Oakland Ross: Ideas for correspondents

From Toronto Sun reporter David Kendall: When in Peru, write about llamas.

On the other hand: when in Mexico, write about ice hockey.

Travel guidebooks are a great place to look for story ideas, especially features.

Think of states of awareness as being a range of colours, with white as a sort of semi-conscious daze and red as extreme alert. Try always to be in orange (unless you’re in red).

As long as they’re not shooting at you, remember to wave at the guys with the guns. It shows you don’t mind being noticed, and it makes you feel a whole lot better when they wave back. (If they wave back.)

If possible, go for a walk before you start writing. Encourage your subconscious to come up with a lead. Keep walking until it does.

Memorize your passport’s number and its date of issue. This will save a lot of fuss when you are filling out landing cards on airplanes.

From Globe and Mail reporter Michael Valpy: When a petty official is giving you the runaround for spurious reasons, take the fellow’s right hand in your right hand, cradle his right forearm with your left hand, make eye contact, and say to him in a steady voice, “Brother, there must be a way.” (“Sister” if she’s a woman.)

Talk to the person seated next to you on the airplane.

If it fascinates you, it will fascinate others.

From Jack M. Bickham, author of 47 novels, including The Fighting Buckaroo: “Write hot. Edit cool.”

Don’t refrain from asking a question simply because you’re embarrassed not to know the answer.

Don’t refrain from asking a question simply because you’re afraid the interviewee won’t know the answer.

Don’t use an interview as an opportunity to show off.

If an interviewee genuinely cannot tell you what you want to know, don’t become frustrated or, worse, rude. Instead, try to find out what he or she can tell you.

If you can ask a question in fewer than 30 words, then do.

From Catharine Parr Traill, author of The Backwoods of Canada: “In cases of emergency, it is folly to fold one’s hands and sit down to bewail in abject terror. It is better to be up and doing.”

When in unfamiliar surroundings, remember to rubberneck.

When in familiar surroundings, remember to rubberneck.

Never write “trees” when you can write “jacaranda trees” or “baobab trees.” If you don’t know what kind of trees they are, find out.

Flattery rarely fails.

Work until it takes no effort.

Always memorize at least three or four pleasantries in the language of the region you are visiting. Use them every chance you get.

Be charming but relentless.

On foot patrol with soldiers in dangerous country, always leave a couple of metres between you and the guy in front of you – as well as between you and the guy behind. That way, the same blast has less chance of killing you all.

From New York Times reporter Lydia Chavez, quoting Starbuck in Moby Dick: “I will have no man in my boat who is not afraid of whales.”

Make notes about everything. Write down complete quotes.

If you want to speak to someone who doesn’t want to speak to you, just keep talking. There’s a pretty good chance that, eventually, he or she will start talking, too.

If possible, ingratiate your way slowly into difficult conversations.

As long as it’s safe to do so, try to email copies of your stories – with thanks – to the people who helped you produce them (unless the stories present those people in a poor light, in which case, don’t).

Try not to go into dangerous situations alone. Take a friend.

A good way to get started in a strange city is by talking to foreign diplomats, local journalists, or clergy.

If you need a translator on short notice, ask the receptionist in your hotel if he or she has a friend who speaks English and could use some money. Almost inevitably, they will.

Ask everyone you talk to for advice about who else you should talk to.

Never put your body armour in the trunk if there’s a chance you’ll be needing it during the drive.

Never say anything on the assumption that someone else doesn’t understand English.

From New Yorker writer Alma Guillermoprieto: Go see.

Remember that more Israelis and Palestinians have been killed in traffic accidents than in political violence. So drive carefully.

Oakland Ross, prior to joining the Toronto Star in 2000, was the Latin America correspondent and later the Africa correspondent for the Globe and Mail. From 2007 to 2009, he was the Star’s Middle East correspondent, based in Jerusalem. He has written three books, including a novel, a collection of short-stories, and a travel memoir. A finalist seven times, he has won two National Newspaper Awards.

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