A common complaint from reporters who cover beats is that they find they have almost no opportunity to attempt narrative writing. How much personality and emotion can you put into a zoning story?
They have a point. I covered hundreds of city council meetings and small-town school board meetings. But looking back, I realized I missed opportunities because I was blind to the possibility.
THINKING and LOOKING for story possibilities in your beat will make a difference. But it is going to require that your editor think differently, too. So share a copy of this column along with this message: Take a risk and try something different.
A couple weeks ago, I received a note from my editor. She said a multi-unit housing development was going up in a section of Portland that I cover. Could be a story. What she really meant was it could be a news story. And if I’d turned in a routine story, she would have been content.
The development was at the site of a Portland restaurant that went out of business a few years back. So I drove out to take a look.
My first inclination was to bang it out, tell that straight news story and be done with it. But I’ve learned to approach every story by looking for the narrative possibilities. Sometimes, that’s impossible. Or it looks ridiculous to impose a narrative structure on what should be a news report.
But considering narrative at the outset gets you in the habit of THINKING. At the very least, you can start practicing narrative techniques — dialogue, scene setting, foreshadowing — within the body of the story.
This development is going up at the site of what was once a legendary Portland restaurant, something from a different era.
On the way back to the office, I thought about how the city had changed, how there were no longer places that marked that era. And that FEELING was what I used to write this opening:
Back when Portland was more town than city, it had only a handful of places to go when you wanted to do it up right for the prom or an anniversary.
One was Henry Ford’s Restaurant on Southwest Barbur Boulevard. It was a family-run place where the owner — Henry Ford — greeted people at the door and spent the evening stopping at tables and making small talk.
Ford was so personable, patrons say, that he could make a high school kid on a date with a girl from math class feel — for a few hours — that he was no less suave than Sinatra.
But it’s gone. And what’s taking its place tells you plenty about how the city is changing.
Henry Ford’s is among the landmarks — not historical but landmarks just the same — that have vanished, places such as Henry Thiele’s and the Carnival Restaurant.
Now, that is about as far away as you can get from a news story. What I wanted to accomplish was to get readers to FEEL something about this development.
I tracked down the owner of the development. From him I got the particulars of the project, why it made sense in the marketplace and all the details that should appear in a story. But because I was THINKING differently about this story, I asked the owner a simple question: Did you ever go to Henry Fords?
“I took my high school prom date there,” says Neu, 63. “I lived all the way out in Hillsboro. But in the 1960s, it was one of the elite places. It was high-end. You had to hock the farm for a date. At that time, I was working a summer job in a food-processing plant …
“Was it worth it?” Neu repeats the question.
”Boy,” he says. “I have good memories there.”
Before closing the deal, Neu toured the restaurant.
“When I walked in there,” he says, “it was like stepping back in time. They had the same red velvet wallpaper up on the walls. The chairs were vintage 1950, that red-leather look.”
The story ends with comments from Henry Ford’s son, who provides historical context from his years working in the place. He told me that he now works at a building supply center in a nearby suburb. So I asked him if he ever drives by the site of the restaurant. And if so, what was he FEELING?
On his way home from work, he frequently comes down Barbur.
“After it was sold and torn down, I kept looking at the property,” he says. “I’d get a chill through my body. Nothing happened. Then all of a sudden, everything sprang up.”
When the condos go on the market, Ford may stop for a tour.
If, he says, he has time.
This small section is a blend of the character’s voice, and the narrator’s voice. Look at the word I end this story with.
Oh, and this is the note I received from my editor: “Just gave the Henry Ford’s story a final read. Really, really nice job.”