Maybe this sounds familiar. You’ve just returned from an awesome trip, you’ve taken great notes, you’re all set to write and then…nothing. You stare and stare and stare at the computer screen, waiting for those magnificent words to just start flowing, but something quite the opposite happens. You don’t know where to begin.
It happens. To all of us. Sometimes the hardest part of writing a story, is starting the story. I still struggle with it. Early in my career I let my ego drive the process. I could only start writing by writing the beginning. Jumping into the middle of a piece was blasphemy. Ah, but I’ve softened over the years. Now, if I’m struggling to find my start I begin somewhere else. Just to get the momentum going. As a wise friend once told me, the more you write, the more you write.
Below are three of my favorite ways to begin a story. They’re not the only way, of course, but they can give you good guidance for how to start writing and turn in a piece you’re excited about.
Back in time
If history plays a role in your narrative, don’t be afraid to leverage the past to launch your story. By going this route you can give your piece context and help set the stage for other things you want to showcase. Remember: Your early words are an advertisement to the reader for why they should spend the next ten or 15 minutes with you. Good history can offer drama and excitement. If you have those elements don’t wait until the middle third to showcase them. Bring them up front. Your readers and more importantly, your editor, will applaud you for it.
I did something like this for a piece I wrote in 2014 about a New Hampshire man named Arnold Graton, who is the country’s preeminent covered bridge restorer. Arnold’s business is a family business, begun decades ago by his father. I felt it was important to establish that lineage early on as a way to the get reader invested in Arnold and his trade.
Here’s what I wrote…
In the spring of 1954, Milton Graton landed a job that would change his life and the fate of covered bridges around the country, New England especially. A structure mover out of Ashland, New Hampshire, the 46-year-old Graton had spent the better part of three decades working construction. He’d owned a trucking business, laid pipe at military bases during the war, and built roads and tunnels. But it was as a large-scale hauler, moving buildings mainly, that Graton had earned a reputation as a skilled, hard worker offering fair prices…
Which is how he ended up in Rumney, New Hampshire, a small town on the edge of the state’s White Mountains region and home to a dilapidated covered bridge. The century-old span crossed the Baker River; for many years it had sat neglected and unused. The cover boards had been stripped and the roof was shot, allowing rain to beat down on the floor. The bridge was now in private hands, and the owner wanted it moved to another part of town, where it was to be converted into a gift shop. He hired Graton to do the job.
But on the night of July 3, 1954, just a day before work was set to begin, the old bridge collapsed in a heap into the river. So Graton bought the remains, with an eye toward using the still-good timbers for some future project. As he worked, he quickly came to admire the bridge’s construction. In many places the joinery had remained so tight that a century of sunlight had failed to penetrate the seams and discolor the wood.
By the time he’d hauled every scrap of wood out of the river, Graton, who’d always packed a deep appreciation for the past, now felt an obligation to protect it. “I was convinced at that time,” he wrote two decades later in his book, The Last of the Covered Bridge Builders, “that to preserve the work of these great honest and true carpenters of one hundred years ago was the duty of every good citizen who would save for posterity that which would never again be reproduced.”
Graton partnered with his oldest son, Arnold, and together, they took on the work that nobody else could do or, because of tight town budgets, wanted to. Around the country they roamed, often living right at the job sites, working through blistering heat or subzero temperatures so frigid that the only thing they could do to keep warm was to work a little harder.
But it wasn’t just what they were building that harked back to a different era; the Gratons strove to replicate how the bridges had originally been built. They preferred hand tools over power machinery, pulled the structures into place with oxen, and cinched together the framing with long wooden pegs called trunnels, which they milled themselves.
In communities such as Campton, New Hampshire, and Springfield, Vermont, the Gratons were greeted as celebrities and saviors. Crowds would gather to watch them work, and parties would break out as the men pulled the renovated bridges into place. In Woodstock, Vermont, in 1968–69, the Gratons made history when they built Middle Bridge, the first new covered bridge constructed in this country in the 20th century. It was 20° below when father and son pounded in the last roof shingles.
When age slowed Milton down, Arnold helmed the projects. Then, when Milton passed away in 1994, his son took over. In all, he has rehabbed some 65 covered bridges and built another 16 new ones from scratch. And their significance means as much to him as they did to his dad. “I like old stuff,” he says. “And I think it’s important to have a history behind us that we can use as we go ahead, too.”
Another favorite method to jump-starting a story is to thrust the reader into the action. Sometimes this can mean beginning the piece in the middle of the journey, at some particularly noteworthy point. It’s important to realize that not all travel stories have to be linear. Hook the reader in, then later you can backtrack, to set the stage and give proper context for why you’re where you are.
I chose this route for a piece that placed me on a foliage bus tour through much of New England. I was on the road for a week, traveling with strangers, as we journeyed through the autumn. The conventional route would have been to start right at the beginning, on day one.
But that seemed boring. Too many details and information lines that would have only slowed that opening section down. I would have lost the reader almost immediately.
Instead, I began my piece about halfway through the trip. At a moment that seemed to capture all the reasons we were on the road. From the moment I saw the scene unfold, I knew I had my start and took judicious notes. These are the scenes that can add real gold to your narrative. They may even provide the backbone for your entire piece and once you start looking for them, they can leap out at you. That’s what happened to me.
Here’s how I began my story…
It’s at the Sugar Hill Meetinghouse, on the western edge of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, that we finally find autumn. For nearly a week we’ve been on its trail, investigators looking for clues as to where peak color might be hiding: a row of changing maples on a quiet country road, a rush of crisp morning air. But the New England season of our imagination had proved elusive…
It was just up the highway, or maybe a few towns away.
In Woodstock, Vermont, a store clerk looked dismissively at a batch of autumn postcards. “Those pictures are just enhanced,” she said, shaking her head. “I live 45 minutes north, and up there the leaves are amazing.”
But were they?
It was early October, and I was starting to have doubts. The search had begun some five days before, when our group of 44 met in a hotel conference room in Boston for wine and cheese to kick off a weeklong guided bus trip through New England with Connecticut-based tour operator Tauck. From there our journey took us around the city, then south to Hartford before charging north into Vermont and New Hampshire. Maybe we’re too early, some wondered. Or possibly it’s just not a great year for color, others said.
And then we discover the quiet village of Sugar Hill. All the boxes are checked: The white clapboard meetinghouse decked out with pumpkins and browning corn stalks. The near-peaking maples on the front lawn. The blue-sky day. The tidy farmhouse across the street. Nothing—not the private tour of Fenway Park, the free cheese and crackers at the Vermont Country Store, or the stroll through Revolutionary War sites in Lexington and Concord—elicited the excitement this tiny green sparks in my fellow travelers.
I stay in my seat and watch the others take in the moment. One couple does a quick dance, several people pose for photos with the trees, one woman actually hugs one of the maples. On the steps of the meetinghouse, a round of selfies is produced. There is euphoria in the air.
I understand the jubilation; after so many days, I feel some of it myself.
Following a solid 10 minutes of picture-taking, the crew begins to file back onto the bus. “That’s the best selfie I’ve ever taken,” says a woman from Florida, pausing in the aisle to look at her phone. She laughs with approval. “That’s so good.”
As a writer, it’s your job to paint the landscape of the place you’re showcasing. To bring it to life so the reader can get a strong feel for the people and area you’re writing about. It’s another way of establishing context and signaling to the reader that what you’re featuring is worth knowing about.
The forms this can take are many. Sometimes it’s a vivid description of a landscape. Other times it’s an actual scene that can include dialogue and movement. It requires real craft and an efficiency of words, but if you can do it, it can be a satisfying way to start your piece.
Below is an example of this kind of scene setting that I used to open my story on a New Hampshire farmer named John Hutton, who largely relies on horses to power much of his work. My goal was to lay out for the reader who Hutton was, what was farm was like, and the important relationship he had with his animals.
This is how I began my piece:
It’s going to be a good day for swearing.
John Hutton indicates as much as he heads to the back of his barn, a long, bow-roofed structure that houses goats, pigs, horses, and, on occasion, a daring, gold-colored hen who darts around the farmer’s feet. It’s a mild, mid-February morning, and Hutton, who moves with the permanent precision of someone who always has a long to-do list, is gearing up for an afternoon in the woods… He strides past his two farmhands, who brush and bridle Hutton’s horses, and then pops outside to load up his wagon with a chainsaw and a couple of ropes.
Even by New England standards, Hutton’s Coppal House Farm, a rolling 78-acre plot of field and forest in Lee, New Hampshire, isn’t large.
But what he lacks in size, Hutton makes up for in approach. His round face marked by a thick mustache and a toothy, engaging smile, he has an almost preternatural reverence for an efficiency that leans heavily on tradition.
Much of how Hutton powers his farm comes from his three Belgians, and his attachment to them rivals his feeling for his land. On a property that has sustained men like him since the 1700s, Hutton plows his fields each spring with his animals, picks some 25 acres of corn in late summer, and then, come winter, heads out to the woods to log.
As he checks over his wagon, Hutton’s farmhands, Meghan Boucher and Luke Keniston, harness his horses, who look, standing over the two assistants, cartoonishly big. Ice, a 2,000-pound, 8-year-old gelding, ducks his head under the doorframe as Luke leads him out of his stall. Standing next to him is Twiggy, a 1,700-pound, 10-year-old mare whom Hutton picked up six years ago. Off to the side, waiting patiently and all harnessed up is Ted, a smaller 1,600-pound gelding with whom Hutton has worked for almost 25 years.
“I don’t have to drive him in the woods,” Hutton likes to say of his old horse. “I show him the road once or twice and then just leave him alone. He doesn’t like to be micromanaged.”
A largely snowless winter has made for a strange season. Logging the way Hutton does it requires snow, which lets draft horses like his pull timber up to 12 times their weight. But the dry days have frustrated him; he and his team have been out only a few times. Not only is Hutton behind on hauling out enough lumber for his spring projects, but his horses are out of shape. In Twiggy’s case, there’s the further complication of getting her acquainted with the work: Today will be her first time logging. “She’s a super horse to work with but a little fast,” Hutton says. “But I think she’s slowed down enough.” He pauses and looks at the mare. “If you’re not used to swearing, you might hear some this afternoon.”
In short order, the horses are hitched to a long trailer, and Hutton, sitting up front, just behind his horses, directs his team down a narrow dirt road edging his fields, then turns down a trail to a forest of tall white pines. About a half-mile in, Hutton comes to a stop and jumps off the trailer. Quickly, he unhitches the horses. Ice and Twiggy are harnessed together; Hutton, holding on to a pair of long reins, steps behind them. “If it looks bad and they start coming at you, just get behind a big tree and let ’em pass by you,” Hutton says. He pauses. “I’m not kidding.”
Ready to start?
I’ve outlined three ways to begin a story, but there are countless others. If you’re stuck, play around with your material. Think back to what first drew you to the idea and why it excited you. Tap that excitement and you’ll have a piece your readers will treasure. Right from the start.