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The Hunt for Red-Hot Anecdotes

What's the secret to finding great personal stories for articles when you've run out of usual suspects? Learn to make your writing up-close and personal by scoping out these four sure-fire resources.

I had experts. I had information. I had a rapidly approaching deadline. What I didn't have were at least three long-haul truckers whose children are home-schooled. In desperation, I typed keywords into an online search engine until I came up with a phone number for a national home-schooling support group. The group put out a call to its members, and within 24 hours, I had seven home-schooling truckers, all available and willing to help me make that deadline.

Many magazines require at least one or two anecdotal sources per piece—that is, people who've actually experienced whatever you're writing about and who can put a human face on an issue. Once you've exhausted family and friends, where can you turn for great anecdotal sources? Your best options fall into four categories: your personal affiliations, your community at large, professional or special-interest groups, and the Internet.


Writers generally tap contacts in their personal lives first. People you know through church, school or clubs you belong to are both easy to find and easy to interview. Because you usually know these sources personally, you can be reasonably sure their stories are valid. I once had 24 hours to find a father of a newborn for a story on advice he'd give other new fathers. A call to our church secretary yielded several possible leads, and I was able to wrap up the interview in 12 hours.

Are you involved in a kennel club? Athletic association? Garden society or local charity? With close-to-home sources, you don't have to juggletime zones or wait for replies to your calls or e-mails. You can go straight to the source, face to face, fast.

Using personal acquaintances as sources, however, can complicate your life. Their feelings may be hurt if their story isn't used or their quotes cut or paraphrased in the published version. They'll blame you—not the editor they'll never meet. After the interview, avoid discussing the article with your source to preserve the line between your profes-sional and personal relationships. They may mistake your journalistic interest in their pet subject for personal fascination, making you the new recipientof meeting invitations, fund-raising appeals and membership mailings for groups you have no inclination to join.


Expanding your search for local sources frequently leads to businesses, educational institutions, government and service agencies in your community. At the head of this list should be universities, research institutes, libraries, museums, government offices, chambers of commerce and neighborhood associations. Attending a chamber of commerce breakfast can put you in touch with a wide range of business people. Your local senior center could be a gold mine of people from all walks of life who are more than willing to tell you a story—or two or three.

Make friends with librarians who'll generally have the information you'll need or will at least know someone who does. The local library was the first place I went searching for teenagers who make a difference in our community. Librarians pointed me in the right direction, and I soon had enough teenage volunteer stories for an entire book.

Seek out university department heads for specialized information. While reading your local newspaper, keep track of people who may become potential story sources. If you're in a pinch for a specific type of source, post a message ona community bulletin board or place a personal ad with information on how to contact you.


Special-interest organizations are more than willing to assist journalists. After all, anything you write about one of their members or programs helps spread the word about their work. For one story, I needed accounts from women who used home uterine monitors. The national office of an at-risk pregnancy support association connected me with several members across the U.S. with powerful stories to share.

Shirley Kawa-Jump, author of How to Publish Your Articles (Square One Publishers), considers support organizations her first choice for hard-to-find anecdotal sources. She recently needed comments from officials of a woodworking company that did drug testing on its employees.

"I'd exhausted all my local sources and called a national organization for cabinetmakers," says Kawa-Jump. "Within an hour, they had a perfect source for me. That anecdote ended up being the ideal frame for the story. Members of organizations often hear anecdotes either through the grapevine, at conventions or posted on members-only bulletin boards, and they're happy to be go-betweens for me."

Wise Guide for Interviews

Seek sources with direct experience with your topic. Second- or third-hand accounts are seldom reliable and won't impress your editor. Make sure your sources are legitimate. Some people love to get into the media and will answer to almost anything to see their names in print. Make sure the service or advocacy organization you contact isn't tied to a company with a product to promote. The sources you reach may have an agenda. Provide enough information about yourself to assure a potential source you're legitimate. Be aware that overeager friends or relatives may exaggerate or embellish the truth, believing they're helping you get a great story. Use caution when deciding where to conduct an interview. A source's home or office may give you valuable insights for your story. On the other hand, you must exercise good judgment about safety. When in doubt, meet in a public place. Always make sure someone—your editor, a co-worker or family member—knows where you're going and when you expect to return. Educate your sources about the interview process. Inform them if you're recording the conversation. If you're speaking by phone, explain that silence on your end of the phone means you're writing notes and haven't hung up. In any setting, you'll be more likely to get a good, usable interview by explaining your expectations beforehand. Don't promise to mention a source's organization in the article. Even if you include the name in your copy, an editor may delete it before publication. Never assure confidentiality unless you can guarantee it. Make no promises about when the article will appear in print. This is largely out of your control. Don't agree to allow a source to see your story before it's published. You can always say that it's the magazine's policy (which is usually true). Always thank your source with a note or e-mail.


The Internet has become invaluable for finding reputable organizations with national and even international scope. Usenet groups can also provide an abundant supply of anecdotal sources.

Extend your search beyond just groups you belong to; use search engines to find discussion groups or message boards that can potentially fit your needs. Contact the group's moderator for permission to post a message and contact people individually when they respond.

Some sources are more at ease in an e-mail interview than face to face, particularly when the topic is especially personal or sensitive. I was down to the wire for a piece on women's knowledge about their bodies; my usual sources had gone mute as soon as I mentioned the topic. I finally reached a willing source through an online e-mail group.

Internet interviews demand special handling. Always obtain permission from the individual before quoting from Internet message boards or Usenet groups. Contact the person who made the comment; ask to quote the message or conduct an interview. Generally, people are helpful and willing to oblige.

Search engines such as or are useful for verifying that your sources are who they say they are. These searches can lead you to news items that mention these people, as well as press releases or lawsuits invol-ving these individuals. If you suspect you may have a bogus source, check with your editor for guidance.

Readers today spend so little time reading that writers must go the extra mile to give a subject immediacy—the "what's in it for me" people want. Humanizing your story not only makes it more interesting for readers, but it's also likely to increase your emotional investment in writing it. You'll be telling someone's real story, not merely relating facts. Through your words, the effect these people have on you will connect them with your readers. Being able to achieve that human connection through writing makes finding those elusive sources worth the effort every time.

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