I sent History Press 69 pictures for this book, then waited to see if they would accept some, none, or all of them. The publisher was specific in its instructions: “No image should be submitted at a resolution lower than 300 dpi at 6 inches wide.” I confess that I have only the vaguest notion of dpi or dots per inch. I know that dpi affects print quality, and that more is better, but after that it could have been the initials of a federal agency for all I knew, the Department of Pixelated Images.
I was happy with the set of pictures that I sent them, but I didn’t know if any of them had the required dpi. Turns out most were fine. The company accepted 62 and rejected seven. Even so, it was like getting a test back in school and seeing only the seven “X” marks and not the 62 checks. What was wrong with them?
I was not surprised that four of the photos were rejected. They were inferior, but the people pictured were important to the story, so I submitted them anyway. But History Press wasn’t buying that excuse. As for the other three photos, the publisher rejected them because they were “pixelated.” Again, I don’t really understand the concept. My editor said that pixelated pictures can look fine as digital images, but “if printed on the page, they would appear as mostly scrambled dots.”
To illustrate, he sent me two versions of the same image, a downtown street from the 1920s. In the one labeled “digital view,” I could see details, such as a muddy street, church steeple, horse-drawn wagon and people looking at the camera. In the other labeled “print view,” those details were gone, blended into a gray mess. So it’s all about details? I understand details and how important they are. As a reporter, I was told to be sure to get the name of the dog, brand of the beer, and make and model of the car. From now on, I’ll think of dpi as details per inch.
The latest assignment from my editor is to write a paragraph for the back cover. He said to highlight the key places, people and events in the book, and convey the chronological and geographic scope. And please do all that in 125 words or less.
The assignment reminded me of an exercise I used when teaching beginning reporting at the University of Mary Washington here in Fredericksburg. I would give the class the facts of a police incident, including the who, what, when, where, why and how, as well as a police quote, victim quote and eyewitness quote. The students had to tell their stories in 250 words or less. When they finished, I asked them to rewrite their stories in 100 words or less, and then once more in 50 words or less. The exercise showed how flabby most writing is, and how much of their stories could be preserved, even with tight editing, if they spent the time needed to rewrite. Google tells me it was Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician, who was the first to say, “I have made this letter longer than usual because I didn’t have the time to make it shorter.”
So here’s what my book is about in 125 words or less. (Actually it’s 123 words.)
Fauquier County, Va., 1932. A black man is found hanging from an apple tree on Rattlesnake Mountain. A mob sets fire to the body. Officials identify the remains as Shedrick Thompson, wanted for the abduction and rape of a white woman. They say Thompson killed himself, the final act of a desperate fugitive. But residents who hunted him know better. They say he was the victim of Virginia’s last lynching.
The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia takes a close look at Thompson’s crimes and his death, the actions of his neighbors, and the official cover-up. It touches on themes still discussed, including our struggles with class and race. And it offers a new reading on Virginia history, one more complex and disturbing than previously believed.