A band room that reeks of sweat and brass, saliva from emptied spit valves soaked into the carpet. The tactile sensation of a Floridian’s hand sticking to a frosty pole for the first time. Tampa Bay Times reporter Lane Degregory spoke on how to transport a reader inside a narrative with her lecture, “Turning Articles into Stories: How to Find, Report and Write Narrative Non-Fiction.”
Narrative journalism differs from hard news as it features a storyline with a beginning, a middle and an end. Unlike a traditional news story with a nut graf revealing key points, narrative nonfiction withholds information to hook readers into a plotline.
“It’s really important to have a section that asks a question,” Degregory said. “Is the dog going to make it home? Is the kid going to survive the surgery?”
Degregory frames her stories with the acronym CAST: character, action, setting and theme. When seeking a direction for a narrative, she finds the person who has something at stake and threads the story through their journey, giving the reader a character to connect with emotionally.
Degregory spent eight years news reporting before discovering her passion for narrative nonfiction. Listening to a zoning meeting on mailbox size restrictions, she found an elderly man disappointed that he could not use the oversized owl mailbox his grandson made for him. A seemingly drab zoning story shimmered after inserting the human element about a grandfather’s love for his family.
Oversaturated topics can be revived through a narrative angle. Instead of pursuing police reports and arrest records when analyzing the opioid crisis, Degregory spent a year in drug court following the lives of three young women trying to free themselves from addiction.
As Degregory once struggled with establishing authentic connections to sources, she ensured that her lecture contained tangible tips for journalists to apply in the field .
“I wanted to hide behind my notepad, it was my shield,” Degregory said.
Degregory recommends using common topics such as dogs, kids and cars to bond with a source while conducting interviews. She encourages reporters to go along for the ride and listen to topics the subject is enthusiastic about. Give them the reins and meet them at their favorite bar or dog park to discern details on their personality.
Internal dialogue can make narrative nonfiction compelling. Ask subjects what they were thinking at the time. What were you praying for? What are your regrets? What do you want to be remembered for?
It’s the tiny details that can make an article memorable. Degregory recalls a story of a woman winning a million dollars from a magazine giveaway while eating breakfast. If Degregory didn’t dig for specifics she wouldn’t have learned what the lucky lady was eating–a bowl of Lucky Charms.
Degregory prints photographs of her story settings to hang around her cubicle while she types. The images transport her back into the moment and highlight forgotten details. She aims to integrate the five senses into her descriptive writing and advises detaching from your notebook by “stashing your notes, closing your eyes and picturing the movie.”
Degregory narrows down her articles to contain only 10 to 15 percent direct quotations.
“You’re the writer, we can synthesize the words better than most of our subjects,” Degregory said.
Degregory shared a useful organizational method for taking notes during interviews. She designates a specific area in the margins for follow-up questions so she does not have to derail her subject’s topic before she forgets her questions.
Other tips include inhabiting the main character and writing the story in their voice, making a timeline of observed and recreated scenes, identifying tension points in the narrative, circling verbs and replacing them with stronger word choices and recording your story on voice memos to see how it flows when read aloud.
Degregory followed her workshop with a book signing for her Pulitzer Prize winning anthology “The Girl in the Window.”