Journalism to fiction: The path I took

On May 1, I’ll be a presenter at the ASJA Annual Writers Conference in New York. I’ll be on a panel discussing the topic, “From Journalism to Novelist: Making the Transition.”

Here’s some of what I hope to discuss.

In my case, the trail was from fiction to journalism and back to fiction.

I had written two full novels and some couple dozen short stories by the time I was 25. I became a full time newspaper guy in my early 30s.

The short stories were as much note taking as actual stories, a way to encapsulate a scene with characters, a thought, one way just to jot down something that I might want to look at again.

Some of those stories are collected in an ebook, “The Resurrection of Leo.”

The two novels were just good enough to be bad. Entertaining but honestly they could have been better.

What they show is how much writing is a process of not just collecting words, but developing understanding about the writing process, the world, both real and imagined, and oneself.

The first, “Welcome to Gokey Manor,” was a coming-of-age saga of a college kid who lived in a boarding house owned by a couple whose last name was Gokey. Lots of flashy writing, characters in need of depth and a story in need of a connective plot.

The second one was better. It was called “A Game Called Dead,” a police procedural featuring Detective Frank Nagler as our grumpy hero.

That story, completely re-written, in the basis my novel, “The Swamps of Jersey,” published last November.

And, to bring it full circle, I am currently re-writing “A Game Called Dead,” to be the second story in a three-book series about Frank Nagler.

The need to so that occurred because, working at New Jersey newspapers, I began to think of the story in a new setting, with new characters, plots and atmosphere. A challenge in the rewrite was relocating the story to a fictional Morris County; Ironton is a larger version of central Morris County with the factory town of Dover at its heart.

But there is also this: It’s not so much that I am a better writer after 30 years in the newspaper business, but I’m a better observer. All that time of interviews, meetings, accidents, reports opens up a deeper view of how the world works, so that when I returned to rewrite “A Game Called Dead,” I found the things that in the first version I could not have known about either the characters or myself.

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Journalism

Before I got into newspapers, I had a 10-year career in other businesses, including restaurants, insurance, and manufacturing.

But I knew I was home when in the fall of 1981 I walked into the newsroom at the Fairhaven Advocate, a weekly newspaper run by a family with whom I became friends.

The newsroom was located in the waterfront/fishing district of Fairhaven, which is across the Acushnet River from New Bedford, Mass, still an active fishing port.

We had one computer, which was used by the typesetter and layout man. We literally cut and pasted some copy together with scissors and tape to make it easier for the typesetter to read.

Being basically a start-up, we were feisty, aggressive and ambitious. So much so we started a monthly magazine just for kicks. But it also gave us a way to expand to our advertising market beyond the two towns we covered for the weekly.

The magazine got us into a battle with the daily New Bedford Standard-Times because we kept beating them to local stories. The result was a pow-wow lunch between our publisher and theirs to calm things down.

The following year, due to a family situation, I ended up in Skowhegan, Maine, a paper mill town, running a 140-year-old weekly that the owner threatened to close if I didn’t fix it within six months.

Eighteen months later we had doubled the circulation and ad revenue, and had I stayed through the holiday season, I would have been the first manager-editor of the Somerset Reporter to turn a profit in 20 years.

Instead, after getting beat up for 18 months for doing exactly what the owner asked me to do, I quit and went to work for the Waterville Sentinel.

I didn’t want to leave. Running the Reporter was the most satisfying newspaper job I had, in an entire career of satisfying jobs. I wanted to be there the following year to tell the owner that we did it. Wanted to celebrate with the community that their paper had survived, thanks to their support. The paper lasted another 10 years before he shut it down for good. It was a horrible loss. People would come in to renew their subscription and tell us their family had been getting the paper since the 1880s. The Somerset Reporter told the story of the Civil War, the coming of the railroad, the great log drives, of the flood of 1938 that nearly wiped out the town, of the Titanic, both world wars and election of Skowhegan native Margaret Chase Smith as the first woman to serve as a both U.S Representative and U.S Senator. No one will ever again tell those stories in a way that mattered so much to that community.

At the Sentinel, I was in great spot. We had the perfect mix of experienced editors, seasoned reporters and rookies, and a coverage area about half the size of New Jersey.

We had more than seventy towns, maybe 30 school districts, colleges. We had a 500-year flood, great economic change; an earthquake and the opening of “The Last Temptation of Christ” on the same night, got to know U.S. Senators Bill Cohen (an old friend of our managing editor) and George Mitchell, a Waterville native, and Rep. Olympia Snowe. And covered the visit by the King of Norway.

The lessons we learned at the Sentinel were as basic as the first rule: All news is local. World events like the first Gulf War all had local spin, obviously. But more, we learned to take local events and grow them to take on regional and national meaning, to place them in the framework of larger, sweeping events.

This came from the notion that while these were small towns and rural counties, local colleges were conducting research with world implications, international financial interests were at play in local factories and businesses, world-class ski resorts and recreational attractions drew millions to the state.

Small state, big issues.

The real lesson was that we set standards for coverage and never backed down. Readers expected high quality coverage and our goal was to deliver it. The impact of events on a small towns is sometimes greater than that on big cities.

After that I worked at two dailies in Central Jersey, The Courier-News and Daily Record.

At both papers I worked with an outstanding group of reporters, photographers and editors who were dedicated to changing the landscape. The Daily Record, in Morris County, circulated in one of the richest places on the planet, a place of international companies, a place where the Roosevelts, Dodges, Vanderbilts and other rich American families built palatial homes and set a standard for wealth; a place where American industrial might was established, the Revolutionary War was fought, and yes, where George Washington slept, and the telegraph was perfected.

The challenge in such a place is showing that not everyone was rich and that middle class families struggled. We took on issues such as affordable housing, mental illness, drug addiction, redevelopment, racial and immigration issues and others and overtime changed the tone of those discussions. We gave a voice to the underserved and the agencies which served them.

Connecting journalism to fiction

At its most basic, journalism is telling people who are not there what is happening.

I always understood that the readers of the story I was filing most likely did not attend that same meeting, read the reports, sit in the courtroom, visit the fire or accident scene and it was my job the make them feel as if they did.

And back before the days of cell phones with cameras, it was a vital for a reporter to set the scene and inform, first, the editor, what was going on.   Dictating a story over a phone is a unique experience that challenges a reporter to be a sharp observer of the scene and to exhibit the ability to construct an organized story in their head. Today, with tablets and small laptops it doesn’t happen as much. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to do it.

The other skill that journalists develop is the ability to listen, especially to how people speak.

An example: I had the great opportunity to write a column for the Daily Record called “Morris People.” It was a weekly story about one person talking about their life.

In one story I interview a woman whose family helped settle the town of Boonton, N.J. She became the family historian, a town historian, worked for and archived years of the weekly Boonton newspaper, worked with seniors and veterans and had such an active life it was hard to find a starting point.

But listening to the tape of the interview, I noticed she pronounced the name of her hometown the way it was spelled and meant to be pronounced: “Boon-ton,” with an “N.”

It was commonly pronounced “Boot-in.”

That simple fact framed the column and gave me a way in to her rich story.

In fiction the way a character speaks reveals not only the differences between them and the other characters, but is a way to expose to the reader who that character is, and why they are in the story. But a caution: A little jive talk goes a long way.

Those two skills are a huge part of fiction writing. Being able not just to describe the settling in a novel, but being above to show the reader how its shape, smell, appearance, colors etc., affect the characters, draws the reader in.

A recent review of “The Swamps of Jersey,” noted this. The review said, “The creepy, abandoned buildings and decaying city make for a standout backdrop for this mystery.”

In the follow up book, “A Game Called Dead,” I’m am trying to connect the city of Ironton, N.J., even deeper to the character of the lead, Detective Frank Nagler, an Ironton native. He wants to know in his soul-searching, how much did his hometown affect his way of life. So rather than having this be about Nagler talking to himself, I’m constructing scenes where the answers come from the action taking place.

The last connection between journalism and fiction is that as a journalist you write a lot and write quickly. The craft taught me how to organize a story, how to change pace in a long piece, how to add surprise and draw the reader through the discussion.

In a way it is writing fiction, but with the facts that you have gathered and verified.

Just like fiction is like writing journalism but with facts that you as the creator of the universe of your story invent and organize.

About michaelstephendaigle

I have been writing most of my life. I have written at least three complete novels, have three others started and on my website michaelstephendaigle.com is the draft chapter of the latest effort,"The Swamps of Jersey."
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3 Responses to Journalism to fiction: The path I took

  1. I wish I could hear you speak. I know you’re very good at it. I’m looking forward to “A Game Called Dead.”

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