10 Feature Writing Tips from Tampa Bay Times Staffer, Author Jeff Klinkenberg

Chesty Morgan was a burlesque queen in the 1970s famous for supposedly sporting “the world’s largest natural breasts.”  Her real name is Lillian Stello.

A while back, a friend of Tampa Bay Times staff writer Jeff Klinkenberg happened upon Stello in a Publix grocery store in Florida.  In her 70s, she was dressed in a sweatshirt and windbreaker, buying cake mix.  They struck up a conversation.  As Klinkenberg tells it, within three minutes, in a thick Polish accent, she asked her baking aisle buddy, “Have you heard of Chesty Morgan?  That’s me.”

Klinkenberg heard about the encounter and soon enough he too was talking with Stello-Morgan in the grocery store, in pursuit of a possible story.  His first thought: “Wow, she’s still alive and she must have had a great time [throughout her life].”

But, upon meeting her, he was quickly disabused of that notion.  Her parents were killed in the Holocaust.  Later, her husband, a butcher, was killed in an armed robbery in Brooklyn that made headlines (known as “the icebox murders”) and her oldest daughter died, separately, in a car crash.

“I tried to write a compassionate story about her,” Klinkenberg said.  “The theme for that one, I guess, is to not judge a book by its cover.”  Or as he wrote at the start of his related profile, “The world is a complicated place.  Even red-hot mamas have real lives. Often those lives are tragic.  Sometimes they are beyond tragic.”

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It was one of the many lessons Klinkenberg shared in a featured talk at last weekend’s AEJMC Scholastic Journalism Division midwinter meeting, held at The Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

In a wide-ranging, 90-minute chat, the author and Times staff writer regaled the room with behind-the-scenes stories of his best and wildest work.

Below is a sampling of the most interesting advice snippets that emerged from his talk.

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10 Top Feature Writing Tips

1) Search for both broccoli and ice cream cones.  Klinkenberg said he looks for a mix of these when working on his features, in order to appease both editors and readers.  In his words, “Broccoli is what I sell to my editor. . . . It’s the nuts and bolts.  It’s the statistics.  It’s the pure facts, the impacting ones.  And you need some of that. . . . Things that are extremely important to the story, but if you just had a story full of that stuff it would be a little daunting to get through.”  So, as Klinkenberg advises, also ferret out and include some ice cream cones– anecdotes, a funny quote, a standout description.  As he puts it, “An ice cream cone is something I can offer the reader as a reward for reading.”

2) Go where your sources are.  Specifically, observe and interact with them in their natural habitats, doing everyday things.  “I don’t like to talk to someone on the phone,” Klinkenberg said.  “I like to talk to people in person.”  One of his interview sessions with Stello, for example, took place on top of the apartment she owns. She was tarring a portion of her own roof, in part because she doesn’t always trust others to do that type of work for her without cheating her in some way and also because she has learned to be self-sufficient.  (“She knows plumbing, air conditioning, carpentry, and roofing.”)

Due to a question posed by Klinkenberg while she worked, she ended up reenacting a smidgen of her old burlesque performance right there on her roof, while wearing sneakers and rubber gloves.  As she told him, “My act?  Hon-ney, I had better costumes than Liberace!  I walk through the crowd from the back so they can see me up close.  I have a long coat with a tail.  I swing the tail this-a-way and that-a-way as I walk.”  It’s a surreal, semi-comical, yet poignant moment– and the perfect close for his profile.

3) Make notes– and know your ending.  Klinkenberg said he writes tons of notes immediately after a reporting stint, while everything is fresh and his brain(storming) is in high gear.  He said he probably ends up using only 1 percent of what he has gathered and jotted down.  As he looks through his notes, he always focuses on figuring out what the story is REALLY about.  Among other things, he confirmed, “Obviously I like to know where the ending is.  I like to know where I’m going.  You always want to think about things in the narrative form.”

4) When it’s time to write, don’t be so hard on yourself at first.  The key is doing all you can to get beyond the initial, rigamortis-inducing uncertainty centered on the question, “How can I ever produce something great?”  In his words, “Part of the writing process is lowering your standards.  It’s saying things like, ‘Well, my wife will still love me even if this stinks.'”

5) Search for a sense of place.  It’s not just about location, necessarily.  It’s the people, the routines, the traditions, the memories, the larger culture.  His personal search, via his beat: “What makes Florida Florida?  This could be done anywhere in the world as far as I’m concerned. . . . Look for what makes a place what it is.”

6) Get feedback from the sources and focus of your stories.  It’s scary, for many reasons, of course, but can be gratifying and essential to confirming the quality of your work.  For the Chesty Morgan profile, he said he received positive feedback from readers and her family when it was published in mid-December 2009, but initially didn’t hear from her.  So he called her around Christmas.  Her response = classic: “Oh honey, I wish you could have given me a better line-up.  The pictures you ran of me, they were no good.”  The images.  Those were her only concern.  The story, meanwhile, she liked because her friends and family liked it.  As Klinkenberg shared with a smile, “If the first person who talks to the person [featured] says it was a good story, they like it.”

7) Read.  Read.  Read.  Klinkenberg and his colleagues are constantly reading good journalism and then talking with each other about what they took away from it.  In his words, “If you want to write a newspaper article, you have to read well.  Read, read, read, for inspiration, for ideas.  I’m always doing that.”

8) Find a voice, but let the story determine who or what it should be.  As Klinkenberg said, “I’m looking for a voice to tell the story, and of course it depends on the story [in terms of who or what that voice should or will be]. . . . And once I get to that voice, the first draft is a little bit easier.”

9) Read your work aloud.  Reading the drafts of your stories aloud is useful, because you can often hear things you tend to miss on sight.  “You hear the clunky sentences,” he said.  “You hear the typos.  You hear where you’ve used the same verb three sentences in a row.  You hear the strengths and then can get rid of the weaknesses.”

10) Don’t just search for quirkiness– or the easiest angle.  In Klinkenberg’s words, “As you get older, you get a little wiser and you see the humanity in people.  You get to this point where you realize people aren’t all good or all bad.  We’re in the middle.  We all make mistakes.”

He referred at one point to a Tampa Bay Times regular feature called “Bizarre Florida” that spotlights “weird, unusual, true news stories” in which the weirdness is the first, most prominent, and sometimes only angle.  “We certainly have our share of that [in the state],” he said.  “But if you know Florida, if you travel Florida, you see the rest.  I flinch [at times when reading or talking about ‘Bizarre Florida’]. . . . Life is so much more complicated than the bizarre.”  For example, there is Chesty Morgan: “It begins bizarre, but there’s so much to her.  She’s lived this very full, tragic life.”

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One other example: the singer Billy “The Kid” Emerson.  He was popular in the 1950s and 1960s for R&B and rock and roll hits that at times were not-so-subtly sexual.  One memorable lyric Klinkenberg recalled: “My gal is red hot / Your gal ain’t doodly squat!” Klinkenberg reached out to the elderly Emerson recently.  He’s now a preacher in Florida.  His take on his old songs, which many fans love and consider classics: “It’s the devil’s music.”  As Klinkenberg wrote at the start of the Chesty Morgan feature, “Today we offer a cautionary tale about jumping to conclusions.”

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2 Responses to “10 Feature Writing Tips from Tampa Bay Times Staffer, Author Jeff Klinkenberg”
  1. I found this article very helpful as a collegiate journalist. One of my favorite parts of journalism is the story and the people and this article just made me want to go out and write.

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