Monday, December 13, 2010

Where do you Get Your Ideas from?

OTTAWA, Ill. — About 50 people are searching an area in rural LaSalle County for a woman who vanished after a car crash that killed her husband.

Forty-year-old Tanya Shannon of Ransom was believed to be riding with her husband when their car crashed shortly after they left a holiday party. A deputy found the wreck early Sunday.

Authorities say 41-year-old Dale Shannon was dead behind the wheel, and footprints in the snow led away from the car.

Sheriff Tom Templeton tells WSPL Radio that it's possible searchers could find Tanya Shannon's body under the snow Tuesday, but Templeton says nothing is being ruled out at this point.

RHYS: It's True Crime Tuesday again, and a couple of newsworthy crimes from last week stuck with me.
Whenever we writers speak in front of a crowd I can guarantee that one thing we will always be asked is where we get our ideas from. How do you keep coming up with new ideas, people will say to me. What the answer of course is that writers learn to fine tune their senses, to keep their eyes and ears open, and it only takes the slightest germ of suggestion to start that thought process, which turns into a plot.
A favourite phrase of the creative writer is "what if?"
So take the above incident I read in the news last week. The vehicle was found crashed on a deserted road and the man at the driver's seat killed in a horrible accident. However, his wife who had been with him was not in the passenger seat. And there were footsteps leading away from the car. No trace of her found after a long search.

For a mystery writer, this is a great "What if?" moment. The mind starts racing to all kinds of scenarios. Had the wife been seriously injured and staggered off into the woods to get help only to collapse into a snow drift? Or or had the wife planned this accident, made sure her husband crashed and killed himself, and left him in the woods to die? Or ... had a third person caused the crash, killed the husband and kidnapped the wife? So this is a starting point for all kinds of good stories. The police will no doubt be investigating the state of their marriage, the state of the minds of both individuals to decide whether something was wrong or not.

And I don't know if you noticed the other good twist. The couple came from Ransom!

The other good story came from an English newspaper and involved a couple who went on holiday to South Africa. The wife was originally from there and wanted to take her husband back to her homeland. She insisted on visiting some not too safe areas. Even though her husband was against it. Their car was hijacked with the wife in it and she was later found killed. Now comes the twist -- when someone was arrested for this crime, he claimed that the husband had paid him to do it. So we have a fascinating scenario in which the husband appears to be reluctant to go to is South Africa with the wife, when all the time he is plotting her death. And my writer's mind starts to turn this around too. How about a wife who is trying to get rid of her husband? So she lures him to South Africa, stages an apparent kidnapping, leave some blood in the car and then sits back to watch him arrested and convicted of the crime of murder.

So you see if you're a crime writer, you need never be short of ideas. They are on the news every day. So tell me, when was the last time you got a plot twist from the news or read a great plot idea in the news?


  1. Just about every book I've written owes a debt to a news article. (Which is one reaason I want to see newspapers stay alive!) Dead Head was inspired by the story of an upper middle class woman in southern CA who was arrested when it was discovered that she was a fugitive from the law and had been living under an assumed name for decades. That's been my favorite What if? moment so far.

  2. Oh, all my books come from snippets of reality..and stories I've worked on.

    DRIVE TIME emerged when I couldnt find my car in a parking garage! (How about that for making lemonade?)

    And AIR TIME when my luggage went missing at the airport.

    I just--stared wondering what might REALLY be happening. It was much more fun than reality.

    Hmmm. Adversity.

  3. Oh, Rhys, that's just what happens - I read a news item and then think--but what if...? I live about two miles from where that poor young man from N. Carolina ended up after falling from the wheel well of plane on its way into Logan. So sad, and the REAL solution was one you might what-if your way to and then reject as too bizarre, even for fiction.

  4. You're so right Rhys. When folks ask -- as they inevitably do -- "Where do you get your ideas from?" I always want to ask, "Where do you NOT get your ideas from?" They're just everywhere.

    One fun exercise I've done when asked to speak for a group of students -- and it's never failed me yet -- is to pick up a daily newspaper on the way to the school and spend five minutes leafing through it. Inevitably, there's a novel in there somewhere. Sometimes it's on the front page. Sometimes it's buried in the obits. But it's there every time. Then I spend the rest of the class brainstorming up characters and a plot with the students.

    Try this with middle schoolers and you'll be astounded what the little buggers come up with.

  5. My mystery is during WW2, so I look at personal accounts and find neat things that way. I read one where a laundress was going through the pockets of Royal Navy Uniforms before washing them. She found a piece of paper in one pocket. She recognized one of the words, "Achung". The lady reported it and the Navy discovered they had a spy on one of their ships!

  6. Rhys,
    Those are great true crimes. I'm actually going to have to restrain myself from not what-iffing a story about the first one because I have other work to do. But I keep seeing the woman slipping out of the car....


    That's a great story. I read and watch so much WWII history that I bet I'd LOVE your book.

  7. Jan, I just finished the first draft and I'm in the editing phase, but if I get published, I'll send you a signed copy. ;0)

  8. I'm always jotting notes down for ideas gleaned from the newspaper or a news story. My last inspiration came from the discovery of a young boy's body in a chest-style freezer after his family moved away. That story was followed by a retirement party of a detective friend and his regret over an unsolved disappearance (and likely murder) of a young girl. Her body had never been found. By the time I got home, the two stories melded into that of a brand new Assistant District Attorney being "bequeathed" a retiring investigator's "regret" case--the body of an unidentified girl found preserved in a cypress box in the aftermath of Katrina. I just finished the first draft of this project and I'm looking forward to refining it after the first of the year.