“Where do you get your ideas?”
This is the most common question writers are asked. A dream inspired Stephenie Meyer to write the blockbuster Twilight. Suzanne Collins developed what became The Hunger Games when, during an evening of channel surfing, images from a reality show featuring young adults and a news story about the Iraq War began to “fuse together in a very unsettling way.” Many writers glean ideas from their childhood experiences, the wonderful past time of people watching, or situations that arise at their day jobs.
I often find the seeds for mystery plots in news stories. Not the reports of murder or other violent acts. I like to hear what’s going on in communities: residential neighborhoods, the Town Hall, schools, Main Street businesses. What are people fighting for, struggling with, or protesting? What is tearing a town apart or pulling it together? When a topic covered in the news sparks my interest, I play around with it to see if I can use it to launch a plot or conclude a story.
Newspapers and television news shows often report on communities fighting the construction of malls, new homes, or office buildings, arguing the development will pose risks to the environment, ruin the peace and safety of residents, or drown the town in debt. A few years ago, I developed an idea of a village of a few thousand residents and a thriving main street of “mom and pop” businesses confronted with the potential of an unwanted new neighbor: a shopping center filled with big-name stores. After a few false starts, I settled on a plot that became All Things Murder, in which soap opera actress Veronica Walsh discovers the body of her next door neighbor Anna Langdon the morning after Anna thwarted the mall developer’s plan to build in Veronica’s hometown of Barton.
Did you hear the story about the man who paid four dollars for an ugly painting he saw at a flea market because he liked its frame and later found a first printing of the Declaration of Independence tucked behind the painting? This and other tales of valuable flea market/yard sale/thrift store items purchased for mere dollars inspired my first cozy mystery (the story didn’t include a murder), which I wrote in 2005. The plot involved a letter purportedly written by George Washington found in a framed painting that is purchased at a tag sale.
That book was never published, but the idea of an amazing thrift sale find continued to intrigue me. Ten years after writing the original story, I re-worked the premise to come up with the second Veronica Walsh Mystery, Murder, by George. The George Washington letter became a small painting hidden in an antique box; the painting is discovered just minutes after the box is purchased at a village flea market. I added murder to the story: The painting’s new owner is murdered days after his momentous find.
These are two examples of how I used news stories to set a plot in motion. Sometimes, a real-life event presents the perfect motive for a murder and I’ll reveal it at the end of a story. I did this with Cast for Murder, the third cozy featuring Veronica Walsh. I had long wanted to involve Veronica in her community theater, but couldn’t figure out why her director is murdered. When I finally had an idea for a motive, I relied on several news articles to make sure my idea was logical and that I presented the facts in my story correctly.
Not every idea I get from a news report or article is viable. Many are just fleeting sparks in my imagination while others are discarded after I’ve noodled over them for a while. No worries. The news is fresh every day, so there’s always plenty of potential for inspiration, even when the story is fake. The dissemination of phony information—now there’s a motive for murder. Hmmm . . .
Have a fantastic week!