For a number of years I wrote a weekly column for the local paper. “It’s a social column,” the editor said, “about who’s doing what in town.” It’s what some of us call “hyperlocal news” and what other people would refer to as town gossip – sans snark.
For those of us in town, the column was a way to share the good stuff that’s happening: the Wednesday evening dinners at the Methodist Church (free eats and good conversation), the snowmobile club meetings, the golf tournament that raises money for the Ambulance Squad. I reminded moms about Tuesday morning Library Story Hour, announced public hearings, and shared upcoming historical society programs. Every week I got to talk to the plain ordinary folks who make our town what it is.
For a writer, social columns in small town papers – and the “about town” items in the New Yorker – can provide a treasure trove of writing ideas. Within the narrow confines of two-point-three-inch wide columns one can discover:
- The church that provides free meals just got a new dishwasher and stainless steel sinks through a bequest. The guy (as reedy thin as his name would suggest) ran a sawmill in his back yard and sold wooden crates to apple-pickers.
- The “amigos” are a bunch of special education students who meet every Thursday after school to do something for the community. Their current project: baking dog biscuits for the local animal shelter.
- A boy scout who discovered an old cemetery hidden beneath weeds and shrubs. He adopted it for his Eagle project, cleaned it up, built an entry way.
- One of the streets in town is named after a Civil War Hero who died in the battle of Gettysburg clutching a family photo.
- The bed-and-breakfast was a stop on the underground railroad, and may be haunted by spirits.
- The guy at the farmer’s market who grew up in the south can tell you ten different ways to eat kudzu.
Not that one should write biographies about these folks, but they can inform the characters in your stories. These are just ordinary people doing ordinary things.
Turns out, local newspapers are a wonderful source of inspiration. They are written by people who live in the community, people who walk the beat and talk to the citizens. What seems mildly eccentric to the folks in town could make for a character quirk in a story. Street names may lead to biographies or, at the very least, great character names. News stories present authentic life situations that can help when you’re stuck on plot points. Even the obituaries provide a wonderful source for interesting story prompts and names.
So next time you’re in the library, check out the small town papers – or even the city dailies – and go on a field trip through the newspaper archives.