Shark-hunting for 'Old Hitler' reveals storytelling tips

When I arrived at the St. Petersburg Times in 1977, the first writer I bonded with was Jeff Klinkenberg. We were the same age. Our desks were side by side. We both had young families. Our oldest daughters became best friends. We played in a rock band together. You get the idea.

On Tuesday, Klinkenberg took a buyout from what is now the Tampa Bay Times. His announcement on his Facebook page inspired more than 500 likes and almost 400 comments. These fervent expressions of admiration and respect from readers and other writers did not surprise me.

There is pride in knowing that a great newspaper could sustain the work of such a talented feature writer for almost four decades, especially one who is so identified with a place and a culture and the odd and interesting Floridians who have created it. There is also some sadness attached to the realization that newspapers, weakened economically, find it so hard to retain and sustain such talent until they’re ready to leave.

But today I am focused on the pride, not the sadness.

It turns out that Klinkenberg was the first writer whose work I studied at the Times, and the first of many that I interviewed to learn their habits, values and best practices. Here's an example. On July 21, 1977, this story appeared on the front page of the sports section of the Times. Here is the top:

Ron Swint moaned in the dark about the shark called Old Hitler, the largest shark in Tampa Bay, as traffic roared by on the Skyway Bridge. Somebody in a car shouted and Swint automatically winced. He has been hit by beer cans thrown from passing cars. A huge truck rumbled by so fast the bridge shook. Diesel fumes hung in the air.

The first shark to come along was not Old Hitler, but it was a big one, a shark Swint later estimated at 500 pounds, a shark that swallowed a three-pound live ladyfish bait and swam toward the lights of Tampa. The shark almost killed Swint.

Swint was pulling on the shark rod with all his strength when the line snapped. His own momentum carried him into the lane of traffic. The truck never slowed down, but Swint was quick enough to scramble back onto the sidewalk with his expensive rod and reel. Shaken, he said: “That’s why I never drink when I’m out here. You need all your faculties to fish for sharks. If I’d had a few beers tonight, I may not have been quick enough to get out of the way. I’ve almost been pulled in the water by sharks, but this was the first one that almost got me killed by traffic.

“And that wasn’t even Old Hitler.”

Four times Ron Swint has hooked the shark he calls Old Hitler and four times it has escaped. “Last year I wasn’t even a challenge,” Swint said. “Old Hitler ripped me off.” Last time Swint was ready. “Old Hitler took 1,500 yards of line and I turned him. I thought I had him. Then my line broke.”

Swint is obsessed by Old Hitler, the most intimidating shark in the bay. Old Hitler, Swint says, is a 22-foot hammerhead. Its head is 5 feet wide. Old Hitler, Swint says, weighs 1,500 pounds, easy. If Old Hitler is indeed that large, it is twice the size of the biggest hammerhead ever taken on rod and reel. The world record, captured off Jacksonville in 1975, weighed 703 pounds and was 14 feet long. Swint intends to catch Old Hitler and break the record. “That SOB is mine,” Swint said, voice rising in the night. “I’m gonna get him.”

I republished Klinkenberg's story in a newsroom newsletter I named “The Wind Bag,” and introduced an interview with this text:

In this excellent story about shark fisherman Ron Swint, Jeff gives us a character sketch about a modern day Captain Ahab. Ron Swint engages in an obsessive hunt for a shark called Old Hitler. Jeff captures Swint’s peculiarities with effective description, interesting anecdotes, and lively quotes.

The lead paragraph reveals the power of active verbs to give prose precision and vitality. And Jeff makes his prose readable by varying the length and structure of his sentences. In the following conversation, Jeff discusses this particular article. He also touches on his “method” for organizing his stories and for making “specialized” topics accessible to all his readers.

[Note: Howell Raines, mentioned in the interview, was political editor of the St. Petersburg Times in 1977. He eventually became executive editor of the New York Times.]

RPC: Under what circumstances did you meet and interview Ron Swint?

JK: Howell Raines and I went fishing one afternoon on the Skyway. And while we were standing there on the bridge catching nothing, this guy came walking by with about 60 pounds of equipment. He looked at my puny stuff and said “You’ll never catch anything with that.”

Then he just launched into a monologue about how he was going to catch this shark “Old Hitler.” For a few minutes he talked about catching Old Hitler as if I should know who Old Hitler was.

I called him up about two weeks later, and I went back out there with him. We went out to the bridge about 6 p.m. and stayed until about 2 a.m., fooling around with sharks and ladyfish. I hoped that he wouldn’t be pulled off the bridge and leave me out there.

The next day I came into the office and wrote out my notes. I had three pages of single-spaced notes. I typed them out, underlined my best quotes, and organized my story from there. I started writing it that day and finished it up the next.

RPC: Is it a general method of yours to organize your story around the quotes you’ve collected?

JK: One of the things I’ve done when I’ve had the time: I’ll type them, and then I’ll assign different values to different quotes. My best quotes I’ll try to get up high in the story and then proceed in kind of a descending order. I’ll try to save a couple of good ones for the end. I think it’s a good way to organize a story.

RPC: What about the structure of the story? It’s blocked off into section by checkmarks [design elements]. Is that your doing?

JK: Sometimes I think it’s a good way to structure a story. It’s easier for the reader to handle. When you break up a story into anecdotes like this it gives each littler story more impact. They’re not lost 15 paragraphs down. You can use the checkmarks to introduce a new littler story.

RPC: Why did you choose to end with a short section…two or three short sentences? [“Last summer Swint says he lived four days on the Skyway. He slept during the day on the sidewalk. Old Hitler never touched his baits.”]

JK: I thought it was kind of a dramatic way to end it. And to punch home the fact that this guy was fanatical about the thing to spend four days on the bridge to track down a shark. I have some misgivings after I did it. Someone asked me if the story had just been chopped off at that point.

RPC: I notice at various points in the story you are careful to attribute statements he has made about what he can do with the sharks once he has caught them. Fishermen are notorious BS artists….Do you often encounter problems of credibility in the people you interview?

JK: No, but in this instance, some of the stuff he was telling me was so remarkable I had to protect myself a little bit. Many of the things he told me I double-checked and found them to be true. Things I couldn’t check I went with an attribution. And there are quite a few in this story.

RPC: Did you try to balance the dramatic story with news about fishing equipment and fishing techniques that might be of interesting to shark fishermen?

JK: The story needed some hard information. Some of the things he was saying were so sensational…you needed some hard facts about exactly what this guy does and how he does it. I think the secret, if there is a secret, to writing about any kind of special interest is to make it accessible to people who ordinarily wouldn’t give a damn about it. But at the same time you have to satisfy certain number of people who are looking for information. How do I improve my own fishing or whatever. But general that type of ‘how to’ information in my stories is incidental to the rest.

RPC: What techniques do you use to make the story accessible?

JK: Well I begin with some kind of personality sketch. Try to find a person to build the story around and kind of sneak in the facts…maybe after a quote. What makes outdoors writing bad in many newspapers is that the writer is writing for other experts in the field. The average reader finds it incomprehensible. Anyone who has done any fishing or hunting has a lot of personal experiences that he can’t wait to tell and embellish in many instances.

RPC: How about your lead? What were you trying to do there?

JK: I was trying to set the whole picture in three paragraphs. I also wanted to set the scene of the area that he fishes from. All of his problems: the cars going by, this Old Hitler that threatens to drag him into the bay. It establishes him as a character right off…This is what I call a can’t-miss story. You’ve got a shark. You’ve got Hitler in the same story. All I needed was a retiree and a dog and it would have been the perfect story.

It surprises and delights me how many of the themes and strategies raised in this interview 37 years ago continue to capture my attention: reporting and storytelling; developing characters; being on the scene; getting the voices of people in stories, beginnings, endings, and other structural elements; writing for multiple audiences; attracting non-specialists to a text and so much more.

It reminds me that I owe a debt to reporters and editors at the then St. Petersburg Times, who not only tolerated my presence in their newsroom as one of the first writing coaches, but who were willing to talk with me endlessly about the craft and about their sense of mission and purpose as journalists. Klinkenberg will have to stand in for all of them as I say, “Thanks, brother. Keep writing, man. And let’s keep talking.”

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.

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