June 15, 2012

Lots of journalists dream of writing books. For many who do, inspiration flows from the beats they cover day in and day out. I talked with three journalists who have written books to find out how they did it and what they learned in the process. Here are some of their tips.

Look for an intrinsic story line & characters in your beat

Kirsten Grind‘s job covering Washington Mutual for a local business journal prepared her for the lucky break that came when a top area book agent heard her on NPR. “When she emailed me, I had zero intention of writing a book,” Grind said in a phone interview.

Kirsten Grind

Grind had been covering Washington Mutual for nearly two years at the Puget Sound Business Journal when that call came. The bank became the largest American financial institution ever to collapse about six months after Grind started working the beat. She tracked the intimate details of Washington Mutual’s fall, eventually penning a series of narrative investigative pieces that landed her on Seattle’s NPR affiliate.

“I thought those stories were very challenging, but I had no idea,” she said. “I had to go so much deeper in the book.” Grind’s book “The Lost Bank: The Story of Washington Mutual -The Biggest Bank Failure in American History,” was released June 12.

Grind said the expertise she developed covering the story at the local level helped her not only land the book deal, but also write the book itself. Many of the records she used in her book stemmed from open records requests she filed while working for the Business Journal. Her relationships with many of the characters who fill the pages of her book also started while she was at the Business Journal.

“I literally spent years trying to get people to talk to me,” she said.

Grind said she courted the ex-wife of Washington Mutual’s then-CEO Kerry Killinger for two years before she agreed to tell her story on the record. “I just kept calling her and then I sort of invited myself to her house and never quoted her on the record for two years.” Seeing Grind’s stories in the Business Journal — and watching her keep her word — eventually convinced Linda Killinger to tell her story on the record by the time Grind began researching her book.

At one point, Linda Killinger was sued by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which alleged she and her former husband tried to defraud WaMu creditors by transferring ownership of at least two of their properties just before the bank’s failure.

“She had a very personal, moving story,” Grind said. “The relationship I had developed with her made her comfortable enough to share it for the book. If I hadn’t been local, that would have never happened.”

Of course, as Grind learned, there are some major differences in reporting a book versus a series of investigative articles.

“In book interviews you have to spend so much more time with a person,” Grind said. She said she’d usually start by scheduling a general interview with someone and follow up with three or four more in-depth interviews in which she would ferret out details such as what a character was wearing or thinking.

“In order to make a narrative flow, you have to have details that you would never have during a newspaper story,” she said.

Grind suggests that budding authors read a lot of fiction. Think of the arc of those stories, the rise and fall of that arc, the characters developed and think about what you’re covering. If you see an intrinsic storyline like that in your beat, you could have book potential.”

Save the information that doesn’t make it into news stories

Like so many journalists, Kevin Davis started his reporting career on the police beat. When he was at the South Florida Sun Sentinel covering crime and punishment, he would spend his shifts “making the rounds” and chatting up secretaries, one of whom gave him the tip that would lead to the publication of his first book.

Kevin Davis

Investigators were making a series of unusual trips to Las Vegas and Colorado in relation to an old murder case, the secretary told Davis. “I just started digging around like any reporter would at that point,” he said over coffee in Chicago. What he found was a “heartbreaking story of a horrible injustice” that piqued the curiosity of programs including “20/20,” “Inside Edition and “The Phil Donahue Show.”

Davis’ first book, “The Wrong Man,” told the story of John Purvis, a mental patient who was wrongly convicted after being coerced into confessing to the rape and murder of a Fort Lauderdale woman. Purvis’ mother dedicated her life to proving her son’s innocence. Purvis’ innocence was eventually proven but not until after he had spent years of life behind bars.

“It really was the perfect storm of opportunity. As a result of my reporting, I had a book practically in my hands,” Davis said. His dad, a novelist, connected him with an agent and “The Wrong Man” began to emerge.

It’s a story Davis may not have been able to tell had he not developed a close relationship with the Purvis family while reporting the story for the Sun Sentinel. “I had a head start on any outsider, and I think that’s part of why they wanted to do the book with me,” he said. “It was a matter of them being more comfortable working with somebody they knew.”

Davis said working at the paper gave him access to people and information anyone else interested in pursuing the book wouldn’t have had. “You have to invest time into the people you’re writing about to be able to tell a truly rich story, and being at the paper, I was able to do that,” he said.

Like any reporter, Davis often collected far more information than ever made it into the pages of the Sun Sentinel. But he was able to use some of that information to help build the narrative in his book. “When you work a beat, that’s when you get all your rich material,” he said. “Newspapers can be great places to find book ideas.”

Davis says that when your work starts attracting the interest of people outside of your publication’s normal audience, consider the potential for a book.

Take advantage of opportunities that can help you grow as a writer

Christy Karras was a features reporter at The Salt Lake Tribune when she discovered an ad seeking someone to update a Utah travel guide on the newsroom bulletin board.

Christy Karras

The original author had passed away, and Karras, a Utah native, couldn’t resist the urge to reply. She sent in a few clips and soon hit the road to write what has become the first in a string of books about the region.

Karras, by virtue of her day job, had become the perfect person to take on the challenge of updating “Scenic Driving Utah.” “I was really a features generalist,” she said in a phone interview. “I knew about landscapes, the national parks and amenities partly from having looked at it through a journalistic lens already.” In the years since, her background as daily newspaper and Ap reporter has continued to benefit her.

Having this background shows sources that you’re a professional and show publishers that you already have a following, she explained.

Karras’ days in the newsroom also provided the perfect practice for writing a nonfiction book, she said. “Writing nonfiction books is a lot like journalism but on a much larger scale. A lot of the same lessons apply.”

The process isn’t without challenges, though, particularly for journalists who have to keep their day jobs. Karras had to fit book-writing into her already busy schedule. “I’d wake up in the morning, work on the book, go to work and work at work, then come home and work on the book until I dropped,” she said.

Still, that first book helped Karras cement her reputation as an expert in all things Utah and eventually led to another book, which led to another and then another. Now Karras is a full-time author writing the occasional freelance article on the American west.

“It’s what I know,” she said. “And who knows their own backyard better than a local journalist?”

Karras’ advice for authors: Turn your manuscript in on time. A writer who can meet a deadline is far more rare in book publishing than in daily journalism and can earn a lot of respect — and more work — from publishers.

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Meena Thiruvengadam is a writer and editorial consultant whose prior stops include Bloomberg, Business Insider, and Yahoo. Her first full-time news job was as a…
Meena Thiruvengadam

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