Monday, March 14, 2011


When I took a look at this week’s topic, I wasn’t sure what to do. Do the readers of our blog really want a list of the books on our reference shelves? I imagine that many of those books are the same for all of us: dictionary; Thesaurus; assorted “how-to” books on plotting, character development, and marketing; a few of those Writer’s Digest crime books. You get the idea, right? My research shelves also include a wide selection of crafts books -- both one’s I’ve written or contributed to and ones I use for research in both my design business and in the writing of my Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries series. But unless you’re interested specifically in crafting cozies, you’d quickly exit the blog if I were to list all of them.

What I thought might be more interesting to read about are the contents of my “Ideas” file. This is the loose-leaf notebook where I keep assorted newspaper and magazine articles and print-outs from the Internet that have either made their way into my books or someday might.

Truth really is stranger than fiction. I see that every time I pick up a newspaper or turn on the evening news. And from all that truth I mine a wealth of ideas for my fiction. The daily news becomes a source for plots, subplots, main characters, and secondary characters. This began with the first book I ever wrote and has continued for each subsequent book.

That first book came about in part from a sensational murder that occurred on the Philadelphia Main Line in the late 90’s. My brain started spinning with possibilities for both a plot and a villain. Thus was born Love, Lies and a Double Shot of Deception, a romantic suspense that became the first book I ever wrote and the second book I sold.

I teach a workshop called Help! I’ve Lost My Muse where I stress looking beyond the obvious when searching for plot ideas. One of the examples I give is from a sidebar headline I saw a couple of years ago: 7 SOLDIERS DIE IN IRAQ AS SURGE CONTINUES. This headline could be a springboard for a thriller about a group of soldiers fighting in Iraq, but by thinking outside the box, it can also be used to generate plots for other genres.

Here are a few examples:

1. As a soldier lies dying after a roadside bombing, he makes his friend promise to take care of his pregnant wife. Because the dying soldier saved his friend’s life on an earlier expedition, the surviving soldier feels honor bound to carry out his friend’s last request. There’s one not so minor hitch, though -- he hates kids, and she’s pregnant with triplets.

2. When a roadside bomb goes off during a foot patrol in Iraq, seven soldiers are killed. One survives, but he wakes up in ancient Mesopotamia to find a very beautiful woman tending his wounds.

3. After surviving a roadside bombing that killed the other members of his squad, a young soldier is nursed back to health by a local woman. There’s only one problem: In order to save his life, she’s had to turn him into a werewolf.

4. Same premise as above with a slight twist: She’s turned him into a werewolf, and he’s allergic to animals.

5. When a roadside bomb goes off during a foot patrol in Iraq, seven soldiers are killed. One survives. Or so he believes until months later he catches a glimpse of one of the other soldiers. He goes rogue to discover what really happened that day and uncovers more mysteries than answers.

Here’s a sampling of other articles and columns in my Ideas file:

Headline: A SHOWER OF SILT BELIEVED TO HAVE DOOMED 3 DIVERS (News story: Three experienced scuba divers died after running out of air while diving in the belly of a sunken ship off the coast of Key Largo, Florida. One survived.)

A column written by Lawrence Hall about a German study where a research team concluded that ogling women’s breasts can help increase a man’s life expectancy by five years.

An article in the New York Times about a “sexual decoy” who works for Check-a-Mate, a New York company that investigates men and women on behalf of their romantic partners.

An article in Glamour Magazine that detailed the trend of non-sexually impaired young males who take Viagra to increase their sexual stamina.

An article in The Ethicist column for the Sunday New York Times magazine where a woman had persuaded a shy male friend of hers to try Internet dating. He posted his profile and picture but never contacted anyone. The friend took over for him and eventually found herself juggling an online courtship with three separate women, all of whom thought she was a 35 year old man.

An ad in Road & Track that touts an aftershave guaranteed to increase sexual attractiveness ten-fold.

Imaginary girlfriends and boyfriends up for sale on eBay. For the right amount of money you can pay to have someone send you emails, letters, and photos from pretend lovers.

An Internet news article that showcased panties with a hidden computer chip for keeping tabs on a girlfriend, wife, or daughter 24 hours a day via satellite transmissions to your computer or smart phone.

Now, wasn’t it more fun to read what’s in my Ideas file than the titles of books on my reference shelves?

Lois Winston writes the Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries series. Assault With a Deadly Glue Gun, the first book in the series debuted in January to starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist. Visit Lois at her website and Anastasia at the Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers blog.


Meredith Cole said...

Your workshop sounds terrific, Lois! And I love your ideas file... There are some things that are so odd that you just know you have to use someday, somehow.

Lois Winston said...

Thanks, Meredith. What's really odd is when you have a ms. based on real life events rejected because the editor didn't think the story was believable. Go figure!

Michael Wiley said...

A great post, Lois. My vote is definitely for the werewolf story. Seems like an apt metaphor among other things.

jeff7salter said...

I get a lot of my ideas from things I read, see on the 'Net, or hear about.
But I'm proudest of the three ms. I wrote which were based on nuggets of info/situations which existed in various generations of my in-laws.
My father-in-law got to read two of my ms. which had a character inspired by him ... and I was writing the third as he died.
[Didn't mean to post a note this glum ... but actually those ms. celebrate the lives of those in-laws and ancestors].

Lois Winston said...

Thanks, Michael, but which werewolf story? I'm partial to the one where he's allergic to animals. :-)

Jeff, there's a character in my latest series that's based on my mother-in-law. Only in my case, it's probably a good thing that she's not alive to read it.

Anonymous said...

I had a good laugh over this because I have had stories based on real events rejected because it was "too unrealistic" a premise. Really do have to keep our sense of humor in this business. I really enjoy culling ideas from the news medias. Super post, as always. Thanks for sharing and inspiring.