Julie. Thank you. Bonus module at the U? I wanted this kind of thing to be more addressed at TBEX, especially on the press trip front. I think looking for untold stories on press trips gives soul to something that can easily go soulless.

    • Nancy-

      Good idea! I like the idea of developing this post more and turning it into a bonus module at the U. I should probably crowdsource other writers’ strategies, too.

  4. This is incredible Julie. I love this. I’ve had more conversations about this with travel writers than anything else lately. The idea that it’s not necessarily about writing about somewhere new, but finding the unique story of a place and writing about that. There’s only so many ways anymore that you can describe that “hole in the wall bar”. There has to be more to the story.

    • Spencer-
      Precisely. And the beauty is that these strategies really do work anywhere. Eventually, we will run out of destinations. But we’ll never run out of stories.

  5. Great post, Julie! It’s nice to see you thinking out loud (as it were) about the process behind these stories, so the rest of us can get some sense of how they came about.

    I think “Start with a question” and “Look at the map” are probably the two that tweak my curiosity most often, though I rarely seem to manage to follow up. I’ve been half-assedly digging at a story for about a year now, about a Japanese restaurant that operated in a Yukon mining town more than a century ago. I would love to be able to track down the story of its owner-operator someday.

    • Eva-
      You have to track down that story. Not only is it interesting, it feels important- to me, anyway. A story like that is a microcosmic historical narrative that puts so much of our knowledge (or lack thereof) about place into new perspective. I can’t wait to read that story!

  6. Great post! I taught writing for many years and these are the kinds of exercises I’d do with students. When I read blogs I often wonder how many bloggers have actually done any creative writing or journalism courses. This is really helpful stuff for a lot of writers starting out there.

    • Lara- Very few, I’d daresay. And if a blogger is focused solely or primarily on things like SEO, these tips won’t be of much use.

  7. Thank you so much for this Julie. I love that you’ve added links to resulting articles. There is so much learning here!

  8. I agree with the others that this is a great learning post! And it made me think about how I unconsciously see stories in everyday life.

  9. Excellent post, Julie! SO true that everyone has stories to tell, and often the more interesting stories come from the people who aren’t the ones making all the noise, doing all the talking. Seeking out the quiet ones is a great strategy!

  10. Superb. Thanks for laying it all out!

    • You’re welcome, Carlo. As soon as I hit “publish” I promptly thought of at least two other strategies. For a future post, I suppose.

  11. I love # 2 and 3. I feel like some of the best journalism is about the people on the sidelines, the ones who aren’t talking.

    You are such a teacher, Julie, and that quality makes your blog invaluable.

  12. Everyone has already said it, but thank you for including links to your relevant pieces. Examples are the best learning tools. I used to tell my students that they have to read to become good writers, but I sometimes forget my own lesson unless it’s laid out in front of me.

  13. Fantastic post which I think needs to be republished on Notebook stat!

    Finding those untold stories is truly the core of narrative travel writing.

  14. Thanks for sharing…insightful, practical tips for all narrative travel writers.

    • Thanks, Melissa- I’m glad you found the tips useful. I love the name of your site; will have to check it out!

  15. Great post and advice and I love how you give specific examples of each tip. I remember learning about Chinatown in Havana through you. Curiosity really is behind the drive to find untold stories. Then asking some key questions and doing a lot of listening takes over to get to the root of the story.

    Have fun in Cuba!

    • Audrey-

      Thanks for your comment. Would you agree that the same sorts of impulses drive photographers, too?

  16. This is really inspiring, Julie. Thanks.

  17. alisonwellner

    I also love this post, but what I mostly love about it is how you are comfortable with your own curiosity and your own mind.
    I think that many writers aren’t — they have an idiosyncratic reaction or curiosity in response to a place (as each and everyone else does, as David alluded to in the post that you’re responding to here) — and they promptly squelch it.
    In my view, the lesson from this isn’t for writers to do as you do (if it doesn’t come naturally to them), but to learn to follow the odd road the mind travels.
    And re: press trips, I do agree that this sort of individual thinking is the key to finding (uncovering?) stories. I’m always amazed by the way that stories — even long ones — spring from small moments. It’s nicer to have complete freedom when traveling, but the reality is, a story can happen in just a few minutes.

    • Alison-

      We make a wonderful mutual admiration society! What I love about your writing is that you are also comfortable with your own curiosity and mind, and that you allow these to be both the impetus and the guide for your work.
      And yes- let’s not imitate; instead, let’s get comfortable with (heck, let’s meet!) our own idiosyncratic styles- the way we get to stories and then, the way we tell them.

  18. Pingback: 2010 in review | Cuaderno Inedito

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