Member Spotlight: Lisa Martin, The Crozet Gazette, 2017 Best in Show Writing (Specialty)

By | 2018-05-10T18:21:17+00:00 May 10th, 2018|

This week we had the pleasure of talking with Lisa Martin, a writer for the Crozet Gazette (and various other Charlottesville pubs) and winner of the Best in Show Writing award for the Specialty category at our recent awards banquet.

In the interview, Lisa talks about the writing work that led her to journalism, using a strong narrative voice in reporting, coyotes penchant for watermelons and a lot more.

To start, can you please introduce yourself and tell us a little about who you are, where you’re from, where you work and how long you’ve been working there? I grew up in New Orleans, and have lived in Charlottesville for the last 16 years with my husband, who teaches at UVa, and our two sons, now 17 and 20.  I loved creative writing in high school but veered off toward business in college and beyond (I actually hold a PhD in Accounting, yikes), finally circling back to writing in recent years.  I was lucky enough to publish a trilogy of children’s middle-grade novels, which taught me how to build a narrative and the value of unsparing self-editing.  In writing historical fiction, I discovered that the part I loved most was the research—getting the details exactly right—and so I pitched several ideas to local newspapers and magazines and, to my great surprise, was given a chance to write in a whole new way.

Now I do education and investigative reporting for the Crozet Gazette, and I also freelance for C-ville Weekly and others in central Virginia, and every day is a joy.

Wow. From accounting to young-adult novels to historical fiction. What was it like to finally get the chance to write some good old-fashioned shoe-leather journalism? Was it liberating to write in this way?

Yes, it was oddly liberating, even though journalists are constrained by facts.  Although fiction allows you to write whatever you dream up, the double-edged sword is that there’s often nothing to hold on to in building a story because you don’t know what comes next, which makes a person like me very nervous.  Beginning with a question/event/issue and diving to unearth the history, facts, opinions, and context is like finding something that’s been lost or hidden.  The process of putting what you’ve figured out in the right order in the story is maddening for a while and then truly satisfying.  I never feel stuck or frozen, as I sometimes did with fiction writing.  There’s always somebody else I can track down who can shed light on the thing.

At the same time, I try to use the creative side of my brain to tell a better story, to make it clear but still interesting enough to keep people reading.  The absolute best is when I’m able to explain a complicated or divisive issue that I know people have questions about in a way that helps them understand it and think about it differently.  Often, I start with topics I don’t know nearly enough about myself (e.g., land use, conservation easements, the water supply), so I have to read and absorb much more than I eventually write.  I had a ton of new skills to learn when I started.

Do you think putting a narrative focus—with accompanying characters and plots– in reporting can help make complex issues like land use and water supplies more accessible to readers?

Absolutely.  It’s called a news “story,” after all, and the most compelling stories engage the reader in so many ways — using colorful descriptions and trenchant quotes, creating a sense of movement with chronology or escalating events, interweaving contrasting points of view, drawing the reader in with an intriguing opening and ending at the right time with a sense of completeness.  A great piece of advice given to me early on was to constantly anticipate what the reader’s next question will be, and answer it.  That gives the story a natural flow and keeps the focus where it should be—squarely on serving the reader.

One of the best things about investigative or explanatory reporting is that for every story I go out and meet people who are experts at what they do, and who have spent years or lifetimes working at a thing to improve it or expose it or fight it or just to do it well, and they take the time to explain it to me, in detail and at length.  I’m constantly floored by the passion and devotion of regular people doing their jobs, and grateful to be in a position where I (literally) learn something new every day.

Since the Crozet Gazette is a monthly, we don’t have the time pressure of a daily or even a weekly and the editor, Michael Marshall, encourages us to take the space necessary to tell the whole story of an issue.  For a topic like land use taxation (the very sound of which may put some to sleep), the piece has to feature people and their surprisingly strong opinions rather than the intricacies of tax law.  The hardest part is corralling everything you’ve collected, finding the through-line, and recognizing what to leave out.  Most important is revision: making every sentence simpler, clearer, less wordy and dense.

Congrats on winning Best in Show Writing for the specialty category this year. I was wondering if you could talk about that piece and how you came to the idea of writing about coyotes?

Thanks!  The award was a huge thrill and a big surprise given the amazing writing in the specialty publications.  (I suspect the topic was an inherent draw, probably not replicable!)  As for the idea, I try to listen to what community members are talking about on neighborhood social media, and when coyotes began to show up on walking trails and near golf courses in our area, there seemed to be a fair amount of curiosity among townsfolk about their habits and potential threat to humans, pets, and livestock.

Read the winning article here.

I knew nothing about coyotes and so started talking to everyone I could find—farmers, biologists, critter removal guys, conservationists, pet-owners, etc.  Many interesting elements converged: strong opposing opinions, myths, physical threats, vivid scenarios,  plus a subject that causes a visceral reaction in readers.  The story was ideally suited to the narrative form that I love, where every explanation leads to the next question in a rolling sort of way.  My favorite story to write so far, for sure.

One of the best things about investigative or explanatory reporting is that for every story I go out and meet people who are experts at what they do, and who have spent years or lifetimes working at a thing to improve it or expose it or fight it or just to do it well, and they take the time to explain it to me, in detail and at length.  I’m constantly floored by the passion and devotion of regular people doing their jobs, and grateful to be in a position where I (literally) learn something new every day.

What was one fact about coyotes you learned while reporting this story that surprised you?

I didn’t know how much they liked watermelons!  I also found the idea of “guard donkeys” and “guard llamas” to be funny, but that’s a real strategy, apparently.  Coyotes and wolves almost never attack people, but most people revile them with a fear rooted in our culture, literature and mythology—it’s very interesting.  But everything is interesting, once you dig into it!  A long-time journalist commented to me that all you really need to be successful as a reporter is curiosity, and it’s true—that and tenacity will take you a long way.

What’s your next story, without giving too much away of course?

I’m actually writing about black bears right now, another misunderstood creature that lives among us. As is often the case with wildlife, humans are a bigger part of the problem than they’d like to admit.

Best writing advice you received:  Dialogue is action!  Get people talking and the story moves forward.

Advice for anyone wanting to tell a story through reporting:  Gather more info than you think you’ll need, especially contrary points of view.  Every subject is more gray than the black-and-white you think it’ll be going in, so have an open mind, and then tell the story in a way that surprises and enlightens the reader.