Friday, October 5, 2007

Research: Like Salt To Mashed Potatoes, Part 3

What hidden gems can I dig out of the newspaper?

By Lonnie Cruse

Newspapers are an excellent source of information and inspiration for our writing, whether local or national, and I get a lot of ideas from the Metropolis Planet, our local paper that’s printed once a week as well as the Paducah Sun, a daily newspaper. I learned about Care Trak, an electronic program that keeps tabs on Alzheimer’s patients and handicapped children from an article in the Planet. That technology became central to my third mystery in the Metropolis Series, MARRIED IN METROPOLIS, and I’m donating a portion of my sales to the sheriff’s department to help them acquire more of this life-saving equipment.

Personally, I don’t scan the newspapers for “the big stories” about well-known people or events. Instead I look for the little odd stories that could only happen in real life. Fiction doesn’t get THAT strange. Like the guy who was arrested for DUI while on horseback? I mean, who knew the DUI laws stretched that far? I sure didn’t. Or the report in an out-of-town newspaper about a dead body found in the parking lot of a police department? And no one spotted the body for a whole day? Or how about the woman who was arrested for target practicing in her back yard while in the nude? The accompanying picture was a real hoot. Real live stories, gotta love ‘em. I also have in my research file the story of a circus performer who was killed in a fall. With the ropes and safety nets circus performers use today, fatal falls like that are rare. Make a great murder scenario, right? Romance gone wrong? Perhaps aliens snatched the “real” her and left a fake body? The basic idea would probably work in any genre.

The birth and obituary pages present great suggestions for interesting character names, not to mention other bits of information they include. The social pages can provide great ideas for romance writers. Ever notice how differently some of the brides and grooms dress? Ever read about their backgrounds (job, education, etc?) And there are stories about local functions that might work into our stories, chili suppers, golf or fishing tournaments, volunteer projects. Don’t neglect the sports section either. I recently cut out a story about an Eagles fan who was captured by team members while trying to scatter the ashes of his late mother on the football field, DURING A GAME! Lots of drama on those pages as well. The newspaper is probably one of the best resources we have, next to the Internet, and my newspaper research file is bulging.

Obviously we can’t print anything off the television or radio, but if it’s on their news reports, we can likely find it repeated in the newspaper or on the Internet and cut out or print a copy.

One more thing that is KEY to searching for new ideas while researching. The “What if?” question again. While reading or researching, no matter what genre you write, ask yourself that question often, “What if” this or that happened? What if this wasn’t an accident but murder? What if the bride and groom didn’t get married after all? What if the kid who won the spelling bee was really an alien from another planet? What if the missing dog pictured with a family was really a fairy turned into a Collie by an angry rival? The possibilities of “What if?” will lead you in many directions. Just be sure you file the original story for future inspiration/research.

SUGGESTION: If you don’t already subscribe, buy, beg, or borrow a newspaper (local or large city, doesn’t matter) and read through it carefully. As you read, cut out ANY and ALL articles that catch your eye right then. (If you wait until you’ve finished reading, you might forget which story you wanted when you go back through. However, do remember to let the rest of the family read it first so you don’t drive them nuts reading around the holes.) Articles do NOT have to be directly related to what genre you write. Let your subconscious be your guide.

I cut out an article from the Metropolis Planet about a local River Sweep volunteer project and stuck it into my Research Folder because it interested me, and I thought I’d like to participate in the event some time. Metropolis, Illinois is situated on the banks of the Ohio River. Each year volunteers gather to walk the river bank for a goodly distance and pick up trash. Wonderful way to take care of not only litterbugs but the flotsam and jetsam carried down river every flood season. Turns out, in my third book, MARRIED IN METROPOLIS, I needed a way for a very large clue to be found at the river’s edge. I sent one of my fictional sheriff’s deputies to the River Sweep as a volunteer, and the clue was discovered. Local readers will recognize the River Sweep, making the story more real to them, but if I hadn’t been researching through the newspaper, I couldn’t have tied that scene to reality in quite that way.

No comments: