Inside Stories

“Where do you get your ideas for all those stories?” 

It’s probably the most common question Daily Nutmeg readers ask me. As we wrap another year of covering enjoyable, thought-provoking, delectable, inspiring, historic stories in and about New Haven, it seems a good time to give you, our readers, a peek behind the curtain.

Story ideas come to me in about a dozen ways, depending on how you count them. The most common may also be the most surprising: Every story seems to lead to another story. Almost inevitably, as I’m interviewing one person, they mention something tangentially related, and ding!, they’ve given me my next story idea.

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In 2019, that happened more times than I can count. While I was interviewing writer Tim Parrish for one of our Summer Reading weeks, he told me about his student Ryan Leigh Dostie, whose book, Formation: A Woman’s Memoir of Stepping Out of Line, was just out. While I was interviewing Rob Goldman (whom I first met in 2018 while writing about coworking spaces) about his larger-than-life IMatter banners going up around town, he mentioned the impressive work of Jane Michaud and Project Youth Court. Sometimes the connection isn’t explicitly spoken and clicks on its own. An alternative energy project by New Haven Community Solar was mounted on a house built by first-year master’s students in the Yale School of Architecture, leading to a story six months later on their longstanding local build program. Often, when I’m researching a history feature, I’ll stumble across a tidbit that just has to become another story, like our piece on Noah Webster’s dictionary.

A few of my friends take particular delight in feeding me ideas. They’re responsible for asking questions like “Who was Ella B. Scantlebury?” and introducing me to their own interesting friends. Of course, readers I don’t know also send stories our way. Usually they come via email, like the pitches for Sally Lorensen Conant’s unique bridal gown cleaning business and Lori Martin’s tireless work at Haven’s Harvest. But sometimes readers find us in other ways. One cold evening last December, following a candlelight vigil at the memorial cairn on Broadway Triangle, a woman handed me an envelope containing a note and the card of one of her favorite businesses, PolMag Deli. (You can reach us with your own ideas for stories at hi@dailynutmeg.com.)

Sometimes—though not as frequently as you might imagine—I come up with story ideas myself, often while I’m driving around. That’s how I first noticed the new Pearl Harbor Memorial Park and Play More Chess Academy. If I’m not literally driving, I might see something interesting as I’m searching for something else on Google Maps. That’s where I first noticed that a point of land jutting into the harbor from West Haven was labeled a bird sanctuary.

I keep up with other local publications, which sometimes sparks ideas, as does our own weekly events calendar, which might list an item worth examining further. Some of our stories come via the formal route of press releases and pitches from the public relations staff at our local theaters, museums, other nonprofits and businesses. A few of them know us especially well and know the kinds of stories we love. Julie Winkel, who handles communications for the New Haven Museum, sent us a story idea about a pair of historic urns that stand outside the building along with the warning that we “really could fall down a rabbit hole in the research process.” Challenge accepted!

It’s also good to know these folks so we can call them when we have a wacky idea of our own. That’s what happened last spring when we decided to do a story on Easter eggs—little jokes or inside references often hidden in plain sight. I sent an email to the museums’ PR gurus, hunting for Easter eggs in their collections, and Joellen Adae, then the communications director of the Yale University Art Gallery, invited us over to look for Mark Twain’s face in the clouds of Edwin Howland Blashfield’s ceiling mural Triumph of the Dance (circa 1894). That piece is a good example of what happens when editor Dan Mims and I get a little bit punchy and punny during an editorial meeting. So is our Three Kings story, published last winter.

Not every idea works out. People don’t return calls or emails. Schedules just won’t come together. Readers suggest stories we’ve covered before. (We’ll only do it once, generally, unless years have passed and something significant has changed, as in our update about Music Haven seven years later.) Sometimes things are not as they first appeared, and there’s not enough of a story to tell.

Other stories simply take a long time to bear fruit. I first ran into Lisa Cornell cleaning and repairing an elegant old gravestone in Grove Street Cemetery in the fall of 2017. I was there to write about the old stones displaced from their original location on the Green, but I stopped to find out what Lisa was up to, and we exchanged emails. We never managed to connect the following season, but this past spring I tried again. Cornell and her husband, Will, have a great sense of humor, and it was worth the wait to spend an hour or so with them as they cleaned grave markers and told me about their work.

Though I’ve learned to plan ahead, there are weeks when I’m short of my quota of three stories. Sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate—most often due to rain in the summer when events are held outdoors, though as I write this piece, an ice storm has forced one story into the new year. When that happens, I have to scramble, which can yield unusual results. For example, when it was clear our intended business profile on a shiny new Indian superstore in Orange wasn’t going to come through as scheduled last winter, we retooled it as a grocery alphabet game.

When the Mims family launched Daily Nutmeg in 2012, they hoped, but couldn’t know for sure, that there would be enough stories in this small city to sustain the publication long-term. Nearly eight years later, New Haven continues to provide.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image, taken during an interview, photographed by Dan Mims.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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