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Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Narrative Writing Toolbox

Focus on people to find your best work

By Tom Hallman Jr.

From my table in front of the class, I frequently look into the audience and wonder who is going to leave the narrative seminars I lead for SPJ and find a real story when they return to their newsrooms.

It’s always fun to get e-mail from reporters who made the leap. I want to share one with you. Even if you can’t make it to a seminar — two more are scheduled for this spring — there’s a lesson here.

Rodger Nichols is a reporter at The Dalles Chronicle, a 5,500-circulation daily in The Dalles, Ore. His managing editor, who also attended the seminar, described her paper this way: a pressure cooker, a six-person staff with lots of stories that need to be turned around in a short time.

Sound familiar?

“Before I came to the seminar, I was what I would call a standard reporter,” Nichols told me. “I tried to do feature stories from time to time, but mostly I was slogging through the standard stuff.”

When he returned home, though, he vowed to find stories that people would remember.

One day a woman came into the paper to drop off a letter to the editor. Nichols has known her since he moved to The Dalles more than 36 years ago. And then it hit him: She is one of those people who make the community vibrant. He was going to tell her story as a narrative, something he’d never done.

“It was sitting right there in front of me,” Nichols said. “But for the first time I saw the story.”

Managing Editor Kathy Ursprung told him to “go for it. I told him I’d edit it with my ‘A’ game,” she told me. “It turned out to be a story with a lot of collaboration. We talked about it and looked for any weakness. Working together was fun.”

Here is how Nichols opened his piece:

"Some people are perfectly fitted to what they do. It’s hard to imagine them doing anything else. And when they fit so well, you miss them when they’ve gone.

"For the past two years, Safeway customers in The Dalles have been missing Mary Ann Corbin.

"Even if you didn’t know her name, you knew who she was — the feisty lady with the short dark hair who had a word or a smile or a horrible pun for everyone who came through her line."

The beauty of what Nichols did is that he wrote about someone who wasn’t famous or powerful, but someone who was uniquely The Dalles. He wrote a story full of humanity.

The first step in writing a story is seeing the story. You have to get out of the newsroom. You have to look at your community through the eyes of a storyteller. When you do that, the stories will appear out of the fog.

“What I took away from the seminar is that there is no news in a story like this,” Nichols said. “This wasn’t about a meeting. There was no fire. This was a story about a person.

“The thing that was most hard for me, but in a liberating way, was the use of the authorial voice without citations. In the story I make assertions, and it was hard to do without finding someone to back me up. To say that some people are naturally suited for a certain job and then not cite a study showing that was different. But I realized it was an assumed fact of living.”

Freed from what he described as “being too locked into quotes from authorities,” Nichols took control of the story, realizing that as the author — not simply a stenographer getting quotes — he determined how people would feel about his story by the words and scenes he chose.

“I did just that,” Nichols said. “I had fun.”

Ursprung said it was Nichols’ best work, and it reminded her that papers must tell stories.

“Personally, it’s why most of us got in this business,” she said. “For our readers it is a chance to give them real stories, not just more reports about bureaucracy. Yes, we have to write about government and police and schools. But we owe our readers more than that, too. What this story reminded me of is that readers crave it.”

Nichols said he received more response from readers to this story than anything he has written in 21 years in the business.

“As late as a month later I’d have someone tell me that they had been meaning to tell me how much they liked the story,” he said. “I think we’d sell a lot more papers if we had (more content) like this. These are stories that resonate in our readers’ lives and make them feel something.

“Even my mom asked for extra copies to pass around,” Nichols said. “The real payoff was when (the subject) Mary Ann called and said it was beautiful. That’s what I will always treasure.”

The lesson: Open your eyes and start seeing stories. Focus on people and not institutions. Take a risk and break free from hard news. Write with narrative authority. Observe and trust what you see to make a scene. Find an editor with whom to collaborate. Enjoy.

And then do it again.

Tom Hallman Jr., a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with The Oregonian, is considered one of the nation’s premier narrative writers. During his career, he has won every major feature-writing award, some for stories that took months to report, others less than a couple of hours. The stories range from the drama of life and death in a neo-natal unit, to the quiet pride of a man graduating from college. You can reach him at tbhbook@aol.com.

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