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Home > Publications > Quill > Narrative Writing Toolbox



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Wednesday, April 10, 2013
Narrative Writing Toolbox

Finding the story is step one

By Tom Hallman Jr.

Since my teammates were working on other stories, it fell to me to grab the press release, scan the information and write something to post to the Web. I made a call, got a quote and within 15 minutes had this on the paper’s site:

Authorities took a 2-year-old boy into protective custody Wednesday after police found his mother had died, apparently two days ago, of natural causes inside her Southeast Portland home, the Portland Police Bureau reported.

Although the boy was taken to a hospital as a precaution, officers said he was in good health, although hungry and thirsty.

“It’s truly heartbreaking,” said Sgt. Pete Simpson, bureau public information officer. “We can only assume what this poor kid was thinking about the past couple of days. Fortunately, the little guy is OK.”

Police had been sent to the home in the 10100 block of Southeast Long Street just after 8:30 a.m. to check on the condition of 40-year-old Micaela Quinn. A woman had called police after she had not heard from Quinn -- who had ongoing medical issues -- in several days, police said.

When police entered the home, they found Quinn dead.

Authorities are working with the Oregon Department of Human Services to locate family for the boy, police said.

“At this point there does not look to be any local family,” Simpson said. “Family not only needs to be notified of the death, but the custody issue will have to be worked through.”

Simpson said it was “fortunate” Quinn’s friend called police.

“It’s a good reminder that people need to look out for each other,” he said.

The incident haunted me during the next few weeks. I wanted to tell a story. Something was there, and it was up to me to find out what it was. The more removed the story is from the news, the harder it is to write because without a template, the writer is faced with choices that are both confusing and empowering. Asking and answering those questions can be one of the toughest parts of telling a story.

I wanted to tell another story of law enforcement built around this incident. I wanted the story to blend my voice and the voices of the characters in the story world. The meaning/theme would be the hidden side of law enforcement, one most people don’t see.

With that roadmap, I began reporting. I requested all police reports on the case. In them, I found the names of officers at the scene. But I wasn’t simply seeking names, I was reading reports to look for clues for a story and the characters who would help tell it. Out of all the officers at the scene, I found one that I sensed could shape the story I wanted to write.

As anyone who covers police knows, it’s difficult to get a uniformed officer to talk with a reporter. It took three calls to the precinct before the officer even called me back. I told him I wanted to talk about this incident, but he said he wasn’t interested. I told him to ask around about me; I covered cops for 10 years. I asked him to read my stories online. If he didn’t want to talk, that would be the end of it. But if he did, I’d come out and meet him. Days later I got a call from him.

You must interview with purpose to find the deeper meaning of a story. I’ll discuss interviewing in a future column. In this case I was able to get the officer to trust me enough to give me the details and emotions that formed the heart of this story. I then contacted the bureau’s public information officer to get the statistics I knew I needed to make the story opening powerful.

Then I began to write.

It began as a request from a 9-1-1 dispatcher that’s about as low-key as it gets. A welfare check means a cop swings by a scene to make sure everyone’s OK. Last year, police answered more than 18,000 such calls in Portland.

Most were forgettable. Except for one.

Like all people, cops discuss politics, sports and current events when they gather. Eventually, though, their conversations turn to the job and the mysterious world-within- a-world where they work. Stories full of humor, drama and even absurdity spill out.

But given time, the mood changes and they talk about their ghosts.

Cops try to forget. But often they can’t.

“Sometimes when I’m on patrol I’ll think about that boy,” Nilsen said. “Maybe, I see a kid on the street. Or I’m at coffee with some officers and they’ll ask me if I ever knew what happened to him.”

The strange thing about trying to forget is what you remember.

“His name,” Nilsen said. “I’ll never forget this name.”

Why do you think I used the word “cop” instead of “police officer” in the opening. Why didn’t I have a nut graf in the opening?

Look how I used statistics and the narrator’s voice to give readers the context they’d need before I introduced the character who would guide them through the story. And look at the power of those two quotes.

Here’s how I ended the story, which received nearly 3,500 Facebook likes:

In the years to come, the details will fade: the time the welfare check came in, the home’s address and perhaps even the names of the other officers who responded. What will stick with Nilsen is a simple image: a little boy, same age as his daughter, with curly blond hair and an uncertain future.

He moved to a thick metal door that led to the precinct’s garage. He opened it and then paused.

I’ll never know,” he said. “But I’ll never forget him.”

The door slammed shut and he was gone.

Now, go find your story.

Something I do each year is select a reporter to work on a story with me, and then I write about the experience in a column. If interested, contact me at tbhbook@aol.com.

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