A friend of mine wrote to me the other day, asking me about how I write. He wanted to know how I was able to find out which stories make a book, and which stories are better told as magazine or newspaper articles. "When have you reported enough to figure that out," he asked, "and how much of it emerges in the writing?" It's a question I often hear at book signings; besides their interest in the story of my book, The Fire Line, readers also want to know how I found out that it was a story worth telling in a book.
It all starts with satisfying my curiosity. I have a habit of writing questions I'd like to answer on the back page of the notebook I'm using to report a story. That's what happened after I left my home in Phoenix on June 30, 2013, and drove as close as I could get to the wildfire burning in Yarnell, Arizona, where 19 firefighters had died. I wrote several stories about the fire and its fatalities for The New York Times. As the days passed, that list of questions on the back of my notebook grew longer and longer. Soon, I realized that to answer all of them, I needed time, lots of research and lots of space to string it all together. That's when I learned I had a book in my hands.
A fundamental question, as I call it, is the main thing you want to find out in your quest for answers. In the case of The Fire Line, I wanted to know why was it that the 19 firefighters – all of them members of the same crew, the Granite Mountain Hotshots – stayed together even as a wave of flames rolled their way. To find that out, I had to answer a bunch of other questions:
Fundamental question: Why did they stay together?
=> Who were they? => Why did they fight fire?
=> Why did they fight fire on this crew?
=> How was this crew different than/similar to other crews?
=> Who fights wildfires? =>What types of crews fight wildfires?
=> What exactly are Hotshots?
=> How are wildfires fought? => How do wildfires burn?
=> How do weather and fire relate? => What are monsoons?
=> How did the fire in Yarnell burn? => Why?
=> How was it fought? => Why?The key to writing a good story is knowing what you don't know and finding the right people and documents to help you learn it. It's a simple principle, and one that all of us apply in our daily lives – What is it that I need to learn to cook this recipe, or help my children with their homework, or figure out the advantages (and disadvantages) of taking this new job. You have a fundamental question that leads to a bunch of other questions that need to be answered so that your fundamental question makes sense.