Category Archives: Nonfiction

Returning from That Summer Place

It’s almost back to school time here in southeastern Pennsylvania, which means the kids will be terminating their summer brain dumps, rushing to catch up on assigned reading and trying to remember how to convert improper fractions to mixed numbers. That usually means time for the grownups to start getting their acts together, too.

I admit that I’ve slacked off this summer in a few areas – writing every day being one of the biggest. But where spring has always been the traditional time of renewal for nature, back to school time is, for kids and adults, typically the start of something fresh. It’s an opportunity to establish new routines and actually stick to them because so many other scheduled events depend on things running smoothly.

Yeah, this summer my word count for Novel #2 has fallen off, but I’ve also gotten the chance to do some things that will help make that book better even though I’ve spent a few weeks not actively banging away at it. One of those weeks was spent at our family’s own summer place, this one deviating from past years by switching the Outer Banks of North Carolina for Folly Beach, S.C.

New places equal new inspiration, so in lots of respects it was a worthwhile trip. I’m hoping it ends up as a salable travel story for the freelance writing side of my work, and there are always little details I can pick up from somewhere new to add into a story. Plus, as someone who sets his books in South Carolina but is based full time in Pennsylvania, it’s good to get back once in a while and get in touch with the people you’re writing about.

It’s also been good to go down some roads in my own reading that I don’t often travel. I tilted more toward the fantasy side of things with Fran Wilde’s Updraft and delved into the world of the Mafia – particularly as it relates to Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del. – in Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses (look for an upcoming story on Charles and the forthcoming film version of his book in September’s Out & About magazine).

Novel #2 includes more of a criminal enterprise subplot, so it was great to read Brandt’s book and get a window into mob life beyond that provided in the Mafia film pantheon of The Godfather, Goodfellas, etc. And it’s always interesting to see what styles other writers adapt. Wilde’s is lean and tight, which keeps her sprawling, world-building tale to a reasonable and accessible length. While I’m not creating new universes out of whole cloth this time around, I’m trying to keep things leaner myself, so reading other writers who can do so is a bit like taking a master class in how it’s done.

So, here’s to parlaying my non-writing experiences and unassigned summer reading into some good, solid work on Novel #2 once everyone in the house gets back to their school year schedules. It might not be lounging on the beach or by the pool, but there will be plenty of that again next year.

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Maurice Bessinger, South Carolina’s Most Famous Embarrassing Uncle, Leaves This Mortal Coil

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An exercise in non-satire: The late Maurice Bessinger in portraiture, bearing the sacred barbecue sauce to be offered at the alter of the reborn Confederacy.

Lots of people who’ve never lived in the South look upon it as this weird hinterland where regressive politics, loose interpretation of incest laws and strange culinary traditions make it our own little bit of the Third World here in the United States. One person who helped perpetuate this unfortunate image – particularly when it came to my home state of South Carolina – was Maurice Bessinger.

Bessinger, who was once considered South Carolina’s king of barbecue (that’s pulled pork to the rest of you), died over the weekend, sparing those of us who hail from the Palmetto State yet another embarrassing point of conversation whenever our home comes up in discussion. You can read his excellent obituary by John Monk at The State newspaper here. Continue reading

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Happy New Year: They’re Not Resolutions, They’re Just Things I Try to Do

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My wife asked me a few days ago if I had any New Year resolutions. My answer, as it has been just about every year of my life, was no.

I do, however, maintain a mental list of things that I always want to do differently or better. Naturally, with the rollover of the calendar, those things fall under the spotlight a bit more, but they really don’t change much from year to year. Continue reading

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Summer Reading Can Still Be Foundational Reading

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So I spent a good portion of the spring and early summer slogging through an exceptionally dense non-fiction tome on Napa Valley that was serving as background for a large scale co-writing project that, unfortunately, tanked hard in mid June.

I don’t consider it wasted time, because I’m one of those folks that considers any reading good reading. And in addition, I learned some things I didn’t know before, so it all evens out. Also, now if I ever want to set a story in California wine country, I’ve at least got a jumping off point.

But with the burden of research-related reading lifted, I got to return to some writing by several of the authors that have really inspired me along the way.

The gentlemen represented here aren’t going to be taught in high school English classes anytime soon, but I’ve immersed myself in their work over the years nonetheless. And that’s not to say that I haven’t spent my time with some English class stalwarts – diving back into the pool with Ernest Hemingway helped me learn how to write with a bit more economy. Then again, a few walks along some long dark alleys with pulp-master Mickey Spillane (who, incidentally, lived the last years of his life in Murrells Inlet, S.C., just down the beach from Myrtle Beach, where Immaculate Deception is partially set) helped me pull some tough-guy detective fiction tricks out of the bag, too.

But as far as modern-day writers who are still busy writing go, these guy are my boys. If you’ve read Immaculate Deception, you can probably see each of them peeking through the narrative, the subject matter and the writing style here and there.

Derivative? Some might say so. But others – mostly other writers – will be the first to tell you that the way to get started writing like yourself is to write like the people you love to read. What comes out after it’s passed through the creative filter of your own unique brain is – shazam! – your style of writing.

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A Funky Friday Selection in Honor of Papa Getting a Brand New Bag

I’ll be the first person to warn anyone thinking of going into either full-time fiction writing or freelance writing (both of which I do) that the revenue stream is, at best, unpredictable.

That’s been the running theme here at Chez Pruden for a few months. In May, one reliable client decided not to continue with a major account, resulting in less work for me and other freelancers on the team. And just a few weeks ago, another client for a long-term non-fiction book project decided that they didn’t want to pursue their project further.

Not the end of the world, by any means. I’ve had low spots before for far worse reasons, and I’ve continued to mine for work through social media and good, old-fashioned cold calling to prospective clients – basically the things that have to get done to make a buck as a freelancer.

But when all that bad news comes in a two-month span, things can get a little disheartening both professionally and financially. Where normally I’d have visions of dollar signs –  all with three- and four-figure numbers – dancing in my head, lately those dollar signs have been followed only by big, fat goose eggs.

So I went digging again, this time with an eye towards not just freelance gigs, but a short-term on-site arrangement that would allow me to maintain my schedule and earn some predictable income for a few months while the rest of my professional universe righted itself.

Turns out it didn’t take much digging after all. Here I sit at the end of my first week – three full days – at a very nice job working in a university communications department doing things I’m good at and feel very comfortable with. The job is straightforward, the people are nice and I’m out of the house a few days a week without sacrificing my potential to take on other projects or be there for my kids.

In other words, I’m TCB – taking care of business. And doing it any way I know how.

Because in the end it’s all about contributing to the cause. If you’re single, that cause is paying your bills, covering your wants and having some beer money left over. If you’re married or otherwise entangled domestically, the cause is supporting the family unit. Am I bummed my other projects fell through? Absolutely. But finding something to fill in the blanks in a reliable manner softens the blow.

The question is really, what’s your definition of happiness? For many people it’s just code for doing whatever you damn well please. I’d argue that this is an inaccurate and inevitably disappointing perspective. Happiness for me is contributing – adding some funds to the family pot, creating good art, being there for my family and being willing to tamp down the bad stuff in favor of the good.

I like to think it’s a great example for anyone digging for work – freelance or not. Sometimes the perfect job presents itself, and sometimes you just have to take the jobs that present themselves until the perfect one comes along. In spite of my distaste for the platitudes people dish out in times of crisis, sometimes one closed door does lead to one that’s open. You just have to be willing to find that door, and then have the courage to walk through.

I do indeed have a brand new bag, and it will do quite nicely until the next one comes along.

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Hulk SMASH deadline!

I was in full-on magazine writer mode today. Cranked out 1,300 quality words for a freelance story with the able assistance of my neighborhood Cosi, their free wi-fi, and the 3/4 of my family who decided to go to the movies this afternoon (Monsters University, in case you’re interested – consensus from the 5-year-old, 9-year-old and 30-*cough*-year-old was “awesome”).

It’s always easy to talk about how we as writers should shoot for a certain number of words per day, but for the work-at-home writer (particularly with school out for the summer), getting any done is sometimes a challenge.

I find the biggest thing standing in my way isn’t writer’s block or something silly like that (I don’t think I’ve ever been truly blocked).

Instead it’s that lingering fear that as soon as I drop into a serious writing groove (and you other writers out there know just what I mean) where I just have to keep going, something or someone will interrupt. There will be meals to prepare, sibling battles to negotiate, some minor bit of home repair or housekeeping, oh, I don’t know … a freakin’ meteorite might decide to crash into my front yard.

(Honestly, some days it feels like that’s all that’s missing. Fate/gods/universal forces, don’t take that as an invitation, OK?)

As a result, when there’s a big deadline looming or some writing work that just has to get done, leaving the home base is often the best option for all parties involved. Let that meteorite smolder in its crater until I get home. If I don’t know it’s there, I’ll actually be able to get some stuff done.

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Updating My Style

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I did something last week that had been unthinkable for the first 13 years of my working life – ordered my own copy of the Associated Press Stylebook.

Unthinkable because in every newsroom in which I landed from the moment I started in the newspaper business (including my university paper, The Gamecock), I was provided with one as a part of the job.

The one you see here is old – ancient in terms of stylebooks – having the distinction of being the first and (up until last week) only one I had actually paid money for. It was purchased in 1987 at the University of South Carolina Book Store at the beginning of my sophomore year when I decided to make the switch from broadcast journalism to news-editorial.

After I graduated, it sat on a number of bookshelves across the country but rarely got pulled down because in the place I really needed it – the newsroom – there was always a more recent version sitting on my desk.

So now, 26 years later, I figured that it was time to refresh things a bit. The new version arrived last Friday and just paging through it I was stunned by how much has really changed.

In 1987, having a personal computer in one’s dorm room was a luxury (I had an Apple IIC with a thermal printer). There was no Internet as we know it (that would take another decade to emerge) and all the reporting one did was in person or over the phone. Social networking didn’t exist. As such, there was no reason to focus on anything other than what we now regard as “analog” journalism.

The new version of the AP Stylebook is heavy with new (and not so new) digital-age references and style points, including how toAll the President's Men approach sources via e-mail, Twitter and Facebook. I love that today you can just cyber-stalk sources, where back in the day there were lots of editors telling lots of young reporters, “Sit in that bozo’s office until he comes out for lunch and get me that quote.”

It’s a stark reminder that between the time newspaper film classic All the President’s Men came out (1976) and when I graduated from college in 1991, nearly all that had changed in the “modern” newsroom was the arrival of clunky, pain-in-the-ass computers with green-on-black CRT displays that still required 12-character strings of code just to format a headline.

Simply the fact that you can now subscribe to digital versions of the Stylebook is a big indicator of how much has changed. I remember thinking during the internet boom of the late 1990s that an online Stylebook would be incredible. Now you can access it on your smartphone – something that very few of us anticipated.

So, with my new edition in hand I’ll study up and try to catch up on all the “official” bits that I’ve missed by not having been in a newsroom for nearly 10 years. The old one, however, will stay, simply because it now serves as a great little artifact and time capsule of where we once were and how far we’ve come.

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The Art of the Interview

ReporterBack when I worked full-time in newspapers, I was occasionally called upon to do what were referred to as “brown baggers” – mini seminars that could take place over a lunch hour – as well as speak to visiting students during journalism-related events involving local high schools.

At several of these, I was asked to discuss interviewing techniques. It’s been a while since I offered any advice on this, but recently I was asked by a young colleague at one of my copy writing clients to offer some tips on getting a good interview. Here’s a slightly altered version of our exchange.

Dear Scott:

I hope this email finds you well. I am an intern working on my first story  and I wanted to reach out to you to see what strategies you may be able to suggest for successful interviewing. 

Are there certain questions which you find elicit quote-worthy responses? Do you utilize any applications to record interviews? If there is any other insight you have to share, it will be greatly appreciated!

Thank you,

A.

Dear A:

I’m a big proponent of the “first date” approach to interviewing. I gather whatever background I can on the topic I’m going to be discussing or the person I’ll be interviewing (just like you’d Google stalk a potential date – not that I would EVER do that, of course). Going in knowing just enough to be dangerous allows you to ask intelligent questions but still not sound like you know everything about the subject already.

I also don’t prepare a list of questions in a formal fashion. I know what I’m going to ask based on my research or direction from the editor or project manager. I’ll often write a list of cues, but I prefer for interviews to take a very organic course and be very conversational. Rigid lists of questions don’t usually allow for that. As the “first date” label suggests, you’re trying to express some genuine curiosity in what the interview subject has to tell you, so I phrase my questions accordingly.

This works particularly well with “regular folks.” People who work in government or at executive or managerial jobs are often used to speaking in front of others or being interviewed, but “civilians” – regular people who usually don’t find themselves the subject of an interview – are often suspicious of you or unfamiliar with the process, which makes interviewing (particularly over the phone) a bit trickier. Therefore it’s easier to just get them talking about the subject at hand and redirect the conversation if necessary.

You’ll find that this is a great method to generate “quote worthy” comments, since interview subjects feel more comfortable if they’re just having a chat as opposed to undergoing an interrogation. The job of mining through your notes to find that standout quote is your job, but if I hear something special during the interview, I’ll usually highlight it somehow to remember.

Also, don’t let the interview peter out at the end. So many times I’ve come to the “end” of an interview and had subjects start asking me about myself. I’m always willing to share a little, and this frequently cues them to tell a story about the topic at hand that will contain either A) the brilliant, standout quote, or B) the touching, hilarious or otherwise relevant anecdote that would make a perfect lede to the story.

As for recording, I usually don’t find it necessary for quick turnaround work. I have the advantage of having come out of newspapers, where speed is key. I type my notes as the interview subject is speaking, and make sure to use a headset (I use a Bluetooth earpiece with my smartphone) for the interviews so both hands are free and I don’t have to worry about the phone slipping off my shoulder mid-conversation. It never hurts to create an improvised shorthand for yourself so you don’t have to type out every single word.

I do have an Olympus digital recorder for in-person interviews and an app on my phone that allows me to record phone calls (Smart Voice from Google Play – I’m sure there’s a comparable iPhone app), but recording interviews has a tendency to make me lazy with note taking, then I just have to go back and waste more time listening to the recording when I’d rather just start writing straight from my typed notes. I might only use it for someone who I know is a VERY fast talker or for a story that I know will be longer form and will take more time anyway.

For those of you who are in (or have been in) the journalism biz, what did I miss? I’m all too aware that this didn’t cover more confrontational interview situations, so what suggestions would you offer in that regard? Let me know in the comments thread. Thanks!

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