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When to Use Quotes, and When not to

As you develop your writing talent you develop a technical appreciation of quotes–when they help and when they hinder.

Here, from two stories published today, are a couple lessons.

The first was a feature by the Los Angeles Times’ Peter H. King, who is making his way across the nation, sending back mood pieces tied to the Jan. 20 inauguration of Barack Obama.

Watch how artfully the quotes are presented, set up. This is a good example of a writer with his own distinctive voice stepping out of the way and letting the characters have their say.

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Total length: 1,015 words. Total words in quotations: 297, or 33%.

For contrast, read DeeDee Correll’s sidebar reconstruction of a plane’s crash landing in Denver, published in the Chicago Tribune. The recounting of what happened could not be left to the victims–they knew only the small universe that was their chaotic world; the reporter’s voice needed to be the dominant one, and it was.

Total length: 514 words. Total words in quotations: 35, or 7%

Check’em out.


MIDLAND, TEXAS–Here in the heart of the Texas oil patch, where the presidential voting ran about 4 to 1 for John McCain, where the latest tourist attraction is President Bush’s boyhood home, and where, according to a recent report in the Midland Reporter-Telegram, the election has produced an unparalleled run on assault weapons by gun owners fearing new federal bans, the notion of a Barack Obama honeymoon appears to be a nonstarter.

This was driven home with a visit to the Petroleum Club in downtown Midland, where each day at 9:30 a.m. a handful of Permian Basin heavyweights gather around a poker table for coffee and conversation.

“I’m scared to death,” one of the oilmen offered for openers in what would be a two-hour airing of their brief against the president-elect, which included complaints about liberal policies, inexperience, automaker bailouts, creeping socialism and so on.

“Obviously,” explained equipment supplier Jack Hunnicutt, choosing his words with care, “this part of the country is totally Republican. And we foresee probably some heartache before this is over. More giveaway programs, probably.”

I had described Hunnicutt in print, after a similar visit years ago, as a “balding bear of a man,” and his cronies still tease him about the line. Teasing is very much a part of the daily banter.

“Ronnie, get in here,” Hunnicutt sang out to a latecomer in his slow Texas twang. “We need your ex-per-tise. Whatever that is.”

“You-all don’t realize it,” the man responded, “but I could have been a brain surgeon.”

“And you damn sure could have practiced on this group,” Hunnicutt shot back.

This was not an insignificant bunch. As an oil industry lobbyist explained the first time I stopped by: “These aren’t the guys who get their boots muddy. These are the guys who pay the guys who get their boots muddy.”

Their meeting place, on the ground floor of a sand-toned building on Wall Street, was a windowless cavern done up richly in tan granite, dark woods and deep carpets. At other poker tables in this private sanctuary, an eavesdropper could hear deals being arranged, drilling strategies mapped.

There wasn’t much in the room to suggest hard times, and in fact until recently Midland — called the Tall City for its 20-odd-story office towers that rise out of the West Texas plain — had bucked many of the economic trends gripping the nation. Skyrocketing oil prices will do that in a city built on the stuff.

Six years had passed since my last visit. On that tour, I had been sent across the country to report on what Americans were saying about the prospect of a war with Iraq. The Petroleum Club of Midland, where Bush himself had spent time in his oil-patch days, had seemed to offer a certain bastion of support.

I received a surprise.

While the president had their general backing, some of these oilmen harbored serious doubts, citing a lack of a clear endgame and questioning the wisdom of injecting American troops into a region where internecine hostilities had flared for centuries.

“It’s kind of like stirring up those damn fire ants,” Hunnicutt had said. “They go underground for a while and then they come back and eat you up.”

Of all the people I talked to in that pre-invasion period — including noted historians and spring-training peanut vendors — the old boys of the Petroleum Club had seemed the most prescient.

I wondered if they would surprise me again with their thoughts about Obama and what his election might mean for America. They surprised me, all right, but only with the degree of their dissatisfaction.

“This country is not made up of a lot of happy campers right now,” said drilling consultant Johnny Mulloy. “Some of his ideas are so foreign to the way we think. Everything owned by the government. It doesn’t work. The government is going to own all the banks. Medicare is going to be screwed up like it is in Canada.”

Much of their ire this morning was directed at recipients of federal bailouts. After a few robust years, the Permian Basin oil region was again in retrenchment as oil prices fell back to earth.

“There are probably 100 less rigs running today than there were two months ago,” Hunnicutt said. “That is at least 15 to 20 people per rig who are suddenly out of work.

“You don’t see them marching in Washington saying, ‘Hey, where is our damn bailout?’ Not one driller have you seen up there, begging like these car people and these banking people.”

That the bailouts — and, for that matter, the universal fiscal crisis Obama must confront — had occurred on Bush’s watch did not seem to count for much.

“It’s only going to get worse,” Mulloy grumbled.

“You are going to have some old boy over here who is making $22 an hour as a roughneck,” said one participant, who like many did not want his name published. “And some guy is going to be reading his paper and having a sweet roll at $80 an hour in Detroit. “That is the perfect storm for someone to start a revolt.”

They wanted to make clear that their objections to Obama had nothing to do with race, only with politics and what they saw as a lack of experience. Most of all, in their view, the president-elect had simply made too many promises to too many people.

“He is going to be a whole lot less popular with some of the disenfranchised and downtrodden,” one said, “because he is not going to be able to deliver all that he has promised.”

And what of the Americans who voted for Obama, who saw him as an agent of hope with the potential to lead the nation to a new epoch of less-fractured us-against-them politics?

Mulloy, the drilling consultant, fell into oil-speak to answer that one.

“There is,” he said, “a term in the oil field about having your suction in the wrong pit. I’ll leave it at that and let you figure it out.”

Passengers, firefighters recall scene in Denver
By DeeDee Correll

DENVER–Gabriel Trejos wasn’t a nervous sort of passenger. He enjoyed flying. So when he and his wife, Maria, settled Saturday into their seats on Continental Flight 1404, heading to Houston to spend Christmas with his father, he felt relaxed. He hoisted his 13-month-old son, Elijah, onto his lap to point out the lights on the runway.

Minutes later, the plane gathered speed for takeoff. Then it hurtled off the runway, sliding down a gully. Maria, pregnant, gripped her seat.

“It was the worst feeling in the world,” said Trejos, one of 115 on the Boeing 737 at Denver International Airport.

As it slid downhill, Trejos saw flames in the engine outside his window. Finally the plane stopped. The air grew smoky. “Get out of the plane,” passengers began to yell.

The firefighters of Station 31 were just sitting down to dinner when the red alarm connecting them to Denver International Airport’s control tower began flashing.

That means a plane in trouble and it goes off frequently enough that no one was nervous. Real trouble is rare. But this time, at 6:18 p.m. Saturday, a voice from the tower announced a crash. “Did he just say what I thought he said?” asked firefighter Jason Cole.

From the four city fire stations spread around the 53-square-mile airport, firefighters stopped what they were doing.

At Concourse A, Cole and Capt. Mike Benton had been awaiting a passenger arriving with a medical problem. They took off running.

Inside the cabin, passengers rushed for the exits, and to Trejos’ disbelief, several first tried to retrieve luggage. Trejos, with Elijah in his arms, climbed onto the icy wing of the plane resting on its belly and dropped to the ground. His wife followed.

As the firefighters arrived, they saw passengers hiking toward them, some weeping, others eerily calm. Most shivered in their shirt sleeves in the single-digit temperatures. Those who had jackets offered them to Trejos to keep Elijah warm. One flight attendant had a sprained ankle and several people had head injuries, said Capt. Tom Gliver. In all, 38 were injured, with The New York Times reporting that five remained hospitalized on Sunday.

Cole, 37, clambered up the slide, which was already slick with foam that other firefighters had sprayed on the plane, and braced himself.

“I was expecting the worst,” he said.

So was Benton, 55, who entered after Cole.

It was black within. Cole, breathing through an oxygen tank, started down the aisle on his knees, groping with gloved hands for anything that felt human. Outside, firefighters aimed foam at the plane, and the spray blasted through the skin of the aircraft, dousing Cole in the face. An obstacle blocked the aisle, so he started climbing over the seats, running his hands over cushions, patting luggage.

Benton followed holding a thermal imager, a device that looks like a camcorder and detects body heat. He pointed it down each row of seats. Nothing.

“I was overjoyed,” he said later. “Not a soul was on that plane.”

By Sunday, the National Transportation Safety Board had begun an investigation.

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