By Veronica Rusnak
Special to Poynter Online

Dear Colleagues:

“There’s two things wrong with me,” Lane DeGregory told us (with pride, mind you) at her workshop.  First, she said, “I really like weird people.” And second, “I see stories everywhere.” At her kids’ T-Ball games. From her babysitter. Standing in a grocery line. 

She turns that vision around and produces wonderfully short narratives: not those 5,000-word projects that spring to mind when somebody says “Narrative Journalism”, but 10-20 column inch pieces that offer snapshots of life that draw readers in. I paged through some of the clips she brought, slice of life stories about regular (albeit sometimes weird) people: She interviewed the guy who scoops up dog poop for a living, and she spent time with a state legislative candidate who revealed two days before the election she was suffering from clinical depression. She followed the legal tangle of a man determined to fight his lawn-watering citation, and she listened with the fellas at a local bar to the story a man told of being robbed by two beautiful women.

As a freelancer, it was heartening to hear that half the story ideas she pitches to her editor at her daily (St. Petersburg Times) are met with eyes rolled upward. (I thought only freelancers had half their ideas rejected!).  “But write them anyway,” she said, as she went through a list of tips. “You’d be surprised how well they’re received once written.”

She encouraged us to challenge ourselves to write good, short narratives that engage readers to the point where the story is no longer a disembodied news subject. “I get to write about the people impacted (by a news event)” and you can tell she sees this as a privilege. Her enthusiasm and love of those offbeat stories is evident, and contagious. I left the session thinking of all the folks back home who have a story to tell, and wanting to help them tell it.

Her tips for finding good narrative stories and getting an editor to use them:

  • Make friends. Talk to anybody you can about everything. The T-Ball parents, the real estate agent, your babysitter. Find out what their stories are.

  • Keep in touch with the weirdos. Some of them will just be loony, but some will provide you with an interesting take on an overdone subject. DeGregory told the story of a prisoner in solitary confinement who claimed he was running marathon races in his cell. She kept in touch with him via letters, and when he was out of solitary and allowed to accept visitors, she interviewed him, and found that he indeed kept training for marathons.

  • Photographers are your friends. They already see stories are the very scenes we’re trying to paint with words. And DeGregory points out that they’re always happy to have a writer join them on their quests for feature pics.

  • Holidays and rituals are also a good place to find good narrative. “It’s become a personal challenge for me, I start thinking a couple of months in advance of a holiday…” how to cover that holiday from a unique, but personal level. Or if there’s a circus that comes to town every year, how does one particular family experience it?

  • Focus on real people who are never in the news. For example, if you’re covering the court beat, you’re there anyway. So you might as well talk to the lady knitting in the back of the room. Or find out why the bailiff is leaving every hour to call his wife. Ignore the “important” people, DeGregory says. Take stories nobody else wants.

  • When you talk to people, get them to take you for a walk. Try to get into their house, find out what’s on their shelves, what’s displayed, what’s important to them. Let everything about them show you the story.

  • Write down everything that happens, and everything that DOESN’T happen. Why didn’t she answer that question? Why didn’t that guy show up?

  • Listen for dialogue, not quotes. Quotes = Reporter. Dialogue = Storyteller.

And we all laughed at her final tip: Hang Out In Bars. “Everyone around you is telling stories.” But after the laughter, I realized that its not only in bars that everyone is telling stories. We just all need to do what Lane DeGregory does – see and hear those stories everywhere. If that’s wrong or weird, I’d be proud to have something wrong with me, too.

Veronica Rusnak is a freelance writer and photojournalist.