Once upon a time, there were writing coaches in newsrooms across the country, and then, there weren’t. In this new monthly feature, we hope to help writers and editors by sharing advice about storytelling and enterprise.
The story: Chasing Bayla, about one man’s quest to save whales from the mess we make.
From: The Boston Globe
When it ran: Oct. 25, 2014
What inspired the story: A more famous New England story about a man and a whale; it inspired us to hunt for a narrative updating the human relationship with these creatures.
Time from idea to publication: Six months
Questions: Maria Carrillo, enterprise editor, Houston Chronicle
Answers: Steven Wilmsen, enterprise editor, The Boston Globe
This story essentially has two storylines collide – the reader gets to follow Michael Moore’s journey and Bayla’s, as much as was possible. Can you talk about making Bayla a character in this story? Did you know all along that you would weave between him and her?
The importance of Bayla’s storyline jumped out pretty quickly. From a storytelling standpoint, there was an appealing symmetry in the notion of two separate lives, each unknowingly dependent on the other, intersecting in a moment of high importance. But more than that, it felt essential from the beginning that Bayla be more than an anonymous creature – or simply the object of Dr. Moore’s quest.
We spent a lot of time talking about what was at the heart of the story. What was it about? What was driving it? In part, Dr. Moore’s personal quest is what drives it. But his quest only has meaning because Bayla’s life is valuable. We wanted readers to experience Bayla, as far as possible, as an individual in her own right, a character to root for and feel for. And her storyline needed to come across to the reader as having equal weight to Dr. Moore’s. A structure that moved between the two storylines was a natural extension of that.
I was struck by the authority – some might call it license – that Sarah wrote with in describing how Picasso would have done this or would have done that, and what Bayla would have done and seen. What reporting was involved to make that happen? Did this make you at all uncomfortable?
Because it was so important to us to portray Bayla as a character with a life, Sarah went to great lengths to report facts that would allow her to write about that with authority and detail. We realized that describing the movements of Bayla and her mother in a very personal way was, at the least, a little unconventional.
The answer to any worries along that line just had to be really thorough reporting. Sarah had a few things working in her favor in that regard.
- For one, she discovered a wealth of information about the movements of individual right whales, including Picasso and Bayla, recorded in databases like the New England Aquarium’s “The North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog.”
- She read and reported everything she could about right whale behavior and habits, which was useful but maybe not enough to feel good about speculating on the specific actions of Bayla and Picasso.
- She had gotten to know several whale researchers who had spent years studying whales in the field. Their expertise helped us get closer. But even better, it turned out that a number of them had specific memories of Bayla and Picasso and had a good sense of their behavior.
Some folks question the use of recreated scenes. They doubt that a reporter can accurately portray what went on if he or she wasn’t there. In this story, you had access to videos and journals. What does it take for you to get comfortable with those scenes?
My feeling is that the ability to recreate scenes is an essential tool of the narrative writer. It allows for a sense of immediacy in the action and intimacy between reader and story that is hard to achieve any other way. That comes with a caveat: The reporting standards have to be extremely high, and there can be no doubt about the way important events unfold. Otherwise, you risk breaking the implicit contract you have with the reader to be both true and transparent about what you know and what you don’t.
In this case, we had very good documentation. In the early stages of her reporting, Sarah discovered that whale researchers and rescuers wore helmet cameras to record their encounters with whales. We asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for everything they had on Bayla, which turned out to be hundreds of hours of footage. We could watch from many perspectives and witness every nuance of action. For the key opening scene of the story, for example, we were able to hear the sounds of people’s voices, see the color of the water, the heaving motion of the whale, even the expressions on the rescuers’ faces as they moved in to try and cut the line. It was thrilling stuff to watch, and it was an unimpeachable source that was every bit as good as being there, maybe even better.
We leaned heavily on that in several sections of the piece. In all cases, Sarah looked for some kind of documentary foundation. For instance, Moore, while talking about his early life aboard a whale research vessel, mentioned that he kept a journal, and Sarah (somewhat doggedly) insisted that he find it. When he finally produced it, she had a written contemporary account to rely on. A little more reporting connected her with others who were there at the time who could corroborate Moore’s version of events. Again, it was the mass of reporting and the care taken to document these moments that let us feel comfortable recreating such moments.
Many reporters struggle to find – and choose – just the right details to bring a character to life. I loved this graph, because Moore’s personality was revealed:
To the Americans, Moore projected quirky English certitude. He had graduated from Winchester College, an elite boarding school, and was now at Cambridge. He took his tea every day at 4 p.m. He read Thomas Hardy aloud. On his first night aboard the sailboat, as the Americans climbed into their berths in salted dungarees and cable-knit sweaters, Moore opened a leather satchel. He pulled out a pair of striped pajamas so crisp they might still have had Harrods tags attached.
Were there details you took out or details you asked for that weren’t there initially?
Describing people is so shockingly hard, and this is a wonderful example of how it works best. These details were immediately attractive because they spoke so truly of him — his Britishness, his faint air of an out-of-place aristocrat and a certain quality of standing apart. But they also have a broader meaning that is important at this moment in the story. Understanding your context is key to describing characters in a meaningful way. This section witnesses Moore at a transformative moment, when he wakes from a dream deep in the hull of the ship and hears whales singing. He feels powerful feelings of emotional connection. It is a powerful moment because until that point in his life, he has lived as an outsider. The details Sarah chose so beautifully capture that outsider status.
What kind of debates did you have over the ending? Specifically, I’m curious about the very last line of the story, where Moore says, “We’re surrounded by right whales.” Why was that the note you chose?
We spent a lot of time on that ending. Endings are so important. It’s your chance to signal what the story is really about, even beyond its literal meaning. The quote emerged pretty quickly as an end note. It’s such a surprising and wonderful image, and it has such metaphoric power and so many layers. I like that there is ambiguity in it, that you can’t be certain precisely what it means and so it means a range of things.
Sarah and I both felt that one important role it played was casting the story forward by presenting a question: The whale in the story died, but now what about the rest? It also felt like it had broader meaning, of all the natural world; it’s around us whether or not we choose to be aware of it. Part and parcel of our thoughts about the last line were discussions about how to get there. When you have a great line like that, you need to carefully set it up, like the punch line of a joke. What knowledge does the reader need before those words will strike the bell in a way that will ring on in readers’ minds? In this case, it was largely a matter of showing that Dr. Moore’s sense of deep personal failure had begun to morph into something new. By raising that possibility, we hoped readers would internalize that feeling as well.
One of your online commenters said the Globe was pushing REAL news off the front page for this story, which he felt belonged on the Metro front. There may even be folks in your newsroom who bristled at the time and energy that it took for a story like this one. Why did you feel like this was a story the Globe should tell? And how did you sell it to your bosses?
Sarah and I are fortunate to work at a paper where the newsroom leadership — from the editor to department heads, including the metro editor — has made a commitment to storytelling and to publishing pieces that push boundaries. Still, at one point, as the reporting and writing stretched on, one vexed editor expressed the kind of frustration that always seems to come with stories like Bayla, about the time they take and the resources they consume. “It’s a story about a freaking whale,” the editor said.
So the question is, how do you know it’s worthwhile? In this case, there were some boxes I could check off that I knew would help sell the piece. It had a nice regional appeal. It tapped into a rich vein of marine biology research in New England that we’d not written a lot about, and it said something new about lobster fishing, possibly the most iconic of local industries. We also had an important theme, the collision of the human world and the natural one, which in a broad sense has never been more relevant.
But what really gave me faith was that it was a story — not just a subject — a story, about likable characters with high personal stakes, driving toward a powerful outcome. In my mind, when you have those ingredients, you almost always have something that editors will buy and that (most) readers will devour.