Jan. 29: In writing, the magic is in the details

Heath Meriwether

We’ve talked often about how reporters should work hard to capture storytelling details in their notebooks and infuse them into their stories.  In writing, the magic, not the devil, often is in the details.

We were intrigued, then, with how Lily Rothman handled the story about the Swedish opera singer whose voice, more than a century ago, became the first to be heard singing over the wireless radio and whose ashes finally came to a permanent rest in a Brooklyn cemetery.  Here’s her lede in The Brooklyn Eagle:

The speed of sound is 340.29 meters per second, but it took more than 100 years for Eugenia Farrar’s voice to get back to Brooklyn.

Farrar, the first person ever to sing on the radio, in 1907, died in 1966 at the age of 93. On Wednesday morning, her ashes were entombed at Green-Wood Cemetery.

Her final engagement came more than 100 years after her song was famously heard in the borough. On an October day in 1907 — the exact date has been forgotten — the Swedish opera singer, born Ada Eugenia von Böös — sang the then-popular parlor song “I Love You Truly” into a radio apparatus in the Midtown laboratory of Dr. Lee DeForest.

The lede is a clever show-stopper in itself but we were truly hooked by the details in the third graf:  the forgotten date, her birth name, the name of the song and DeForest’s Midtown laboratory.  Those details add authenticity and shout out to the reader:  Do I ever have a story to tell you.

Indeed, Lily spun a gorgeous tale and ended it with more telling detail that put the reader in the scene, and the spirit, of the story:

And it’s true that there’s no way of telling if the sky was clear when Eugenia Farrar approached Dr. DeForest’s laboratory. No record can confirm whether the wind was chilly or the water calm when Oliver Wyckoff sat down at his station.

But this morning, when the singer was remembered properly, it was easy to imagine an October day just like this one: a bright blue sky, a dark blue river between the boroughs, a black-blue Atlantic out there somewhere, and the Baltic beyond.

And, as singers ended the ceremony with a new arrangement of her song, it was easy to imagine her voice.

We asked Lily her thinking about the story, from start to finish:    “I knew going into it that it had the potential for being a piece with more observation/description, so I was taking notes that morning on things like the color of the sky and the look of the trees, in addition to the facts of what was happening.” When she got back to the newsroom, she asked herself,  “What is my story about?” That’s a critical question for reporters to ask before they start writing, something we always recommend.  Lily’s  decision — to focus on the long gap between the singer’s death and the entombment — put her in the mindset for the lede. She then wrote an ending with a list of blue things, most particularly the blue urn in which Farrar’s ashes rested.  Then she used the middle of the story to answer the literal question of who the singer was and what happened.

“When I got back to the end I realized that the real thread was the voice, not the blueness, so I took out the urn and stuck the voice in at the end,” Lily said.

We thought it worked and so did the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, who liked the writing so much he decided to use it even though the Eagle had advanced the event and hadn’t planned on doing anything further.

Bon Mots

Speaking of details, we liked what Al Barbarino did with his story about a special art exhibit created by adults with mental illness and substance abuse problems:

BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — A naked woman sits in a wooden chair that rests on a cloud amid a blue sky. Two cats float nearby as the woman lifts a mirror to her face to find her hair is ablaze.

The painting, “Charlene,” by an artist known as Redd, is among the works on display at a special art exhibit that runs through Oct. 31st at the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. The artists are adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities, psychiatric problems, other mental illnesses and substance abuse problems.

We liked, too, what Almadena Toral did in her story on Afghan women bloggers:

WOMENSENEWS)–Shaharzad Akbar mulled it over a million times before pressing the “publish” button on April 4, 2007.

What went online then, to her blog in Farsi called “Mesle Aab, Mesle Aatash (Like Water, Like Fire),” was the first part of a series of posts called “insulting love,” which she says has brought the worst backlash since she started blogging in 2006.

The crisp lede created drama, and the details in the next graf, including the Farsi words and their translation, clinched the deal for us.

Read more … 


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