‘How I wrote the story’: Creating a narrative spine

A dash of structural seasoning perks up an everyday environmental news-feature

My former L.A. Times colleague Berkley Hudson, now working on a PhD at UNC Chapel Hill, once covered the San Gabriel Valley, a huge collection of suburbs in eastern Los Angeles County. In this essay he describes how he improved a 35-inch news-feature about a local environmental dispute by creating a narrative spine–a chronological device to make an everyday dispute more vivid.

The essay is a good lesson in how higher writing values can lift the quality of your reporting. In this case, Berkley’s values prodded him, as he puts it, to get out of the office and get his feet wet–giving the reader the same sensation.

'How I wrote the story': Creating a narrative spine

'How I wrote the story': Creating a narrative spine

Too many reporters assume that “narrative journalism” always means huge commitments of time, space and tragic events. Truth is, you can sometimes throw in a pinch of narrative style the same way you throw a pinch of a powerful spice into an ordinary dish and make it lots more flavorful. Here’s Berkley:

For years, I had wondered about the huge scar that cuts across the face of the San Gabriel Mountains in Azusa.

Other reporters had written several news stories about a local debate over the scar from a quarry’s rock mining operation, before I had been assigned to cover environmental issues in the region several years ago.

The stories often emphasized the inside-baseball aspect of local politics about the quarry, which I thought had little interest to anyone but Azusa readers.

There was a grander story to be told, I thought, dealing with environmental issues, property rights and the fact that the quarry blocks access to one of the nicest waterfalls in the San Gabriels.

Plus I had been trying to find any excuse to write about the scores of quarries in Azusa, Baldwin Park and Irwindale, which continued to fascinate me with their huge cranes and deep pits and armies of trucks.

Richard Winton, our community correspondent who was covering Azusa, told me that the Azusa City Council would be considering whether to revoke the quarry’s operating permit.

This was the opportunity I’d been waiting for. My editor, Pat Benson, was immediately enthusiastic when I told her that I saw the story as an environmental one. It would deal with the issue of hikers’ access to public lands versus the property rights of the quarry.

She encouraged me to keep the focus there and de-emphasize the local, highly personal politics which had long consumed the Azusa City Council. Her initial supportive response was significant for me as I reported and wrote.

I had several objectives that equally shaped the reporting and writing.

I wanted to take the reader to an unusual place where the reader might not ordinarily go, and to put that place in the context of its controversy.

I wanted to illuminate the controversy by explaining that the quarry provides the raw material to essentially build L.A., and to report and write about this as an environmental issue.

And I wanted to elevate the story above the ordinary ‘‘talking heads.’’ That meant I would need to get out of my office and get my feet wet, giving the reader that opportunity–indirectly–as well.

As I called different possible sources, I made an amazing discovery: During an initial phone interview, I asked the quarry’s spokesman if he had ever seen the falls or trekked along the path an hour’s walk above the quarry. He said no.

That’s when I got the idea to focus the story around a hike. I knew it could form a nice narrative spine and give the story some natural momentum, because things happen on hikes into the mountains. At the least, the scenery would be compel ling. So I knew I couldn’t go wrong.

The only difficulty was to persuade him to go on the hike. It took some cajoling over several days. I met with him in person to cement the deal.

When I returned to the office, I was talking with Winton, who sits next to me. (I have a high need to share with my colleagues when I am both reporting and writing.)

He said to me something like: ‘‘So you’re going to do a story like the one John McPhee did with the Sierra Club guy and the dam official?’’

That’s when it clicked. The hike could take on even added tensions and dimensions. I could find an environmentalist to go with us.

Right, I said to Winton, reaching to my desk bookshelf where I kept three McPhee books.

I reread McPhee’s ‘‘Encounters with the Archdruid,’’ which served as my inspiration. It tells of three ‘‘encounters’’ McPhee set up between Sierra Club founder David Brower and three antagonists. Particularly, I read the story of a trip do wn the Colorado River with Brower and federal dam mogul Floyd Dominy.

I wasn’t exactly dealing with people of this stature. But my motto for covering the Glendale-to-Pomona chunk of L.A. County was: Think globally, write and report locally. And Azusa Rock and Fish Canyon was the story I had.

In brash environmentalist Jim McJunkin, I found the perfect foil to the quarry spokesman.

He agreed to go on the hike, which took persistence to make happen because of the heavy rains at the time and the quarry spokesman’s reluctance to get wet. Indeed, it rained on us for part of the time.

When I began to write, I made a ‘‘quote list’’ as I often do. I listed the names of the significant sources and next to them put one or two telling words from particularly strong quotes.

Next to Davis of the quarry, I wrote: ‘‘Mine to Palmdale…Tear down the mountains…Rock Town…No compromise…’’ All of these quotes appeared in the final version. But many more from the quote list never made it to even the first draft.

A strength of the writing, I believe, came from focusing and developing as characters two people who represented the opposing viewpoints, instead of quoting a whole bunch of people. It was fun to discover that the quarry spokesman had been a campus radical and that the environmentalist had been a member of Youth for Nixon. I think that information came out simply because I went on a hike with these two guys and after a while hiking, they began to loosen up and feel good enough to reveal themselves in a way they would not have over the phone or in a more ordinary setting.

As I reported the story more, enlisting Winton’s help, I also called probably 20 to 25 city, state and federal officials, community and business leaders and environmentalists, and I read over files and files of clips and public records.

Initially, I paid too much attention to all of this material as I wrote, and gave it too much space in the first draft. What I learned from writing the story was: ‘‘It’s the hike, stupid.’’

When I wrote the sked [for the paper’s news budget]I focused on the hike. But in my first draft, the hike became diluted. I didn’t even start with it in the lead. It was buried more than a few paragraphs down below the nut graphs.

My editor, Pat, reminded me of what I had initially told her would be my approach in writing: Focus on the hike. Keep it as the spine. Spread out the segments of the hike. Weave the other material around it.

And so that’s what I did. My first draft’s beginning paragraphs became part of what eventually was the final version’s 8th paragraph and the 13th and 14th paragraphs.

It was easy to find in my notebook the dialogue and a relevant drama from the hike. From the time I first saw the falls with the two main characters, I knew that should have a pivotal place in the story, that this would be what I call a key moment. These key moments help me to organize a story. Often I write out in pen or pencil a short list of four to five of them and put them next to the computer terminal.

In the writing, I wanted to postpone as long as possible the key moment when the quarry spokesman sees the waterfall for the first time. I wanted to let the reader experience that through his eyes. That would create a nice line of tension to pull through the story.

The easy part was writing the sections on the hike and deciding to string the hike out through the story in a chronological fashion. The hard part was to decide how to cut up those parts of the hike, where to put them, how to weave in the other material and how to build my transitions.

At first, when I was rewriting my initial draft, I thought I might lead with the fact that the two adversaries had agreed to try to open up the path to the falls. Then, with Pat’s blessings, I decided it would make a much better ending and that I could legitimately defer this ‘‘newsy’’ element to the last.

Pat, based on a suggestion which I think came a supervising editor, made a nice addition of foreshadowing to the fourth paragraph by hinting that ‘‘the hike would yield surprises.’’

In the end, the publication of the story had its surprises and repercussions. It has influenced the ongoing debate. And the weekend after the story appeared, the quarry allowed more than 100 hikers to walk along the trail that had been long blocked.

Also the two adversaries, quarry spokesman Davis and environmentalist McJunkin, who had gotten the idea to open up the trail on the hike, subsequently staged a trail cleanup day to remove downed trees and rock slides from the path to the falls.

Here’s the story:


Heading into Fish Canyon, two unlikely hiking partners trekked carefully around a quarry that is carving up a mountain of granite–and virtually blocking the trail to one of the most stunning waterfalls in the Angeles National Forest.

“They’re tearing down our mountain,” said Jim McJunkin, the brash spokesman for environmentalists who have demanded that the Azusa City Council shut down the Azusa Rock Inc. quarry.

Undaunted by the criticism, quarry spokesman Tom Davis, the other hiker, countered: “People say, without being facetious, that we are going to mine through the mountains–all the way to Palmdale. We are not going to tear down the mountains as people know the mountains.”

From the privately owned mouth of Fish Canyon to the waterfalls on public lands to the north, the amicable adversaries hiked along a rocky path into the San Gabriel Mountains, a hike that would yield surprises for them.

Making their way from denuded slopes to a place where native trout swim in a perennial stream lined by aromatic sage plants and bay trees, McJunkin and Davis chatted about coming of age in the 1960s: McJunkin, today’s 48-year-old environmentalist and business sales consultant, once a Youth for Nixon; Davis, the 40-year-old corporate spokesman, a campus radical when he studied geology.

Far from that wilderness yet within sight of the canyon, the City of Azusa on Monday will weigh environmental concerns against the city’s economic stake in the quarry and consider whether to revoke the operating permit for the 186-acre site. For the last six years, this debate has regularly found its way to the Planning Commission, the City Council and the courtroom. Since 1990, one year after environmentalists failed to persuade a Superior Court judge that environmental laws demand closure of the near-century-old quarry site, the city has required an annual review of the quarry permit.

Davis looks at Fish Canyon and sees the raw building blocks for skyscrapers, freeways, houses, commuter and subway rail beds, sidewalks and ocean breakwaters.

“We have a legitimate right to operate this facility to serve a public demand,” he says, noting that the average American “consumes” four to eight tons of rock annually–just by riding on streets, walking on sidewalks, and living and working in buildings, all made of rock to some degree.

“Some of these (environmentalists) . . . just want us out of here. There’s no compromise.”

The quarry’s owners–CalMat Co. and New Owl Rock Products, which jointly took over the facility in 1989–have gone to great expense to remedy environmental complaints about its operations, Davis said.

At a cost of $10 million, the quarry is building a 2 1/2-mile-long conveyor belt that by year’s end will carry rock from the quarry to Owl Rock and CalMat plants. This project was partly designed in response to complaints about trucks traveling through Duarte, on a public road originally financed by the quarry.

But environmentalists like McJunkin charge that the quarry, as it chews up the mouth of Fish Canyon, continues to cause air, noise, water and visual pollution. Despite Azusa Rock’s efforts to replant the mountainside, he says, a scar as tall as a skyscraper mars the landscape.

He and other environmentalists complain that the quarry, in league with the U.S. Forest Service, has shut the public off from the canyon and the 80-foot waterfalls, an hour’s hike north of the quarry in Angeles National Forest.

On their way to the falls that Davis had never visited and that hikers have had little access to for a decade, the men gingerly journeyed on a deteriorated trail.

They dodged landslides and trees felled by recent storms. And at one point where the trail was treacherous and washed out, Davis abruptly slid down a steep gravelly slope and then righted himself.

As they trekked, they passed the foundations of dozens of cabins, long since abandoned after the Forest Service in the 1970s decided to stop leasing the public land.

Access to the falls has been restricted since about 1983, except for hikers who obtain permission from the quarry. Extensive coastal flooding had increased the demand for the large rip-rap rock the quarry is known for. As a result, quarry operations began to block off the trail, which hikers had been permitted to use for decades. Today, Davis said, the quarry makes its trail available on a case-by-case basis, depending on weather and quarry operations.

“People were upset and we were upset,” Don Stikkers, a U.S. Forest Service official, said of the closure of the trail head in the 1980s.

Since then, Stikkers said, the Forest Service has worked to reopen it. At one point, the quarry and the Forest Service built a new trail, one that started high above the canyon mouth to avoid conflicts between hikers and machinery.

But that trail was steep and treacherous with rockslides, Stikkers said, and eventually it was shut at Forest Service request.

County and federal officials have blamed the quarry for wiping out a rare flowering plant in the canyon, the Dudleya densiflora, and a type of fish, the arroyo chub.

Quarry supporters in the largely blue-collar town of 41,333 say that to shut down Azusa Rock would cause devastation of another kind: a collapse of the city’s finances.

With a total of 125 local employees, Azusa Rock, CalMat and Owl Rock contribute mightily to the city coffers. Two years ago, for instance, the city’s five quarries accounted for close to 7% of Azusa’s revenues, supplying more than $1 million, most of it from a “rock extraction tax.”

Azusa is already financially strapped. Sidewalk repairs, tree-trimming and roadway improvements have been curtailed along with the public library’s hours. Things are so bad the city has delayed repair of a hole in the police station roof.

Without Azusa Rock, the city would be even worse off, said Davis, president of the Azusa Chamber of Commerce. And the health of Azusa Rock directly affects the well-being of CalMat and Owl Rock, whose two neighboring sand, gravel and asphalt plants are supplied with material from the quarry.

As he and McJunkin hiked, Davis spoke proudly of Azusa Rock’s community involvement, such as contributions in Azusa and neighboring Duarte to Little League teams, public parks, schools and scholarship programs.

“This has been a rock town from the beginning,” Davis said, adding that quarrying first took place around Fish Canyon as early as 1908 when the area began to serve as a convenient supplier of the voracious rock needs of Los Angeles.

The current permit for the site was first issued in 1956, long before today’s strict environmental laws were in place.

In recent years, the Azusa Rock issue has been emotional and divisive. Candidates, some of whom have received donations from rock companies, have based campaigns on their quarry stand. Two councilmen in 1989 fought back a recall campaign based partly on their support for the quarry. Azusa Rock spent tens of thousands of dollars in that fight, and now threatens to take the city to court if the council shuts the quarry down.

Some environmentalists see the quarry fight in global terms. Rainforest Action Committee’s Southern California director Atossa Soltani said her group opposes the mining operation because a Mitsubishi subsidiary, MCCD, owns 50% of New Owl Rock Products.

On behalf of indigenous people of the Third World, she said, Rainforest Action has fought Mitsubishi over its logging and mining interests. “How can we fight to protect forests elsewhere in the world if we don’t fight at home?” she said. “In the case of Azusa Rock, we are the indigenous people.”

To some quarry supporters, allowing rock mining is no different from permitting houses to be built on the foothills, as in Glendale, Duarte, Bradbury or many other places. And besides, quarry advocate and Azusa Councilman John Dangleis said, there really isn’t a valid aesthetic issue. “Personally,” he said, “I don’t think the hills are that pretty.”

Along the Fish Canyon stream, Davis and McJunkin reached a swirling pool surrounded by boulders as big as a Buick. McJunkin, who moved to Azusa when he was 12, said: “I used to swim there years ago.”

“And he used to catch fish with his bare teeth,” Davis joked.

Eventually, they heard the falls, long before they saw it. A thunderous sound rolled down the canyon walls.

A few minutes later, Davis had a reaction he’d never expected.

“Cowabunga!” he said, looking at the layered tiers of water. “Now I can see why you guys want to keep the trail open.”

Water sprayed on them as they hopped boulder-to-boulder for a better view.

As the men returned wet and muddy, Davis proposed that the two should join forces to reopen the trail. He said, “It’s bad for everybody. Bad for us. Bad for the Forest Service and bad for hikers.”

With that, McJunkin said he could agree.

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