Any object can spark a feature idea if you teach your brain to ask the right questions

Photo by Eiliv-Sonas Aceron on Unsplash

One of the things I teach journalism students in my job as a lecturer at Goldsmiths College, University of London, is that anything can be an inspiration for a feature. While getting a commission can be difficult, and writing a piece can take rather a lot of thought, finding ideas to write about should be easy.

I’m writing this sitting in my kitchen and right in front of me is a bunch of bananas. In fact I have just started eating one sliced on a toasted bagel drizzled with honey while I write this. So I will use bananas as an example. My bananas are from Columbia and have the Fairtrade sticker. So I would be interested to know firstly about the lives of banana farmers in Columbia but also about how this compares to those that do not fulfil the Fairtrade requirement. That set me thinking about who made the Fairtrade guidelines and how they are updated.

I then started thinking about how a business publication may be interested in how an organisation can set up a scheme such as this to denote good practise— can anyone do it and how? Parenting website Mumsnet for example has the ‘Mumsnet Rated’ badge, the Plain English Campaign has the Crystal Mark (and others) and most people my age from the UK will remember then Prime Minister John Major’s Citizen’s Charter initiative with its Charter Mark awarded to public services meeting the criteria. (That’s another idea in itself — ‘Whatever happened to the Citizen’s Charter?’) What if I wanted to set up a ‘Levenson Award’ — how easy would it be and is there anything to stop me?

I have three kids and two of them like bananas, one as a go-to snack and one just occasionally. The third though does not like bananas and never has. He would even spit them out as a baby when fed them mashed on a spoon mixed with something else like his favourite cereal. That got me thinking about why some people don’t like bananas at all — is there a specific compound that reacts with the tastebuds of people who do not like them? And if so is this found elsewhere — do people who don’t like bananas also not like specific other foods? I do not like celery and I do not like cauliflour — are these dislikes coincidental or linked? And can they be changed?

And thinking about the taste of bananas got me thinking about banana flavoured sweets and lollies — which are very distinctive but not really banana-y, though our brains recognise it as such. How do our brains learn which artificial tastes to associate with which ‘real tastes’ and how do scientists work this out? If a banana sweet was shaped differently, or if we ate it with our eyes closed, would we still taste banana?

The next thought in my head was about the plastic banana guard a friend gave me as a new baby present when I had my first child. It’s a banana shaped plastic box that stores a single banana safely in your bag. This, she said, is the most helpful present anyone will ever give you, and as anyone will know who has dipped their hand into their bag only to bring it, and everything else, out covered in a soggy banana mush, she was absolutely right. Which led me to wonder who invented it and how they got the idea and what else they have invented. And also made me think about writing a list of the most helpful new baby gifts you can buy a person.

I’ve finished eating my bagel now and have started thinking about recipes using bananas. During the coronavirus lockdown it has become something of a joke that everyone is making banana cake, as it is the go-to recipe for using bananas that are past their best (or in the words of this recipe I have linked to, ‘very ripe’). But what other uses are there for very ripe bananas? One friend sent me this link to banana ‘ice cream’. If I can find more like this there is definitely a potential article in this, as well as the very many articles that could be written about how to snack healthily when working from home and how to create healthy snacking habits when back in the office etc etc.

Of course there are many more banana based ideas that will come to you once you start thinking about it. Do people really slip on banana skins? Why do people dress in banana costumes for fun runs? How best to store a banana? Whatever happened to the pop group Bananarama? Like I say, ideas are easy — now go and get them commissioned.

Ellie Levenson is the author of ‘Creativity and Feature Writing: How to get hundreds of new ideas every day’, pubished by Routledge and available here in the UK and here in the US. (These are not affiliate links and the book is also available from other booksellers.)

Ellie also runs correspondence courses in feature writing — more details here.

I am a writer and lecturer based in the UK, writing for adults as Ellie Levenson and for children as Eleanor Levenson.

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