By Talia RichmanBefore our first meeting about how to tackle a tick-tock of the mass shooting at an outlet mall in Allen, Texas, this spring, Kelley Benham French sent over an annotated copy of David Maraniss’ 9/11 Washington Post narrative, published five days after the attacks. She said we could use it as a model for our story.
At first, I felt almost like I was set up to fail. How could I even come close to writing something like that?!? Then I realized Kelley, the senior editor for storytelling at The Dallas Morning News, was providing me a roadmap for how to tell a sprawling story with multiple characters, about a day that starts off aggressively normal and ends with life imploding. We didn’t have to reinvent the wheel here. We just had to follow the steps laid out by other writers.
We followed that map and Kelley’s guidance to a narrative published not quite two weeks after the shooting: “’This is real. We need to hide’: How the Allen mall shooting unfolded”
To get there, we knew the normal aspects of life before 3:36 p.m. that Saturday, May 6, would be essential. That’s how we could best capture the feeling that this kind of random gun violence can happen anywhere, at any time, to anyone. Here’s the opening:
The Cho family settled around a table near the kitchen at Eddie’s Diner, not far from the giant American flag on the wall. The chocolate chip pancakes, dusted with powdered sugar, were their weekend ritual. They opened a pack of crayons for William, who’d just turned 6.
Some 25 miles away, Mikael Garces needed to help her fiancé buy an all-white outfit for a destination wedding. Mikael was excited for Greece, but she knew she’d have to take him shopping if he was going to find the right thing to wear. He’d be too indecisive on his own.
At home in Sachse, 8-year-old Sofia Mendoza started working on a new story: The Twins That Didn’t Think Like Twins. She wanted to be an author when she grew up. Maybe even win a Pulitzer Prize. Sofia was going shopping with her parents and her big sister, Daniela. She’d keep writing when she got back.
In McKinney, Joseph Adams and his 12-year-old son stood up from the bleachers after watching the Wylie high schoolers lose the baseball playoffs on a heartbreaking walk-off. On the way home, they figured, why not stop for some new shoes? Garrett had a $50 Nike gift card from the Easter Bunny.
Reporters throughout the newsroom were assigned victim profiles, which Kelley also edited. As she worked with other writers, she plucked key details that we could also use for the narrative story. Claire Ballor, for example, learned that on the morning before three members of the Cho family were killed, they celebrated their oldest son’s 6th birthday at a diner where they were regulars. The owner told Claire that staffers had brought the little boy a cinnamon roll with a candle and sang to him. We needed to build that into a scene. Kelley told me I needed to go eat a cinnamon roll at the diner.
So I went there on a Saturday morning to see what the family would’ve heard and smelled and seen and tasted. I saw that every family with children was given crayons to draw with and that cinnamon rolls arrived at tables absolutely overflowing with glaze. These little details helped us paint a picture of a real life.
We also had a rule: No traditional quotes, dialogue only.
A delicate but direct interview process
Eight people were killed and another seven injured in five minutes of shooting before police killed the shooter. Our narrative rebuilt the time before, after and during those five minutes through the experiences of survivors.
When interviewing survivors, I was upfront about what the story was setting out to do and what I would need to hear. I explained why little details were so important and how every bit of digital evidence they could share would help me stitch together a definitive story about what happened, in a way that made readers understand that they could’ve been there, too.
Mikael Garces, in particular, was an incredible person to interview because she immediately understood what we were going for and how to be helpful. She was introspective and really able to let me into her thought processes — like how she noticed her fiance’s eyes during the shooting and how similar they looked when he was proposing to her.
After talking with her the first time (we did three interviews), I left her with a notebook so that if she had any extra thoughts between our talks, she had a way to capture them. This was a tip from one of Kelley’s newsroom writing workshops and I thought it was a genius way to empower sources and keep the conversation going. Mikael adapted that idea by making a shared note in her phone’s Notes app. As memories came to her, or as she found screenshots of her store receipts or texts, she would upload them for me to see. I’d get a notification every time she edited the note, which happened at all hours of the day.
Not everyone I interviewed was as upfront and open as Mikael. We knew we’d have a lot of people coming in and out of the story, and chose to only include those interviews that brought a unique perspective. We didn’t want to overwhelm the reader, but we wanted the story to feel cinematic in scope. We zeroed in on seven survivor stories, tracking their before, during and after. We tried to provide establishing details for everyone to help readers member them as the story unfolded. In addition, our online story included maps showing where every person was located in the mall.
As much as possible, we interviewed people in places they felt comfortable. I talked to Joseph Adams and his son, Garrett, in their living room. Garrett’s mom is never mentioned in the story, but she was essential. As the guys talked, she would chime in with such granular levels of detail. She was the one who mentioned off-hand that Garrett’s gift card came from the Easter Bunny. When Joseph talked about getting clothes out of his trunk to plug wounds, his wife asked him: “Oh, which ones?” (Kelley pointed to this as further proof that we should never interview a guy when a woman is available).
Writing and editing in scenes and takes
After each interview with a survivor, I’d write up a feed immediately. I always wrote in chronological order so I knew where every person was as the timeline of the shooting unfolded. I’d then share the feed with Kelley, who was working with me via Google docs from Bloomington, Indiana, where she lives and teaches at the university. She would go through and add tons of great questions that forced me to return for details and slow down the action. How many shoes had Garrett tried on? What shoe size is he? What is Alf doing in the Fatburger kitchen to prepare for the day? What does it smell like in there? Where is the American flag on the diner wall?
Getting this kind of nearly simultaneous editor feedback was essential since we were doing this story on a relatively tight turnaround and I began to think differently about telling details, too. Also, because we had chronological feeds written of Joseph/Garrett, Alf Gonzales, Mikael and Irvin Walker to pull from, the draft of the story came together pretty quickly. It was a bunch of copy/pasting the most essential bits from across different Google Docs. We made a separate timeline of the 911 call transcripts, which we could intersperse. We then pulled in small sketches of different people that helped move the action. The general facts of the shooting were already established in breaking news coverage (the newspaper published more than 80 stories about the mall shooting in the immediate aftermath), so we were looking for details that felt tangible and real-life: the police officer talking about seatbelt safety in the mall parking lot right before hearing the first gunshot; the trauma director racing to the hospital straight from a wedding reception.
I also interviewed other reporters who were some of the first on the scene to get a sense of what it felt like to them immediate after the shooting. They were the ones who could describe how it smelled like sweat as so many scared people huddled together in the sun and waited for information. Before this story, I had never thought so much about reporting for the smell, but Kelley talked about how this type of detail can really transport the reader.
After the shooting, horrific videos and photos of the victims went viral on social media. We used these images to describe the scene but absolutely did not want to include any gratuitous descriptions of the bodies. We weren’t writing trauma porn.
Still, the story was going to be devastating. Kelley emphasized that we wanted to end with hope after giving readers so much heartbreak. She immediately knew that Irvin singing was the kicker. It just took a lot of back-and-forth to get there. Irvin was still hospitalized when the story came out and not up for intensive interviews. The information about him was from a combination of his GoFundMe page, interviews with his lawyer and daughter and a short press conference he did from the hospital. I then ran everything by his appointed PR person to try and squeeze out detail. Here’s how we got the ending:
- The organizer of Irvin’s GoFundMe posted an update to the page two days after the shooting: Irvin’s surgery was successful and came out of recovery SINGING….LOL #goodmeds
- Reporter Sarah Bahari, who was the point person for writing about the wounded, talked to Irvin’s daughter and found out that the song he was singing was, “Oh Happy Day.”
- His PR rep replied to my fact-check email by clarifying: He was singing, “Oh, Happy Day” because Sister Act 2 was on TV when he came into his room.
From there, we could build out the scene by watching YouTube videos and weaving in information about Irvin’s gratitude. He is a spiritual man and emphasized his faith anytime he spoke out. Here’s the ending:
Two days after the shooting, Irvin awoke from surgery. Hospital workers wheeled him back to his hospital room, where Sister Act 2 played on TV. In it, Whoopi Goldberg leads a raw but gifted group of kids through choir practice, her fellow nuns looking on.
“Relax,” she tells them. “Take a deep breath.”
With all he’d been through, Irvin felt grateful. To the officer who helped him. To the God he prayed to. To the doctors who worked to repair his body. To the family who supported him.
In the movie, the boy with the solo finds his voice. And in his hospital room, Irvin too began to sing.
“Oh, happy day.“Oh, happy day.”
Analytics measured by the heart
“I got to the end of the third sentence of your article before crying — breaking out crayons is something my wife and I do for our girls.”
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Talia Richman is a reporter for The Dallas Morning News Education Lab. She previously covered schools and city government for the Baltimore Sun.