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What to Read When You’re Not Reading Books

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A few months ago I was making polite conversation, as one does,  with a parent at a sporting event where our children were attempting to thrash each other, as they do. It was cold and rainy and once we’d exhausted the topic of the weather, there wasn’t much to say.  Politics? We didn’t know each other, so best not to go there. Sports? Awkward, given the game in front of us. So I turned to my personal failsafe — reading. 

“I don’t have time to read,” my new potential friend said.  And then saw the look on my face.

“Books!  I don’t have time read many books!  But I do read a lot —mostly periodicals,” she quickly clarified. 

I could work with this.

Later, after the game (we lost, if you were curious. I can’t reveal by how much),  I thought about how I rarely include all my non-book reading when the topic turns to, well, what I’ve been reading lately.  As writers, I know we all jam on books, but there’s plenty of other stuff out there.  And since you never know where your next idea will come from, or how two or three bits of information may combine and spark a plot, I thought I’d share some of my sources.  A few are obvious, a few you may never have heard of, but I find them all interesting and I hope you will too.

Newspapers/Magazines

Almost every day I check the front page of several major, reputable newspapers online. I subscribe to The Washington Post [2]  (they ran a free six months special a while back for Amazon Prime members — it may be worth checking out), The New York Times, [3] and The Boston Globe. [4]  I also scan the BBC [5] and sometimes The Guardian [6], as well as my local town newspaper.  (And ok, I’lll admit it — I have a thing for the Daily Mail. [7]  Shush.)  It takes me about 15 minutes, and at the end I feel like an informed citizen.  Plus, I often find the headlines spark story or plot ideas.

To keep myself from procrastinating when reading online, I try and set a timer.  But on days when I have some extra minutes to spend, I check out the wedding section [8] in The New York Times, as well as many of the feature stories in The Washington Post.  (If I find something intriguing but have no time, I’ll often bookmark a story or email myself the link to read later.  (For example, this article [9]about the space between tables at restaurants had a clever ending that someday may find its way into a story.)

The New York Times also offers subscribers a chance to receive curated information in digest form, a service I’ve taken advantage of.  On days when I don’t have time to read, I can go back through my emails and see what I’ve missed.

Advice Columns

Yup, I’m a  sucker for them.  I’m fascinated by how people behave with each other, as well as the changing mores for what is considered proper etiquette.  Each letter is an abbreviated novel in itself.  My favor columnists include Amy Dickinson [10], Carolyn Hax, [11] and Dear Prudence. [12]  I’ve gotten many a germ for a story or plot idea, and I’ve also learned a lot about what keeps people up at night.

Often even better than the columns themselves are the reader comments that follow. Sometimes the original letter writer will write back in with more information that completely changes how the situation was originally portrayed. (Original letter writer: Dad is blowing us off for his younger girlfriend!  Information added later: Did I mention that younger girlfriend is somebody I used to date?) Or readers will write in with personal comments about how the situation once happened to them, and how they handled it.  I’ve also picked up some current slang, had my (older) eyes opened to what it is like to date these days, and learned about sexual/gender identities and the issues that surround them in a way I don’t often experience in my day-to-day life. It’s a voyeuristic but useful and educational look into the human psyche.

Delancey Place

A free daily digest email, Delancey Place [13] pulls excerpts from books, mostly nonfiction, that the editors find interesting, and offers a short commentary on them.  There’s no theme, and topics covered range from the Amazon to American vaudeville and everything between.  It’s a wonderful surprise to find in my in-box each day, and I’m often sufficiently intrigued to chase down the book being featured and read it in its entirety.  (Delancey Place is a non-profit and any money made goes toward charity and children’s literacy projects.) 

Merriam Webster’s Word of the Day

I signed up for this free service [14] with one of my children, and now each day we compete to see who can use the day’s word in a sentence first. The email gives the definition of the word, examples of how to use it, and some interesting background on how it came into use. I’ve saved all the emails and occasionally when I am writing and stuck for just the right word I’ll scroll through them for inspiration.

It’s About Time

A bit of a cheat from my ‘no-blogs’ self-imposed rule for this article, It’s About Time [15] posts (in digest form, if you prefer, as I do) about art, women, nature, and gardens throughout history,  often with beautiful paintings as inspiration.  Although the author includes daily samples of the Madonna and child as one of the components, these paintings are also often interesting to me because they remind me of how much our ideals of beauty have changed over time. The secular pictures are also plentiful and occasionally highlight traditions or celebrations that have been lost over the years. 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at some of my favorite reading sources, and I hope as you pursue them they spark plenty of ideas for you. 

Now it’s your turn — what reading sources do you turn to for inspiration?  What are your favorites?

About Liz Michalski [16]

Liz Michalski's first novel, Evenfall, was published by Berkley Books (Penguin). Liz has been a reporter, an editor, and a freelance writer. In her previous life, she wrangled with ill-tempered horses and oversized show dogs. These days she's downsized to one husband, two children and a medium-sized mutt.

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