I was working with one of my reporters yesterday on a story he’s writing about an 87-year-old farmer. Before starting his interviews, we talked about the various details to be aware of. We talked about all of the senses and how each one plays a role in bringing his story to life.
We talked about physical details (i.e. Are his hands wrinkled? Freckled? Chapped? Calloused? Covered with sunspots the side of a pencil eraser? Is dirt embedded in his nails?) and details he might not think to collect. For example, I asked him the distance from the main road back the lane to the farmer’s house. I asked him what bordered all four sides of the farmer’s property. If you know me, then you know I love details and so you can imagine what our conversation was like.
So yesterday we met, trying to figure out the best lead to his story. He had a notebook full of wonderful details. And, yet, there were still some things I asked him that he hadn’t thought to collect. They weren’t the kind of details that make or break a story (or he would go back to get them) but they were details that elevate the story to the next level.
For example, John mentioned that the farmer never owned a computer or a cell phone. So of course I asked John what type of phone the farmer did have. He told me he had a wall phone in the kitchen. I asked John if it was a rotary wall phone or one of those punch-button types. He said punch button. I asked him what color it was. Corn yellow? Cocoa brown? Avocado green? He didn’t know.
I know John might have been frustrated with me because I push, push, push for telling details. Now the color of the phone isn’t essential to the story, but if you tell me the only phone the farmer has is an avocado green rotary wall phone that hangs in his kitchen next to his avocado green refrigerator, I immediately get a picture in my mind and I know the era in which both the phone and the refrigerator were purchased. Again, these details are not essential to the story but they do tell us something about the farmer.
Fiction writers have it easy in this regard. We write our stories and we often add these telling details or refine them during revisions.
But reporters do not have that luxury. They often cannot go back to the scene to collect additional details, especially if it’s breaking news or an event. For example, if a reporter goes to a crash scene, he needs to get all of the details while there because the mess will be cleaned up. And he needs to get all of this while getting the essentials of who, what, when, where, how.
Let’s assume a reporter responds to a crash scene and comes back to the office and tells me that content from the car was scattered on the highway. What do you think I’m going to ask him? You got it! What kind of content. He might tell me a pink Cinderella backpack, a Barbie doll with a missing arm, a packet of fruit snacks half eaten. OR, he might tell me a college chemistry book, laptop, blue and white 2010 graduation tassel. See how these details tell us something about the people in the car. Like spices, they add to the richness of the story.
I told John that as a reporter, I take all kinds of details down. I might only use a quarter of them, but I have them if I need them. Like anything, the more you condition yourself to do this, the better you get at it. I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s not. You have to be constantly aware of everything around you WHILE reporting the story. It’s challenging, for sure. But as you write your story and work in one of the telling details you’ve collected, it’s the best feeling ever.