A true story about telling true stories

red brick Berkeley County, WV, courthouse with white pillars and cupola.

Berkeley County, WV, Courthouse is little changed from this 1940s photo.

Years ago when I was a newspaper reporter in Martinsburg, WV, real property owners were required to appear at the courthouse of the county in which their property was located during one month each spring to see their property assessment for the following year so it was no surprise that the chair of the Berkeley County Commission asked me if I’d put a notice in the paper telling people to come check their assessments.

Normally, the county beat reporter would write two paragraphs telling people to check their assessments, the managing editor would put the story in a box on the front page, and that was the end of it.

Correcting errors in the property assessments before tax bills were mailed saved the county money and also prevented some serious problems. I’d seen a few people come to the County Commission seeking help recovering property that had been sold for back taxes without their knowledge.

One of those people, I remembered, had come in with the county Emergency Management Services director.

I phoned Dick.

The young fellow turned out to be his son, who had come home from the army to find his house had been auctioned off at a tax sale. Marvin had gotten his house back, but he wouldn’t wish that experience on his worst enemy. His father said Marvin would be happy to talk to me.

I interviewed Marvin, took a photo of him in front of his house in one of the areas newest subdivisions. The story ran across the top of the Saturday paper. The headline read:

How to lose a home and not know it

Marvin’s story was definitely unique. The chances of anyone else in Berkeley County having a similar set of circumstances was probably less than the chance of being eaten by a shark in West Virginia.

But unlikely as it was, it had happened.

And it happened to the county EMS director’s son. He worked for the county. Everybody knew Dick.

True stories motivate people.

In a normal year, the County Commission’s secretary handled inquiries about tax assessments along with her usual work. There were rarely more than one or two people a day who came to view their tax assessments. 

When the courthouse opened Monday morning after Marvin’s story ran in the paper, there was a line of people three abreast from the courthouse steps down the block and around the corner past the drugstore. They had come to check their property assessments.

The line thinned after that first day but it never stopped.

That year, after the story ran about how Marvin lost his new home because he hadn’t gone to check his tax assessment, the county had to move two people out of another office full time for the entire month to help people who’d come to check their tax assessments.

If you teach writing, stories matter.

Every business and organization has information it wants the public to know. Few have the knack of finding the right stories to deliver their information so it motivates customers and donors to act.

True stories motivate, but only if they make points that are clear, unambiguous, and directional. The stories don’t need to say "do this," but they need to point readers to their choices.

It is much easier and much more useful to teach students to notice and collect other people’s stories than it is to try to teach them to tell their own stories well. If you are going to teach students to write narratives—and you should—start them off on other people’s true stories.

Photo Credit: West Virginia Collection within the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.