Culling ideas from the press

Posted: February 19, 2011 in process

If the exciting part of writing fiction is finding you have a theme that grips your quill, then the hardest part is probably working out what will fill the 300 pages – that is, the plot that will illustrate the theme.

I often think of the overarching idea for a novel. I am consumed with its brilliance and feel certain the reader will be similarly affected. But shortly afterwards (ha!) as I start to think characters, plot, conflict etc, I lose heart and think the reader will find my ideas either too trivial or too way out to bother with.

But the solution could lie in the local newspaper. Cutting plot items from real life makes sense. You can let your imagination roam from those starters and be sure that you are still within a general realm where readers will be willing to suspend their disbelief. They will recognise something as true to life and be captivated. So this is how to find plots from the local paper (I notice that Gillian Philip, writing on Crime Central, gets some of her plotlines from TV – same process really).

How to snip

  • Go on instinct – don’t think yet about whether you can use it
  • Leave aside moral and ethical judgement – cut with abandon
  • Don’t count items – it’s not important, you can cull later
  • Don’t worry about whether the item will date quickly – you haven’t decided how to use it yet, so don’t inhibit yourself prematurely
  • Don’t worry about well-known names – we’re after characters, events and ideas, not specific people

To show how this works, I’ll share an example from the Newcastle Evening Chronicle extracted a couple of years ago – partly because this is one I don’t have time to do, and partly to prove that although this material is now old, you will see how up to date it still is in story terms. As you read through these snippets, you simply allow a process of free association to happen, simply noting how the ideas interweave in your mind:

1 A move by the Home Office to allow the import of a cannabis-based spray for MS sufferers. Previously, people had to break the law to obtain it.

2 Gardeners who recycled rubbish have been entered into a draw to win equipment and prizes.

3 Nissan car plant has begun generating five per cent of its energy needs from its six wind turbines. Some people are objecting to the turbines.

4 The body of a foreign student was found at dawn between two tower blocks at the university.

5 A victim of burglary, who agreed to meet with the robbers to buy back his antiques, was attacked and robbed of the cash.

6 Blood used to treat a hospital patient infected and killed him. His wife traced the blood to paid prison donors in America and has vowed to hold to account the companies that sold the blood to the NHS.

7 A man, desperate for cash to fuel his valium habit, broke into a power station to steal scrap metal.

8 Officers seized 180,000 cigarettes from a house – they belonged to a man who kept them stashed at his mother’s.

9 A top author-cum-chancellor presented honorary degrees to three of his own heroes.

Before you ask, ‘How do I get a novel plot from these?’ remember the idea is to be inspired by unthought-of connections, not ones we can readily see! Hopefully some came up as you read. Since a whole news item provides more detail than I can give here, you would almost certainly find inspiration in your own cuttings. But even with this small amount of information, let’s have a think.


Clearly we have many sources that imply conflict that could be developed: the death on campus, the wind turbine project, the contaminated blood scam, the campaign to legalise the cannabis spray. Remember, of course, that these conflicts can be at any stage of their existence in your novel – the cigarrettes may not yet have been found, but the mother may figure in some other part of the plotting.


Well, I wonder if the new chancellor has been involved in one of the conflicts above and is being forced to give an honorary degree to someone who is not in fact a hero of his but someone who is threatening his reputation?

Geddit? Go on then, let’s start a news-lit genre!


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