I’m sure many writers will identify with this. Your story gets published and while you might be pleased with the finished article there’s something that the readers will never know: that what you’ve shared with the reader is only half of the story. Indeed the untold back story to an article is often more illuminating than the article itself.
So it was with my recently published article on the BBC Travel site about Jewish Krakow (pdf here for UK folks). I thought I’d use this blog to share my experiences researching this story in Krakow as the experience taught me a lot about the work that can be involved in securing a commissioned story.
First of all, a bit of background. I had a commission to write a feature on Krakow for the National Geographic Traveller magazine (in the current March 2013 issue). As freelancers will appreciate an overseas journey for one story alone is not the most efficient use of time, so I pitched two other ideas. One was immediately accepted (Microbrewing in Poland – pdf) while my rather vague pitch for an article about Jewish Krakow was pushed back to me; I needed to come up with a more focussed angle and I knew I’d have to find it while I was out in Poland.
I flew out to Krakow for two days. On the first afternoon I rushed around collecting the information I needed for my city guide (thankfully I am already familiar with Krakow so I had an advantage here) and the evening was taken up with the arduous task of touring the city’s ale houses.
I had the entire second day to search for an angle for my Jewish Krakow story. My first port of call was the Oscar Schindler factory – an excellent museum telling the tragic story of Krakow during the war years. I was here for 90 minutes and could have easily spent half a day watching the videos and absorbing the testimonies of those who lived through the city’s darkest period. But I didn’t find a real hook on which to build my story.
I then wandered around the streets of Podgorze, the area of the city the Nazis set aside as the Jewish ghetto – it’s a down-at-heel district of Krakow, with a few haunting memorials to the atrocities that took place here; but still nothing stood out for me in terms of a story.
By lunchtime I was back in Kazimierz, known as the Jewish quarter but on the surface resembling an open-air museum of Jewish heritage. I had heard of some recent immigrants from Israel who had come here to re-establish a Jewish community in the city; I was keen to meet them and was now convinced that this was my hook.
Finding them proved to be easier said than done. I visited the Jewish Cultural Centre and while the staff were cheery and welcoming they couldn’t shed much light on any recent arrivals. They did point me towards a newly opened restaurant and when I arrived there the waiter did indeed confirm that the owner had recently arrived from Israel. Sadly however he was out of town. Could I return tomorrow? I walked away and tended to my hunger with a plate of pierogi, slowly accepting that my quest might draw a blank.
Re-energised by my hearty lunch I set off and soon cast off my inhibitions about walking into any business that appeared to have a Jewish connection. My task was made harder by the fact that it’s apparently cool to look Jewish in Kazimierz and places with no Jewish links are prone to use a bit of Hebrew writing.
After drawing a few more blanks I finally stumbled into the Galeria Szalom, where the owner’s warm welcome suggested she was happy to have someone relieve the boredom of a quiet Thursday afternoon. I explained my mission and she smiled and immediately called up her friend, a lady Rabbi who came to Krakow from Israel to lead the city’s progressive Jewish community. Rabbi Tanya had only just returned home from a trip away and after a quick chat she kindly offered to put off her unpacking to come to the gallery and speak with me. And so after several hours plodding the streets and many doors pushed with no success, I knew I finally had my story.
The experience taught me several lessons that I have tried to take on board in my efforts at staying afloat as a freelance writer. I learned the value of targeting a pitch so that an editor can see clearly that there’s a good story to be told; I saw the importance of stacking up the commissions for a trip to provide the best return on the time spent away from home; but most importantly I saw that if you keep trying, sheer persistence in hunting for a good story will usually bring its rewards.