Stodghill Says So

An opinionated posting on a variety of subjects by a former newspaper reporter and columnist whose daily column was named best in Indiana by UPI. The Blog title is that used in his high school sports predictions for the Muncie Evening Press.

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Location: Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, United States

At the age of 18 I was a 4th Infantry Division rifleman in the invasion of Normandy, then later was called back for the Korean War. Put in a couple of years as a Pinkerton detective. Much of my life was spent as a newspaper reporter, sports writer and daily columnist. Published three books on high school sports in Ohio and Indiana. I write mystery fiction for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and others. Three books, Normandy 1944 - A Young Rifleman's War, The Hoosier Hot Shots, and From Devout Catholic to Communist Agitator are now available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other booksellers. So are four collections of short mysteries: Jack Eddy Stories Volumes 1 and 2, Midland Murders, and The Rough Old Stuff From Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

How to Write a Story

I've been doing a lot of reading about how to write a story the past few months. That can be a dangerous mistake. It's like the conversation while I was drying the dishes after lunch. I said something and Jackie said, "That's a man's outlook," so I said, "What other kind is there?"
Obviously that was a mistake. One bordering on the dangerous.
Danger also lurks in reading about writing. Most of that has been on a great online site, Seven leading writers of short mysteries each has a day to post whatever he or she chooses. Last week it was about writing titles and this week about beginning a story. Just about everyone agreed you should not begin at the beginning. Today there were a couple of quotes from an old friend, Lawrence Block, a leader in the field. At one time or another he said, "A story must have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order." He also said, "Begin when the first brick is thrown."
Makes sense so I agree. Trouble is, it doesn't work for me. I blame that on all the years spent as a reporter for evening newspapers. Worst of all were the years spent covering the criminal courts. As the 12:15 p.m. deadline approached I would tell myself there was time to hear one more witness testify. Then maybe one more after that. Eventually it was necessary to rush out of the courtroom and double-time back to the newsroom. Along the way I would compose the lead in my head, at the same time trying to avoid being hit by cars or knocking other pedestrians to the ground.
When I reached my desk, having already noticed that city editor Jack Richman glanced at me and then the big clock on the wall, I banged out the lead on my typewriter, both fingers flying over the keys. From there on it was done by rote with the help of the reporter's guardian angel. In other words I had no idea what I was writing. When a copy boy dropped a paper still warm from the press on my desk, only then would I find out what I had written. It nearly always was satisfactory.
So I'm stuck with beginning a story at the beginning. Too many leads were composed on the dead run for me to do it any other way. Unfortunately, that reporter's guardian angel no longer comes around to help out with the rest of the story.
Now that I know I've been doing it wrong all these years, should I try to start doing it right? No, it's true that old dogs shy away from new tricks. I'm just going to muddle along as I've been doing and one of these days one or two of those great leads - called "hooks" in fiction - stored on my computer may actually end up as a complete story.
Even before discovering I learned a few things from people I worked with. There was Evan Owens, a pixie-like man who for years had the desk next to mine. Evan covered city court and wrote a column twice a week that as often as not was on a specific subject for one or two graphs and then would go off on a tangent and stay there. By the time you drew near the end of the column you had forgotten the original topic, then he would tie the two together in great fashion at the very last moment. I learned to do that by reading Evan's columns when I wasn't busy with one of the Horatio Alger books he kept on his desk and insisted I read.
There were others I learned from, of course. Not because any of them tried to teach me something. They did it in the best manner of all, by writing in a unique way. Bob Barnet, for example. He was sports editor of the rival paper in town from 1929 until well into the 1980s. He wrote beautifully on any subject and he had no peers in describing a basketball game. Reading his story, you could see the action unfold before your eyes. You even know the color of the uniforms the teams were wearing because Bob would slip in something about the purple-clad team or the team in red and blue. Many a night we sat side by side at a press table covering a game and I'd soak up every word he said. He had offers of a job from many papers in larger cities but he preferred to stay in the old hometown. One day in Florida he called me over to the table where he was having lunch with a slim, quiet man and introduced us, enabling me to meet my favorite national columnist, Jim Murray, writer of some of the funniest lines ever put on paper.
There were other teachers, among them another sports editor, Jim Schlemmer. He told me, "If it isn't your own name and it happened more than an hour ago, look it up." How often those words have saved me from trouble.
So I guess I'd better get busy. There's the beginning of a story stirring around in my head. Maybe I can put it in the middle or somewhere near the end.


Anonymous Deborah Elliott-Upton said...

Dick, what great fun to read this post. I, too, am usually writing on the fly. In fact, yesterday I was on my way home from a speaking engagement when I realized I hadn't yet sent my article to JLW for Heck, I hadn't even written it yet. I rushed home and it was hastily written and sent and yes, even I was surpirsed to read it this morning and find portions of it made sense.

5:24 PM  
Blogger Dick Stodghill said...

Funny, isn't it, how some things turn out just fine when you were hardly aware you were writing them?
Then there are those other times when you wonder who wrote a particular piece of tripe and suddenly the light dawns - oh, it was me.

6:07 PM  

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