The Murders A Town Wanted to Forget

photo of the Lissie Borden house
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When I came to Transom, I wanted to report on what was happening in Fall River. It’s a former textile town down on its luck for all the reasons we’ve come to understand after the 2016 elections. It’s got a high poverty rate, an opiate epidemic, and fewer jobs now that textiles are manufactured overseas. But I knew, of course, that no one would willingly listen to a story about that. I wouldn’t. I wanted a more entertaining way to lure people in. I had no idea what I was looking for, but I was pretty confident I’d know it when I found it.

That’s how I decided to do a story on the Lizzie Borden murders that took place in Fall River over a century ago. I got a little obsessed, carrying around a thick book about the case that could’ve crushed my big toe. But halfway through, I had doubts. Fellow Transom-ites were coming home with tape that made me cry— stories about brain injuries and detained immigrants and rabies and anxiety and drowning and cancer and people in search of homes and identities. My story, murder aside, was lighter fare. It was about a squabble over whether or not Fall River should promote the century-old murders as a tourist attraction.

I comfort myself that there are (at least) two ways to get people to care about important subjects. One is to get into their heads through their hearts. . . the other via their funny bone.

I could teach a whole class on what I learned while making this piece. If I did, these would be a few of the lessons.

Lesson # 1: Don’t Mix Up The Past With The Present

It would’ve been easy to get muddled structuring my piece — and risk confusing the listener — because it was actually two stories in one: STORY A was the double murder that Lizzie Borden was charged with. STORY B was the current debate about whether to promote tourism around the murders. Rob helped a lot with this, and the structure fell into place once I recognized I needed to keep those narratives distinct. The final piece follows an ABAB structure. (A: The story of the murders up to the trial. B: What started the current debate in the town. A: What happened after the trial. B: The town changes its mind.)

Lesson #2: Use Your Reporting Path (And Your Mistakes) As Your Story Arc

My quest was to figure out what was keeping Fall River from promoting Lizzie Borden tourism. I was transparent about how I’d come across the idea (reading a newspaper column) and my reason for being interested (it’s my husband’s hometown). As I talked to everyone with a stake in the conflict, I used tape that included me asking probing questions. By including my efforts to figure out what was going on, I hoped to create suspense, to take listeners along for the ride. Finally, I used a failure in my reporting as a story twist: I never found a single person who’d go on record saying they were against Lizzie Borden tourism. By story’s end, I was able to get city leaders explaining why they’d changed their minds. The central thesis of the story eluded me — but it gave me a surprise ending.

Lesson #3: Look For Pivotal Events

I was hunting for anecdotes to build a timeline of the conflict around promoting Lizzie Borden tourism. All I was getting was innuendo. Finally, I found a pivot point: A mayoral candidate recalled a conversation she’d had with a city leader who insisted his job was to make sure no one ever connected the city with the murders. Bingo. There was only one problem. When I asked the city leader about the conversation, he first denied it happened, but finally acknowledged he’d had a change of heart — and told me the exact turning point for the change. In my search for pivotal moments, I’d struck out with one plot point, only to be given another.

Lesson #4: Interview As Many People As It Takes

I conducted over a dozen interviews (and used eight) for what turned out to be an 8-minute story. That made it harder for me to boil the story down to its essence, but I don’t regret it. I may have missed my best talkers if I’d been more efficient. I interviewed one historian because I had a free morning and they lived close to a key source. I ended up using the historian’s tape while the “key source” fell to the cutting room floor. With more experience, I hope to make better calls as to who’s worth talking to after a pre-interview, but for now, I’ll err on the side of getting too much tape.

Barbara’s Sonic ID

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I wandered into a used bookstore on Fall River’s South Main St. and discovered John Fidalgo reading a book on Lawrence of Arabia. He has an amazing enthusiasm for learning, is a complete autodidact, and makes it his mission to get children who stumble into his bookstore to read. I learned two things from doing this interview: Always carry an extra XLR cable (mine was going bad during our talk, and I missed some good stuff); and when someone mentions music, ask them to sing. You never know what you will get.

Listen to more pieces from this Story Workshop class here.

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