'How do you find people to write about?'
You begin by developing the writer's sense of alertness to potential stories, says this veteran magazine columnist
Published: April 6, 2010
|"How do you find the people you write about?”|
It’s a question I’ve been asked hundreds of times when people learn that for the past 40 years, I’ve made a comfortable living as a long-time regular columnist for New Orleans magazine and a freelance writer telling the stories of complete strangers to readers all over the world.
The answer is simple: Freelance writers must attune all their senses to every person they meet, every scrap of paper they read, every overheard word purloined from the conversation of others. I call it the writer’s sense. Nothing is overlooked; you remain constantly aware of everything said and going on around you, always perceptive to the constant human drama unfolding all around you.
No person is born with the writer’s sense, but you can master it with practice. Here are some examples of how the writer’s sense has served me well.
• • •
Sitting at a bar one evening, several newspaper-reporter friends and I were discussing great old movies when the chairman of the local journalism department tripped a bit over his scotch-soaked tongue and informed everyone that his all-time favorite was the classic flick about the giant gorilla, “King Con.”
While shaving the next day, I laughed briefly, remembering my friend’s mispronunciation of King Kong. But my laughter quickly gave rise to the question: “Who is King Con? Who has been at the hellish Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana longer than anybody else?”
A call to the warden of the prison led me to Frank “Cocky” Moore, who had spent 56 years of a life sentence behind bars for murder without a single visitor. That in itself was odd, since the average “life sentence” in Louisiana runs roughly 10 years before the “lifer” is freed.
I discovered that over the years, the inept Louisiana bureaucracy had lost Moore’s files, and he simply no longer existed as a prisoner ... or a person. The old man had little going for him except his expertise in the care of the prison’s horses and his love for the animals. On one horseback ride up Point Lookout (the prison cemetery), Moore said that if he could not be released from prison, his strongest desire was to escape a final resting place at Point Lookout.
From my investigation, I also discovered that the trial so many years before had been a sham: An all-white jury had (in record time) convicted an illiterate black man with nary a witness coming forward to place him at the scene of the alleged crime. In fact, a source I found said Moore was three parishes away when the crime went down. In short, Moore was looking more and more like a man who simply lacked the wherewithal to defend himself. I had to conclude that he was innocent.
I wrote my feature and within two weeks, red-faced politicians in Baton Rouge realized this tragic injustice (or maybe impending rage in the community) and ordered a parole for Moore, who spent his remaining days working on a horse farm in Louisiana. After three years of freedom, Moore died and was buried on the grounds of that same farm. Frank “Cocky” Moore had escaped Point Lookout.
That feature was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
• • •
|While having coffee and reading the local newspaper in Hammond, La., I came across a photo buried in the Living section: an elderly lady selling homemade bread from a makeshift table at the side of a road. The legs of the woman’s chair had sunk into the mud. That was it! It was all in the photo caption. No story. No more information.|
I gulped my coffee, jumped into my car, and drove down that highway until I spotted the elderly bread seller. It only took a few questions to reveal that the woman and her seriously disabled son baked bread most of the night in their sparsely furnished little house deep in the woods. In the morning, the woman walked a narrow dirt path and up a levee to set up her table in the mud alongside the road, and then spent hours in the broiling Louisiana heat selling her bread to support her son and herself.
My writer’s sense saw a lot more behind that photo. I immediately went to work and fleshed out somebody else’s minimal effort into a moving feature story. Within a day of the feature running in the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate, the highway department had covered the mud on the path in the woods with gravel and built an asphalt apron a safe distance from the highway.
A few days later, a well-dressed man came to the newspaper and handed me an envelope with a $100 bill in it. His eyes were welling with tears: “Please give this to that lady!” He walked away.
The next day I drove to the woman’s spot along the highway and found a line of cars. After reading my feature, many people had come to buy the woman’s bread. I handed her the envelope and she grabbed my hand and thanked me.
• • •
Sitting around the Advocate early one morning, I glanced at a two-week-old sports section until I got to a single agate line at the bottom of one page: “Shreveport Steamer wins over Texans.” That was it. No story, no score!
The next afternoon, I asked several sportswriters: “What is the Shreveport Steamer?” Nobody had a clue.
My writer’s-sense adrenaline was pumping full speed as I called the Shreveport Chamber of Commerce: “That’s our semi-pro football team,” the chamber lady informed me.
When I asked the sports editor to let me travel to Shreveport to write a feature, I was informed, “No, because we don’t sell any papers in Shreveport.”
Once again, somebody with no writer’s sense was missing the point. Of course, I knew this was a story not about places, but people. It was about human drama, and that is universal.
I shot back, “Well, hell, we don’t sell any papers in Afghanistan either, but every day we run a front-page story from there.” That logic stumped the editor. I got the assignment.
What I found when I arrived in Shreveport were football wannabes, has-beens and never-will-be’s pushing their way through a hole in a fence to make it to practice on a high school field. Players whose NFL careers were in the distant past, but who were seeking one last shot. Or some kid who was a second too slow to make it to the bigs, looking up at the empty stands hoping to see at least one NFL scout zeroing his field glasses in on him. The players rode rickety buses to games and earned $100 a game.
The feature I brought back made the front page and won an award.
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It. The great bard’s powerful image is at the forefront of every successful freelancer’s daily journey. It is the intuition that makes the freelancer tick. It is the blood that runs through a writer’s veins as he sips coffee in a small café in Louisiana; it is the indefinable soul of a writer as he absentmindedly glances through a two-week-old sports section and his eye catches one line at the bottom of a page.
Like the paparazzi, freelance writers must often stick their noses into places they have not been invited: “Excuse me! But did I hear you just say that Mr. Johnson, the retired school bus driver, was a U-boat captain in World War II? How can I get in touch with him?”
Most often, things aren’t what they seem. And to think Mr. Johnson hid behind that big moustache and pasted-on smile all those years and nobody knew.
Overlook nothing. Be nosy. Dig! Be a sponge and sop it all up. Ask questions! Absorb everything you hear, read, smell, taste and see. Wanna pan for freelance gold? That’s the way to do it.
• • •
Let’s close with a quick quiz: A friend in New Orleans introduces you to an attractive 6-foot-2-inch blonde from Munich. She was a mega player in New York City marketing circles until she gave it all up to run a vampire boutique in the French Quarter. What do you do?
A. Smile and comment on the nasty weather.
B. Smile and say, “Vampire boutique? Hmmm. Can we talk?”
If you said A, perhaps you’d better stick with your piano lessons. As for me ... well, I have an appointment with a 6-foot-2-inch blonde.
But don’t worry. I’m wearing my garlic. Wanna join me?
# # #
George Gurtner has been a freelancer for 40 years and local-color columnist for New Orleans magazine for 35 years. He has twice been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. His book Cookin’ for the Mob is due out from Louisiana State University Press. E-mail: email@example.com.|
(This article appeared in the May 2010 issue of The Writer.)