A good reporter has to be both curious and suspicious

One of the primary attributes of a good news reporter is inquisitiveness. Sometimes it’s all about asking questions. Beyond that basic curiosity, there is also the need to be suspicious. There are a lot of people out there who want to use publicity to some personal advantage and sometimes that advantage is designed to realize some kind of revenge. A reporter has to be on guard against being used that way.

Here’s a quick story about reporter suspicion. One Friday evening early in my reporting career three of us were working late. We were putting together a graduation supplement that had to be run on the press the next day. In addition to myself, the editor and the sports reporter were typing away, writing up the ceremonies that had just occurred.

I was the first to finish and said my goodbyes to the other two. As I was leaving by the front door of the building where our newsroom was located I almost stepped on a skunk that was standing on the stoop. The bottom edge of the door just barely cleared the skunk’s back. I let the door swing shut and congratulated myself on avoiding a brush with disaster. Then I thought about how that skunk might be a golden opportunity. If I could pull this off, I could become a LIVING LEGEND in the newsroom. I might not have a job, but, by God, I would have some kind of a reputation!

So I dashed back in the newsroom and yelled: “Quick, grab your cameras. You won’t believe what’s going on out in the street.”

Do you think those guys would rush outside? Heck no. They ran to windows, instead. What can I say? Reporters are a suspicious bunch.

Advertisements

Knowing When to Shut Up

First and foremost I’m an outdoor writer. It was my outdoor column that led to a 17-year journalism career — which in turn led me to write novels and occasional poems. The truth of the matter is that I’ll write anything. But more than twenty years later I’m still writing the outdoor stuff.

One of the things I’ve learned along the millions of words is that there are times the writer needs to just stop, shut up, and let the reader participate in the creative process. One of the best ways for an outdoor guy to express this is to tell you about a recent spring turkey hunt.

At daybreak on a misty, foggy morning that big tom shouted in the day by gobbling, repeatedly, from his roost in a mixed hardwood forest. I used my box call and a slate friction call to produce a little hen talk, which seemed to get him excited. I was careful not to talk it up too much, because often the tom will stay up in the trees waiting for that hen to appear below. This is the thing about spring gobblers, they like to have the hen come to them. It’s unnatural for them to go to the hen. This is part of what makes turkey hunting so challenging.

True to form this guy flew down about a half hour after the day got good and light. And he walked away! I called to him and called to him, but the best I could do was to get him hung up about a hundred and fifty yards down the forested hill. He gobbled and gobbled and gobbled, but he wasn’t coming. He was waiting for that darned hen to show up.

This went on, off and on, for about forty minutes. I could see him in my mind. He was down there in the woods somewhere displaying his finery. His tail was all fanned and he was strutting and pirouetting, dragging his wing tips on the ground. But he just wasn’t coming. Time to do something different.  Because what I was doing so far wasn’t working.

So I shut up!

Ten minutes went by and then he boomed out a “where are you” gobble. I resisted the temptation to answer. And he gobbled again – closer. His curiosity got the better of him and he was searching for that hen he’d heard, coming to the last place he’d heard her yelping, clucking and purring. Coming right to me.

Sure enough, there came his red head and white cap as he crested the hill and walked out in front of me at twenty yards. I pulled the shotgun stock tight to my shoulder, lined up the red and green fiber optic sight beads and tightened my finger on the trigger.

And right here I’ll just shut up. I can do that because just like how my silence drew that big tom right to me, it will also draw you, the reader, right into my story. Now I’m going to share the creative process with you. Can you hear the shotgun blast fill the woods and echo away? Did you feel the jolt of the recoil? Can you smell the cordite that’s drifting away, blending into the fog?

Most importantly – was it a hit or miss? You tell me. You’re in charge of the story now.

Because I’ve gone silent.

Found Lit

FOUND LIT

I have a friend who has a beautiful, slightly abstract, driftwood goose on the wall of his den. The bird’s neck is extended and the wings are on the down-stroke and you know exactly what this worn and eroded piece of wood is at first glance. It was entirely created by nature. No one ever put a carving implement to this piece of art. My friend simply picked it up, saw it for what it was, and took it home to hang on the wall.

The term for this is found art.

Can there be found art when it comes to writing? I’m not talking about finding a particular event or landscape and describing it, but an actual something already written. Found literature? I’m a believer.

I once decided to write Haiku. After years of newspaper reporting I indulged the desire to write a 100,000-word novel. Then I went the other way and tried to see how much I could say with just a few words.

Haiku presented that challenge. A handful of syllables arranged just so in a three -line poem that would involve some aspect of nature, express the season and speak to a transition. I wrote a whole bunch of them. None were any good. I threw them all away.

Then one day I walked outdoors and found that nature had written one for me.

I call it Owled. Yes, I know that’s not a real word. I took a noun and made it a verb. Poets get to do that. It’s called creative license (don’t ask to see mine). Here’s that piece of found lit.

Owled

Lace of mouse tracks

Freshly stitched in new snow

Ends with wing prints

How to Write a Novel

HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL

Someone who recently read my still unpublished novel Beyond Bethlehem asked me how I did this – actually write a whole novel? My answer was there is only one way to write a novel and that’s to sit down and start writing. It won’t happen until then.

My novel started with a turkey hunt gone good.

I had played with the idea of writing a novel for years, making occasional notes, scribbling down ideas, and daydreaming various scenes. But I never quite got around to taking that all-important first step – actually writing.

What got me started was taking a week of vacation one May to really indulge my recent addiction to hunting wild turkeys. Wouldn’t you know, I bagged a turkey the first day. That left another eight consecutive days to do something else. Since I had used all my spare time the previous month doing chores so I would have the whole vacation free, I didn’t have anything left on the “honey-do” list.

So I started writing. By this time I had been a newspaper reporter for a bunch of years. So I had some confidence I could pull this off. I knew I had the discipline to actually sit down and write on a regular basis. And I was reporting at the rate of more than 6,000 words a week or 300,000 words a year.

Hell, that’s three 100,000 word novels, right?

The entire journey took much longer than that, of course. And I wrote and rewrote this novel many times before I was happy with it. But that’s a bunch of different stories.

This one is about how I started.

REWRITING

BLOG

REWRITING

I like to read gendre novels – suspense, mysteries and thrillers. I devour the work of people like James Lee Burke, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, and John Sanford. One of the authors whose work I regularly read is Joseph Finder.

Finder’s latest book, Buried Secrets, had a special surprise for me, one that hit close to home. I felt like the climax of this novel was taking place right here in my hometown Rindge, NH (Pine Ridge in the book). My suspicion was confirmed when I read the acknowledgements page and found a thank you to Rindge Police Chief Michael Sielicki.

I mentioned my discovery to Assistant Library Director Debra Qualey and she spread the word. Library Director Diane Gardenour contacted Mike Sielicki, who got back in touch with Finder, who agreed to come speak to local folk and do some book signing at an event at the library on Nov. 1.

Getting some extra mileage out of the trip from Boston, he also spoke to students at Franklin Pierce University, located in Rindge.

Among the many things he had to say about the craft of novel writing was this: he always revises a printed copy of his manuscripts, and never does those whole manuscript revisions on the computer. He said the eye makes excuses for errors on the computer screen and sees what the brain wants to see, not necessarily what is actually there.

This validates my own experience, writing my as yet unpublished novels Beyond Bethlehem and The Road Through Success.

At first when I made a copy of my novel(s) it wasn’t done until I felt I had made my revisions. I waited until I thought I was done because printing was a fairly expensive proposition – some twenty bucks or so in paper and printer cartridges. I was just downright loath to mark up something valuable with corrections and notes and changes.

But after a half-dozen or more hard copies per book I realize this is an important part of the process (for me, at least) in the progression of creating a novel. Having a paper copy of the book to read and rework always moves the story forward and makes it better. I’ve come to look forward to those hard copy leaps.

Ideas!

After I retired from newspaper reporting a friend asked me if I would keep on writing.I said I would, but it wouldn’t be the same kind of stuff I pounded out as a journalist. I told him I planned to keep on writing my outdoor columns and I would try my hand at everything from novels to poetry.

“Where will you get your ideas?” he asked.

I told my friend I was pretty confident I wouldn’t run out of ideas to write about. After all I’ve been writing outdoor columns for twenty years. People thought I’d have said everything there is to say about hunting and fishing long ago but I’m still coming up with fresh ideas.

“Where do they come from?” he asked.

I had to think on that for a moment. This is something I’ve just taken for granted –that I’ll always have something to write about. The answer is really simple. Ideas are all over the place, just floating around out there. All I have to do is be receptive.

My attitude is that I am a WRITER. It’s how I look at almost everything in the world around me. And that world is just chock full of ideas.

Inspiration can be as easy as cleaning my car. I mean … what is it that makes an outdoor person’s car trash different from everyone else’s? The answer to that was a very funny outdoor column.

It’s all about the what ifs and small discoveries. It’s tripping over an unexpected rhyme or finding a good name for a character or a place or a road. Sometimes it’s the result of two or more things coming together – maybe years apart – and that collision becomes an inspiration. I’ve come to learn that ideas are attracted to conversations the way butterflies are attracted to flowers. So I’m an unabashed eavesdropper.

I believe all a writer or any other creative person has to do is decide to be open to the muse, to be ready to receive that idea.

The other part of being receptive is not losing the ideas that come to you. Inspiration can be kind of fragile, I’ve learned. You receive an idea while you’re busy doing something and you develop the concept a bit in your mind … but you’re busy doing that other thing. Then later that evening or maybe the next day you remember (or maybe not) that you had a great concept for something – but youcan’t, for the life of you, remember what it was!

Ideas are pretty easy to lose.

So what I do, I told my friend, is I carry a little pocket notebook and I use it to capture and hold those ideas as they come to me. Later, at home, I copy them down in a larger notebook of ideas if I’m not going to write them right away.Now I have a place to go if I should temporarily run out of fresh ideas.

The thing is, ideas, when you’re open to them, are so plentiful I never seem to run out, so the notebook just keeps getting larger. I told my friend I now had about five hundred ideas listed, just waiting for me to get around to writing them.

“You know what?” he said. “I think you should write about that.”

“Five hundred and one,” I said, writing the idea down in my little pocket notebook.