Monday, August 16, 2010


When I saw the topic for this week’s discussion, my initial reaction was, “What? You want me to give away all my secrets?” You see, I happen to teach an online workshop all about coming up with ideas, and as it so happens, I’m teaching it this month. But this is the topic of the week, and it’s my turn to blog today, so those of you reading this will get some brainstorming insights that others have paid for.

As writers of mysteries, thrillers, and suspense, I’m sure my fellow blogging buddies, like me, all scour the news for interesting true life events they can play with to invent new troubles for their protagonists. The writers of the
Law & Order franchise are famous for dipping into the pool of current affairs for each episode.

However, besides the daily news, op-ed columns, and human interest stories, I turn to Madison Ave. for ideas. When I see an ad that intrigues me, I clip it and save it in my “Ideas” file.

For example, several years ago I found myself in the doctor’s waiting room, and I’d forgotten to bring a book with me. The few magazines on the coffee table were several years old and totally not of inter

est to me. Out of desperation I began flipping through the pages of ROAD & TRACK. I am so not a ROAD & TRACK sort of girl, so you can imagine how desperate I must have been! Then I came across an ad that touted an aftershave guaranteed to increase sexual attractiveness ten-fold. You better believe I ripped out that ad and filed it away in my “Ideas” file. I later used it in a book.

So even the most unlikely reading material can produce idea gold. But don’t think that you have to find an ad for something weird in order to stimulate your muse. What about the ad hanging on the bulletin board at the local dry cleaner? Someone is looking to sell a never-used, king-sized Ethan Allen bedroom set. Was this due to a wedding that never took place because one of them died? Or was one of them murdered? Is one suspected of killing the other? Once you begin br

ainstorming possibilities, you wind up with a plethora of ideas.

I’m currently winding up the second book in my soon-to-be-released amateur sleuth series. I can’t say that I used Madison Ave. for the overall plot arc of either the first book or the second, but I have used it to craft scenes that progress the plots of both books. I’ve also used news articles and human interest stories I’ve come across in the past. Each time I get stuck for an idea or need a way to get from Point A to Point B in a story, I pull out my “Ideas” file and read through the clippings I’ve accumulated. By the time I finish, I’ve found the answer to my problem.

The first book in Lois Winston’s Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries series, Assault With A Deadly Glue Gun, will be a January 2011 release from Midnight Ink. Meanwhile, Anastasia is blogging at Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers, and you can visit Lois at her newly redesigned website.


Caroline Clemmons said...

Lois, I also keep a file of news stories and ideas, but I hadn't thought about ads or the bulletin board at a business. Great ideas! Thanks for sharing.

Lois Winston said...

You're welcome, Caroline!

jeff7salter said...

I really like the way your mind works!
Similar to my practice (so far): happen upon something seemingly innocuous and probably unrelated to anything. Yet it has all those *possibilities*, if only I will hold it up to the light (and turn it different ways) to see what kinds of glimmers / reflections it produces.
In one of my specific cases, I had an idea for something which would affect (probably briefly) my male lead in an upcoming book in Series A. Well, I had not yet gotten to that future book in Series A when the idea hit me to use that [situation] on an entirely different male lead in a brand new book in a completely new series.
As I look back on it, it still might have been a good 'thread' in the first place I envisioned it. But I believe it became a wonderful core plot for my fourth novel (the first in that new series).
You'll understand that I'm not spelling out the situation because it's not yet published.
But I'm hopeful.
An agent has that 4th ms. right now.

Meredith Cole said...

I love how an innocuous ad can inspire a mystery plot for you, Lois. I'm inspired in a similar way by tidbits that I overhear. I'm afraid I don't have anything as organized as a file for them--but I do jot them down on scraps of paper or on my computer for later use.

Lois Winston said...

Jeff, isn't it amazing how the mind works? Good luck with the agent.

Meredith, I used to use scraps of paper but found they had a way of disappearing. The file keeps me organized.

Sophie Littlefield said...

Years ago, I read the "Marketplace" page in the WSJ every single day. Consumer behavior is so fascinating...I got tons of ideas there.

Graham Brown said...

Road and Track comes through again! :) I too rip out pages from magazines in waiting rooms - at least I did - until I got an I-phone with a camera. Now I just photograph the page - not sure which looks stranger to the people in the waiting room, a woman ripping pages for R&T or a man taking pictures of Good Housekeeping.

Autumn Jordon said...

Lol, Graham.

I have a file too, Lois. It's filled not only with tidbits of ideas but also with character pictures. Sometimes I look at a picture and an idea pops into my mind. Especially the backgrounds of villains.

Lois Winston said...

Sophie, you don't have to read the WSJ to find weird consumer behavior. Just look around the next time you're at the supermarket or Target. Weird surrounds us. Good for writers, bad for the population in general.

I think it's a draw, Graham! (Unless the woman is Danica Patrick.)

Autumn, I keep files of pictures for my characters, too. Now that I'm writing a series, it's easier to remember what they're supposed to look like if I have visual reminders.

Joshua Corin said...

For brainstorming, one technique I like to employ is hitting the Random button on Wikipedia. It almost always leads me somewhere I'd never otherwise go...which leads me somewhere else...which leads me somewhere else...and suddenly I've connected zebras and the War of 1812 and whammo: new novel.

Kelli Stanley said...

Great post, Lois! Maybe a particular magazine/book/thing's unfamiliarity (something we don't normally pick up) makes us more receptive to creative ideas ... we see everything--including ads--with fresh eyes.

And then, of course, there's the Bill Cameron model: eavesdrop. ;)


Lois Winston said...

Josh, zebras and the War of 1812? Now that's a book I need to read.

Kelli, desperation and boredom make us do all sorts of things -- like read Road & Track!

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Thanks for sharing your secrets, Lois!

Shane Gericke said...

Your bit about the ads reminds me of the most perfect six-word plot ever devised, from, I believe, Dean Koontz. "For sale: baby shoes. Never worn."