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Pot in D.C.: A reporter makes stuff up

By Michael S. Rosenwald

This weekend marked a milestone in my career -- my first published work of fiction. The most amazing part: It was published in a newspaper, as news.

To write about California’s vote tomorrow to legalize marijuana, my editors and I decided to take a different approach. We wanted to imagine what life will be like when pot is legal here in Washington -- assuming, of course, that the California measure passes, that the Free the Bud movement spreads across the United States, that it reaches Washington, which then legalizes pot, and that entrepreneurs then move in to open hip new coffee shops with names like Hypothesis.

The problem: None of those things have happened. So I made it up -- but with a boatload of reporting to back up the fiction.

My story -- describing what Washington would be like in 2020 if pot had been legalized -- was fiction, in the sense that the events haven't happened yet -- but it contained lots of facts and was based on scores of interviews with economists, sociologists, pop culture gurus, entrepreneurs, and even a local digital marketing firm JESS3, which came up with the store name and product designs that illustrate the story in the Washington Post Magazine. You’ve heard of historical fiction, right? I called this futurical fiction, or a reported fantasy.

Tellers of true stories face problems that fiction writers don’t. When I’m telling a true story, sure, it would help the narrative if, say, the doctor I was writing about suddenly leaped out of his chair during an interview to save a dying patient who had just fallen out of a helicopter, amazingly landing on a building not too far below, where the doctor happened to have been being interviewed by me.

But such things don't dependably happen in journalism, which is to say that reporters need to spend a lot of time doing actual reporting to find facts and details that bring their words alive like all the best fiction does. In fiction, if you need one of your characters to do something interesting, you just write it.

The act of making things up for my pot story was incredibly liberating. It made the reporting go much faster, since I didn’t have to wait around for scenes to develop. But it made my skin itch a little. When I write, I take comfort in the facts in my notebook. I’m a prisoner to them, not my imagination. If I need more drama, I do more reporting.

Did the reported fantasy concept bother you as a reader? Was it clear enough that real reporting informed the projections about what Washington would be like during an era of legalized marijuana, or was the reporting lost in the fantasy? Reported facts and sources were noted in bold in the article; was that a sufficient and helpful way to show what was real and what wasn't?

By Michael S. Rosenwald  | November 1, 2010; 9:26 AM ET
Categories:  How I got that story  
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