Questions about writing: Do I get ideas from the news?

I’m an instructor for ITW’s 2016 Online Thriller School. My lecture went live last week, on Plot. Since then, I’ve been answering questions from students. Their queries have been really interesting, so I’m going to re-post a few for everyone who wants to know more about plotting a thriller. Here’s one:

Shadow“Do you ever find ideas for your fiction in the news? If so, can you comment on how you used them to develop your plots?”

I do get ideas from the news. I read about a French company that will kidnap you off the street — for fun, and for $1000. That kickstarted my novel The Nightmare Thief, about an “urban reality game” that goes wrong when the “kidnappers” at a 21st birthday party turn out to be real kidnappers. And I read about the NSA’s huge new data center in Utah, and wondered: Is it truly possible to go off the grid in 21st century America? That grew into The Shadow Tracer, where a skip tracer has to disappear and go on the run with her five-year-old daughter.

Ideas are everywhere. Spinning them into compelling narratives takes lots of practice.

“Could you detail how you transfer a real news item into a detailed plot say for one of the two books of yours that you mentioned. Obviously, the reality of what happened in the real news item is not used verbatim and has to be re-massaged. What is the process you go through and how does your new plot develop?”

Sure. Let’s look at my novel The Shadow Tracer. I read about the NSA’s Utah facility, built to store a bajillion terabytes of data and metadata. I knew that personal, private information about all of us would probably be stored there without our knowledge. I thought about how often we hear talk of “going off the grid.” I wondered: in a high tech, highly connected western country, is that actually possible?

That “what if” got me brainstorming. Suppose somebody wanted to go off the grid. Who? Why? I decided that the person who wanted to disappear would be the heroine in the novel. So I had to give her a compelling reason to vanish. Bad guys were after her, obviously. Who were they? How far would they go to find her?

From there, I decided that the heroine, Sarah Keller, needed to have serious skills. That’s why I made her a skip tracer. She chases down fugitives for a living. She learned how to do this job because she wanted to know how to disappear if the time ever came.

This led me to research how to disappear. Which then led to writing scenes where Sarah plays cat-and-mouse with people she’s tracking. Those scenes reveal a secret world, which is fun to read about.

But the surveillance state, and skip tracing tricks, form only the skin and bones of the story. They’re the background. I had to come up with a compelling reason for Sarah to flee from the life she has carefully constructed. The most compelling reason I could create was: She goes on the run to protect her five-year-old daughter.

This complicates the story — which is good. It’s one thing for a single adult to skip out on her life. It’s harder for a mother with a young child. They’re easily identified as a duo. And keeping a child out of danger limits the places Sarah can go and the actions she can take.

Then I had to figure out: Who wants this little girl, and why? Well — it’s her father’s family. They want to bring her home to the clan. And they’re an evil clan, twisted by religion and their methamphetamine business.

Then: What if the FBI has been trying to bring down the clan, and sees Sarah and little Zoe as the perfect bait? Now Sarah has two sets of antagonists.

Then: Does Sarah have allies? Who can she call on — while racing across the Southwest — to help her? Well, how about somebody who also deals with fugitive apprehension: a U.S. Marshal?

Then: How did she meet the marshal? Under what set of stressful circumstances? What isn’t Sarah telling anybody? What are her secrets?

The story was spun from all these ideas.

A news item can spark a novel, but I don’t ever try stick to the facts of the item. It’s ONLY a spark. It’s the ignition source. I have to pour my own gasoline on the fire, and see what burns.

(If you’re interested in next year’s online course, you can check it out via International Thriller Writers.)

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