Wednesday, April 11, 2007

How our reporter told the story of a mom with Parkinson's

Today I want to offer a special version of the Editor's Blog – a Q and A with staff writer Larissa Van Beurden-Doust about her terrific story in Sunday's edition about Tracey Earl and her early-onset Parkinson’s disease. This exchange shows you how she did her eporting and writing. You can read the story on by clicking the Local link and looking under the recent local stories section.

Q: The story opens with scene of Tracey and her boys on their front porch. Why did you choose this scene as the opening, and what did you need to accomplish in that lead to carry the theme?

My goal was to make Tracey’s life seem as normal as possible, before I got into the disease aspect. Readers could get to know her as a regular woman, a stay-at-home mom who’s living an ordinary life raising her young boys. By setting the scene that way, it would make her diagnosis with an incurable disease more poignant. This wasn’t a faceless woman – it was a mom who lives like many other people in our county live. People could relate to her. I rewrote the lead many times, trying to best capture the intimate details between mother and sons. What was it that most showed her being a mother, not someone with a disease? In the end, it was what happened when I first arrived at the house, long before the interview even started. It was what happened while I sat in the corner waiting for her to finish her normal after-school routine. If I could show – not tell – readers that Tracey was a normal mom, it would carry through the story.

Q: Did it work out – was the lead what you wanted?

From the feedback I’ve gotten, the lead worked exactly as I wanted it to. People started reading about this nice woman, who lives a nice family life in the country, and then BAM – she reaches her right arm, which shakes uncontrollably. It was the impact I was going for, so I think the opener worked well.

Q: The rest of the story is well organized. How did you achieve such organization?

I started writing, sentences or paragraphs at a time, and then wrote subheads to organize them. I didn’t write linearly, but rather organized sections. I knew I wanted to get a lot of the juicy stuff into the top – ways her life has changed, what her mom and husband think. I like the first subhead to be a bit of background. Her life up to this point; including when she noticed things were wrong. I also knew I needed sections on how everyone has reacted to the disease and what life is like now. I also wanted to be sure I had a section specifically on her children, since that’s what her life revolves around. Once I had everything I’d written organized into sections, I could go back and smooth it all out. Smaller sections, even if there are many of them, are less cumbersome for readers (at least I think so), especially in longer stories.

Q: In your interviewing, you get her, her mom and her husband to be pretty honest. How did you pull such good quotes out of them?

Asking the right questions. I had met her mom while at the house, but asked to do the interview on the phone. I don’t like to interview sources in front of the story subject, because they tend to be more cautious in what they say. Tracey’s mom was more outgoing, so it wasn’t as difficult getting quotes out of her. I spent probably a half-hour to 45 minutes on the phone with her. Before calling her, I jotted down some questions so I wouldn’t forget to ask pertinent things. I also took situations Tracey had told me about, and asked her mom to give me her version of the same situation. That helped paint a better picture. I often ask how things made them feel – what was she thinking when she first heard the diagnosis? And pressed them for details.
Tracey’s husband Steve was a bit more difficult because he was quieter. I also did the interview over the phone with him. I started with basic questions about how he and Tracey met, how they fell in love, why he married her. They were a bit off topic, but I think they made him think and relaxed him a bit. They seemed more difficult than questions about her disease. Then when we got into the interview more, I just kept pushing for the details and emotions.

Q: There are lots of little details that you use to make her human – pink-painted toenails, can’t hold a curling iron, she once showed cattle at the fair. How did you get such details? How important do you think such details are to good storytelling?

Such details are vital to storytelling. The entire time I wrote the story, I kept thinking of the “show, don’t tell” motto, which is difficult to do. It took rewriting to make sure I got the details in, rather than general statements. Some of the details came from my own observations – such as the pink toenails. The curling iron came during a story she told, and the cattle at the fair came from her mom, talking about her daughter’s life. Details can come from anywhere. They really add to the story, helping the reader visualize – like reading a book.

_ Tad Weber

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This interview is fantastic, but unfortunately I can no longer view the article being described. It would be more effective to have a free version of the article linked to the blog while you have the blog comment posted.