Telling somebody else’s story can be meaningful to both you and that person. It also gives readers a glimpse into a life they might never have been exposed to otherwise. Such accounts can entertain and inform and perhaps even change readers’ perspectives and attitudes.
To help you get started, here are just a few things to consider.
Is there an issue about which you wish to build awareness? Perhaps the work of a missionary or volunteer, a single mother or somebody with a mental health issue. Or, is there somebody you know whose story has captured your own attention and interest, and you feel others would enjoy reading it?
You don’t have to look too far for a good story. Every person we meet has their own history and experiences, many of which are worth sharing. Who knows – one of the most fascinating stories of all might be that of the person watching TV right next to you!
This is obviously a criticial part of the process, but it doesn’t need to be intimidating for you or the person. Once they’ve agreed to let you write their story, find a time to chat to them. A face-to-face meeting is not essential; consider chatting over the phone or Skyping. You could even send some questions for them to answer via email. Be sensitive to what works best for them.
If possible (and if the person agrees), record the interview on your cell phone so that you don’t need to take notes as they speak.
Guide the conversation with a few questions, but let them tell you their story as freely as possible – it gives you a better sense of the person.
Tell them that you might need to get back to them on a few points – there are bound to be some details you missed in that first chat, that are important to the story.
Decide whether to tell the story in the voice of the person (first person POV) or to report it as a bystander (third person POV). Writing from a first person POV is quite impactful and immediate, but requires you to know the person fairly well. Writing in third person POV is probably the more natural choice, particularly for a short article. If you’re not sure, try writing a section in both POV’s and then see which works better.
For an example of first person POV, read A Rose by any Other Name, a short story I wrote about my parent’s courtship. For an example of third person POV, read Celebrating Mom and Dad, a third person account of my parent’s 50 year marriage.
If you’re writing an entire book, you can start from before the person’s birth, but for a short article or blog, decide what part of the story to tell. You could focus in on their courtship (as I did in the story I shared above), their current work or a particular struggle the person has overcome. Add a bit of background to give your reader a better sense of the person, but don’t make it a boring chronological account of the last 70 years of their life! You’ll have lost your readers by the person’s 3rd birthday.
This comes down to the maxim we writers know so well – Show don’t Tell. Use all the senses when describing the person and the place where the story happens. Does the sweet, rich smell of tobacco linger around them? Is their voice gruff as an old engine battling to start in winter? To get a sense of place, you will rely a lot on the person’s recollections, but you can also do research. If they were in Sophiatown at the time of the forced removals in 1955, read accounts online and get a sense of the sound, sights and smells. Build these into the story.
Everyone’s life has an impact on others. In the story, try to highlight the impact the person has had on their family, friends or society. This allows the reader to be inspired by the person’s story. In “Celebrating Mom and Dad” I wrote about the impact that my parent’s marriage had on me, my sister and our children. I showed that marriage can leave a legacy over the generations – that’s a valuable message for readers.
Before you send the story for publication, make sure you have the dates and details right. It’s easy to make small mistakes. In “Celebrating Mom and Dad” I said that my grandfather brought proteas over from South Africa for the wedding in Holland. In fact, it was my father who brought the flowers. It wouldn’t matter to most people, but it does matter to the person whose story you are telling. Consider letting them read it before you send it off.
At RUC we’ve just finished a series called “What’s Your Story?” Now is the perfect time to ask somebody this question. It might take a bit of courage, but the rewards are great. By interacting with them, you get to know them better and possibly develop a friendship. By writing their stories, you hone your own writing skills. By sharing the stories, you touch readers.
So what are you waiting for?
The WriteOn editorial team would love to publish the stories on our blog. Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos enhance blogs, so if the person is willing, attach a photo too.
Images: freedigitalphotos.net; Image 1 by graur codrin; Image 2 by stockimages