Shaun McKinnon on deadline narrative, soundtrack inspiration and re-engaging readers in a saturated news story
To follow up on our latest Notable Narrative we flagged down Arizona Republic reporter Shaun McKinnon this week as he boarded a plane from Washington, D.C., back home to Phoenix, to talk about his riveting series on the mass shooting that killed five people outside a Tucson Safeway and, very nearly, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
The American Society of Newspaper Editors awarded “Tucson Tragedy” its highest honor for distinguished non-deadline writing, and the story was a Pulitzer finalist. A Republic reporter for nearly 14 years, McKinnon kindly responded to our questions by email while in transit, and in follow-ups. Here’s some of what we talked about:
You usually write about water, environment, climate change and weather. How did you come to write this narrative?
I was among the reporters brought in early the Saturday the shooting occurred. I did rewrite on the lead story for the next day and for one of the lead follows that ran on Monday. When the editors decided to produce a narrative reconstruction one month out, they asked me to take on the assignment.
The details in this story are incredible – the pink sweatshirt with the peace sign on it, the angular hardness of the hospital cafeteria, the nature of a rolling trauma unit, the king-size bedspread “festooned with seashells, flamingos, cityscapes and saguaros.” These four in particular could have come from various sources: interview; observation; observation; police report and/or observation, respectively. How did you get these and how, as you were reporting, did you know what you’d need?
The majority of those details came from observation by our reporters who had covered the story from the start. We had people in the hospitals early on and began meeting with survivors, families and witnesses after that. In many cases, we went back for more interviews and gathered more details. Some of the families gave us incredible access, given the situation. And in some cases, we called back to confirm details or ask more questions. We didn’t always know what we needed; in a few cases, what we had helped shape what we wrote, but more often, we followed up as we went along.
What about those four in particular?
All of those came from our reporters on the scene in Tucson. We had people at the hospital night and day from the start for several days, talking to physicians and waiting with family members. The sweatshirt came from witness and survivor interviews. And one of our reporters spent a night in the exact room where (suspect) Jared Loughner stayed the night before the shooting, which gave us the description of the bedspread.
He asked for Room 411?
Yes. He’d planned to stay at the Motel 6, then asked for the specific room and got it.
What were some of the overall reporting challenges for this story?
After the first few days, the authorities stopped releasing much information, so we had to rely on interviews with witnesses or other people who had knowledge (of the situation). We had some sources who helped, but our biggest challenge was trying to get as many people (as possible) who were at the Safeway to talk to us. Some were reluctant at first; a few turned us down. But we persisted and found a lot of new details.
Most of what we got along the way were the details that gave us the timeline, the conversations, the scenes where we were able to use dialogue. Our reporters pushed to find out what people ate for breakfast, what they said to spouses or other family members. The best details we got helped us paint the picture of the shooting itself. Witnesses, survivors and bystanders helped us piece together what seemed the likely series of events amid the chaos, such as the men who tried to subdue the shooter and the woman who tried to take his ammunition away.
You deftly handled a huge number of characters. Your decision to introduce us to them via the phone calls was smart – how did that come to you?
My editor, Josh Susong, and I were looking for a framing device. From the start, so many people mentioned the phone call as they described their experience, and it helped us define our timescale: the phone calls to the immediate aftermath.
You must’ve had a massive amount of reporting material as you sat down to write. How did you organize it?
Josh and I spent long hours outlining the chapters. We sat in a room with our timelines and list of characters and plotted out each chapter on big sheets of flip chart paper. We had decided by then our timescape and basic storytelling framework, but much of the “plotting” took place during the outlining process. As we charted the plot points, we saw holes in the story or ways of tying together people or events. We refined it along the way during the writing and editing. Our overall idea was to introduce our characters in their homes or wherever they got the call and then trace their paths until they all intersected at that Safeway. We then tried to tie up the threads at the hospitals or as survivors made their way back home.
Had you ever written anything of this kind of complexity or length?
I have written multi-part stories in the past many times, but never something like this, a narrative reconstruction based on so much information and the reporting of others. I can’t say enough about how hard reporters worked to give us the information we need to piece this together.
Two lessons stick out: (One), the value of persistence in talking to witnesses. Some of our good stuff came on second, third or fourth interviews. And (two), on a narrative like this, the value of a good outline can’t be overstated. All those hours with the flip chart paper paid off in producing a long story on a tight deadline.
What kinds of resistance did you get, if any, about space?
The stories ran over three days, with chapters one and two on a Sunday and three and four on Monday and Tuesday. We were told to write what we needed and space would be found. As we neared deadline, the space we could actually get helped us edit, but there was no question that the Republic was committed to telling the story.
“As midnight passed, the streets grew quieter. The lights blinked out in windows.” This shows time progression and adds atmosphere. In narrative we often talk about the sourcing of this kind of detail and whether the reporter needs to have seen it. What’s your philosophy?
Several of us spent time in Tucson to gather details and we tried to be in various locations based on our timeline. So someone was in the neighborhoods to get a feel for them. I drove a lot of streets at various times and we were in Wal-marts and other locations. Because we had so many reported details, we tried to write what we knew. That meant looking up the moon phases and weather records, for example, or asking a witness to describe traffic on the drive to the Safeway.
The linear repetition of “He died at the scene” and “She died at the scene” was so effective and worked almost like a structural device. How did you decide to use it?
Josh suggested that as a way of recognizing that, although we were reconstructing a horrific crime, there were victims. We felt like that sequence would be a dramatic way of making sure readers remembered the loss.
How many days did you report, and how long did it take you to write the first draft?
We had people back out in the field for a week, maybe, on top of what they’d already done. I started out by reading everything we’d written and researching what information other outlets may have reported that we needed to confirm or expand on. Then I spent a couple of days in Tucson driving routes, seeing nearly every location. I drove to the church early on a Saturday so I could see where Judge Roll started his day, and checked out neighborhoods at night.
How did you piece together Loughner’s movements from the night before the shootings?
That was among the information authorities released in pretty good detail. We went back to police to piece together the timeline and they provided information at first. We had help with sources later.
You gracefully qualified the details of the shooting itself: “The sequence can be found only among shattered memories and the limited angles of surveillance cameras.” That signals readers that you had to rely on video footage and traumatized witnesses as primary sources. How did you get access to the footage?
One of our reporters had a good source who had seen the camera footage and that source described it to the reporter in enough detail to let us say there was such evidence.
A law enforcement source?
Because it wasn’t my source, I’m reluctant to give out more than just a source here, but given the situation, it’s not difficult to draw the lines.
Rewrite is a tough job, especially with a tight turnaround time and so much incoming raw material.
The outline was the key. I had a list of all the characters in the story and notes about who interviewed them. Once we knew how the story would unfold, it was a matter of moving from scene to scene. The outline worked at times as a storyboard, so at each stage I knew whose notes I needed. I read and reread all the notes over the course of the writing and would come upon details or events that I realized would fit. We stuck to the outline for the most part, but it was flexible enough to let us react to those “oh, wow, yes” moments when a scene would come together.
Sometimes it’s is a sort of sleep-on-the-office-floor kind of situation until the story runs. How’d you get through it?
For writing, I need Diet Coke; coffee doesn’t do it for me on long stretches like that. And when I’m writing more than a daily news story, I plug in the iPod and play movie soundtracks: the actual scores, not vocal selections. Hans Zimmer is good, John Powell, Alexandre Desplat. For these stories, I remember listening to Zimmer’s “Sherlock Holmes,” all three of Powell’s “Bourne” scores, and “The Dark Knight,” among others.
What does music actually do for you while you’re writing? Is it not distracting?
I can’t explain why I like it or why it works. Anything with lyrics distracts me, but there’s something about the way a good score is written that keeps me focused and helps me tune out everything else. Beyond that, it’s something I discovered by accident years ago and I’ve stuck with it.
What writers do you read − nonfiction or fiction − for inspiration?
At the risk of sounding like a cliché, I read lot of crime fiction. Sue Grafton, Laura Lippman, Michael Connelly, C.J. Box, Stephen White, Susan Hill. Crime fiction tells stories efficiently and with the sort of style and suspense that serve narrative well.
What am I missing?
I have never been a serious outliner when I write. I map out blocks based on topics, then fill them in. For this, we outlined the heck out of the stories and it paid off in the end. It made it easier to write, and I think Josh would tell you it made it easier to start editing because he knew what to expect. He suggested changes during the editing and helped tighten the narrative from start to finish, but I was amazed when I looked back at those big sheets of paper and realized how closely we’d followed that initial outline.
And you can’t have too many details for a narrative. You just never know when you want something as simple as the color of a wall or whether there were steps leading out of a house or what traffic is like on a Saturday morning.
We had readers tell us they kept reading even though they knew the outcome, and that was one of the best compliments we could get because that was really our first obstacle from the beginning, engaging readers in a story whose ending they thought they knew.
Shaun McKinnon (@ShaunMcKinnon) has been an Arizona Republic reporter for the past 11 years and writes the Waterblogged blog, news and analysis about Western drought, conservation, natural resources, water and wildlife. He previously worked in Las Vegas; Washington; Carson City, Nevada; and Logan, Utah. He has won awards from the Arizona Press Club, Best of the West, the Nevada Press Association and others.