A couple of months ago, I was told to come up with the Thanksgiving Day story, one of those feel-good pieces that are a staple in the business.
My editor’s idea was to write about a man who weeks earlier had been run off the road by a drunk driver and lost his leg. My editor wanted me to do a story about this guy coming to terms with this.
This landed on my desk just as I was putting the final touches on a five-part series. I could have begged off. But I like the challenge of trying to find a story, turning the routine into something special.
I spoke with the man’s surgeon, who told me he was going to remove part of the man’s stomach muscle and attach it to the stump. I thought that would be a good hook. So off I went to the hospital. I sat by the man’s bed and talked about the accident.
I glanced around the room to describe the bed and hospital noises. For a man who had just lost his leg, he was remarkably calm and good-natured. Sometimes the story emerges not from what the character says. Be observant, curious and bold.
I noticed, for example, that he had get-well cards on the window ledge. I asked if I could look through them.
I was struck by the personal nature of the cards and jotted some of the thoughts in my notebook. When I asked him about the cards, he began to cry. And then he changed the subject and wiped away the tears.
That afternoon I wandered down to the man’s barbershop and looked through the glass door. I stood in the hallway and imagined him in there, working away alone. At that point, I still didn’t know what the story was about. But all I could think about was the man’s tears. Why did he cry?
My heart, which I’ve learned to trust, told me this story wasn’t about the surgery, or even the loss of a leg. Trust that heart of yours. That’s what makes you who you are.
I talked to his wife, slowly getting to learn who this man was. Then I called him at the hospital to confirm what I’d learned. And then I sat down and wrote, finishing the story in a couple of hours.
I want you to read the opening of this story and look for these story elements: character, facts, feelings, complication, theme, narrator’s voice and the universal. Study how the elements combine to create an emotion in the reader. That’s what a story is about: feeling. And the opening works to pose a question that will pull readers through the end of the piece. They have to read all the way to the end for the payoff.
In the quiet moments — when he’d cleaned his clippers, snapped off the lights and locked his door for the night — Bob Schlick headed to his Beaverton home and mulled over a question: Do people like me?
He had a steady customer base at his shop on the mezzanine level of the PacWest Center in downtown Portland. A man doesn’t survive for 44 years as a barber without talent. He’d stayed relevant, changing from crewcuts to flowing locks to something in between.
But Schlick, 64, a quiet and proper gentleman, couldn’t help but compare himself to other cutters he’d known through the decades. The ones who were so easygoing, so quick with a joke and able to carry on conversations with their customers.
The body of the story deals with the accident, his reaction and what will happen medically, but not in any great detail. The story is about something universal. Not many of us lose a leg. But all of us grapple with the question facing Schlick.
During the next few weeks, nurses brought in stacks of cards. Hundreds. All from customers. Word, it seemed, had spread that Bob Schlick was in trouble.
Whatever you need. Come back. I need a haircut.
Flowers and telephone calls.
Each day, Schlick learned something more about his customers and their hearts.
“Thank you for being a ray of sunshine.”
“Your smile and wave makes our day bright. Don’t lose that gift.”
“We realize the little, but significant impact others have on our lives.”
In one way or another, the cards all said the same thing: When you come back, we’ll be there.
Schlick had never cried over the loss of his leg.
But the cards?
He couldn’t stop the tears.
I want to write a series of columns this year on creating a story from beginning to end with a reporter. If you are interested, contact me at
I promise it will be fun!