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    Garbage Hunting: Unusual Sources of Ideas for Writers

    When I was just starting as a freelance feature writer, I didn't know what to write about. Not only that, I didn't know *where* to get ideas too. I've been confined in an office for several years. My life was so linear: from house to office, from office to house. My circle of friends was limited too: I had only my co-workers and a handful of "outsiders" to deal with from morning until afternoon. Exposure to the real world meant commuting to and from work, attending church services on Sundays and doing some shopping. (Gee, what a *dull* life I led!)

    When I became a freelance feature writer, I realized that I had to sharpen my senses and develop my perception. That was when I started discovering unusual sources of ideas.


    Check labels

    Some manufacturers are so kind; they provide a lot of information on their product labels. I was able to spin off an article on removing different kinds of stains from the label of a stain remover. Another label, one from a box of baking soda, gave me ideas on handling food poisoning.


    Recipe books are not just for cooking

    I cook. But I don't use a cookbook. I just put together all the left-overs and transform them into a new dish! But I read cookbooks every now and then when I'm in bookstores. Why? Because I find a lot of ideas there for feature articles. One time, I saw this complete cookbook. I learned that baking soda is a wonder ingredient. It has a lot of uses. When I got back home, I researched for more uses of baking soda. I came up with not only one but two articles about that wonder powder! I also stumbled upon substitution tips from another cookbook. Another had a section on practical tips for baking the perfect cakes. What a goldmine!


    That Yahoo! Ad

    I belong to the Yahoo! cyber community. Every time I click "send a greeting," I check what holiday is being celebrated. (Do you know that October 5 is International Teachers Day or that October 6 is World Animal Day?) That gave me an idea. I asked my editor if he'd like an article about little-known holidays. Boy, did he? I took the cue from there. I also researched on how Father's Day came about, and when Easter was first celebrated.


    Attend unusual seminars/lectures

    I have a confession to make. My mom once asked me ("dragged" is more like it) to attend a seminar on raising Golden Apple snails (of all creatures)! Fortunately, I still have the notes I took that fateful day. Just recently, I learned that farmers now consider Golden Apple snails as pests! That gave me an idea. I reviewed my notes and came up with an article exploring - exploiting, rather - the poor, unknowing creature. Somebody once invited me to attend a lecture on jewelry appraising. My first reaction was, "It's not my line. It's just a waste of time." My friend's persistence paid off. I've sold two articles about what I learned from that free lecture!


    Be a "roving reporter"

    I've been commuting all my life. I spent my student days running after overloaded buses and jeepneys. (In the Philippines, jeepneys are the "Kings of the Road.") I practically lived in waiting sheds and bus terminals. That's how I learned to be a roving reporter. I chat with the ordinary people I see around. That is how I come up with human interest articles that my editors love.


    Play with words

    Writers are imaginative people. Just a word can send their minds working. When I am stuck in traffic, I try not to get irritated. Instead, I scout around for words, slogans, graffiti, or posters that I can play with. That Nike ad that says, "Just do it!" -- I earned from that. I asked myself, "Do WHAT?" When I reached my destination, I asked the other people at that social gathering what they would like to do if they were given one whole day -- just ONE whole day -- with as much money as they need, and no need to answer for the consequences of their act. The answers I got ranged from "Try bungee jumping," "Take a tour around Disneyland," "Kill my father's murderer." "Elope with my teacher," "Buy my dream car." I came up with a survey article, thanks to Nike! And that signboard that says, "Don't talk to the driver while the bus is in motion," I earned from that too! I came up with other road safety tips.


    Small talk is big talk

    Don't think that engaging in small talk is just a waste of your precious writing time. Pay attention to what people say and you can spin off several article ideas from their conversations. How do you think did I come up with such articles as "Terrible Turn-offs," (this included picking one's nose in front of people, scratching one's head and then smelling the fingertipis, asking for the price of everything you're wearing, etc.), "Pregnancy Fallacies" and "The Need to Nibble"?


    Read those leaflets

    The next time you're in a mall and a girl smiles at you and gives you a flyer, don't throw the flyer away! I was once at a police precinct when presto! Then and there, I had an instant source of article. The flyer was about crime prevention tips. I researched and conducted my own mini-surveys and came up with different articles on the topic.


    Don't snub those posters

    Waiting for my turn to have my eyeglasses repaired, an idea for another article popped in my mind. Bored, I read the posters one by one in the waiting area. One poster was about proper eye care. That did it. The moment I reached home, I researched on some tips to relieve the eyes from too much computer exposure.


    I can go on enumerating unusual sources of ideas, but something else excites me. In a short while, I'll be off "garbage hunting" again. I'll be scouting for seemingly useless materials that other people consider as trash. You see, to perceptive writers, "trash" means cash!

    Copyright © 2003 Lizzie R. Santos

    Lizzie Santos writes features, literary pieces, scripts and other writing projects both in English and Pilipino. She also lectures at creative writing workshops. Her first book, The Laughter of the Leaves and Other Musings, was published by Giraffe Books. She is working on her second book. Contact her at liz_pages@yahoo.com.

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