From Journalism to Fiction by Dick Lehr
One thing I know a lot about is journalism – writing that is based on facts.
I teach it. I write it.
One thing I don’t know a lot about is writing fiction. – stories that are made-up.
Which is basically why two years ago I decided to write a novel titled TRELL.
I have always tried to challenge myself as a writer. Get outside my comfort zone: try new forms, new techniques, and new styles. In journalism everyone starts with the basics, learning how to write what’s called a hard news story — a straightforward account of an event the editors decide that readers should know. It could be news story about a fire, a bank robbery, or a vote taken by the city council. Nothing fancy, writing-wise. Report the facts, clearly and concisely.
Believe me, it’s a lot harder than it looks. Just ask students taking the college courses in basic news writing that I teach. Learning how to execute clear, tight prose (and then re-write it) takes lots of practice. Few are born naturals. I certainly wasn’t. For me, the training came as a twenty-something cub reporter at a Connecticut newspaper. Covering breaking news. Writing and re-writing – on deadline. Grinding it out, day after day, story after story. Over time, you get the hang of it.
Then, after gaining confidence in the most basic form of journalism, I wanted more. I would read and admire the newspaper’s feature writers, magazine writers, and investigative reporters who produced multi-part series. I decided I wanted to do what they were doing, produce what are called long-form narrative non-fiction pieces. So I went to work, learning and practicing longer, more complicated stories. Early on, many of the pieces were clunky and flawed and required major overhauls after an editor got hold of them. But, over time, you get the hang of it.
Then, years later, came the next challenge – writing books, which, for me, meant taking stories that were rich enough expand from their origin in the newspaper and fit them between two hard covers. These, too, were fact-based narratives, meaning they featured plot, story arc, dialogue and deeply developed characters. In other words, in narrative non-fiction the write adopts the tools of a novelist. The goal is to have the book read like a novel. But it isn’t – it’s true.
TRELL meant leaving my comfort zone of journalism to create a world with a unique plot built around a cast of compelling characters. But it’s not like I took the leap into fiction without a safety net: TRELL is a novel inspired by events that really happened. Events that I covered as a reporter at the Boston Globe newspaper. In other words, I was creating a world from a world that I knew based on the extensive research and interviewing I’d done — about this event as well as other, similar events — over years of reporting while working at the newspaper.
TRELL has its origins in one of Boston’s most notorious murders – the shooting death of 12-year-old Tiffany Moore on a hot summer night in 1988. Tiffany was seated on a blue mailbox on Humboldt Avenue in Roxbury, swinging her legs and socializing with friends, when masked gunmen approached. Their targets were boys in a competing street gang, but they hit Tiffany. The pre-teen died instantly – the youngest victim of street gang violence in the city’s history.
Tiffany became known as “the girl on the blue mailbox.’’ Her murder instantly came to symbolize the cocaine-fueled lawlessness rocking Boston. Some officials even called for the deployment of the National Guard to cope with soaring violence. Police launched a massive investigation, and two weeks later they arrested a young drug dealer named Shawn Drumgold. The next year Drumgold was convicted of her murder. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The city breathed a sigh of relief. Tiffany’s killer was in jail. Justice was served.
Except it wasn’t. Fourteen years later I re-investigated Drumgold’s conviction as a reporter at the Globe, where I’d mostly served on its Spotlight Team. In May of 2003, the Globe published the results of that investigation, a story revealing prosecutorial wrongdoing. Special court hearings followed, where witnesses from the 1988 murder trial came forward and testified how officials had berated and coerced their testimony. By summer’s end, the Suffolk County District Attorney, who had previously opposed all of Drumgold’s legal appeals, joined his lawyer in requesting that the hearing judge overturn his murder conviction, “in the interests of justice.” The judge did so, and Drumgold went home on Nov. 7, 2003.
During my investigation my focus was journalistic – exposing flaws in the murder case. Even so, I couldn’t help but notice the women in Drumgold’s life — his attorney, his mother, his wife and his daughter. I learned his daughter was just a newborn when Shawn was first arrested in the summer of 1988. She’d grown up marking time with regular visits to see her father in prison. I learned that in saying goodbye, she would always ask, “Daddy, when you coming home?”
Fast forward to a couple of years ago, because a daughter’s goodbye became the seed for my novel. I wondered what it must be like to grow up with a parent wrongfully imprisoned. I also wanted to push my writing in a new direction, to write a story for a younger audience, a story that would showcase the themes in the Globe’s stories — about gross injustice and the eventual search for justice, about journalism and the difference it can make. I began asking, what if the daughter were the central character? What if she possesses the true grit required to push for justice against a system that has failed? What if she gets a reporter to help her, and together they uncover the truth? Therein came the characters named Trell and Clemens. The two of them suddenly took over, and the novel’s storyline began to take shape. The more I wrote the more comfortable I became being outside my usual comfort zone. More than anything, I wanted TRELL to be a story that was inspirational. I also wanted a story to honor the memory of Tiffany Moore; the resolve of Shawn Drumgold; and the tenacity and love of his lawyer, mother, wife and daughter.
Dick Lehr is the co-author, with Gerard O’Neill, of Black Mass, a New York Times bestseller about Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger, which was made into a film starring Johnny Depp. His most recent book is The Birth of a Movement, which Booklist deemed in a starred review “a remarkable look at the power of mass media and the nascent civil rights movement at a pivotal time in American history.” The book was adapted into a PBS documentary that aired on the network’s primetime show, Independent Lens, in February 2017. Dick Lehr is a former reporter for the Boston Globe and now teaches journalism at Boston University. He lives near Boston.