Thursday, April 22, 2010

Using News Items for Story Ideas

Every writer is asked where he or she gets their ideas. I don’t know where my ideas come from, but I know I’m always looking for good ones.

Often, I’ll hear someone say something provocative that I find riveting or outraging. For example, I attended grad school in Texas in the early ‘90s and during one of my father’s visits, we went to a public golf course and were paired with a local man. The conversation swung to a well-known PGA Tour player who had allegedly been involved in an alcohol-related domestic dispute about which our partner said, “It’s not like everyone doesn’t have a couple too many and slap the old lady once in a while, huh?”

Excuse me?

How could you forget that line? What he said outraged me, but how he said it—the casual shrug, the “Huh?” hanging at the end of the remark—hit me like water to the face: people like this actually exist. Two of my five Jack Austin novels feature strong women for whom life is a struggle. Somewhere in the threads of those novels, that comment, although unspoken, resonates.

Sometimes, an idea comes from the new. Here’s a brief I came across (and clipped) in last weekend’s “Hartford Courant”:

A man who was shot Saturday morning is in critical condition. Police received an emergency call of shots fired in front of an apartment building at 28-31 Warner St. around 9 a.m. Officers found a man in his mid-30s lying on the sidewalk after sustaining multiple bullet wounds. The man, whose identity was not released, was taken to an area hospital in critical condition, police said. The shooting occurred after a brawl between the victim and residents of the Warner Street building, police said. Another man had his skull cut by a blunt object, but the injuries are not life-threatening, police said. No one was arrested.

Put yourself in fiction mode. Who is the man? Will he live? What led to the “brawl between the victim and residents of the Warner Street building”? What was the “bunt object” that cut the other man? What will the shooting victim do when he leaves the hospital? This last question shows how I work: in my fictional version, I have already determined that this man will live.

Here are two of my all-time favorite clippings. (I have changed the names.) What strikes me about the first is that even the reporter covering the event (based on my interpretation of the story’s tone) felt sympathy for the child.

Coker Creek, Tenn. – Neighbors said that for months the ramshackle mobile home littered with piles of trash and beer cans was the site of loud parties and drunken fights, most in front of two young boys who lived there with their mother and her boyfriend. When it was quiet, they said, the children often were left alone with no food, sunning water, or electricity. Then, last week, the mother’s boyfriend was stabbed to death, and the 8-year-old boy confessed to killing him, the Monro County Sherriff’s Department said. According to police reports, the boy said John Smith, 41, had been hitting his mother. District attorney General Brian Tyler said authorities are reviewing the case to decide if the boy will be tried as a juvenile or an adult. Where the child is prosecuted depends on the motive and whether he has committed other violent act, Tyler said. The second-grader is accused of stabbing Smith in the chest Jan. 30 in this isolated rural community near the North Caroline border.

I use this one with my fiction students, asking them to write a flash fiction story based on this news brief. What is the boy’s name? What happens when he meets his mother afterward? What does his brother feel and say? What is D.A. Tyler like? Does Tyler have a young son? What becomes of the boy killer? I’ve never looked this story up online to see how it ended or what became of the players involved because I don’t want to know. I want to make the rest up.

Finally, consider this brief: High Point, N.C. -- Beth Joyce Smith, lost for two years as an amnesia victim living in an Oklahoma nursing home as Jane Doe, was reunited with her family Saturday. Her parents, brother, and sister-in-law were waiting as a doctor and two paramedics, all volunteers, arrived with her following an 18-hour drive from Oklahoma City. Howard, clutching a teddy bear, hugged each relative several times at the reunion at High Point Care Center. Her brother, Jeff Smith of Burlington, said she knew who he was immediately. Howard was injured in a hit-and-run highway accident in February 1998 and underwent major brain surgery. She was in a near-vegetative state, known only as Jane Doe, until July when she said she wanted to be called Beth instead of Jane. But she spoke little and was difficult to understand, and attempts to identify her through her fingerprints failed. Her identity was unlocked during a recent hospital stay for pneumonia, when she suddenly remembered her Social Security number.

It reads like a Dean Koontz novel, and, again, I use this one in class. How does Beth feel about her family? What becomes of her relationships in the nursing home? What is the 18-hour drive home like? Where does she go from here? How does she re-enter society? Does she remember the accident or the driver’s face? More importantly, will she ever?

The questions I list here show (hopefully) how I work—I meet the story half way. That is, I take the facts and run with them, spinning them to suit my needs. In the end, ideas are what we thrive on, and we’re all constantly looking for them. Sometimes all you have to do is keep your ears to the ground and read your local paper.


Vicki Delany said...

They're trying to consider whether to try an 8 year old as an adult! Aside from that, John, great post. The world is full of great stories

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