‘How I wrote the story': Lessons in planning

Jenifer Warren’s methodical work habits help a tricky profile succeed

When a profile works, it’s often because the writer has discovered and exploited a fundamental tension between the character and the outside world. The piece submitted for your examination this week is a profile of a man many of us would instinctively dislike–a fur trapper. It works because it takes us, non-judgmentally, through a day in the trapper’s life, puts us in his boots and lets us decide.

'How I wrote the story': Lessons in planning

'How I wrote the story': Lessons in planning

The author, Jenifer Warren, who works in my newspaper’s Sacramento bureau, offers some valuable insights in the essay that accompanies her story (which, for truth-in-advertising purposes, was written in 1993). For me, Jenifer’s observations are a lesson in planning. In particular: (1) Selecting the right kind of target, (2) Methodically preparing your questions early in the game, and (3) Being conscious of how your story elements are unfolding while you’re in the reporting process. Obvious stuff, sure–until you have to do it under pressure.

Read the first seven grafs, which set up the personality and the issue, and then we’ll hear from Jenifer before returning to the piece:

”TRAPPERS’ TRADE IS THE LATEST KILL”

KORBEL, Calif.–The man has a hunch about this spot. So he sets his trap at the edge of an old logging road, in the dirt between a manzanita bush and a clump of scruffy grass. Sure enough, a gray fox trots by, gets a whiff of the bait and takes a step he won’t live long to regret.

“Looks like we got ourselves a critter,” Reid Aiton says the next morning, out at first light to check the 24 traps he has hidden in the soggy Humboldt County hills. “A male, I’d say, pretty good-sized.”

The fox–silver, with orange belly and pointy snout–is in a real fix, and knows it. His left front paw is caught in a padded steel jaw. He twirls, thrashes and lunges as the trapper draws near. He tries a growl, flicks his tail. No luck.

Then he freezes, brown eyes locked on the rifle. There’s a hollow pop, a puff of smoke, some blood. With a single spasm, the fox dies. This is the way it goes out here in the woods.

Used to be that trapping was a noble trade. Our first explorers and settlers were trappers. Remember Daniel Boone? Davy Crockett and his coonskin cap? What men these were! Hardy, courageous. Romantic, even.

But many Americans feel differently now. Trappers are murderers, the animal rights activists say, anachronistic brutes whose ways maim pets and subject wildlife to horrific suffering. Wearing fur is seen as a sin, and has become socially hazardous: You might get a lecture; you might get sprayed with red paint.

That attitude steams Aiton, a woodsman for most of his 51 years in North Coast redwood country. “We don’t tell them how to live,” he says, “so why don’t they stop stepping on my rights?”

Jenifer takes the stage:

I decided to write about fur trappers after a brainstorming session with my editor. My job at the time was to produce ”California stories,” vaguely defined as ”stories that say something about California or Californians.” Fur trappers, I had learned from a piece clipped from another paper, were a dwindling breed in our state, and the topic intrigued me. I sensed the chance to profile a remnant of old California –an historic, once-respectable trade now besieged by growth and changing attitudes in the West.

The first problem I confronted was this: How to write about trappers without getting bogged down in the messy arguments for and against the fur business. I had read about animal rights groups, about anti-fur protests, about accusations of cruelty. All of that moved me as a person, but struck me as old news as a journalist–an angle already amply covered.

So instead, I decided to take a slice-of-life approach, and that early decision later made writing the piece a joy. I knew I would have to touch the important philosophical bases in the fur debate, but hoped to do it subtly, mostly through the words and experiences of the trappers.

My primary goal was to penetrate and reveal a culture, one that, for this Californian, was repulsive and fascinating at the same time.

I began the reporting with some phone calls, and then set out in search of the fur trapper who would be my window on the trade. I figured the pickings might be good at California’s last remaining fur market, in Red Bluff, so I drove there on a cold Saturday in February.

There were a couple dozen trappers selling their pelts, and I chatted (or tried to chat) with most of them. Some were hostile, most were wary. A few were scary, smelly creatures, not the sort I’d want to accompany on a trip through the woods. Others could barely put a sentence together.

Finally I found Reid Aiton, and he seemed perfect. Well-spoken but folksy, he was a lifelong trapper passionately devoted to the preservation of his way of life. He had showered recently, and was also willing to let a reporter tag along on the trapline, a must for my game plan. Finding just the right trapper for my portrait was a crucial step, another victory that made the writing much less of a struggle.

The next 13 grafs of the story take us through the background of the art of trapping and Aiton’s perspective, preparing us for what will be a day-in-the-life narrative:

Ten years ago, there were 3,540 trappers like Aiton still plying their ancient skill in California’s wild lands. This season, only 350 coughed up $60 for the license required by the Department of Fish and Game.

Tumbling demand and the success of fur farms mean there’s just no money in pelts anymore. In 1985, a fine bobcat could fetch $500. This year, that same fur might get you 60 bucks.

It’s also getting mighty crowded in California. A population of 30 million means a lot of pet owners worried that their cat or collie might get snared by a trap. And two years back, the state forced all trappers to buy new traps–the kind with rubber on the jaws, said to be gentler on the animals’ legs. That drove a bunch of trappers under.

“It hit them real hard, right in the wallet,” says Warren Duke, a state game warden for 26 years. “For a lot of guys, it’s just not worth the trouble anymore.”

Sure, times have changed, but not Reid Aiton. He set his first trap at age 13. That’s 38 winters–a lot of time on the trap line, a lot of fox, coyote, bobcat and raccoon through the skinning shed.

This isn’t a full-time deal for him. His day job is in the timber business, has been since 1960. Trapping just helps fill the winter larder. More than that, it’s a way of life he loves.

Aiton taught three sons the secrets of the traps before their teens. The children sold $1,000 in pelts a season during the mid-1980s, remembered by trappers as the glory years for fur prices. The boys had a tradition back then: After their first hides were sold each winter, they took Mom out to dinner.

His sons are grown now, and so Aiton traps alone, as most trappers do. Country music and Rush Limbaugh provide whatever company he needs. A thermos of black coffee and his chestnut-colored dog, Bobby, go along in the Ford pickup.

This winter, Aiton is running a short line–two dozen traps, or “sets,” on gravel roads that loop maybe 30 miles through the damp forests of the Coast Range. State law requires trappers to check their sets once every 24 hours. Aiton visits some on the way to work, the rest on the way back to his home on Murphy Ridge, a remote clearing in the fir trees 35 miles northeast of Eureka.

It’s a tricky business, trapping. Think of it. The animal has acres of land to roam and the trapper’s job is to get its paw on a piece of metal the size of a small sand dollar. Pretty tough odds.

To succeed, trappers must know their prey–its diet, preferred terrain, tracks, hunting habits. They must know, as Aiton does, that the coyote is a wary breed, able to spot any trap that is not blended in just so. They must know that the fox is curious, and that the raccoon is cautious, but not too hard to catch if the bait is tantalizing enough.

Trappers must also be patient. “It’s a hit-or-miss deal,” Aiton warns. “If you’re gonna get upset every time you come up empty, then you’d better find yourself something else to do.”

Aiton has the right sun-will-surely-rise-again-tomorrow attitude. Even so, he hates coming up empty–especially when his target was in the neighborhood.

Before we go further, Jenifer talks about the emphasis she placed on planning:

The night before our day in the forest, I sat in my crummy motel room and made a list of the things I wanted to know about Reid Aiton and trapping. Among the items I jotted down were these: methods, gait, pace, clothing, bumper stickers, smoker, jokes, smell, radio, hands, food, odor, anger, map, blood, mink farms, mange, trap bans, kids, fur coats, God, pets.

I don’t always make a list before an interview, but this was clearly a story that would bloom or wither on the richness of the detail. As a writer who is chronically insecure and panics unless she has armloads of material to choose from, I feared I might miss some telling nuance if I didn’t plan ahead.

Our adventure on the trapline was a long one, beginning with coffee and pancakes around dawn and stretching through dinner well past dark. As we bumped along the dirt roads of Humboldt County in Aiton’s Ford pickup I occasionally took a moment to think ahead, about the writing of the piece. A few observations began to stand out in my mind.

One was the challenge of trapping–and the long odds of success. I quickly realized that good trappers must truly be wildlife experts–must know their prey’s hunting instincts, diet and other habits. Aiton knew this stuff cold, and he showed a respect for animals that struck me.

More than once, for instance, he marveled at the cunning of a coyote that had slipped through his grasp, or praised the heart of a lustrous gray fox squirming and snarling in a trap. He paused to show me a red-tailed hawk in a tree, and spoke with pity of the suffering of wild animals dying of mange. Such traits conflicted with the popular image of trappers as vicious neanderthals. I decided it was vital that I bring this side of the man to life.

Another thing that amazed me was the complexity of trapping. I guess I figured you simply buried a trap in the dirt and an animal stepped in it. Not quite. Aiton’s painstaking methods–from scouting, baiting and camouflaging on the front end to skinning and fleshing the catch at day’s end–were something to behold.

There were times, of course, when I was horrified, but I also found the process fascinating. Trusting my instincts enough to believe readers would also find it fascinating, I recorded every tiny step, resolving to use much of this material in the piece.

And then there was Reid Aiton’s home life, the end-of-the-trapline stuff. Initially, I wasn’t expecting to gain admission to this aspect of my main character. But in the end I was invited to stay for dinner (I think he was impressed because I hadn’t fainted at the sight of blood), and as soon as I entered his house I knew it was a goldmine.

There were deer heads, bear skins, trapping magazines, a Bible, and an ancient wood-burning stove used for heating and cooking. I thumbed through family photo albums as Reid told stories about teaching trapping to his three boys, one of whom ran a 7-mile trapline on his bike–”rain or shine”–at age 12. Later, Margaret Aiton fried up some venison for supper (yes, I managed to choke down a bite or two) and explained how she makes bath soap by rendering the fat of bears her husband hunts. I scribbled madly, trying to look casual.

As I sat by the fire after supper, discussing political correctness and the merits of the Rush Limbaugh Show with the couple, I was content: I had tons of color for my story. All I needed was a sturdy frame.

Here’s the rest of the piece, beginning with the day-in-the-life material. We’ll let Jenifer explain the writing strategy after the piece ends. We’re picking up after the last graf you read, which ended: “…Even so, he hates coming up empty–especially when his target was in the neighborhood.”

Such is the case on this frosty morning, when he finds a coon print in the mud an inch from his trap. “One inch!” Aiton shakes his head glumly. “When they don’t come by, that’s nobody’s fault,” he explains. “But when they stop and you miss ’em, well, the trapper gets the blame.”

Shrugging off his disappointment, he climbs back in the truck and moves on, winding through a maze of redwood stumps–the remnants of a clear-cutting. The next trap is a hit–another gray fox, twisting and snarling as he fights to escape. Aiton is pleased, but modest: “Even a blind dog finds a bone now and then.”

But there’s a problem: This gray fox has a broken leg. Aiton is visibly upset: “This isn’t supposed to happen. It doesn’t happen, I tell you.” Seems the trap wasn’t chained short enough, giving the animal too much leash as he lunged to get away. Humbled, Aiton quickly shoots the animal between the eyes and tosses it in the bed of his truck.

Not all trappers use a gun. Some prefer a club to the head–less blood and no shot to spook nearby animals. “Personally, I don’t like to thump ’em,” Aiton says. “That method’s fine, but I respect the animal and I like to dispatch them as quick as possible.”

His field methods are meticulous. To guard against foreign scents that might scare his prey, he wears rubber boots and gloves. He scouts his location thoroughly–looking for an intersection of animal trails, say, or telltale scat.

Once he has found his spot, Aiton scoops a small depression in the earth and pokes a deeper hole in the ground behind it. He pours in a bit of lure–foul-smelling stuff with names such as “Trails End” and “Widow Maker” that he bought through the mail. Aiton also makes some of these potions himself, grinding animal glands in the blender, adding a bit of fox urine and other secret ingredients. Lined up in an old ammunition box, they look like jars of gourmet mustard.

The trap Aiton uses on this day is a No. 2–about the size of a shoe you might put on a draft horse. He tucks the trap in its nest and covers it with pre-sifted dirt–a mixture free of rocks that could block the jaws. Aiton then smoothes the earth with a finger, carefully, the way a child might sculpt a sandcastle.

A north wind kicks up as he brushes dirt off his gloves and considers a question: Why trap?

“I’m an outdoors person, first off, and I have an appreciation of wildlife–love watching ’em, learning their habits, trying to outthink ’em. . . . If I could retire today, and had my choice, this is what I’d do.”

His rounds complete, Aiton drives home with five foxes. That means 25% of his sets paid off–a good haul. Most trappers feel happy if they hit 10% or 15% on any given day.

Dusk approaches, but there is work to be done. Catching animals is only part of the game; skinning and fleshing are still to come.

Aiton’s skinning shed is in a cold and drafty barn. He hangs a fox carcass from a post, nose down, and unfolds his pocket knife with the two-inch blade. Starting at a hind paw, he slits straight and true–down one leg, up the other, then out along the tail. He is quiet, concentrating. One slip and the pelt is no good.

His cuts complete, the trapper pulls the hide down toward the head, each hard tug making a snapping sound. Two minutes and he is done. His hands are slick with blood.

Fleshing is next, and this is tedious work. As he scrapes gobs of fat from the glistening hide, Aiton sounds off–about new laws, accusations that trapping is inhumane, and the groups aiming to make sure that his is a breed with no future.

Every day, it seems, a new celebrity sheds her mink coat and antes up for the cause. That and the recession have hurt the trapping fraternity badly: Fur sales have dropped by about 75% since 1986.

The animal rights activists say the traps kill and cripple pets; Aiton says he’s “never, ever injured one in all my years.” Activists say wildlife populations are best left alone, but Aiton says trapping is a useful management tool, an argument he makes to state officials when they try to impose new rules.

Foes of trapping foes say the practice is cruel, offering examples such as the fox with the broken leg. But Aiton retorts–hotly now–that most folks do not realize how cruel nature itself can be: “People have no idea! It’s not some kind of Walt Disney movie out there.”

Aiton rests his case with the basic notion that predation is a fact of life, and that humans are the predators at the top of the heap.

“Go back to the original book of instruction, the Bible, and you’ll see. It says, ‘Man shall have dominion over the animals.’ ”

By nightfall, the foxes have been skinned, fleshed, stretched and hung to dry. While Aiton washes up and combs his hair, his wife, Margaret, gets dinner on the table. Venison–shot by her husband–is the centerpiece, with green beans from the garden and home-canned applesauce on the side.

“We try to be as self-sufficient as we can,” she says. The couple grow or catch 90% of what they eat, and Margaret even makes bathing soap from the fat of bears her husband kills.

It is easy, as she talks and cooks on a wood stove that is half a century old, to forget this is California, 1993. Feels a bit like the American frontier.

With two deer heads, a bear skin and a stuffed fox for decor, the home resembles a small hunting lodge. Along with the Bible, there are photos of the kids displaying their pelts and trapping magazines that advertise a how-to coyote skinning video ($34.95) and, “for the ladies,” bra liners made of beaver fur.

Margaret is waiting for something more substantial–a hip-length fur coat. Her husband has donated 21 foxes for the project so far; she hopes the day’s catch will give her a few more.

Those pelts not reserved for the coat will go with Reid Aiton over the mountains to Red Bluff, where California’s only remaining fur market is held twice a year at the fairgrounds. Time was, these were well-attended affairs–80 or 90 trappers in plaid wool shirts, joking and talking and drinking coffee while a dozen buyers bid on their wares.

But the glory days are gone, and last month’s sale was a vivid sign that the trapping trade is in trouble. There were just three buyers and 20 trappers. Prices were so lousy a lot of guys got disgusted, bundled up their pelts and refused to sell.

Dinner is done, and Aiton finally rests, sitting beside a comforting fire. The day lasted 12 hours, counting the skinning and fleshing: “Five foxes, at eight bucks apiece–looks like I made $40 today.” Deduct gasoline and other costs, and it’s a pittance.

“That’s not even minimum wage,” Aiton says, not looking too concerned. “Good thing I’m not in this to get rich.”

Jenifer’s analysis concludes with the composition process:

I wrote the first several lines of the story in my head as I flew back to San Francisco the next day. This isn’t typical for me; normally, I need fingers on the keys to compose.

But I knew what sort of lead I wanted–something that plunked the reader right down in the wilderness with the trapper and his prey–and I just sort of spun out the top from there.

I’m not crazy about the first two graphs, but I like the use of the present tense, for the sake of immediacy and punch, and I like the feel of Reid Aiton’s first quote: ”Looks like we got ourselves a critter.” (I didn’t spend much time describing Aiton, but I think his language helped bring him to life.)

From there I progressed to a vivid reenactment of the first kill, because for me, that was the most dramatic part of the day. When I saw that fox squirming and thrashing in the trap, I wished (momentarily) that I was at a school board meeting. I hoped readers would have a similar reaction and keep reading.

The next six graphs I used to relay bottom-line type information–the context into which my tale of the trapper would fit. This was necessary stuff, and it needed to be high up in the piece. But I wrote it as breezy and rustic-sounding as I could, trying to use words and phrases Aiton might use. The seventh graph is a comment from the only other person quoted in the story, a warden. And then it’s right back to Reid Aiton.

The track the story follows is, more or less, a day on the trapline with Reid. Weaved into that pattern are nuggets of information about the trade and the man–facts about weapons used to kill the animals; about his sons, dog, truck and preferred radio entertainment; about the strange concoctions used as bait, and so on. I scattered the nuggets here and there through his routine in the woods, to break up the step-by-step feel of the recitation.

Throughout the piece, I tried to keep the writing–vocabulary and sentence length–plain and fairly lean, again in an effort to echo what Aiton himself might say.

The first 75 percent of the story was remarkably easy to write, but I hit a few hitches near the end. For starters, I couldn’t figure out how to smoothly integrate some of the pro and con arguments on fur trapping. I felt a need to include some discussion of this sort, partly because it was something constantly on Aiton’s mind.

In the end, I opted for several tight graphs of conversational commentary in the skinning shed. At first I felt I might have shortchanged the debate, but then my editor shrunk the section still further, saying he felt it jarred the flow. Fine by me.

The other nagging problem related to that fur market in Red Bluff, where I had spent half my weekend interviewing trappers. I had a lot of good, juicy quotes and anectdotes from that event, and I hated the thought of not getting at least some of it in. After arguing with myself over the merits of the material for awhile, I finally swallowed my pride and admitted it just didn’t fit. The final version of the story has just a quick mention of the market, near the very end.

The most meaningful critique I received came from a friend, a decidedly anti-fur type who told me: ”You managed to make the guy sympathetic,” my friend said. ”I still think what the trappers do is sick, and I wish they’d stop. But I understand a little better why they do it.”