I always loved a good mystery, but never, ever, in my thirty-six-year career as a sports writer and copy editor at a major Southern daily newspaper did I imagine writing one.
So when I decided it was time to write my Great American Novel, a tale of mystery was the last thing I envisioned. Even when the idea for a newspaper-rooted story took hold (don’t we all write what we know?), I wondered if I could pull off the monumental task I had set before myself.
But then I recalled the first lesson learned when I joined the newspaper staff at Briarwood High School in East Point, Georgia. English teacher Phil Guin, our advisor on the Windjammer staff, said a good reporter answers “the five W’s and an H” in the first paragraph of every story.
The fundamental lesson of Journalism 101 (much later I learned the principles dated back centuries; at the time I thought it was the basis of an Abbott and Costello routine or maybe tips on how to win at Clue), was drilled into our young minds:
Factual stories always tell the reader who, what, when, where and why. And don’t forget how.
Congratulations, son, you’re a newspaperman.
Four decades later, I’m still doing the same thing, only this time in about eighty-four thousand words.
Word counts may vary, but don’t we all embrace these tenets for our stories—or at least our outlines? It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a mystery, science fiction, historical fiction, horror, a cozy, a Western or the Great American Novel, your story must answer these questions.
Who. Who is the story about? Who is his/her antagonist? His/her love interest?
What. What happens to the protagonist? What crises must he endure/go through/survive to reach his goal, solve her riddle, save the day?
When. When does this story take place? Was it last week, last month, last year, last century, last millennium—or maybe the next one?
Where. Is the setting on the bank of a lazy river, high atop a mountain, on the frozen moon of Titan? Or in a dank cellar full of instruments of torture three houses down from yours?
Why. A critical question to be sure, I find this most useful to either tell a character’s backstory or else to advance the story. Why did this have to happen, setting in motion a chain of events that threaten the Kingdom? Why can’t he find the killer? Why did they all have to die? Why, oh why? Well, why not?
How. Perhaps the most important question, this is the plot point that moves the story forward. How did the prison farm escapee elude the pack of hounds? How did she know? How is he going to get out of this jam? How did the murder take place? How will the evil Prince of Gazmordrigan be defeated?
For years, detractors have been predicting the death of newspapers. Especially with the rise of the Internet and even newer social media. One agent I approached with my novel brushed it off by saying nobody cares about newspapers anymore.
I disagree. Strongly. It’s a changing, evolving profession, to be sure, and print probably will one day go away. But the news-gathering, the reporting, the fact-finding, the Watchdog journalism will never go away. And that’s a good thing.
If you’re a young writer in need of experience, newspapers are a great training ground, especially for learning to self-edit and dealing with deadlines. Try covering a three-hour college football game, where the final score is 38-17, and telling the complete story of what happened in ten-to-twelve inches of copy. And you’re facing a 10:30 p.m. deadline for a game that didn’t get over until 10:07. And they’re holding the front sports page for you. Whew.
Then when you’re done with the first-edition story, you’ve got to run down to the locker rooms and get quotes from both teams’ players and coaches and rewrite your stories, expanding the mainbar to twenty inches with a twelve-inch sidebar and possibly an eight-inch notes package. And the deadline for all this copy is 11:45 p.m. And they’re holding the front page and an inside page for you. Double-whew!
Most of my years were spent in the sports department, but it trains you to report on crime when an athlete is arrested or mugged or sued; tragedy when a team plane crashes, an injury or illness ends an athlete’s career; triumph when a team wins a national championship or an athlete makes the U.S. Olympic team; feature writing when an athlete rescues a child from a burning building or donates one hundred thousand dollars to help build a home for a wounded veteran; business when the Metro Council decides to build the pro team a new facility or else the team threatens to pack up and leave for another city’s incentive-laden offer.
Newspapers are also chock-full of story ideas for your next novel. Everybody has a story to tell, some good, some bad, some ugly. And some of the headline-grabbing stories today are far more bizarre and horrifying than anything I could come up with.
Some mighty fine authors, including some of the best-known mystery writers who have been honored at Killer Nashville’s annual convention, got their starts in the newspaper business.
Michael Connelly started as a crime reporter at Daytona Beach and then Fort Lauderdale (where he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize) before landing at the Los Angeles Times. He’s published twenty-five novels, with No. 26 due out in December.
Prolific Jeffery Deaver wrote for his high school newspaper and was editor of the school literary magazine before graduating from Missouri with a journalism degree and from Fordham with a law degree. His thirty-fourth book will be out in October.
Robert Dugoni wrote briefly for the Stanford Daily and the Los Angeles Times before enrolling in the UCLA School of Law.
Heywood Gould wrote for the New York Post and The Associated Press before embarking on his screenwriting and novelist careers.
C.J. Box was a small-town reporter and editor in Wyoming prior to becoming a best-selling author.
And there are hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of authors who honed their writing skills in newspapers. Mark Twain. Louis L’Amour. Dan Jenkins. Mitch Albom.
A guy can dream, can’t he?
Tom Wood was a sports writer and copy editor for The Tennessean and Gannett from 1976-2012 and currently freelances for several publications and The Associated Press. He had a short story appear in the 2012 Civil War-based anthology Filtered Through Time and contributed to the 1981 book Feast of Fear: Conversations with Stephen King. His first novel, Vendetta Stone, will be published later this year.
(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (http://www.elizabethterrell.com/). To be a part of this series, contact Beth at firstname.lastname@example.org.)