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Sunday, January 31, 2010
Narrative Writing Toolbox

Even 'Goodfellas' juggle multiple stories

By Tom Hallman

I recently watched one of my favorite movies, and a scene near the end struck home, saying something to me about what it means to be a newspaper writer at a time when our industry is changing so dramatically.

The movie, “Goodfellas,” is considered one of the all-time great films. It’s a true story and centers on Henry Hill, a kid who over the course of the movie becomes an associate of a New York mob family. The scene I’m referring to comes near the end of the narrative arc when his life is collapsing.

Hill has a side business dealing cocaine. He’s a user, which makes him paranoid. He’s sure the law has him in its sights. He’s supervising a major drug deal and a goofy mule who’s going to fly from NYC to distribute the drugs. He’s also making sure his mob boss — who will kill him for dealing drugs — is in the dark.

Then it all comes to a head: Driving, seeing helicopters, getting rid of guns, packing the dope. And, meanwhile, nearly getting in a car wreck and then coming home to make dinner.

But what’s that have to do with our business? This: I don’t know of a newspaper writer who doesn’t feel a bit like Henry Hill. We’re juggling several assignments, posting to the Web, turning out short-term pieces and looking for long-term features.

This was my Christmas week: Sunday night cops, posting to the paper’s Web site. But also hustling down the street to a jewelry store that was going out of business. My editor had that story budgeted for Christmas Day. She also passed along a story about a suburban police chief who was going to pull a morning shift so his younger employees could stay home with their kids on Christmas Day. I was going to work Christmas Day, and that would be my assignment. And, finally, I was making calls to set up interviews and explain to people why I wanted to interview them as part of a long-range narrative. On top of this, my father had to go into the hospital for surgery, and I was caring for him.

Tom Hallman, meet Henry Hill.

One of the myths about the writing life is that it’s tranquil, with plenty of time to contemplate. Maybe if you have a big-time book contract, or a magazine piece with a far-off deadline. But in newspapers, juggling several stories at once is what we do. The only way we can succeed is by approaching each story with a plan. Or, in other words, a strategy. Otherwise, the stories — and life — are so overwhelming that you lose any sense of direction.

When I told my editor about a Portland jewelry store that was closing after 97 years, she thought it would be a good Christmas Day story since the store’s last day would be Christmas Eve. I walked to the store one day — literally when I had about 20 minutes between two other stories — and talked with a few clerks, looked at some old photos and wrote this in my notebook: “We live in an era where we chase the quickest and cheapest through the click of a mouse. What we lose is the sale, which was part of the experience.”

That, then, became my guide. I wanted to explore the sales experience and what it means, to remind readers that this was about more than a store closing. That was the “news,” but the best stories are about the feelings behind the news. This closing marked the end of an era in our city.

Then I was off to another interview on an unrelated story. When I returned to the store, though, I knew exactly what I was looking for. Each question, whether to clerks or customers, helped flesh out that initial feeling and idea I had in my notebook.

When you’re juggling multiple stories, you need to know what each story is about. Without that, you flounder, filling the notebook with random quotes, hoping it will become clear when you start to write. Trust me, it won’t.

My lede was straightforward: “Another bit of old Portland vanished Thursday night when employees of Zell Bros. Jewelers turned out the lights and locked the door one final time.” A few grafs in I wrote this: “The store, an upscale mainstay in the city’s core, represented an era when shopping meant going downtown. Zell’s customers — 90 percent of them women except for Christmas week, when men hustled in and told clerks they had to get something — often dressed for the occasion.”

(Read the full article here

The body of the story gave examples from clerks and customers that developed the shopping experience and how it is now so different. It took just a few hours to report and write. But each quote within had meaning because I knew what I was looking for. When I walked up to one customer and started talking to her, I knew I had my perfect ending that summed up the store, its closing and the end of an era:

“Jennifer Anderholt, 41, whose great-grandparents shopped at Zell’s, stood at a counter with a single plate of china in a pattern similar to one she and her husband had purchased when they married 15 years ago. Now, Anderholt said, they are divorcing. She bought just one plate for serving Christmas Eve hors d’oeuvres.

“The plate once sold for $74. Anderholt paid $14.80 — about what a nice but ordinary plate would cost just about anywhere.”

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