In doing this piece I learned first-hand the value of outlining a story and thinking about story structure early on in the process. Like, earlier than one might think to.
My story was based on Nantucket, an hour boat ride from Woods Hole. My time spent on the island was determined by a ferry schedule, meaning I couldn’t be particularly spontaneous once I got there. Follow-up interviews were also difficult to schedule. I became keenly aware (read: nervous) that I needed to be efficient with every minute I spent reporting.
So, I tried something Rob suggested: I made an outline of the story before getting to the island, before I’d gathered even one second of tape. It felt a little strange — with only a few very preliminary phone calls under my belt, I’d assumed I didn’t have enough information to create a useful outline.
I was so wrong.
This isn’t to say I came up with my final story structure right then. It changed a ton over the next few weeks. But as I started clanking away on my computer, I realized I had a far better sense of the story than I’d thought. My outline lacked quotes and details and all sorts of other important things, but by the time I was done with this exercise, there it was: beginning, middle, end, tension, resolution — like a real story!
Making this outline helped in a few ways. First off, it just made me feel better about the work I had done; I wasn’t in as bad shape as I thought. Second, it turned out to serve as wonderful interview prep, since it gave me a clearer sense of what I wanted from the people I talked with.
It’s real value came once I got to Nantucket. In between scheduled interviews on the island, I found myself sitting at a coffee shop and going back to my outline, updating it based on the tape I was getting. On long, overwhelming days on Nantucket, it felt so much more manageable and effective to be revising an existing story rather than creating one from scratch.
This experience tied into something I learned throughout my time at Transom: It’s usually a good idea to just start working. Start typing, imagining how your story could go, even if you feel unprepared to do so. You probably have a better sense of the story than you think. And then be flexible, because it might all change. But for me at least, the time I spent making outlines and wrestling with story structure before doing the ‘actual’ reporting was time well spent.
Dan’s Sonic ID
This is the voice of Cabot Lodge, an employee at the Steamship Authority ferry terminal on Nantucket. I met him while waiting for the ferry back to Hyannis, after spending the day working on a story about housing on Nantucket. I asked him his thoughts on the topic. Like lots of people I spoke with, he was frustrated that there weren’t more affordable options for working people, and was himself looking for a cheaper place to live. I asked him why he didn’t just move off the island. His answer surprised me, and practically made me want to settle down on Nantucket, too. And then he introduced himself — what a name. . .