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“The Girl in the Window” and Other True Tales

An Anthology with Tips for Finding, Reporting, and Writing Nonfiction Narratives

With a Foreword by Beth Macy
Part anthology and part craft guide, this collection of pieces from the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist offers something for readers and writers alike.
 
Lane DeGregory loves true stories, intimate details, and big ideas. In her three-decade career as a journalist, she has published more than 3,000 stories and won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. Her acclaimed work in the Tampa Bay Times often takes her to the edges of society, where she paints empathetic portraits of real-life characters like a 99-year-old man who still works cleaning a seafood warehouse, a young couple on a bus escaping winter, and a child in the midst of adoption. In “The Girl in the Window” and Other True Tales, DeGregory not only offers up the first collection of her most unforgettable newspaper features—she pulls back the curtain on how to write narrative nonfiction.
 
This book—part anthology, part craft guide—provides a forensic reading of twenty-four of DeGregory’s singular stories, illustrating her tips for writers alongside pieces that put those elements under the microscope. Each of the pieces gathered here—including the Pulitzer Prize–winning title story—is accompanied by notes on how she built the story, plus tips on how nonfiction writers at all levels can do the same. Featuring a foreword by Beth Macy, author of the acclaimed Dopesick, this book is sure to delight fans of DeGregory’s writing, as well as introduce her to readers and writers who have not yet discovered her inspiring body of work.

284 pages | 28 halftones | 6.5 x 9 | © 2023

Reference and Bibliography

Reviews

“I have been studying (and teaching) DeGregory’s stories for years. There is no one like her. In addition to being a showcase of her best work, this book is full of practical advice about how she’s able to pull off what seems impossible, over and over.”

Christopher Goffard, Pulitzer Prize-winning staff writer for the Los Angeles Times

“DeGregory performs magic in this beautiful, heartfelt book of stories—and then teaches you how she did it. This is a book for anyone who loves reading, writing, or both.”

Mike Wilson, deputy sports editor for the New York Times

Table of Contents

Foreword by Beth Macy
Introduction


Part 1. Short Stories
1. Talk to Strangers
Diving Headlong into Sunny Eden: A Young Couple Flees Winter
2. Get a Life
Zeke the Labrador: An Intuitive Dog Saves His Owner
3. Explore Rituals
Finding the Right Words: A Boy Buys His First Valentine
Spotlight: Finding Ideas
4. Wonder, Who Would Ever?
Meet the “THE” Guy: Flag-Bearer of the Rodeo
5. Establish Intimacy
A Brothers’ Bond: Autism Ties Twins Together
6. Don’t Judge
The Truth Is Flexible: Learning How to Panhandle from the Pros
7. CAST Around
Gone in a Flash: A Garbage Truck Driver Walks into a Bar
8. Unravel the Mystery
A Message from Roger: Long Ago, a Boy Put a Note in a Bottle
9. Carve Out the Elephant
Davion’s Prayer: A Teenage Orphan Goes to Church to Find a Family


Part 2. On Assignment
10. Explore News Briefs
The Saint and the Sacrifice: She Was Devoted to Her Sister but Wanted Her Life Back
11. Ignore Important People
Stormy Daniels: The President’s Porn Star
12. Find a Guide
Pulse Nightclub: Aftermath of the Orlando Shooting Tests a Young Man’s Courage
13. Listen to the Quiet
The Storm Chaser: Riding out a Hurricane with the Weatherman
14. Wait for It
Fast-Forward: IndyCar Champion’s Widow Faces a Dilemma with Their Young Sons
Spotlight: Reporting
15. Go Back
The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck: Her Dad Threw Her off a Bridge into Tampa Bay
16. Find the Helpers
Twelve Hours in an Intensive Care Unit: During the Pandemic

Part 3. Narratives
17. Make a Difference
The Girl in the Window: Can Love and a New Family Save a Feral Child?
18. Inhabit Their Heads
Every Day Is Payday: His First Real Check
19. Braid Narratives
The Last House in Rosewood: No One Asked the Owner about Her Story
Spotlight: Writing and Editing
20. Follow the Story
A Walk in the Woods: Miss Teen America Finds Freedom, for a Day
21. Find the Bruise on the Apple
The Old Daredevil: Evel Knievel Comes Back to Earth
22. Use Their Voices
The Swan Project: For Troubled Girls, Etiquette Classes Open Another World
23. Walk a Mile in Their Shoes
Mr. Newton: A 99-Year-Old Man Still Sweeps a Seafood Factory
24. Get Personal
I Brake for Bobo: A Boy Loses His Stuffed Elephant
Acknowledgments
 

Excerpt

A feral child finds a family. An old bottle washes up with a note inside. A boy’s stuffed elephant flies out the car window.
I wrote these stories for a daily newspaper in Florida. Years later, I still receive emails about them from readers across the world. And from writers wanting to know: How did you do that? This anthology is my answer. It is for people who enjoy reading true tales, for writers of all types trying to improve their own work, and for teachers and editors eager to help. These are the stories that hundreds of readers have reacted to, that countless journalism students have studied. They are also my favorites.
The Tampa Bay Times, formerly the St. Petersburg Times, has long been known for pioneering literary nonfiction and consistently producing some of the best feature stories in the country.

The newspaper is more than a century old and is owned by the non-profit Poynter Institute, which trains American and international journalists.
Since 2000 I have written for the Times, led classes and webinars at Poynter, and traveled to colleges and conferences across the country and around the world to teach other journalists, editors, professors, students and writers. In recent years I have also hosted a podcast, WriteLane, where my longtime editor and I share stories and talk about ways to find, report and write nonfiction narratives.
For years, people have been asking me if I had a book with my stories and the stories behind the stories. Now I do.

Some of the pieces in this collection are short, reported and written in a single day. Others are projects I worked on for months. A few are off the news. Most are about the struggles of ordinary people, recounting loss and love, pain and perseverance, tragedy and triumph. All of the stories are set in Florida. But many could have taken place in your backyard, wherever you live. I hope they feel universal and timeless. I also wanted the book to include not just my stories, but the kinds of advice other writers often ask for. As I was planning it, I thought about questions from classes and conferences where I’ve taught: Where did you find that young couple that just arrived in Florida? How did you get the murderer to talk to you? Did you really hear those girls talking in the woods?
I decided to use the stories themselves to answer these questions. Since I wrote them all, I can offer background no one else can about how I found the couple on a bus, wrote the murderer a letter, went camping with those girls. I share these insights through the book’s structure and several special features.
The book is divided into three parts: “Short Stories,” “On Assignment,” and “Narratives.” These reflect different story forms familiar not just to journalists but to other writers. Many of the short stories were reported and written in a couple of days; others took more time but are told in tight frames. Most of the ones on assignment came from editors asking me to find a unique angle on a news event—something any writer can do in any medium. The narratives are more immersive, taking readers into new worlds, introducing them to people who are suffering, struggling, celebrating. All sorts of writers can learn ways to find similar compelling characters to use in their own work.

At the center of each chapter is one of my stories, reprinted as originally published. The stories are all framed by some bigger theme related to how I found, reported or wrote the piece, in chapters such as “Talk to Strangers,” “Listen to the Quiet,” or “Use Their Voices.” I offer general advice on this theme along with background on how the story came about in the sections “Before the Story.” For several key pieces, I also include “After the Story” segments recounting what happened later, either to the people featured or because of the story or both.
Then there are the annotations. Each story contains ten to twenty Tips & Takeaways tied to specific details, sentences or passages. In these annotations I take readers behind the scenes of my reporting, organizing and editing processes. And I share thoughts that might help people navigate their own journeys to tell stories, such as “Go along for the ride,” “Compare memories,” and “Have the last word.”
Finally, three “Spotlight” features—one in each part—gather my most essential advice on finding ideas, reporting, writing and editing. Some of these suggestions appear in more detail in the Tips & Takeaways throughout the book, but the “Spotlight” features bring it all together, along with visual aids.
The annotations and other special features offer instruction for all sorts of storytellers—for journalists who write for newspapers, magazines and book publishers; for people who make podcasts, TV shows and documentaries; for anyone interested in immersing themselves in real-life stories and deconstructing the process of creating them.

These stories can be used as teaching tools in newsrooms, high school and college classes, and workshops. And by any writer who wants to learn how to develop ideas, set scenes, organize notes, write memoirs and find their voice. For each story, there is also an episode of my WriteLane podcast posted to the Poynter website (https://www.poynter.org/news/educators-students/writelane/), offering additional insight into some aspect of the story. The book also can be read by people who just want to dive into good stories, who crave narratives that make them think, laugh, cry—and connect.
No matter which of these you are, I hope this collection will entertain and inspire you.

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