Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Truth is Stranger than Fiction

by Lois Winston

We authors are often asked where we get our ideas. “Write What You Know” is such a well-known maxim that even non-writers have heard of it and assume that all authors must have some personal experience in regard to their characters and plots.

Disclaimer: No, my husband didn’t gamble away our life’s savings, max out our credit cards, and borrow fifty grand from a loan shark before dropping dead at a casino in Las Vegas. He’s very much alive and a nice guy.

Disclaimer: No, I have never stumbled across a dead body in my office or anywhere else.

Disclaimer: No, my mother is not descended (nor did she believe she was) from Russian royalty.

Disclaimer: Yes, I have worked as a crafts editor but for a book publisher, not a women’s magazine.

Disclaimer: Yes, my mother-in-law was a communist.

Sometimes authors do mine their own backgrounds and the people they know for source material, but most often we make things up. That’s because we’re writing fiction. And fiction by definition is stuff that isn’t true.

So where do I get most of my ideas?

I’m a news junkie. I read the newspaper every morning while I’m getting my first of many caffeine fixes throughout the day. The daily news is an author’s best friend. Why? Because the old adage TRUTH IS STRANGER THAN FICTION really is true. That belief is reaffirmed every time I pick up a newspaper or turn on the evening news. And from all that truth I glean a wealth of ideas for my books.

For me the daily news becomes a wonderful source for plots, subplots, main characters, and secondary characters. Newspapers are incredibly cheap resources. They’re also a tax deduction if you’re using them for research. The reason I like the newspaper over the nightly news is because the newspaper has the luxury of going into greater detail about a story. Ninety second news bites can only give the broad picture of a newsworthy event. Often it’s the nuances not told on the evening news that will trigger a brainstorm.

I don’t always take the news story at face value, though. I brainstorm from them. Many news stories on the surface seem like they’d only be the catalyst for a suspense, thriller, or mystery, most – if not all – can actually be used as a spring board for all fiction genres.

Here’s an example:

The sidebar headline in the morning newspaper awhile back was “7 SOLDIERS DIE IN IRAQ AS SURGE CONTINUES.” This could certainly be used as the basis of a thriller plot about a group of soldiers fighting in Iraq. But how else could this story be used to generate plot for other genres? Here are a few I came up with off the top of my head:

– As a soldier lies dying after a roadside bombing, he makes his friend promise to take care of his pregnant wife. Because the dying soldier saved his friend’s life on an earlier expedition, the surviving soldier feels honor bound to carry out his friend’s last request. There’s one not so minor hitch, though – he hates kids, and she’s pregnant with triplets. – romantic comedy or woman’s fiction

– A roadside bombing in Iraq leaves three survivors who are captured and held by terrorists demanding the release of a leader they don’t know has been murdered by a rogue officer. – thriller

– After a roadside bombing in Iraq that leaves all but three members of a squad dead, one is captured, one is injured, and one is missing. Soon after, the region is struck by the same plagues visited upon Egypt during the time of Moses. – horror

– When a roadside bomb goes off during a foot patrol in Iraq, seven soldiers are killed. One survives, but he wakes up in ancient Mesopotamia to find a very beautiful woman tending his wounds. – time travel or erotica

– After surviving a roadside bombing that killed the other members of his squad, a young soldier is nursed back to health by a local woman. There’s only one problem: In order to save his life, she’s had to turn him into a werewolf. – paranormal

– Same premise as above with a slight twist: She’s turned him into a werewolf, and he’s allergic to animals. – humorous paranormal

Other sections of the newspaper as well as magazines can be used to generate ideas. Don’t overlook the human interest stories, editorials, advice columns, and op-ed columns. You can find a wealth of plot and characters in every section of the newspaper and between the covers of any magazine, including the ads, especially those found in the backs of magazines.

Here are two ads I came across that just might make their way into one of my mysteries some day:

– Did you know that imaginary girlfriends and boyfriends are up for sale on eBay? For the right amount of money you can pay to have someone send you emails, letters, and photos from pretend lovers.

– You can purchase panties with a hidden computer chip that will keep tabs on a girlfriend, wife, or daughter 24 hours a day via satellite transmissions to your computer, cell phone or PDA.

Even the most unlikely reading material can produce idea gold.

Bio: Lois Winston is the author of the critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries published by Midnight Ink. Assault With a Deadly Glue Gun, the first book in the series, received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist and was recently nominated for a Readers Choice Award by the Salt Lake City Library System. The new year brings with it the release of Death By Killer Mop Doll, the second book in the series. Read an excerpt at http://www.loiswinston.com/excerptap2.html. Visit Lois at her website: http://www.loiswinston.com and Anastasia at the Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers blog: http://www.anastasiapollack.blogspot.com. You can also follow Lois and Anastasia on Twitter @anasleuth.

Lois is currently winding up a month-long blog tour where she’s giving away five signed copies of Death By Killer Mop Doll. To enter the drawing, post a comment to this blog or any of the others on the tour. You can find the complete schedule at her website and Anastasia’s blog. In addition, she’s giving away 3 copies of Death By Killer Mop Doll on Goodreads, http://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/15173-death-by-killer-mop-doll


  1. To Blogmaster! This is a great idea - having surprise guests to do blogs - gives the reader a wider vista for the day - I do not know the writing of Lois, but now I have a new window on ideas of a writer who is very creative and has a lot to offer her colleagues!
    Thelma Straw, MWA-NY

  2. Thanks, Thelma. I'm glad you enjoyed the post, and I hope you'll give my books a try.

  3. Having enjoyed the first book immensely, I am on the waiting list for the second.

    The newspaper is a wonderful way to generate ideas. I have a folder where I have saved a bunch of clips about various things that I hope to use in a future short story, column, book, etc.

  4. Awesome post! I love how your mind works, Lois. You're an explorer in a place far greater than our universe--the mind. You're not afraid to "boldly go where no man/woman has gone before."
    Thanks to you my mind is spinning with ideas!
    It's been a fun tour. Thank you.

  5. Thanks, Kevin! Hope you enjoy the second book as much as you enjoyed the first.

    Thanks, Sandra! When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut. Too bad NASA wasn't interested in space explorers who suffer from motion sickness. So exploring the mind is the next best thing. ;-)

  6. So ... the final blog of this tour? I'm worn out and I'll need the next 11 months to rest up for your next tour. LOL.

    Excellent exercise with the multiple 'takes' on that news article. Obviously you have a lot of imagination to come up with so many possibilities. Can't help but mention, however, that you omitted the most popular --- ZOMBIES!

    As far as tracer chips in my skivvies --- that would be incredibly boring. They hardly travel in a five mile radius these days. Ha.

    Don't think I'd bid on an imaginary eBay girlfriend, though. If I had the time for another relationship, it would more likely be one of those avatar things. Or maybe that cute little girl on Frontier Ville. LOL

  7. I am looking forwrd to reading the second book!!!!

  8. Jeff, you're exhausted? LOL! How do you think I feel? Thanks for being such a devoted fan and following the entire tour.

    Prentiss, I hope you enjoy Mop Doll.

  9. I love this post. What a variety of 'takes' from a single news item. It was fun to see the various angles you came up with. I've enjoyed your blog tour and I've found some new blogs (and authors) to add to my lists. Good luck with your book and thanks for a great month!!

  10. Thanks so much for going along on the trip, Jane. I'm glad you enjoyed the month of blogs.

  11. Hi Lois,

    I'm currently enjoying Assault with a Deadly Glue Gun. I enjoyed your post and wanted to concur with you about newspapers being rich sources for creative thinking. One of my favorite places in the paper for content is the obituaries. You learn such interesting tidbits about people. For instance, the swashbuckling female dockmaster also baked cakes as a sideline, or the Italian pizza baker was a former Golden Gloves champ. I love the newspaper. Its as important as that first cup of tea.

  12. I am greatly looking forward to reading all of your books, Lois! This was a totally fascinating post.


  13. Glad you're enjoying Glue Gun, Maggie! My favorite section of the newspaper is the advice column, whether Dear Abby or another. Those letters are full of human insight.

    Thanks, Brenda! So glad you enjoyed it!