By E. E. Kennedy
“Ripped from the headlines!” That was the tagline for the popular long-running TV series, Law and Order. And there were many episodes that did seem to parallel what was going on at the time.
Over the years, I’ve found that the real-life stories in the newspaper and now the Internet are great places to find springboards for intriguing plots. In fact, one of the points in my speech, “Ten Answers to Every Writer’s Favorite Question: Where Do You Get Your Ideas?” was to recommend that beginning writers collect the back pages from USA Today. You know the ones that have little thumbnail stories from each state? I guarantee that there was a plot idea for at least one story—and probably more—on each of those pages.
For instance, one tiny story spoke of a fellow in Iowa who was arrested for throwing baseballs at passing cars. That’s all there was, but it gave rise to the classic question, “Why?” Did he hate cars? Was he a former player? A pitcher, perhaps? Was there something in his childhood that caused this sudden irrational behavior? There’s enough speculation in that small paragraph to spark a funny or maybe a tragic short story. Or perhaps to begin a novel.
I’ve made good use of news stories in my cozy mystery series about an English teacher. In the first book, Irregardless of Murder, I take advantage of the legend of a Loch-Ness-Style monster in Lake Champlain as well as modern-day sightings and made one of my characters a scientist who is involved in a search for the mythical creature. It makes for lots of fun.
As a child, I remembered a news story about people who drove cars across the thick frozen surface of Lake Champlain. Needless to say, it’s a dangerous proposition and gave me the opening scene of Death Dangles a Participle. I did a good bit of research on how thick the ice would have to be in order to support a beat-up VW and two teenage boys.
The third book in the series, Murder in the Past Tense, was born one afternoon when I was waiting for my daughter to complete her piano lessons and could only find copies of old National Enquirers to read in the teacher’s living room. As I read about actress Jennifer O’Neill’s difficult life and her many marriages, I came upon a name I hadn’t heard in decades: Nicky diNoia, a producer and entrepreneur whom I had once known as a talented actor. It turns out he was one of Jennifer’s husbands and was killed in his Manhattan office in a mob-style hit. I had known that guy when I was a teenager in summer stock theater. The article went on to say that the murder had never been solved. Then and there, I decided that one day, I’d solve it, if only fictionally. And I did.
For book four, Incomplete Sentence, I had always been interested and outraged by the story of the Unicorn Killer, Ira Einhorn, who claimed to have founded Earth Day and who was found guilty of brutally murdering his girlfriend and stowing her body in a trunk in his closet. With the help of influential friends, he managed to skip out on his sentence and evaded authorities for over twenty years before being finally apprehended. Readers of Incomplete Sentence will recognize this plot line.
When we lived in Texas, there was a local drug dealer who liked to style himself after the hero in the old “Smokey and the Bandit” movies that starred Burt Reynolds. He called himself the Ranger Bandit. (Ranger was a small town near us.) The Bandit was a colorful character whose front businesses were a liquor store and a body shop. He kept a pet tiger and would take out ads on the local newspaper taunting the Texas Rangers when they missed him during a raid of a meth lab. He was always tipped off in advance. There were lots of news stories and rumors about this brazen criminal. Shortly before we moved to North Carolina, the Ranger Bandit was caught, due to some excellent undercover work by the Texas Rangers who took out their own newspaper ad that said simply, “Gotcha!” What writer could resist using such a plot?
Of course, when fashioning a fictional story based on a true one, it’s a pretty good idea to change the names. (In Murder in the Past Tense, for instance, Nicky diNoia became Danny diNicco.)You can change the events to suit you, too. It was later determined that Nicky’s business partner had arranged to have him killed. In my story, there is no such mundane solution.
In Incomplete Sentence I didn’t fashion a carbon copy of the Unicorn Killer, either. Instead, I called him the Rasputin Killer, as frightening and mesmerizing as the famed mad monk who held the Russian royal family in sway. And my villain’s real name was Gregory Rasmussen. The real life Einhorn was found in France, married to a French woman who had no idea of his background. Not my Rasputin Killer. He was a lot more elusive—and deadly!
So go out and buy a copy of the Sunday paper this week and scan the headlines for something intriguing: a situation, a heroic act, a fascinating character or some other subject that strikes your fancy. Cut out the articles. Ask mental questions: who/what/when/where/how and most importantly, why? Research the subjects. Make notes of possible plot lines. Change the story to suit your own. There’s a lot of great raw material out there, fellow writers! Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.
E. E. Kennedy is the author of the Miss Prentice Cozy Mystery Series (published by Sheaf House) about a high school English teacher. Titles include: Irregardless of Murder, Death Dangles a Participle, Murder in the Past Tense and Incomplete Sentence.
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