Ideas masterclass: January 2017

Okay, you asked for it, so here it is – the ideas masterclass for January.

There are lots of places to find ideas and, this month, as with previous months, I’m going to concentrate on date-specific ideas and topical subjects. Do check my dates, though. I could have transposed some figures, and my source data could also be inaccurate. (I’ll check this for the book, but you need to get into the habit of checking both the source data yourself and your own figures.)

These ideas can be used for articles, short stories, readers’ letters, fillers or poems. So long as they’re topical, a magazine (or other publication) will have less reason to say no. If you want to write something longer, then look ahead further – about three to five years, perhaps.

For example, if you want to write a novel set against the gold rush, nuggets were first discovered in the Sacramento valley in 1848, currently 169 years ago but 175 years ago in six years time … That’s time to research, plan, write, polish, submit and market and it still won’t be dated yet. If you’re a quick writer who doesn’t object to self-publishing, go for 170 years ago, i.e. next year.

As it’s January 2017, we’ll be thinking 7 months ahead; querying 6 months ahead; writing 5 months ahead; and (hopefully) submitting 4 months ahead. Now, some writers prefer to start with thinking 6 months ahead, but I prefer to give myself the extra month to try and take in the monthlies and maybe account for any rejections along the way. Also, if I’m late with one of the months for whatever reason, I still might be able to dash something out quite quickly for one of the weeklies.

So, for now, the first thing we want to do is:

  • THINK! August 2017
  • QUERY! July 2017
  • WRITE! June 2017
  • SUBMIT! May 2017

The next thing we have to do is ask ourselves “why now?” Why should X market buy an article on Y topic now?

There are some evergreens that can be written up each year and that can be kept in stock each year – but therein lies the problem with evergreens: if there’s no reason to publish it now and if there are other more topical pieces in, then it’s easy enough for the market to shelve it for another year. Or more.

But evergreens are also good in that if a market has had someone let them down, at least there should still be something to slot in to the recent gap.

I tend to go back in years multiplied by five. I used to start at five or ten years ago, but my main dates book is now more than twenty years old and I’ve never been able to find another to replace it. So my dates now go back twenty-five years, thirty years, a hundred years, but not, say, forty-five years or, say, 535 years. Because that’s just odd and more rounded numbers are more attractive.

So, I calculate which years occurred the following numbers of years ago:

  • 25 years (1992)
  • 30 years (1987)
  • 40 years (1977)
  • 50 years (1967)
  • 60 years (1957)
  • 75 years (1942)
  • 100 years (1917)
  • 125 years (1892)
  • 150 years (1867)
  • 175 years (1842)
  • 200 years (1817)
  • 250 years (1767)
  • 300 years (1717)
  • 350 years (1667)
  • 400 years (1617)
  • 450 years (1567)
  • 500 years (1517)
  • 750 years (1267)
  • 1000 years (1017)
  • 2000 years (17)

The next thing I do is match up the month with the year and make sure it’s a round enough figure to be of any interest. Because it’s January, I’m thinking August. So I get my dates book out to see what happened in August in the above years. If something interests me, or if I think it might be interesting to someone else, I make a note of it.

Now, August 2017 has a lot of topical anniversaries coming up – a lot! In fact, I came up with five pages of ideas. Not all of those will interest me and, quite frankly, some will bore me to death. So I discard those or throw them away. But I know that what would be hard work for me might be of interest to someone else, and that’s why I share my throwaways.

Here are the national days that occur in August:

  • 1 August – National day of Switzerland
  • 6 August – National day of Bolivia
  • 10 August – National day of Ecuador
  • 17 August – National day of Indonesia
  • 23 August – National day of Romania
  • 25 August – National day of Uruguay
  • 31 August – National day of Malaysia
  • 31 August – National day of Trinidad & Tobago

The only day there that would be of any useful interest to me at the moment is Switzerland, because I’ve already been. And I might make it a travel article. Or I could quite happily research Swiss chocolate. Or cheese. I could re-read Heidi and maybe research the author. What else did she write? Where did she live? Heidi was published in 1881. Johanna Spyri was born in 1827 and died in 1901. If those years come up in my think/query/write/submit schedule, I can sell the idea again.

But if I decided I’d quite like to go to, say, Romania, then I’d try to sell the idea ahead of time and make sure my trip, my well-slanted copy and my specific pictures would be in well ahead of when, say, a weekly magazine or newspaper goes to press – AND I’d be able to offset the cost of my share of the trip against income tax, so long as I either have a firm commission or manage to sell something when we come back. PLUS, as the date comes around again next year, I could target one of the monthlies in time for then.

However, it doesn’t have to be a travel article, which I went into in a previous post, and I shan’t go into detail again now. But do consider all of the other topics that can be loosely sold around the national days of each country.

The rest of my throwaways are here:

  • 1 August – Lammastide (evergreen)
  • 3 August 1867 (150 years ago) – Stanley Baldwin, PM, was born in Bewdley
  • 7 August 2017 – summer bank holiday, Scotland
  • 7 August 1957 (60 years ago) – Oliver Hardy died
  • 13 August 1977 (40 years ago) – Henry Williamson died
  • 14 August 1867 (150 years ago) – John Galsworthy was born in Coombe, Surrey
  • 15 August – the Feast of the Assumption (evergreen)
  • 15 August 1917 (100 years ago) – Jack Lynch, Irish statesman and PM, was born
  • 15 August 1987 (30 years ago) – septuplets, 4 girls and 3 boys, born in Liverpool, none survived
  • 16 August 1977 (40 years ago) – Elvis Presley died
  • 17 August 1892 (125 years ago) – Mae West born in Brooklyn, New York
  • 17 August 1957 (60 years ago) – Robin Cousins born in Bristol
  • 17 August 1987 (30 years ago) – Rudolf Hess committed suicide in Spandau Prison, age 93
  • 17 August 2017 – Grasmere Sports take place
  • 19 August 1987 (30 years ago) – the Hungerford Massacre in Berkshire
  • 20 August 1977 (40 years ago) – Groucho Marx died
  • 20 August 1977 (40 years ago) – Voyager 1 launched via Jupiter to Saturn
  • 25 August 1867 (150 years ago) – Michael Faraday died at Hampton Court
  • 27 August 1967 (60 years ago) – Brian Epstein died in a swimming pool accident
  • 28 August 2017 – summer bank holiday in the UK, excluding Scotland
  • 30 August 1917 (100 years ago) – Denis Healey born
  • 31 August 1997 (20 years ago) – Diana, Princess of Wales, died aged 36

(Yes, I know 1997 was only twenty years ago rather than twenty-five, but I’d made a note of it in my dates book when it happened, so it can be included here.)

That’s a big list, isn’t it? The list I kept is quite big too.

Some of these are obvious, such as Michael Faraday dying 150 years ago. The man was so interesting and he achieved such a lot from such humble beginnings … but what was he doing at Hampton Court? Well, apparently he had a house there – in Hampton Court. Who knew people lived in houses at Hampton Court? Isn’t it a palace? A Tudor palace?

The reason I’m actually throwing away Elvis and Diana dying is because they’re likely to be done to death and there will be fanatics who know everything there is to know about both, and at least more than what I already know. But what about merging deaths in August together? Elvis, Brian Epstein, Groucho Marx, Oliver Hardy – all were celebrities in the entertainment industry. Will an entertainment market be interested in an article that covers all of them?

There are two literary topics in there too: Henry Williamsom didn’t just write Tarka the Otter. But where was Tarka set? Would a local or county publication like something on Williamson? From where did he get his inspiration? How about a natural history magazine? And John Galsworthy was a novelist and a playwright responsible for The Forsyte Saga, and he won the Nobel prize for literature. Where did he live? He was born in Surrey and died in London. Where did he go to school? (Harrow and Oxford.) Both authors were very prolific, and probably much more than some will originally know.

And finally – for this time – did Voyager 1 make it? Is it still up there? Who were the people connected with the program? What did it discover? How many successful missions have left NASA? How many didn’t make it? What have we learned since 1977?

I’ll be looking at another way to find ideas in the next masterclass post, I just wanted to recap the date-specific stuff here because, in my experience, it’s been the most successful method of my work.

I think your homework this week is obvious:

  1. Consider at least three of the above ideas for articles, short stories, readers’ letters (do they spark any memories?), fillers or poems.
  2. Come up with at least three potential markets for each idea. They can be the same for each, but try to think of as many as possible.
  3. See if you can find at least three of your own date-specific topics – are there any events or anniversaries happening in August in your own locality or field(s) of interest?
  4. Come up with at least three potential markets for each idea. These can be the same as for no. 2 above, but again, try to think of as many as possible.
  5. Slant each of your six ideas to suit the markets. Draft your article query/queries; write up the rest. Polish and send them out.

And don’t forget to let me know how you get on. Oh, and don’t rely on Wikipedia as this is largely populated by enthusiastic amateurs who may have the wrong date or may not have checked their source(s).