On a chilly March morning in Dayton, Ohio, I fidgeted in my chair at a writers’ workshop, waiting for the instructor to arrive. After a few minutes, a young woman, who looked to be fresh out of college, walked in carrying a stack of papers nearly as tall as she was. That woman was Kelley Benham, and that class forever changed my thoughts on writing nonfiction.
At the time of that class, Kelley Benham, a staff writer for the St. Petersburg Times, had just been bestowed the Ernie Pyle award for journalism, and yes, she had only been out of college for a few years. Benham had attained journalism fame for her rendering of Terri Schiavo’s obituary, and was one of few journalists able to access the New Orleans Chief of Police during the days after Katrina (“When law left, he stayed“). But the story that launched her out of the cluster of cubicles and into an office was about a little girl and a rooster.
Benham attributes her success as a journalist to the inclusion of fiction elements in her writings — plot, dialogue, setting, conflict, and, of course, character. She plants the reader into the setting of her Rampaging Rooster story with one sentence:
In the cluster of beige houses at Lime Street and Safford Avenue where Dechardonae lives, man and chicken have coexisted peacefully for years in quiet defiance of city ordinance.
When the newsroom editor searched for a reporter to cover a renegade rooster story, most laughed and stated they were too busy working on “real” stories. So, the editor went to the support staff area, and bored-to-tears Benham volunteered to take the assignment. The editor even loaned her a cameraman. What happened when the story ran surprised everyone — the paper got a flood of phone calls, and Benham got her own desk.
She attributes her storytelling success to one of her journalism classes, based upon the Jon Franklin book, Writing for Story. On the next Thursday is Words Day session, I plan to delve into Franklin’s book a bit and share some of the concepts that can turn an ordinary story into a memorable one.
Click here to read more posts in the Writing for Story series.
Until next time,