April 5, 2023

For more than two decades, enterprise reporter Lane DeGregory has reported and penned all kinds of narrative stories for the Tampa Bay Times.

She followed a young couple from Wisconsin who, chasing paradise, escaped the cold for Florida. She captured the bond between a 12-year-old boy and his autistic twin brother. And in 2018, DeGregory reported out of a strip club with the promise of an interview with Stormy Daniels, who is now back in the headlines. When Daniels refused to talk to the press, DeGregory emerged with an arguably more interesting story. For most, if not all her stories, she collects intimate details that enrich her work.

In addition to assignments and stories for the Poynter-owned Times, DeGregory has also been quietly piecing together a project. “‘The Girl in the Window’ and Other True Tales” is an anthology of 24 of DeGregory’s favorite stories, complete with tips for other writers hoping to apply them in their own work. Think of it as partly a craft guide, partly a forensic reading. Out April 5 by The University of Chicago Press, the anthology’s title is partly inspired by DeGregory’s Pulitzer Prize-winning feature story, “The Girl in the Window,” There’s a dedicated episode of DeGregory’s “WriteLane” podcast for each story in the book. The podcast is hosted by DeGregory and her longtime editor, Maria Carrillo.

Ahead of the book’s publication, DeGregory spoke with Poynter about what it was like to see her work in a book format, why she’s publishing it now, and what was left on the cutting room floor.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Congratulations on “‘The Girl in the Window’ and Other True Tales.” How do you feel about having this book out in the world soon?

I’m so excited, to tell you the truth. It’s been five years in the making, but I’ve been thinking about it for probably more than a decade. Academia moves slow and, once we got going, it was another couple years, so it feels really, really exciting to actually have the final product here.

You’ve been teaching other journalists, editors, professors and students for years. And you’ve been working for the Tampa Bay Times since 2000. What made you want to write this book now? One could argue you were ready to write this book many stories ago.

I’ve been thinking about an anthology for a long time because a lot of my stories are really timeless. They’re not like news stories that go away and become stale. I thought that would be so fun, to keep these alive. Most of them are favorites of the readers’ stories or ones that have been shared in journalism classes a lot.

And then about five years ago, an editor from the University of Chicago Press approached me. Another journalism professor and Pulitzer winner, Jim Sheeler, had recommended that I write a journalism textbook on narrative. He taught my stories in his class and I had Zoomed in or Skyped in and answered the kids’ questions.

I met with them and I was like, “I don’t really want to write a textbook. I really want to write an anthology.” I think I met with her three or four times and figured out that we could do both. I could have my anthology and she could have her textbook in the sense that I would annotate the stories and deconstruct them. I used a lot of questions that my students and other students in journalism classes across the country have had: “How did you get that guy to talk to you?” Or, “Why did you use that detail?” Or, “How did you get that document?” I answer a lot of their questions and I use them through my stories to annotate them. … You also can read it (the anthology) with this added bonus of insight into how the process works.

That definitely comes across in the stories. I enjoyed the little takeaways on the margins. The stories in the anthology run through your career. When going back and engaging with your earlier work, what do you see now that you might not have seen then?

That’s a great question. I initially sent the publisher almost 100 stories. I have such a hard time choosing. She had me whittle it down to 50. I tried to pick ones that the students reacted to or readers reacted to. I think it was a mixture. Some of the stories that I went back and looked at, I was like, “Well, why did I do that?” Or, “Why didn’t I do that?” Some of them I was like, “Wow. Am I still that good? Could I come up with that today?” It was really a mixture of reaction. I don’t think I felt an arc of my writing career. I think I felt more like a sine curve, if that makes sense.

In your introduction, you wrote that the stories included in this anthology are your favorites. Why are they your favorites? What do they have that your thousands of other stories don’t?

I think they’re my favorites because hopefully they’re timeless. I wanted to have ones in there that didn’t get dated. One of the ones I had sent in initially was the one about Steve Stanton, Largo city manager who was outed as wanting to become a woman. I wrote that in 2007, right before anybody was even talking about transgender. To me, that felt really progressive at the time, but the editor said it felt really old and dated because we’ve come so far since then in terms of talking about that. That’s an example. I love that story, but it didn’t make the cut.

The first story in the book — about the kids escaping from Wisconsin — is absolutely one of my top 10. I just love it because it says so much about Florida. It’s a Florida story, it’s a runaway story, it’s a young love story. It’s got everything of like an ABC after-school adventure (laughs). I wanted to start the book at that to also give people a sense of place.

Like we mentioned, you accompany each story with tips and takeaways for readers. For example, in the story you just mentioned of the young Wisconsin couple who took a Greyhound all the way to Florida to find paradise, one of your tips is you discourage interfering with subjects. So you and your photographer followed along as the couple was completely lost on their way to the beach. What was it like to go back to each story and produce these takeaways?

The first half of the book was a lot of questions people had asked me. I had friends read them, too, and say, “What would you want to know?” or, “What were you interested in, or curious about?” Those weren’t hard. But then when I got to the second half of the book, a lot of them I started repeating … then I had to go back and think of different things. The first half came out pretty easy. The second half was like, “OK, I’ve got to dig deeper and find stuff that I haven’t already shared with readers.”

Each chapter has a big theme that you have touched on in your “WriteLane” podcast, such as Talk to Strangers, Get a Life, Wait for It. They are overarching guidelines for other journalists to pursue their own feature narratives in their communities. By following these, can any journalist do similar work? How much do you think is practical and how much of it is talent?

I try to think of myself as a craftsman more than an artist. … I think people can produce narratives. Anybody can write a narrative and I actually hope it (the anthology) would be useful even for nonjournalists. I was hoping people who are writing short stories or writing a memoir could use it in their own thoughts about reporting and gathering information and details. If I ever do another version of it, I should put in some of my early stories because I was not doing some of these things. This is a culmination of 33 years of being a reporter, who gets paid for it. I started writing stories when I was six years old, so 50 years of doing it and trying to figure out how other people do it. Not to say, “Oh, I’m a great writer,” but, “How did that great writer do that?”

I hope that’s what’s helpful through this book for other people, because my early stories were very pedantic. I didn’t try a lot of narrative, even. I didn’t know to gather really specific details, or to listen for conversation instead of quotes. I didn’t know a lot, and so I hope this is a crash course. Even if you only want to read one or two of the 24 stories, I think you’ll still find something that you can use in your own day-to-day writing.

You’re a good reporter and all good reporters end up leaving things in their notebook. What did you leave on the cutting room floor for this book?

There were stories that I wish had made the cut in there. Selfishly as a mom, and you’ll understand this, I ended the book with a story about my youngest son, Tucker, losing his stuffed elephant. That was actually one of the better-read stories. But I felt really bad. I didn’t get to put in a story about my older son, Ryland. It felt a little lopsided, to tell the story about one boy and not the other.

There were some stories that I wish I had included. There was one I wrote during the pandemic about a little free pantry across the street from my deck where I write. I love that story, but it didn’t make the cut. That was the hardest part, really, was trying to decide which stories to put in and which to leave out. I would love it if there’s a volume two someday.

Did you read the stories in the anthology differently now that they’re in a book format?

I’ll be honest. I haven’t reread them in the book itself. I reread them in the proofs on the pages, but I haven’t picked up the book itself and dived back into it. It was a weird experience to see them in a book, but I was so excited with the layout they chose because initially they wanted to make the annotations footnotes. And I really freakin’ hate footnotes (laughs). Then we talked about putting them at the end of each story, and I thought that would be so cumbersome — to flip back and forth. So I was really excited and praiseful to the designer who was able to figure out how to put them in the margins, like right where they occurred during the story. Seeing that in the book was really exciting. You can see where the tip comes into the text.

I really like that. And isn’t that also how you arrange your notepad when you’re out reporting? You like writing notes in the margins as well, right?

(Laughs) Absolutely. That’s such a good observation. That is so funny. I hadn’t even made that connection. That is how I take notes. I love that.

Has piecing this anthology together changed the way you view the future of feature writing?

When I talk to a lot of journalism classes, not a lot of the students think that they can do this as a career path, as a job. And probably it’s harder now than it was when I started 30 years ago. But I think my hope is that, whether they’re covering cops and courts or the environment or climate change, they can find ways to tell narratives. I still strongly believe that narratives are more powerful than other forms of journalism storytelling, and that they can make people care in a way that a straight investigation or news stories can’t.

What do you hope people get out of this book?

Actually I just hope people read the stories and like the stories. I spoke at a book festival in Venice in March, and one of the ladies already wrote me a note to tell me how much she was enjoying reading these. She’s not a writer. That’s what I was hoping for. I love that people just would enjoy the story for the sake of the story. But I do hope that it helps other writers, whether they’re journalists or not, have the courage and the tools to try to incorporate some narrative into their own writing.

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Amaris Castillo is a writing/research assistant for the NPR Public Editor and a contributor to Poynter.org. She’s also the creator of Bodega Stories and a…
Amaris Castillo

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