Category Archives: Storytellers

Video as Story

Mountain View Group Shares Best Practices in
Digital & Video Communications 

Mountain View Group Principals

(L to R) Thom Gonyeau and Stephen Pruitt, principals with Atlanta creative agency Mountain View Group.

Mountain View Group, an award-winning Atlanta-based creative communications agency founded in 1981 by a documentary filmmaker, wowed professional communicators on Jan. 26 with their insights on the power of video storytelling.

“Story is ultimately about affecting change – it could be change in what someone knows…it could be change in what someone believes…and it could be change in what one does,” Thom Gonyeau, Mountain View Group’s principal and founder told the Atlanta chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) during the organization’s first meeting of 2016.  “Story is the means, and change is the end.”

Gonyeau, a creative storyteller for over 20 years, was joined by principal Stephen Pruitt, as they shared the keys to engaging people’s hearts and minds in today’s video age.

Noting that “a very high value is placed on video content,” Gonyeau cited a statistic from B2B Marketer that over 80% of B2B marketers now rely on video content in their annual communication plans, posting video via corporate websites, YouTube, video blogs and even six-second Vines.  ChiefMarketer.org, reports an even higher percentage of video usage at around 96%.  “In the B2C space, you are talking about 100%,” he added.

Gonyeau called the “holy grail’ of video storytelling is when companies take a long-term approach to their video strategy rather than doing one-off videos.

“One thing we’ve learned is that no one really needs a video. What you need is a solution to a business problem,” said Pruitt, explaining that is how his firm always starts conversations with new clients. “If you start to think that way about your video content or any creative content, you start to think more strategically about your message and what you need that content to do for you.”

Pruitt explained that video isn’t always the best communication tool if one needs to present a lot of detailed information. But it’s a great medium to excite, engage and emotionally connect with people. “Video can stir the imagination – it’s a great vehicle to showcase people, places…it’s also a great way to motivate people to want to learn more,” he said.

One thing is clear, Mountain View Group knows its stuff.  Pruitt said the team tackles an average of 150 projects a year, from corporate videos, animation and commercials to graphic design, communications strategy planning to social media. Last year at the IABC Atlanta’s annual Golden Flame Awards, the Inman Park creative firm won eight Golden Flames for their work.

Gonyeau said there are three ideal times for a video story:  at the birth of a new company, when a company is going through major change, and when it is facing real challenges. In the case of change, video can “bring some certainty to the chaos.” During times of challenge there’s “an incredible opportunity to use story in an authentic and purposeful way to get your message out there,” he said.

Mountain View’s team of 15 full-time creatives takes a process-driven approach to helping their clients strategically think about their video project. They start with the “Creative Brief” – a consensus-building tool that enables client and agency to jointly define the project deliverables and the purpose and objectives, including audience and key messages.

Gonyeau considers the purpose and objectives “the real meat” of the brief.  It’s where he asks clients, “Why this?” “Why now?” “What’s changed?”  It’s also when the agency helps the clients define the creative challenge of “What do you want the audience to think, feel and do?”

From the Project Brief, Mountain View’s team defines their client’s story. A storytelling worksheet helps the process along – it embraces the classic three-act screenplay structure, including the concept of a hero.

An important detail is distribution of the video, leveraging a company’s internal and external social media, video and PR channels. “Too many people leave this as an afterthought,”   said Pruitt.  “When  you tell stories with video, you are making an investment and you want to make sure you are getting the most out of that investment. Creating a multi-channel distribution plan is the way to do that.”

He advised, “Look at what the core communication channels are to reach the target audience, whether it’s internal, external, corporate marketing, PR, social media. You can figure out which ones to take the most advantage of and which ones you didn’t think of to get this message out. Then, once you have the distribution plan mapped out, promote it.”

Mountain View’s principals then shared examples of their agency’s video work from clients such as Coca-Cola, Raytheon and GE.  Check out videos showcasing:

The two presenters summed up their talk by sharing a quote by Seth Godin: “Marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make, but about the stories you tell.”

Following the presentation, communication pros shared their impressions:

  • “I loved the talk and the Creative Brief leave-behind in how to construct a story. Very worthwhile!” – Scott Dixon, President, CATMEDIA
  • “The most valuable takeaway from the talk was the necessity of doing a Creative Brief and to know the one key message you’re going to give. In my experience working as freelancer for corporate clients, we sometimes forget to ask, ‘What is your objective?’ ‘Why do you need a video?’”- Elisabeth Holmes, The Writing Studio
  • “The point that no one needs a video; what they need is a solution to a problem, really stood out for me because it brings everything back to the business and keeps us focused, allowing us to drive the business forward. “ –Uzo Amajor, Internal Communications Manager

Combating the Darkness: Inside the Writing Process of Multi-Bram Stroker Award Winner Jonathan Maberry

Jonathan Maberry

Jonathan Maberry

There are few horror writers out there today as prolific as New York Times’ bestselling author  Jonathan Maberry, who won the Bram Stoker Award for his first horror novel, Ghost Road Blues, in 2007, and has gone on to receive horror fiction’s most prized honor three additional times. As I write this post, he is nearing completion of his 25th novel.

A multi-dimensional writing talent, Maberry is known not only for his adult novels such as Dead of Night and Patient Zero, but also for his comic books and his YA books. ROT & RUIN, a SciFi novel set in post-zombie-apocalypse and told through the eyes of 15-year-old Benny Imura, made it on Booklist’s Top 10 Horror fiction for Youth in 2011 and is now in development for film.

Maberry is a busy guy  but not too busy to make time to share his writing journey DragonConLogowith other aspiring authors. At this year’s Dragon*Con convention in Atlanta, I had the privilege to hear him speak on two author panels and included some of his more memorable soundbites on my DragonCon wrap-up blog post.

Dead of Night Book OneA week before Halloween, while in the throes of reading book one of Maberry’s Dead of Night series, I asked him to be featured on The Writing Well. He not only agreed, but he also responded to my questions within a few hours  the day before a major trip.  That says it all.

Here’s our Q&A about his journey as a writer — sit back with your favorite Halloween brew and enjoy!

 

THE WRITING WELL: What drew you as a writer to the dark themes that are prevalent in your novels, especially the zombie-apocalypse?

 

JONATHAN MABERRY: I know monsters firsthand. I was raised in an intensely abusive household and in a very violent and very poor neighborhood in Philadelphia. My father was a

Beloved and wacky Harry Potter character, Luna Lovegood.

Wacky Harry Potter character, Luna Lovegood.

genuine monster. A couple of things cast a little light into that darkness. My grandmother (imagine Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter movies as an old lady) was very knowledgeable about folklore, myths and legends, mostly from Europe. She gave me many books to read, told me wonderfully creepy stories, and encouraged me to imagine the endings to the folk tales she’d tell. And my middle school librarian encouraged me to read science fiction, fantasy and horror. She knew I wanted to write and my stories tended toward the dark. She was also the secretary for a couple of clubs of professional writers, and so was able to introduce me to some of the members. They included Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison and others. Those writers, especially Bradbury and Matheson, took me under their wings, offered advice and critiques of my stories, and they encouraged me to read even deeper.

However one thing to note is that I don’t write about monsters. I write about people who confront monsters. I don’t write about darkness. I write about people who combat darkness. The difference is significant.

THE WRITING WELL: Why do you think that genre is so compelling to people (as evident by the phenomenal success of “The Walking Dead”?
walking-dead

JONATHAN MABERRY: We are all afraid of something, even the bravest of us. I’m now a big man and I’ve been studying martial arts for over fifty years. I’m an 8th degree black belt in jujutsu, a member of the international martial arts hall of fame, and a former professional bodyguard. I’m not afraid of, say, a maniac with a knife, but that doesn’t mean I’m free from fear. I fear diseases, mishandled technologies, religious extremism, and so on. Things that are too big (or, in the case of pathogens, too small) for me to fight. Those are things that I can’t defend my family against. We all understand fear.

Horror fiction allows us to explore extreme cases of fear. Zombies are a perfect example of that. We see the zombie outbreak in books, TV, comics and movies and we wonder how we would survive. Could we, in fact, survive? Could we keep our families safe? Could we fight back and win? This same what-if thinking flows over into stories about vampires, werewolves, pernicious spirits, and so on. We walk through the shadows of fictional horror carrying a torch of our own optimism and imagination.

Shows like “The Walking Dead” are not about zombies. They are about people trying to rebuild their lives after catastrophic damage. The title of the show, by the way, does not refer to the zombies. Robert Kirkman has been quite eloquent in explaining that Rick, Daryl and the others are the ‘walking dead’. The lives they once lived have ended and they are searching for a new place to be alive again. Fiction allows us to share that journey and apply much of it to our own lives.

 

THE WRITING WELL: How would you describe your writing process?

JONATHAN MABERRY: I am a methodical writer. I’m deeply passionate about the craft of writing and I love the business aspects as well. It’s both my job and my calling. Since it is my job, I put in the hours. I write every day. I hit my deadlines. I expand my business by developing new stories, I manage my own social media (I do ten minutes of social media every hour of my writing day), and I devote time to cultivating and supporting other writers.

 

On a typical workday I spend two to four hours each morning, usually working at a coffee shop. Then I hit the gym or go for a long walk with the dog. In the afternoon I return home and do another four hours in my office there. I try to write 3-4 thousand words per day. A bit less if I’m traveling, at a convention, or giving a talk. More if I’m closing in on a deadline. This year I’ll have written four and a half novels, twenty-two short stories, a dozen issues of comic books, and appeared at thirty-one events.

 

THE WRITING WELL: Do you write first from a character or a plot premise? 

 

JONATHAN MABERRY: I do both. My stories usually start with characters. They usually wander out of the back of my mind and into a story that’s forming based on something I’ve seen, read, or cooked up. Once I know the character, I think about what the character wants and what he needs. At that point I sit down and hammer out a loose plot. I always allow my stories to change in the telling, of course, because it’s unreasonable to assume that you had all your best ideas the day you outlined your book.

 

Once in a while a plot premise will come first, but as soon as I have that I shift gears to examine the human element of the story. Stories are about people, not events. That’s critical to good storytelling.

 

THE WRITING WELL: At a Dragon*Con panel you said you always run your stories by your wife for feedback. What was the most memorable feedback she ever provided?

Authors AJ Huntley and Jonathan Maberry at the 2015 Dragon*Con held in Atlanta.

Authors AJ Huntley and Jonathan Maberry at the 2015 Dragon*Con held in Atlanta.

JONATHAN MABERRY: One of the most important aspects of my creative interactions with my wife, Sara Jo, is that she is all about characters. She will call me on it if a character is ever acting contrary to their presumed nature. She calls it ‘acting out of integrity’. She is invariably correct. She isn’t a writer, but her understanding of people is superb, insightful, and wise.

 

We met walking in a park. Well, I was walking and she was jogging. The person with whom I was walking was a mutual friend, so Sara Jo stopped to talk. She and I had a little moment of shared electricity. But I thought she was married, and she thought I was dating the woman I was strolling with. Neither was the case. When Sara Jo found out I was single, she called me. I have never much believed in the ‘love at first sight’ thing, but you can call me a convert now.

 

THE WRITING WELL: Finally, what aspect of your own craft have you worked on the hardest to master or fine tune  (the thing that perhaps didn’t come as easily)? How can up-and-coming writers  do to get their writing to the next level?

 

JONATHAN MABERRY: Fiction was the real challenge for me. Even though I wrote stories as a kid, I planned to become a newspaper reporter. I went to Temple University to study journalism, and while I was there I began selling magazine feature articles. For twenty-five years I wrote articles, columns, and reviews for magazines of all kinds. While teaching at Temple University I began writing textbooks –not on writing, but on martial arts history, women’s self-defense, and related topics). And I also wrote greeting cards, song lyrics, poetry, plays, how-to manuals, training scripts, and a slew of other materials. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that I decided to try fiction. It was an experiment and I had no formal training in creative writing. None.

To teach myself the craft, I read everything I could, and then I began deconstructing my favorite novels in the genre in which I wanted to write. I read those books as a reader, and then I re-read them multiple times as a writer, breaking them down to the three acts, then to outlines, studying the elements of figurative and descriptive language, voice, pace, tension, action, dialogue. All of it. When I felt that I was ready I outlined a novel and began writing. It took me over three years to finish that book, and another six months to revise it.

bramstokerThat’s the point at which I had to go out and find an agent. I got a good one, too. Sara Crowe, currently of the Harvey Klinger Agency. Sara sold my first novel, Ghost Road Blues, and its two sequels to Kensington’s Pinnacle imprint. The book surprised the hell out of me by winning the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel. That award seriously validated my decision to try fiction. As I write this I’m three days away from finishing my 25th novel. And I write short stories and comics. Fiction is virtually everything I do in this phase of my writing career, and I have very little interest in looking back at my nonfiction days. Two of those novels are in development for film and another is in development for TV; and I’m adapting Ghost Road Blues into a pilot for a potential series.

However, I’m still learning the craft. It’s fun but not easy, and I believe it is incumbent on every writer to try and better their best. Always.

True Calling’s Siobhan Davis Talks about her YA SciFi Series

 

TrueCallingSeriesBanner

I love to find new authors online — especially those with a fresh voice, fascinating settings and above all, vivid but imperfect characters. Irish writer SIobhan Davis fits the bill. She’s the author of the True Calling series, three science fiction romance novels set against the backdrop of post-apocalyptic Earth.  The story opens on planet Novo, a settlement for Earth’s chosen few located 1,200 miles above the Earth’s surface.

The main character is 17-year-old Cadet Ariana Skye. Spirited and independent, Ariana adores her dad and is protective of her little sister. She and all the new residents of Novo have no memory of life before coming to the planet — all part of the government’s vision to start a new life with no pain of those they left behind on Earth. She fights her attraction to another cadet, Cal, a gorgeous but arrogant son of Novo’s military commander. Soon, Ariana, Cal and other teens are given a directive: to save the human race, they must choose a spouse through a “pageant” or calling and have a family or humanity may risk oblivion. A full-blown rebellion breaks out by the besieged people left behind on Earth and the “perfect society” on Novo begins to unravel. Ariana must balance safeguarding her family with her growing feelings for Cal and a need to find the truth about her past, including the identity of a compelling man named Zane who seems to speak to her in her dreams.

Siobhan DavisSiobhan’s love of the YA genre comes through with every page of this compelling story. The author’s instincts for creating characters who must grow and struggle with plenty of conflict and danger is rare in so new an author.  I applaud Siobhan’s knack for developing believable love triangles  — her depiction of Zane, Cal and Ariana’s anguish and passion  are reminiscent of the Edward-Bella-Jacob triangle perfected by Stephenie Meyer in the Twilight saga, and to a lesser degree Suzanne Collins’ depiction of Katniss struggling with her feelings for Gale and Peeta in The Hunger Games.

I found the first two books of Siobhan’s  series the strongest of the three. My one criticism is that there was too much time lapsed between the switching point-of-view characters of Zane and Ariana when they are separated on Earth and Novo,  but the overall story has a lot of punch and plenty of dramatic moments, making it a must-read series.

I look forward to reading more from this debut author.   Learn more about Siobhan on her author page, http://www.siobhandavis.com/  and check out her Q&A with The Writing Well below.

Q. Have you always wanted to be a writer growing up in Ireland? What types of stories do you enjoy most?

 

Siobhan: I’ve always loved reading and writing and books are my favorite form of escapism. English and History were two of my best subjects in school and I studied History in college. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been daydreaming and imagining stories in my head. In some ways, I think I’m much more comfortable in the fictional world than in the real world. Anyway, I got caught up in my career, and then after I got married I was also juggling a hectic family life, so my ambitions had to take a backseat, though, I was always writing – whether it was connected with my corporate life or as a hobby. I actually wrote True Calling years ago and never did anything with it until last year when the timing finally felt right to pursue my dream.

I enjoy the YA and NA genre the most, but I’m also an avid reader of crime/thrillers and I’m a big fan of Kathy Reichs and Tess Gerritsen.

Q. What drew you to YA dystopian novels as a genre besides the incredible commercial success of books like Twilight and The Hunger Games?

KindleSiobhan: I love the blending of action, adventure, swoon-worthy romance and life–or–death type scenarios, and kick-ass or strong-willed heroines that are typical of the YA books I read. I enjoy YA science fiction, dystopian and fantasy more so than contemporary YA, in the main. I also tend to really enjoy the writing style of the many talented authors who write in this genre. Some of my favourite authors are Jennifer L. Armentrout, Wendy Higgins, Susan Kaye Quinn, Marie Lu, Jospehine Angelini, Laini Taylor, Marissa Meyer, and Amy A. Bartol, to mention a few.

Q. What inspired/sparked the premise of your True Calling novel? Did you always intend to write it as a three-part series or did it evolve?

 

Siobhan: It all started with a dream—just not my own. Like a lot of my generation, I got hooked on Twilight in 2009 and was fascinated to hear how Stephenie Meyer felt compelled to write the series on the basis of the now-infamous dream. Dreams have always captivated me and I started thinking a lot about their meaning and whether our dreams have the power to change our lives (not just metaphorically speaking). I wondered a lot about her ‘meadow dream’; probably more than was normal. Who sent her that dream? And why? And did someone (or something) plant that seed knowing full well that it would lead her on a path to a significant life-altering experience? And what are dreams anyway? A malfunction of our brain? An unconscious message from our inner selves? A medium for receiving messages from others? My thoughts jumbled around like this for weeks, and my idea started to grow from this silent analysis and developed from there.

 

I always intended to write it as a Trilogy, however, I hadn’t intended on writing a short story and Novella as part of the series. It felt natural for me to write Lovestruck after I wrote True Calling as I wanted to give the reader a glimpse into Cal’s head, because he isn’t a narrator in the first two books. Beyond Reach ends on a massive cliff hanger and I knew it would be unfair to make the readers wait another four months to discover the conclusion, so I wrote Light of a Thousand Stars, to help bridge the gap between publications. It also felt important to provide the backstory to Ariana and Zane’s love affair and Team Zane fans had been begging me to write it!

Q. How challenging was it to create realistic (and imperfect) characters and a love triangle between Cal, Zane, and Ariana?

 

Siobhan: While my characters are fictional, I wanted to portray them as realistically as possible, and that meant ensuring they had strengths as well as weaknesses. I’m quite structured in my writing process and I always create a character bible at the outset of a series, and add to it with each book. This maps out the character in detail – personality traits, physical characteristics, and likely actions to certain key plot points. I also identify actors/models who match the image of the characters in my head and I put their pictures up in my office. During difficult scenes, I find that looking at the physical manifestation of my fictional characters helps me to stay in their head and understand their motivations and drivers in that particular scene.

The situations they were placed in created some natural conflict and tension and it was fun to test my characters, and have each of them act ‘out of character’ at least once. For example, Zane conceals something in Beyond Reach which we would never expect him to do. However, he was getting increasingly desperate, and though he’s a mature, level-headed guy most of the time, he is still prone to bouts of jealousy. Up to that point, Zane had been almost faultless in his love and support of Ariana. I wanted to show that he wasn’t perfect, that he did have some flaws.

The love triangle was challenging insofar as it involved so much heightened emotion. When you consider everything else the characters are dealing with on top of the romantic drama, it led to some emotionally charged scenes and decisions. I wanted to stay true to the characters as much as I could while writing this and I constantly had to question and challenge myself to ensure they were acting as naturally as possible in each scene/situation. I really love getting into the nitty-gritty of the human mind and exploring that love-hate line that often exists within intense romantic relationships. All three characters’ experience that fine line at some point in the series.

Q. Your secondary characters were also rich and engaging to me – no easy feat, I know! What is the key to creating believable characters?

 

Siobhan:  Again, my character bible is an invaluable tool. I map out all secondary characters using the same process I apply to the main characters, though not to the same level of detail as they don’t play as big a role. I give due consideration to what is going on in that characters world and how that interconnects and impacts the main characters. Reviewing that character’s personality traits on a continual basis helps me understand them and ensure that they are reacting appropriately in each scene. If one character has a challenging scene, and I’m unsure how they will react, I find it helpful to pick three or four other (different) characters and map out how each of them would react to that situation. That helps me keep a clear head in terms of how the character in the scene would naturally react.

For me, bringing everything to a base emotional level really helps me relate to my characters.

Q. World building is an important part of fantasy writing. What did you draw upon for ideas and inspiration when creating your futuristic view of Earth and Planet Novo?

 

Siobhan: I relied hugely on my imagination and drew inspiration from other movies and books and the world around me. The two worlds in the True Calling series are vastly different, as one is a Utopian-type environment and the setting on Earth is dystopian. I pictured them as complete extremes and that helped to shape the different settings. My husband is also a fantastic sounding board and if I’m struggling to visualize something I run it past him, and we discuss it at length, and then I find I’m brimming with new ideas. He’s like my own personal creative coach.

Q. Without giving away the ending, did you consider a different ending for Ariana than the one you ultimately wrote?

 

Siobhan: Yes and no. She was always going to end up with that life because I wanted the underlying message to be about female empowerment – that you can have it all even when it seems impossible or unachievable and when you don’t even realize what it is you seek until you have found it. She was always destined to end up with that boy. However, when I was plotting the final book at the start of writing the series, the manner in which they ended up together was going to be vastly different due to events which impacted the other boy (I know it sounds like I am speaking in riddles but I’m so conscious of not inadvertently spoiling any of the plot points!) If I had stuck with that initial concept it would have changed things up considerably. When I sat down to write Destiny Rising, it didn’t feel like the right path to achieve the outcome I had planned, in part because the story organically developed in a way I hadn’t expected, and also because I had gotten hugely attached to the other boy and I wanted to give him his HEA. In the end, I couldn’t be more pleased with how it turned out.

Kindle

I had an idea recently to write an alternative Destiny Rising, that is, if Ariana had chosen the other boy instead how would things have panned out? I often think about that in my own life. Where or what would I be doing now if I had chosen differently at key points in my life? I find that notion intriguing. I ran my idea past my Street Team and my ARC Team and they are all unanimously in favour of me writing it. If demand continues, I will write it in 2016.

Q. What one aspect of writing these books would you have done differently if you could? You can speak to the writing aspects or publishing.

 

Siobhan: I wouldn’t change a thing with regards to the characters or the plot and I’m very happy with how the series turned out. However, I was very green when it came to the whole promotion and marketing side of the publishing industry, and if I had my time over I would have been smarter in some of my decisions I made. They do say you live and learn though!  There are a few brilliant books I’ve read recently on publishing and marketing which I wished I had read a year ago.

Q. Any advice for other novelists out there staring out?

Siobhan: Never stop believing in yourself. Read a lot. Write a lot. But don’t forget to live your life because you need to draw on life experiences as an author.

Q. What’s next for you in terms of writing projects?

Siobhan:  I have just completed the first draft of Saven Deception, which is book one of my new YA series. It is another science fiction romance series, though the premise is almost the complete opposite of the premise in my True Calling series, and this time there are some hot aliens in the mix! The first book will be released on 15th December 2015 with the remaining books following in 2016.

 

Newspapers Not a Dying Business in Southwest Florida – A Journalist’s Mecca

Tablet Smartphone News_001

“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
                         – Thomas Jefferson

Not long after moving to Southwest Florida last November, I ran into a gentleman in front of Publix selling subscriptions to the local newspaper, The Naples Daily News. A journalism grad who had just relocated with my family from Atlanta, I was keen to sign up. I’d always loved printed papers, and mourned the decline of print journalism – a byproduct of the online revolution.

I asked him how sales were going, fully expecting to hear the same depressing outlook. He smiled, telling me that Naples has one of the best demographics of newspaper readers with its influx of affluent retirees. He predicted his community will always have a thriving newspaper, even as much of the rest of the world embraces online sources for staying informed.
I was excited to learn that sentiment echoed on Tuesday when two area newspaper publishers talked about the news business at the Gulf Coast chapter luncheon of the Public Relations Society of America.

Publishers Talk State of News Biz

 

L-R Bill Barker and Mei-Mei Chan, publishers of The Naples Daily News and The News-Press. Photo courtesy of PRSA/Gulf Coast Chapter

L-R Bill Barker and Mei-Mei Chan, publishers of The Naples Daily News and The News-Press. Photo courtesy of PRSA/Gulf Coast Chapter

Bill Barker of The Naples Daily News and Mei Mei Chan of the Fort Myers News-Press were both upbeat about the health of their newsrooms and advertising base in remarks made to a room of professional communicators.

Chan, who joined the Ft. Meyers paper five years ago from Seattle’s news market, kicked things off with a video marking her paper’s 130-year anniversary that culminated this past November with an open hFtMyersNewsPressouse at the paper.

Describing the complex processes that come together to get a paper out 24×7 as “The daily miracle,” Mei-Mei admits that how we access news has changed since the early days of newspapers. Some readers remain loyal to print papers while others have evolved to e-editions, usually through their iPad.

Storytelling  that Resonates

“How can we reach this very fragmented world? How do we keep ahead of it and don’t leave behind the legacy of the printed world?” she asked the group. Her answer: storytelling.

“Storytelling makes the difference – it’s what drives us every day,” she said.

Mitochondrial Disease sufferer Gavin Lawrey.  Photo by Sarah Coward/news-press.com

Mitochondrial Disease sufferer Gavin Lawrey. Photo by Sarah Coward/news-press.com

The challenge for news reporters is to find the stories that need to be told that can’t be told any other way such as the story of Gavin, a five-year-old Cape Coral boy who was diagnosed with an incurable disease.

The human interest story told online and in print detailed his family’s financial struggles and spirit, including his sister’s super hero comic-book writing to give her brother hope in fighting the disease. The series on Gavin earned an Edward R. Murrow Award. More significant, the story touched readers, resulting in the family receiving $40,000 in aid within a week of the initial piece running.
“That’s the kind of love and outpouring great storytelling can inspire,” Chan said.

She considers the emergence of social media and new technology as a positive development because “we can compete as never before with our broadcasting brethren.”

Reporters today have to wear many multimedia hats — not only interviewing sources and filing their stories on deadline for the print edition, but also shooting video so that the story can be told across channels.

Newspapers need to Engage, Report the Good and the Bad 

Bill Barker agreed with many of Chan’s points, acknowledging that “we are in a big transition.” NaplesDailyNewsBarker was appointed publisher of The Naples Daily News in October 2013 after serving as publisher of The Tampa Tribune and president of Tampa Media Group Inc.,

“Engaging content is the key today,” he said, adding that newspapers today must report both the good and bad news in a way that is “engaging, deep and meaningful.” “Our role is to tell stories in a way that grabs you…enriches your life and helps you be a better person.”

Barker told the group he loves coming to work at his paper’s new headquarters and seeing the community engaging with the paper. “We open our building all the time to community events.”

Sunday News Readers Eclipse Super Bowl Viewership Every Week

Even as many papers around the U.S. have shut their doors or gone to “web only,” the E.W. Scripps Co. invested $95 million in the new 186,000 square-foot facility in 2009. In addition, both publishers reiterate that Sunday remains a huge news day for their readership. In total,  more people read the Sunday paper each week than tune in to the Super Bowl.
Barker said papers need to once again embrace their editorial voice – and take a stand on issues, noting, “Isn’t it great that we’re having conservations on Facebook about issues?”
He contends that newspapers don’t have “an audience problem” – “we have a business model problem.”

The news media’s biggest challenge:  to leverage content and distribution to challenge how people think about issues.

“Newspapers still set the agenda nationally and locally. You should expect your newsrooms to be accountable – to have a voice and to have a reference to debate,” Barker concluded.

 

Humor & Satire Writing Pt. 2: Excerpt from ‘Hillbillies Prefer Blondes’

Marilyn Monroe from the film, "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."

Marilyn Monroe from the film, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

Today, The Writing Well is delighted to showcase Roy Richardson’s unique brand of humor writing with an excerpt from his short story collection, “Hillbillies Prefer Blondes.” Last week, Roy was featured on The Writing Well along with author Jameson Gregg on how they create prose that makes people laugh. On Monday, Jameson will share an excerpt from his new comic novel, Luck Be a Chicken.

Hillbillies Prefer Blondes

By Roy Richardson

Roy Richardson

Roy Richardson

First grade was pure hell for me. Because I had not attended kindergarten, I was put in with a bunch that the state of Georgia had deemed “Slow Learners.” A cage packed with Howler monkeys would have been more civilized.

In front of me sat a snub-nosed little girl with white blunt-cut hair and freckles. Her skinny legs showed scabs on both knees, which she picked at as she appraised me through squinted eyes.

“Daaang, little boy, you sure are ugly!’ she decided. “You look like my granny’s billy goat!”

I was taken aback by her white trash candor. True, the Good Lord in his infinite wisdom had graced me with a cleft palate, but the accompanying scar had never been described to me as ugly, and I had certainly never been compared to a farm animal before. I made what I imagined to be a truly ugly face at her, and decided that the best way to cope would be to ignore her. This established my relations with the opposite sex for years to come.

Behind me in this hillbilly version of the Inferno sat Wilber the Stutterer. I quickly concluded that given a choice between stuttering and looking like a billy goat, Pan would win every time. Poor Wilbur was hounded relentlessly by the other little rednecks.
I myself did not tease poor Wilbur. Whether it was out of true compassion or just a Baptist fear of burning in Hell, I cannot say. Poor Wilbur took this simple act of Christian restraint as a sign that we were to be lifelong friends, and proceeded to follow me around like an ADHD puppy dog.

While Wilbur’s vocal handicap did not vex me, he was in fact dumb as a post, and tended more and more to react to the unrelenting taunting of his fellows with violent outbursts. So while I did not torment poor Wilbur, I did decide it would be in my best interest to distance myself from him.

Slow as he was, Wilbur was no fool. He approached me one day with his hands stuck in the pockets of his grubby jeans, a purposeful look on his dull face. He pulled one hand free and extended it to me, saying “I-I-I want to give you this for being my f-friend.” In his sweaty, thick-fingered little paw was a grimy quarter. I was screwed.

Fortunately for me, this moral dilemma soon resolved itself. Based on my grades and the recommendation of my long-suffering “Slow Learners” teacher, one Mrs. Garner, God bless her soul, I was transferred from her torture chamber into an “Advanced Learner” class. While this group had its own entirely different set of problems, at least the smart kids were a little quieter.

Not long after this ascent into the higher echelons of grade school learning, I received a reminder from whence I had come. I was standing in the lunchroom line with the rest of the Shining Elite, when I felt a sharp pain hit my arm. I turned to see the grinning face of the Little White-Haired Girl, who had just pinched the hell out of me.

“Hey, Ugly!” she shouted happily, evidently delighted to be able to insult and injure me in front of a whole new group of my peers.

Conjuring up the worst epithet I could imagine, I hissed back: “Hey, Turd!” She looked genuinely hurt, and made no reply, save to scowl and jut out her lower lip.

That was the last time I ever saw her, as her family soon moved off to parts unknown. Many years passed before I had gained enough insight into the female psyche to realize that “Ugly” had been intended by the Little White-Haired Girl as a term of endearment, and that she probably had been genuinely hurt by my retort.

I have occasionally wondered, as the years have gone by, whatever became of that little girl. I like to picture her as a grade school teacher, wrangling year after year with increasingly large classrooms full of loud, ugly little children.
Of course, judging from the examples of other old flames that I have encountered in recent years, it is equally likely that she is either a Dominatrix, or ensconced in an asylum somewhere.

© 2014 Roy Richardson

 

A Look Inside the Craft of Humor and Satire Writing

Laughter

By Anne Wainscott-Sargent

Georgia writers Jameson Gregg and Roy Richardson share three things in common: they love language, they love Mark Twain and they love to make people laugh.

I recently sat down with these two talented wordsmiths over lunch to talk about how they go about the craft of humor writing. And in the next week, I will be featuring excerpts of their writing here on The Writing Well.

Jameson Gregg

Jameson Gregg

Jameson, a North Georgia attorney of twenty years, left the law profession to write full time a few years ago. He recently celebrated the launch of his debut comic novel, Luck Be a Chicken, a tale of a redneck southern family trapped in generational poverty and facing a gut-wrenching crisis of how to raise money for their baby daughter’s operation.

Roy Richardson

Roy Richardson

Roy, a lifelong Georgian, has spent three decades as a writer/artist for Marvel/DC/Darkhorse Comics. He collaborated with his wife, June Brigman, inking, lettering and coloring the Brenda Starr comic strip for 15 years. Roy continues to juggle his freelance art assignments with his writing, a constant challenge.

Currently, he is compiling a series of short stories, titled, Hillbillies Prefer Blondes, which in addition to seeking a publishing home, he intends to record as an audio book. His writing is inspired by his own life —coming-of-age in Georgia in the 70s. I’ve gotten to know Roy through our writers’ group, and I can tell you that his readings are always a comedic highlight of our group’s gathering.

Check out our conversation below:

Q. How would you describe your unique writing voice? What inspired it?

Roy: I read a column by Stephen King recently where he stated his belief that voice is the single most important factor in keeping a reader engaged. I agree, and I always try to use voice in a way that will make the reader feel that I am telling a story just to them. As for describing my voice, it’s more of an instinctual thing rather than an intellectual process. I’m afraid if I analyze it too much, I won’t be able to do it anymore…

Jameson: I would define my voice as the ability to a) recognize the potential for humor in a situation, b) add to, expand, and embellish with imagination, c) write it with clarity. What inspired it? I think the desire to deliver humor, writing or otherwise, is either in one’s DNA or it’s not. Every child I’ve known loves humor. I think as we grow, that interest in humor becomes less important as other serious and complicated issues cloud our lives. Every adult I know also likes humor and likes to laugh, but few have the inclination to pursue it as a living. That’s where the DNA comes in. Personally, my humor DNA comes from my (now deceased) mother and grandmother. They would both go to great lengths for a practical joke.
Q. What things do you draw upon to bring humor to your writing?

Roy: I find that stating the obvious in the most obtuse and pseudointellectual manner possible is usually funny. And if that doesn’t work, then I try the exact opposite approach, presenting the obscure as though it should be completely obvious to all. Also, having my characters stress out and bluntly spill some of the really stupid things most people secretly believe is usually good for a laugh.

Jameson: It’s important to be alert and on the lookout for it because it’s all around us and usually unintentional. Sometimes it’s putting two ideas together. For instance, when Dahlonega was hosting the latest Big Foot Conference, I saw a huge dude in Walmart and it resulted in the attached Sasquatch article. Another time, I was at the local farmers market and noticed a couple of old-timers hanging out in the shade. I wondered what they talk about, so instead of continuing to wonder, I sat down and made up what I thought they may be talking about. It appeared in a column I periodically write for the Dahlonega (Ga) Nugget.

Q. What writers and works inspire you?

LuckBeaChickenJameson: Picaresque novels. Ever heard the term? I hadn’t until after I wrote one. When fellow Georgia author George Weinstein wrote a blurb for my novel, Luck Be A Chicken, he called it a picaresque novel, the first I ever heard the term or the genre. How about that – write a book in a sub-genre without even realizing the existence of the genre! Examples of this type of writing include Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, who is kind of my hero. Also, anything by Dr. Hunter S. Thompson or Richard Brautigan. As for living authors, I read Tim Dorsey and Bob Morris. Carl Hiaasen is the king now.

I like Mark Twain’s tall tales. His work inspired me to write American History 101, attached, published this year in Stonepile Writers Anthology III, by the University Press of North Georgia.

Roy: Though I’m writing fiction rather than memoir, Mary Karr and Rick Bragg, as great Southern writers, have both informed my stuff. I also think that Michael Chabon writes some beautiful sentences. There’s some Twain, Poe and Harlan Ellison in the mix as well. What I get from Twain is to write about something absurd in an extremely serious and intellectual sort of way – the way he uses language, sentences and phrases like a puffed-up college professor.

Q. What would be your top piece of advice to other writers looking to inject humor into their writing?

Jameson: I think the most effective way is to write situational humor – where you get your characters into a situation that is funny – like we all do sometimes.

Roy: What I do is use language – taking an absurd situation but talking about it in a very serious analytical way, which makes it even more funny. I have a lot of dialogue and try to simulate how people talk – using accents without laying it on too thick – “daaang, little boy.” I’m working with a friend to record some of my stuff. I’m a little bit of a ham with southern accents.

Jameson: I try to capture the vernacular of my southern redneck characters in my novel. But you have to be careful – if you go too far it can make it unreadable. You have to hit a balance. One of my favorite nuances of the southern vernacular is the double negative: “I ain’t done nothing.”

Roy: It’s very hard to interject humor into something – I never liked the concept of comedy relief, which was something that John Ford would do in his films when all of a sudden the characters would stop and decide to have a fun fist fight. Comic relief, unless it’s done really well, takes you out of the story. It has to grow more organically with the characters – you have to set it up.
Q. In closing, can you share some favorite sayings, quotes, or words of wisdom?

MarkTwain“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
– Mark Twain

“I may be drunk, Miss, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly.”
– Winston Churchill

“What does it take to be a writer? – An indifference to money and a willingness to take risks.”

“Re: twisted people – it’s the cracked ones that let the light in.”

“Last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice.” – T.S. Eliot

“Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.” – Oscar Wilde

Paraphrase from the movie, Beasts of the Southern Wild: If I ever get too old to drink beer and catch fish, put me in the boat and set me on fire so they can’t plug me into the wall.

 

 

 

Meet Jennifer McQuiston: CDC Scientist-turned NYT-Bestselling Historical Romance Author

JenniferMcQuistPhotoAtlanta has its share of talented writers, especially in the romance genre, as noted by the number of Georgia Romance Writers chapter members who have received the coveted Maggie Awards that frequently lead to successful publishing careers with major houses.

In 2011, Jennifer McQuiston earned her first Maggie in the unpublished category. Within two years, she would be a New York Times bestselling romance novelist with Avon nominated for the 2013 RT Reviewer’s Choice Award for best First Historical Romance for her novel, What Happens in Scotland

MoMM FinalI recently caught up with Jennifer at the book signing for her third novel, Moonlight on My Mind.  A mother and veterinarian by training, Jennifer has managed to balance her new literary career with motherhood and demanding work as an infectious disease scientist at CDC.  I  literally “inhaled” two of her three Victorian era novels, including her second novel, Summer is for Lovers, in a matter of a few weeks, and can’t wait for her next series.  The vitality and irreverence of her heroines are unforgettable, as are the circumstances they find themselves in.  The Writing Well is proud to showcase Jennifer and her writing journey below.

Q. How did a veterinarian and CDC scientist become a historical romance novelist? You don’t normally associate the two types of professions together.

Jennifer: When I sat down to write my first book, it evolved as sort of a “see if I can” experiment, and what emerged was a romance set in a historical setting. (It sucked, by the way. In case you were wondering.)
But the why of it is more difficult to explain. Although I had dabbled a bit in flash fiction and short stories with a contemporary feel, my first attempt to write a book was unapologetically a historical romance. Looking back, I think it is because the rhythm of it felt most natural to me. I had always loved to read historical romance, and in fact, it was the process of discovering amazing historical romance authors like Madeline Hunter that made me first want to try my hand at writing anything.
With respect to the seemingly incongruous nature of my professions, I can only point to a scientist’s great love of research as a natural fit for the research required to craft believable historical fiction. And as for the romance? I spend my days writing the most tedious scientific articles imaginable… I would even welcome the opportunity to write limericks as an escape!

There one was a highly trained vet
Who never practiced on a pet
She worked as a fed
And was very well read
Happy endings were always a sure bet.

Q. Your heroines in at least your last two books are all independent, spirited women who often are misunderstood by the society and the men that they eventually love. What do you hope readers “get” about these strong characters who defy stereotypes or limited views of what they can accomplish?

Jennifer:  So many historical romance authors take heat for writing stories with romance at its core—as though that is something incompatible with a strong, modern woman! Rubbish, I say. I am an unapologetic feminist, and have never felt that my gender was something I needed to “overcome”, either professionally or emotionally. It was refreshing to arrive in veterinary school waaaaay back in 1993 and realize that 80% of my class was female, and that all of us were going to wrestle pigs and palpate cattle. And it is refreshing now to meet fellow romance authors and realize that 90% of them are more extreme feminists than I am.
History is full of examples of women who challenged feminine stereotypes, from Joan of Arc to Florence Nightingale. While they may not be “typical” women, they were real, and by studying and sometimes emulating them, I have been able to create romance heroines that are firmly anchored in their era, but that contemporary readers of historical romance can root for.

Modern notions of feminism do create enormous conflict in the Victorian era. For example, if I make my heroine a swimmer (as I did in Summer is for Lovers), in an era where a woman could only enjoy the ocean in archaic and frankly terrifying bathing machines, I have beautiful, instant conflict for my story.

But conflict is a good thing in fiction, so it works out well for me.

Q. I’ve heard from other novelists that “voice” is often the hardest to master but is one of the most critical attributes of strong storytelling. Do you agree? How would you describe your narrative voice?

Jennifer: Voice is something that belongs uniquely to each author, and I have to say, it didn’t sync into place for me until my second attempt to write a book. (I wrote 5 before I finally got published, if you would like to count along). Workshops and conferences help you sort out form and function, and genre fiction can have certain elements that must be there that you can learn and execute as a matter of course (i.e., the requisite happy ending for Romance).
But nothing can teach an author their voice. You have to discover it, not learn it, and there is no way to do it but time, luck, and repetition.
It is funny, but I am not sure I CAN describe my narrative voice. I know I can point out specific differences from the rhythm of my writing versus other writers. I favor certain combinations of rhetorical devices, and love rich word choices (I LOVE words. Sometimes my critique partners have to call me down). I also believe my voice captures my strong sense of humor, and reviewers and readers often say my voice is witty, snarky, and irreverent at times.
It figures…my sarcasm got me into oh-so-much trouble in high school, but now it is at least earning me a bit of a paycheck.
Q. You mentioned at your book signing that your favorite novel was your first – can you explain why?

How do I explain What Happens in Scotland, and describe what it whathappensscotlandecoverhas done for me and my family?

1) It was the FIFTH book I had written, and all the other had gotten “No’s”, so I was beginning to wonder if I was going to be able to “do” this thing.

2) The plot for the book hit me like a thunderbolt (I was turning 40 and planning a party with close friends in Vegas). I was watching the Hangover one night and thought, “Wow. There are certain elements of this that would totally make an original and fun historical romance.” The idea was so high-concept and I was so excited to write it, it poured out of me in only 3 months (no, that isn’t normal. Who do you think I am???)

3) It immediately felt different to me. Better than anything else I had written. Editors who had roundly rejected me for past book submissions thought so too, and it sold at auction a week after going out. So in many ways, it was a total fairy tale for me. And with the advance from that sale, I was able to buy my kids a freaking pony. Enough said.

4) Even though it was a polarizing book (reviewers either loved it or hated it), it generated a lot of buzz, and I can now claim “NYT Bestseller” on my list of accomplishments.
So yeah… totally my favorite book. Later books are almost certainly better written. And I enjoy the process of plotting new books a lot. But you never forget your first love…

Q. Do you have a favorite time period and geography to place your characters? If so, what makes that period and/or place so compelling to you?

Jennifer: My preferred time period to write about (and read about) is definitely the Victorian era. I find it so much more fascinating than the narrowly viewed Regency period. From 1840-1890, the world was changing in a head-spinning way. Railways replaced coaches, new money moved in, Americans went abroad, and medicine and science were growing by leaps and bounds (spurred by discoveries like anesthesia, the mode of transmission of cholera, and eventually germ theory). So much more interesting than waltzing!
To date, my stories have been British-set, but I do like to move them around. What Happens in Scotland is based in the Scottish Highlands. Summer is for Lovers is set in the Victorian seaside resort of Brighton, and Moonlight on My Mind is based largely in the Yorkshire countryside. My new series is heading to London (see question #6 below).

I also have a simmering idea for a west-Africa set missionary story based in the mid-Victorian era, but we’ll see if I ever get to write that!

Q. How do you approach period research to ensure your characters’ world is authentic? Any research tips for other writers with a bent toward historical settings?

Jennifer: Simply because it fascinated me, I had done a good deal of reading and background research on the early Victorian era even before I tried to write my first book. Historical settings can be hard, and if you are a perfectionist, be warned: worrying TOO much about the details can sometimes derail the story. For what I write (historical romance), the developing love story needs to be the actual heart of the book. For me, the key is to go into detail about things I DO know well (chamber pots, horses, historical methods of birth control), and not dwell on things that could trip me up (such as when door knobs were officially invented…I have very differing accounts from very different sources, and have no idea which to believe!)
My biggest tip is, whenever possible, read primary sources. I have read a lot of medical texts from the 1850’s, and I also have a huge, room-sized map of London from 1851 that I use to place me in that city for my current works in progress. And given that photography was invented in the Victorian era, I LOVE looking at old photographs.

Q. Congrats on getting another three-book deal from Avon – any hints on what you have planned next in terms of story lines?

Jennifer:  Thank you so much! I am terribly fortunate to have been given these opportunities, and I am excited to write a new series, tentatively known as “The Seduction Diaries”. The series follows two sisters and a brother as they navigate London Society on their own terms.
I am nearly finished with book #1 in the series, which is called “Diary of an Accidental Wallflower”, and it has some echoes of “Mean Girls” in it. Briefly, the reigning “It” girl in London sprains her ankle on the eve of the biggest ball of the year and is relegated to the (gasp!) wallflower line, where she eventually discovers there is more to life than dancing, and more to falling in love than dukes.
Q. Who are your favorite writers? Where do you go online for writing “inspiration”?

Jennifer: There are so many amazing authors, and when I’m not actively writing, I am still a voracious reader. Historical authors on my auto-buy list include Meredith Duran, Joanna Bourne, Julia Quinn, Sarah MacLean, Julie Anne Long, Cecilia Grant, Courtney Milan (do you want me to keep going? Because I totally can…) My critique partners are also fantastic writers…shouts out to Romily Bernard, Tracy Brogan, Kimberly Kincaid, Sally Kilpatrick, and Alyssa Alexander!

For even more local-to-Atlanta inspiration, my favorite writers all gather at a Norcross hotel once a month for Georgia Romance Writers. I always leave their meetings feeling energized and ready to tackle the whole industry!

Dashing DuchessesOnline writing inspiration… I love reading Smart Bitches/Trashy Books (even if they gave What Happens in Scotland a hell of a snarky review). I blog with a group of fantastic historical authors called the Dashing Duchesses, and every one of those ladies is an inspiration. And of course, there is nothing more inspiring than connecting with readers and other authors.I love seeing folks on Facebook (www.facebook.com/jennifermcquistonauthor) and Twitter (@jenmcqwrites).

Weather Storyteller Unleashes Lessons of Past Storm Disasters

Satellite imagery of Hurricane Ike (courtesy of NOAA).

Satellite imagery of Hurricane Ike (courtesy of NOAA).

What can weather history teach us? Quite a bit if you talk to Sarah Jamison, a Cleveland, Ohio, based hydrologist with the National Weather Service. Sarah’s what I call a “weather storyteller” — she’s the expert I sought out while researching the strange meteorological events that led to the1913 Dayton flood – a key setting for my up-and-coming historical novel, Torrential.

Sarah Jamison (courtesy of NOAA)

Sarah Jamison (courtesy of NOAA)

“The Weather Bureau offices for Indiana and Ohio on the morning of March 24, 1913 were calling for ‘unsettled weather, with rain or snow that night and colder Tuesday,’” Sarah said, referencing historical records during our background interview for my novel.

Of course, what happened over the next 24 hours has gone down in National Weather Service history: a combination of two high-pressure systems created a stream of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico that stalled right over the Ohio Valley, leading to intense rainfall – the equivalent of six months of runoff in two days. Some nine to 11 inches of rain fell that Easter weekend on ground already saturated from an early spring thaw. The torrent proved too much for the city’s levees, which broke early on the morning of March 25, and catapulted the city under up to 24 feet of water in places. The disaster cost Dayton more than 360 lives, and property losses of $100 million, or more than $2 billion in today’s dollars.

Damage from the 1913 Dayton flood.

Damage from the 1913 Dayton flood.

The flood that laid waste to Dayton wasn’t the end of Ohio’s weather woes. In November of that year, the Great Lakes were struck by a massive storm system combining whiteout blizzard conditions and hurricane force winds. The centennial of the storm, known as the “White Hurricane of 1913,”  is this Saturday. It lasted for four days, during which the region endured 90-mile per hour winds and waves reaching 35 feet in height.

“The Ohio Valley experienced its most destructive year on record due to the floods in March and the storms in November of 1913,” says Sarah. “When I researched the large-scale weather patterns that existed around the time of these storms, there was nothing particularly uncommon about them. In these instances the weather conditions just happened to coincide in such a way to produce these unprecedented storms. What this tells me is that we will be vulnerable for such storms in the future.”

She’s often called to document details of past storms for anniversaries – her first such project was the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Floyd that devastated North Carolina. We crossed paths when she worked on the Dayton flood centennial (see blog post marking this event). 

Sarah’s passion for informing the public of historical weather disasters serves many purposes, most significantly, “retelling the stories of these historic disasters helps remind people of their vulnerabilities,” says the Florida Institute of Technology meteorology graduate.

“In my profession we are fairly familiar with the historic weather disasters that shape our regional history. But is the public? Unfortunately, after recent disasters we hear the all-too-familiar statement from those directly impacted, ‘I never thought this could happen.’  Didn’t they know that the flood of 1913 had water 10 feet higher than this flood? How did they not know they were in a flood plain? Educating the public on their regional weather history can play an important role in preserving life and property in the future.”

Sarah began her National Weather Service career in Portland, Maine, in 2002. She has since worked at the forecast offices in Kansas City and the Outer Banks of North Carolina before being based in Cleveland in 2010.

She notes that weather “has played a critical role in historic events, from the Normandy Invasion to the crossing on the Delaware.”  

Sarah, along with her colleagues in climatology, concur that we are experiencing more extreme weather disasters from floods to droughts to hurricanes and tornadoes (The Writing Well previously addressed the topic of extreme weather when it featured award-winning science journalist Linda Marsa, author of Fevered).

Weather and climate disasters resulted in the second-costliest year for the U.S. in 2012. (Courtesy NOAA)

Weather and climate disasters resulted in the second-costliest year for the U.S. in 2012. (Courtesy NOAA)

In 2012, weather and climate disasters cost the U.S. $110 billion, with Hurricane Sandy alone causing damages of $65 billion, NOAA reported.

“From a hydrologist perspective, the threat of more extreme droughts and floods is very worrisome,” she says. “If the same area (of Dayton, Ohio) was to be impacted by the rains of March 1913 today, we would see far more reaching impacts than we did in 1913.”

She attributes that to the growth in communities in flood plains.  “Fortunately, forward-thinking individuals in Ohio made great strides in flood mitigation after the flood of 1913, so some of the more severe impacts would be lessened, especially in the Muskingum and Miami River watersheds. The biggest victory we could take away from a similar storm would be the great reduction in loss of life as forecasts now provide days of advance notice of storms of this magnitude.”

SJ_LogoOften in these storms, loss of life is due to people not recognizing that they are in a life-threatening situation. Sarah and her National Weather Service colleagues are now collaborating more closely with public and private agencies to promote public safety and preparedness in the face of devastating storms. The group, Silver Jackets, was launched during the centennial of the Great Dayton Flood. It leverages the resources and manpower of dozens of agencies.

As I watch news headlines of the impending land fall of Super Typhoon Haiyan, predicted by some to be the largest storm ever recorded, over the Philippine Islands, I can’t help being thankful that the US is marshaling its resources to build a more coordinated early-warning platform here.

As for Sarah, she’s already looking ahead to the next opportunity to educate the public. NOAA and the National Weather Service are sponsoring “Storms of the Great Lakes” exhibit at the Great Lakes Science Center on the Cleveland waterfront mainly to pay tribute to the “White Hurricane” of 1913. Sarah also is gearing up for the anniversary of Hurricane Hazel. Unfortunately (or fortunately) for this history-minded hydrologist, there are no shortage of regions in the country from which to find weather disasters.

“I encourage those in my field and supporting agencies like those in the Silver Jackets to take advantage of these opportunities to bring these storms back to life.”

Concluding our interview, Sarah leaves me with a fitting quote form one of her favorite historical figures – Winston Churchill, whose name she bestowed on her cat:

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

“When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure. There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the sibylline books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong–these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.”

—House of Commons, 2 May 1935

Filmmaker behind ‘Orphans of Apollo’ Film Shares Significance of SpaceX’s Historic Flight

This morning’s launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral marks a new era in space exploration. SpaceX’s bold move to rocket the first private spacecraft to the International Space Station brings new inspiration to space entrepreneurs around the world.
I had the honor to talk with one of those space visionaries – Michael Potter, a founding alumnus of the International Space University, who I recently interviewed while writing a story for Via Satellite Magazine.
“Orphans of Apollo” Filmmaker Michael Potter.
Potter brings a unique perspective to today’s events as the documentary filmmaker behind “Orphans of Apollo,” the extraordinary true story of a rebel group of entrepreneurs who seized command of the Russian Mir Space Station in what could be considered the boldest business plan the Earth has ever seen.
At the center of the film is ‘MirCorp’ — the very first entrepreneurial company to have a sole focus on the privatization of space with a fantastic vision of transforming the Russian space station into an outpost for what was intended to be the first phase of a trillion dollar business. The project was to include mining of asteroids, gravity-free laboratories, a space ‘hotel’, and a research facility. MirCorp was the ultimate start-up company.

“This film is an enthralling glimpse into space, and into the minds and hearts of people trying to get into it. Footage of rocket launches and of life on Mir is interspersed with interviews with the key players about the technical challenges, political wrangling, and business plans. We feel the excitement (and fear) of their project and get a sense of the mood in Russia and the U.S. after the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Janet D. Stemwedel, Ph.D., wrote on her blog, Adventures in Ethics and Science, soon after the film debuted.

Here, Potter talks candidly about the lasting dream of space born during the Apollo program, highlights while filming “Orphans of Apollo,” and the significance of SpaceX’s historic flight.
Q. Do you remember the Apollo space flights growing up? Was it a defining time, instilling in you a lifelong interest in space?
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface. Photo by Neil A. Armstrong, 1969.
I was eight years old when humanity journeyed to the Moon. I was definitely part of the Apollo generation. Kennedy sold the world on the need for space exploration and development. And when President Nixon shut down the Apollo program, and the U.S. government gave up on the space vision and dream, my generation became, “Orphans of Apollo.”
Q. Why did you decide to tackle this topic in the form of a documentary?
Because, I was one-degree of separation from all the key players in the story, I felt an extra inspiration and responsibility for curating the story and bringing the story to the world’s attention. I felt that it was such an important and iconic story it needed to be told.
Initially, I introduced the story to a well known documentary filmmaker, who was interested, but was keen that I do all the heavy lifting. So, I decided to embark on the film as a complete independent project.
Q. What was the most powerful moment for you personally over the course of making “Orphans of Apollo?”
There were a handful of moments of profound Epiphany in the making of the film.
  • The extraordinary openness and pride of the Russians. The great unshakable passion the Russians have for space exploration.
  •  The strong national security related issues connected to both the Mir space station and the International Space Station.
  •  An insight into the lack of sustainability and coherency of a great deal of NASA’s activities.
  •  Both the real and symbolic power that the new space companies have brought to the new race to develop space.
Q. This film has attracted quite a following in the academic world, within NASA and among space enthusiasts everywhere. What do you hope your documentary accomplishes?
Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO
One of the reasons for the following is because of the people who were included in the film, Elon Musk, Peter Diamanids, Richard Branson, Burt Rutan, Tom Clancy. Because of the media attention on the billionaires behind the project to mine asteroids, the attention on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and the news coverage of SpaceX, there has been a strong interest in “Orphans of Apollo.”
I was fortunate, because many of the people on Obama’s space transition team saw the film. The film makes a strong case for the importance of unleashing the commercial power of the marketplace in the development of space. While the Administration has not developed a powerful, clear, and compelling strategy for the development and exploration of space, they have taken positive steps towards broadening commercial enterprise as a driver in space exploration.
Q. What lesson/challenge did you glean from this experience that would benefit other budding filmmakers?
The critical importance of a meaningful and quite dramatic story. I consider myself to be a filmmaker who focuses on issues about the future of all of humanity – a new breed of humanitarian filmmaker.
The power of social network film distribution is really important for new filmmakers to understand and to develop.
Q. Are you working on any other film projects? Do you have plans to tackle any with a space focus?
I am an Executive Producer of the documentary film, “The University” about the Singularity University to be released later this year. (Based in NASA’s Research Park in the heart of Silicon Valley, Singularity University is cultivating future leaders who can harness the power of exponential technologies to improve the lives of a billion people within a decade).
Q. Lastly, how historic is the SpaceX mission from your unique vantage point as a space industry insider and documentary filmmaker?
Falcon 9 rocket lifts off at Cape Canaveral, Fla. (NASA / May 22, 2012)

The launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 is easily the most historic launch in 2012 and will probably be viewed as one of the most historic space launch events of the decade.

With the shutting down of the Space Shuttle program, and the reliance on Russians to taxi American astronauts to space, SpaceX is really the only game in town.Other than the Falcon 9, the U.S. has no clear, compelling, sustainable path for man-rated launch capability.
When I interviewed Elon Musk for “Orphans of Apollo,” very few people on the planet would have imagined that SpaceX would have the chance to become the centerpiece of the U.S. manned space program.
Today if you walk into the gift shop at the Kennedy Space Center, the very first prominent display is the SpaceX hats, shirts, mission patches and other space memorabilia. This was unimaginable three years ago.
If you work at Kennedy Space Center, own a restaurant or a hotel in Cocoa Beach you are probably a fan of SpaceX.
Through the most important American institution of all, private enterprise, Elon is injecting creativity, excitement, passion, ingenuity, challenge, into space enterprise. If SpaceX continues to succeed, both tangibly and symbolically, Elon will have to be viewed as one of the most significant space leaders of the decade.