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POSTED 1.11.2017

Let it flow: my tips for unlocking great stories

He’s spent a colourful career telling stories from the Saharan Desert to Swaziland, from Wexford to Donegal. 2017 Feature Writer of the Year nominee, Graham Clifford has learned a thing or two about uncovering a great story.

By Graham Clifford

I’ve never been one for creative writing classes or journalism courses. I can’t write shorthand and I have no ‘tricks of the trade’ to tease out precious secrets or induce a stream of revelations from those with whom I chat.

Structure irritates me; pre-conceived notions have no place in my head. And the more you chase a feature story the further it runs from you.

When I sit down with someone I don’t think ‘Right what can I get out of this person?’ But rather I allow our chat to flow, or indeed silences to linger.

Once the internal antenna is switched on, the story will present itself to the clear-minded writer.

And there’s always a story. Always.

The small tributaries are often more interesting that the raging river.

I recall going to Wexford a number of years ago to report on the death of an elderly woman. She lay dead in her home for two weeks before anyone found her. My editor wanted me to write about urban isolation, loneliness and the less compassionate society in which we live. The feature idea was based, in essence, on a pre-conceived notion.

But over tea with a colourful old neighbour I discovered so much more. That the lady was a member of the secretive Palmerian Church. That for decades she spoke to no one, embraced isolation, and wouldn’t even engage with her family.

I managed to paint a picture of this once bubbly, vivacious and outgoing young woman who once enjoyed dancing, the company of others, and a carefree life.

Her family said: “This cult took her from us” – the story grew legs and a week after I broke it, Joe Duffy’s Liveline programme on RTÉ Radio 1 was packed with family members telling how their loved ones had also been lost to this loveless, religious craze.

It was, as it turns out, an important story. It opened doors and started a vital conversation.

But I didn’t find it by being ruthless, I didn’t discover what the lady, Bridget Crosbie, was like by looking her up on the internet.

I didn’t get her family and neighbours to speak to me with any pre-conditions. No, I met people, I drank tea, I talked, and I listened.

The story presented itself and I carefully placed my hands around it — respecting completely those who entrusted me with this information. All I did was bring it to the fore. It was already perfectly formed and ready to be told.

Throughout my career that slow and, not always deliberate, dance has helped me find truly special stories from the sand-swept refugee camps of the Sahara Desert to beautiful Swaziland and back much closer to home.

If, as I believe, there are stories everywhere then often we don’t have to travel too far to find them.

Earlier this year I wrote of those veteran GAA players who line out for their clubs week in, week out despite being on the upper end of 40, 50, or in some cases 60. I was intrigued by their motivation, their two-fingered salute to father time and their dedication to their fellow team-mates – in some cases their own children.

And again, tea and time helped open all doors. Sometimes the brew is a good deal stronger, but the end result is the same.

And the number one rule — that there is no rule. Take it easy and the story will come to you.

Graham Clifford, Contributing Editor to StoryLab, has been nominated for this year’s Feature Writer (Broadsheet) of the Year Award at the Newsbrands National Journalism Awards.

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