It’s next to impossible to ignore breaking news, even for dedicated writers who resolve to leave the newspaper folded, the television and radio silent, the tablet or phone unchecked. One way or another, the news of the day creeps into our consciousness. Unless we live a hermit’s life, ensconced in a cave, we know that over the last few weeks two convicted killers escaped from a prison in upper New York State. We know lawmakers have made landmark decisions, resulting in celebrations, protests, speeches, and posturing. People have carried out brave acts as well as foolhardy ones. We know innocent people have died. We know fires have ravished communities in the West. We know record heat has baked part of the nation, while other areas have floated on flood waters.
If we are writing fiction, it can be difficult to ignore the real world while creating an imaginary world in our stories and novels. Reality creeps into our psyches and our work, often to the point of distraction.
One solution is to use the news in a creative fashion. Writers frequently adopt major events, particularly tragedies such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, as a setting or backdrop for their fiction. Sometimes those events mirror their characters’ actions, sometimes they are only used to establish a public mindset. Terrorism, extreme weather, crime, and dramatic stories of survival are all fodder for the writer, as are the humorous articles, the world of celebrity, and everyday miracles.
But, how many times have you read a news article and immediately formed an opinion, thought of ways to solve a problem that has been presented, or imagined a different outcome. My father, who lived in a far simpler time, used to use the term “sidewalk engineer,” which is similar to the more widely used term “armchair quarterback.” Not a flattering designation, but also not a bad activity for a writer. Often, the news can inspire us with a plot idea based on our response to actual events. The moment we say, “What I would have done is . . .,” we are forming plot, action, and resolution.
Case in point: After the recent escape of the two convicts from the Clinton Correctional Facility, I imagined what I would do if I was one of them and wanted to escape and blend into society. I studied the photos. Sweat, the younger man is ordinary looking, with unremarkable features. Wearing the right business apparel, and swinging a briefcase, he could walk down most major city streets and, if noticed at all, would appears to be an office worker going to or from his job. Matt, the older man, with heavy features and probably a fast-growing five-o’clock-shadow, would have a harder time, but give him a hard hat and a lunch box and he could pass by unnoticed as well.
Frequently, when we see symbols that identify people by profession, we often don’t take a second look. Fiction, however, allows us to take liberties with the reality of what is perceived, so we can discover what is hidden just below the surface. Identity, motive, method–all can be changed with a few keystrokes.
No one wants to plagiarize or be accused of wholesale copying a news event and calling it an original plot. A “What would I do. . .?” moment, based on a single act or situation, is neither. Drawing on our knowledge and experience, to realize a different scenario, is simply a writing tool. If a blank computer screen is your nemesis today, turn on the radio, flip on the television, or pick up a newspaper and let the ideas flow.