If you’ve ever wondered how Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Lane DeGregory writes her memorable stories, now you can find out — straight from DeGregory herself.
She’s just published her first book, “The Girl in the Window and Other True Tales: An Anthology With Tips for Finding, Reporting, and Writing Nonfiction Narratives.”
For journalism students and other aspiring writers of nonfiction, it’s a treasure trove of inside advice, woven around 24 articles written during the 23 years she has been on the staff of the Tampa Bay Times. For anyone who loves the craft of writing and the magic of story, the anthology is a feast.
“I’ve had over 3,000 bylines” in her newspaper career, DeGregory says. “I wanted to give a permanent home to some of these ephemeral news stories.”
Although she has taught classes and workshops around the world on a regular basis since she won the Pulitzer in 2009 for this collection’s title story, she hadn’t thought about writing a textbook until the University of Chicago Press came to her.
The press had asked Jim Sheeler, another legendary narrative nonfiction writer, about a textbook, and he told them to talk to DeGregory.
“I was lucky enough to have this wonderful editor, Mary Laur,” DeGregory says. “There are hardly any journalism books by women. But I think that’s what sold Mary.” She agreed to work on a textbook for journalism students, but wanted it to be accessible to a broader audience as well.
DeGregory worked on the book for about five years. “I gave her initially 100 stories. She said cut it to 50, then she cut that in half.”
How did DeGregory choose among the thousands of stories she’s written? “I wanted them to be timeless. Some of them were off the news, but most of them aren’t. I also wanted to choose the ones that got the most reader reaction, and those that students respond to.”
The resulting anthology includes some of her best known and most acclaimed stories, like “The Girl in the Window,” about a feral child and the family who adopted her, and “The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck,” about a man who threw his 5-year-old daughter off a bridge into Tampa Bay.
A few of the articles are about celebrities, including Stormy Daniels, Jim Cantore and Evel Knievel; others were written in response to news events like the Pulse nightclub shootings.
Many of them, and among the most intriguing, are about ordinary people doing ordinary things, like an 11-year-old boy buying his first valentine for a girl.
Tips and notes accompany each story in the margins. Finding the right format took a while, DeGregory says. “I hate footnotes, but putting the tips at the end didn’t really work. Finally we found a designer who could work on putting the tips where they came in the text.
“When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was the annotated ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ and it had notes just like that, in the margins. I also loved ‘Pop-up Video’ (on VH-1), with those little trivia bubbles. It looks like that.”
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For each story, DeGregory also includes a timeline: “Reported in two days, written in two days.”
“That was Mary’s idea,” she says. “A lot of these stories can seem inaccessible to students. They feel like they could never tackle something like that. We wanted them to see stories that were reported and written in a matter of days.”
Some, of course, take much longer, like “The Girl in the Window,” for which she won the 2009 Pulitzer for feature writing.
“I knew it was a good story because I hadn’t heard it before, the story of a feral child. I got the tip on Super Bowl Sunday, and I figured I’d have it written by Easter, that it would be this happy Easter Sunday story,” she says.
“Then I Googled ‘feral child’ and went down the rabbit hole.”
She spent four or five months reporting and writing the story, working with her editor, Mike Wilson, and the photo editor and photographer. “We thought it was ready to go. This was 2008, and we went to a meeting and they said, so what do you have for the web?”
They had nothing for the web. “They sent us out to re-interview everybody on video. They made a seven-minute documentary that was pretty good for the time, but it took another six weeks.”
Fifteen years later, the story “still gets lots of clicks.”
And during the six months she worked on it, DeGregory notes, “I had 24 other bylines.”
She’s long since adapted to changing media forms. She and Maria Carillo, one of her former editors, have been doing the WriteLane podcast together for years, and they did a series of episodes for the book. “There’s a podcast to go with every chapter. I wanted to have a different means of access for students.”
So what stories has she not written yet? “There’s one that’s been in my notebook since before the pandemic that would be a great story,” she says, “but it would involve a lot of data reporting and investigative work. That’s what scares me. I know a lot of people are scared of calling strangers and going to sit on their front porch, but I can do that any day.”
Her book ends with one of the few first-person stories she’s written, “I Brake for Bobo: A Boy Loses His Stuffed Elephant.” It’s the harrowing and heartwarming story of a somewhat overwhelmed mom driving on Interstate 75 with her two young sons when one of them somehow lets a beloved plush toy fall out the window.
“I’m not really comfortable writing about myself,” DeGregory says. “I never think my stories are as interesting as the ones I come across.” But when she told the story in a meeting, her editor sent her home to write it. She was surprised by how much readers responded.
Her sons are grown now, but, she says, “I included the one about Bobo because I wanted one with Tucker hugging me. I feel bad because I have that one about Tucker, but there’s not one about Ryland. Maybe in Volume 2.”
The Girl in the Window and Other True Tales: An Anthology With Tips for Finding, Reporting, and Writing Nonfiction Narratives
By Lane DeGregory
University of Chicago Press, 269 pages, $22.50
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected. An earlier version said that DeGregory had 3,000 bylines at one newspaper.