Saturday, May 12, 2012

A Spark to Ignite Ideas

John R. Lindermuth, Guest Blogger

I spent most of my working life on small-town newspapers, covering most every reporting beat and in several editing slots. A portion of that time was on the crime beat, which ultimately led to an interest in writing mysteries.
Probably because I spent so many years in the business, I retain a deep affection for the daily newspaper.

It wasn’t until the 20th century with the advent of radio, television and the Internet that newspaper circulation began to decline and the daily paper became a less important source of information for the public. I would argue though, the newspaper remains a prime source of ideas for the writer.

Once at a seminar for reporters we were asked to define news. Initially many of the participants suggested news was comprised of major events in a given time period. The consensus, after further discussion, boiled down to the fact news is anything which interests people. Look at your daily newspaper and you’ll see that is true.

Newspapers cover a broad range of activities of interest to a variety of readers. Newspapers reflect society. They reveal the daily concerns—local, national and international—of the people, their diversions, social attitudes and prejudices. That encompasses a mother lode of emotions. And emotion is the springboard for prompting story ideas.

Sure, you might get a hint of some of these same ideas from TV. But I contend it’s like the difference between an appetizer and a meal, a headline and a story. Only a newspaper account can provide the detail, the framework for building a realistic plot.

Since retiring in 2000 I have been librarian of our county historical society where I assist people with genealogy and historical research.
I was doing it on a personal basis long before that and took on this responsibility partly to share what I had learned, but also because I enjoyed it. Call it a hobby if you will, but it’s one pursued by increasing numbers of people around the world.

I like the solving of puzzles, the detective work necessary to tracking down that elusive ancestor and discovering why he did this instead of that. It can become an absorbing addiction. I also continue to write a weekly historical column for the paper. Both of these activities led to exploring old newspapers on microfilm. This experience has broadened my understanding of just how vital a tool newspapers can be for insight on what life is like for people in a given time and place.

Patricia Highsmith is said to have begun keeping her “cahiers (idea journals)” at the age of 15, jotting down germs of inspiration from her daily reading, which included the Herald Tribune newspaper. Mary Higgins Clark remarked in an interview, “I always use something in the news that is potentially a good story. If I see an interesting case I will just pull it out.” Simenon is reputed to have begun each day with a fixed routine which included coffee, cigarettes and several newspapers.

Look at any one newspaper and I’m willing to bet you can come up with a dozen or more story ideas in a single day. Even the most commonplace of crimes can be spun out of the ordinary by the imagination. We all need that spark—the thing some call inspiration—to ignite it.

J. R. Lindermuth is a retired newspaper editor who currently serves as librarian of his county historical society. He has published 10 novels, including four in his Sticks Hetrick mystery series. A new Hetrick novel is scheduled for publication in August.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Welcome to Poe's Deadly Daughters, John. :)

jrlindermuth said...

Thanks for the opportunity, Liz.

Sheila Connolly said...

As a long-time genealogist I'm glad you too enjoy the parallels between family history and mystery writing.

Many people don't appreciate the value of old newspapers in putting together a full picture of their ancestors. In my case, I found news articles that revealed that my great-great-grandfather tried unsuccessfully to run for Congress, and that he was bankrupted by an unfortunate investment.

Good to see you here!

jrlindermuth said...

You never know what you'll find in a newspaper, Sheila. I've had some pleasant surprises, too. Some people actually look forward to discovering a horse thief in the family.

Patricia Gligor said...

It's interesting that you used Mary Higgins Clark (one of my favorite authors) as an example of an author who finds ideas for her novels in the newspaper. Obviously, a good source for characters, setting and plot because I think we know how much success she's had!

Sandra Parshall said...

As a former reporter, I still love newspapers and hate what's happening to them now. Many people, especially the younger ones, don't know what er'd be losing if all newspapers disappeared.

Jennifer Wilck said...

Hi John, I love newspapers, especially local ones, because they show the flavor and character of the towns they represent. Want to know what an area is like? Read the paper.

jrlindermuth said...

So right, Jennifer. Thanks for commenting, Pat and Sandra.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

John, I guess there are two kinds of people--I'm one of those who would be tickled pink to find a horse thief in the family. Not so much if it were a contemporary and I owned horses, though. ;) There's a genealogist on one side of my family, and while some wonderful stories were uncovered, it seemed to me that the dedicated genealogists were not interested in the stories--just in the "Bingo!" moment when a new connection was discovered.

jrlindermuth said...

I think that depends on the person, Liz. I had a woman tell me on Friday her interest was in the stories rather than the connection. But I've run into many from the other tribe, too.