Agents and publishers caution writers against selecting story ideas based on breaking news events. Why? As my journalism professors used to say, news is a perishable commodity. News stories have a short shelf life, especially in today’s 24/7 cable-and-internet fueled world, where the demand for fresh content is relentless. The timeline from inception to publication of a novel is generally three to five years. What’s hot news at
the moment will be long forgotten by the time a book is written and published.
Another reason not to draw inspiration from topical news events is that other writers are doing the same thing. Look at all the books published in the last five to eight years that used the 9-11 terrorist attacks either as part of the main plot, a subplot or a character’s back story. This may not be an adequate analogy because 9-11 was such a monumental event that it deserved to be explored and written about in all its dimensions, much like the Civil War and World Wars I and II continue to be the subject of books, even today. The point is, though, unless you are confident you can write the definitive, breakout book on the subject, your story will be lost among the sheer number of novels dealing in some fashion with the terrorist attacks.
I have mixed feelings about using news stories as the inspiration for novels. I understand the wisdom of staying away from major events that tend to grab writers as grist for novels. Yet, I come across news stories all the time that fascinate me and make me wonder, “what if?” I’m not
talking about a story where a writer can change a few names and circumstances and call a news story an original work. I’m talking about stories with a captivating premise a writer can use as a jumping off point for a fresh, original story.
A lot of people were riveted by the Amanda Knox story and I’m sure there’s more than one writer out there trying to figure out how to rearrange the events into a novel. That’s obvious fodder for a novel.
Recently a couple of not-so-obvious news stories intrigued me. The Boston Globe is running a series on Whitey Bulger, a notorious criminal who was recently captured after nearly two decades of hiding in California. Here was a man whom the FBI claimed was responsible for more than a dozen brutal murders, a man who allegedly ran a far-flung criminal enterprise. What’s so unique about that? you may ask. Think about it. Bulger was living a seemingly ordinary life in plain sight with his mistress in southern California, where a neighbor might have mistaken him for a kindly old gentleman.
So what’s the premise here for a novel? You could take this story in any number of directions. Here’s one: the main character is a criminal who flees from the law and over the course of time, repents, and turns his back on crime. He is guilt-ridden and wants to pay his debt to society. So he does anonymous good deeds. He builds up enormous good will. Perhaps he is a lay leader in his church. All the while, he is hiding a brutal
past. Then someone finds out about his past.
The second story that caught my eye was a Chicago Tribune piece on Steve Bartman, the poor young man who was vilified by Cubs fans when he caught a foul ball, which kept alive a rally by the Florida Marlins. The Marlins overcame a three-games-to-two deficit to defeat the luckless Cubs and eventually win the 2003 World Series. I always felt sorry for Bartman. All he did was what any fan would do: he brought a glove to a game and caught a foul ball. The Tribune tried to reach Bartman for the story. He refused to be interviewed. He kept a low profile since the
incident. He never talked about it publically. Friends said he had moved on. He had a good job and he was content. He had turned down large sums from companies who wanted him to do commercials to capitalize on his notoriety.
So how is Bartman’s story a novel? Similar to the Whitey Bulger story, here’s the premise. A young man makes an innocent mistake which is so egregious he is ostracized. He has to leave the community he loves and make a new start. He makes a good life for himself, but he is haunted by
his past. He cannot live with himself unless he returns to his hometown and redeems himself. Or perhaps he anonymously helps people in his hometown in the condition that they never reveal his identity. Again, he is found out. It’s not exactly Bartman’s story, but still a winning premise.
Neither the Whitey Bulger nor the Bartman story was a huge national story (the Bulger story was big news for about a day), but they stuck with me in a way the major headlines of the day did not. I’m not sure if either story will inspire a novel, but both are in my idea file for later reference.
It shows sometimes you can find gold nuggets at the bottom of your prospecting pan.
What news story has captivated you and sparked your interest as inspiration for a novel?