A couple months ago, someone tipped me off to what I knew would be a great story. I figured I had a nice Sunday feature, a narrative that might run about 50 inches or so.
As I began reporting, however, the piece morphed into a tale that spanned more than 20 years, mingling the past and the present. And instead of a single character, I had four, one who had been shot to death by a cop in 1988. Before long, I was looking at a five-part series.
I began writing, carefully crafting my opening. In a perfect world, I’d keep going — working on nothing but that story until it was polished, edited and ready to run in the paper. But that’s not how newspapers work these days. All of us are juggling features, daily stories and perhaps even looking for long-range narratives.
I got about 15 inches into the piece and was feeling great about it. Then I had to work a Sunday night police shift. I came back Monday morning, started in again. But then something else came up. I had to finish off a story for the weekly neighborhood tab. Then there was a staff meeting. Then back to the project. Oh, and then another weekend cops shift.
This week it’s been the same thing: A daily story for Wednesday, a feature for the weekly tab and getting ready to report and write features for the paper’s annual Season of Sharing section that focuses on people who need the community’s help.
So where did that leave the great series? Well, imagine starting a cross-country road trip without a map.
What I ended up with was a cluttered mess in my desk drawer, and in my head. I had stacks of files with notes, old prison letters and black-and-white photographs. When I had time to devote to the series, I’d plunge ahead with the writing. But it was like hitting Interstate 84, heading east and hoping to somehow get to Chicago in a few days.
Before long, I’d written three parts. I took them home over the weekend to read them. Some of the scenes were perfect, and there was some great material. But overall it lacked something that I sensed but couldn’t articulate. Then I realized that I’d gotten off the highway, lost somewhere in Boise, Idaho, because I didn’t know where I was going and why.
Here is the opening I had on Part 1:
Wild Bill Brown’s daughter and his widow met in the apartment that morning to pool their resources. They searched through purses, dug through drawers and somehow managed to scrape together $20 to buy a few gallons of gas. The women used the car — a 1993 Ford Tracer with more than 190,000 hard miles on it — only when necessary.
After handing the station’s cashier a wad of crumpled bills, Heather Brown walked back to the car. She slipped into the passenger seat and told her mother she felt queasy. The 28-year-old wasn’t sure if the lupus — a disease that causes inflammation and pain — was acting up. Maybe it was nerves. Heather had only slept three hours. Too much thinking about Wild Bill and the past.
I needed direction. So I sat down and thought about the story. Who was the main character? What was the driving force behind the character’s actions and choices? What was she seeking and why? Once I figured that out, I typed out a simple outline to keep me on track.
That allowed me to quickly pick up the story when I had time to write. I wasn’t looking for inspiration, or struggling to find the highway. I knew exactly what needed to go into the story, and what I could leave out. I wasn’t flying by my guts and the seat of my pants. I had a plan.
Here’s a portion of the outline:
E-mail sets things in motion. Heather must choose.
Heather faces her father’s ghost, her mother and herself.
Heather goes back to the past to understand
The night Heather’s father — Wild Bill Brown — slipped over the edge.
Here’s my revised opening:
The message that would change everything arrived unexpectedly.
Heather Brown, 28, spotted it late the first Sunday in June, just before bed. She’d logged onto her computer in her living room to check e-mail, sitting in the dark so the light wouldn’t disturb her 13-year-old son sleeping in a small bedroom to her right.
As she deleted pitches for knock-off watches and get-rich schemes, a strange subject line caught her eye: “Retirement…”