Monday, November 5, 2012

Use the News! Mining Current Events for Plot and Character Ideas: Lois Winston

Welcome back to our 
totally FREE Lecture Series
featuring Bestselling Authors
here at Bestsellerology!

Our next lecture is from writer and agent, Lois Winston. My former sister writer pal for "thy scandalous publisher who shall not be named" and author of the quirky crafting mystery series is here to share her "Use the News!" model for getting great character and plot ideas.  Here's her secret...

Use the News!  Mining Current Events for Plot and Character Ideas

Confession: I’m a news junkie. Why? Because that old adage Truth is stranger than fiction really is true. That belief is reaffirmed every time I pick up a newspaper or turn on the evening news. And from all that truth you can mine a wealth of ideas for plots, subplots, main characters, and secondary characters.

Newspapers are incredibly cheap research resources. I prefer newspapers over the nightly news because the newspaper has the luxury of going into greater detail about a story. Ninety second news bites can only give the broad picture of a newsworthy event. Often it’s the nuances not told on the evening news that will trigger a brainstorm. And I prefer a print version of the newspaper to an online version because the online version doesn’t always contain everything found in the print version.

But what if you don’t write suspense or thrillers? How are news articles going to help you? Although many news stories on the surface seem like they’d only be the catalyst for a suspense, thriller, or mystery, most – if not all – can actually be used as a spring board for all fiction genres, including historical fiction. A week doesn’t go by without a newspaper article about a new archeological discovery or historical find. There are plenty of magazines devoted to history and plenty more that include articles about history. Even automotive magazines that specialize in articles about antique cars can be source material.

Besides news articles, don’t overlook the human interest stories, editorials, and op-ed columns of the newspaper for generating ideas. You can find a wealth of plots and characters in every section of the newspaper and between the covers of any magazine.

When you come across these articles and stories, save them in an “Ideas” file. When you get stuck, pull out your file and read through it. Most likely, you’ll find something that will trigger your creative juices and help you get “unstuck.”

Advice columns are another wonderful source of inspiration. There are the more famous ones, such as Dear Abby, as well as the lesser known columnists who answer questions about finance, ethics, and medicine. These can all be great triggers for ideas.

And then there are the ads. Use Madison Avenue to your advantage. Several years ago I found myself in a 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 interest 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! Here I was flipping pages when I came across an ad touting 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 scene in Four Uncles and a Wedding, one of my Emma Carlyle books.

Finally, once you’ve found some interesting articles you’d like to incorporate into a story, apply the “what if” principle to give them your own unique twist. You can do this for an overall plot, subplots, character development, or even as a way to tighten the sagging middle of your work-in-progress.

Award-winning author Lois Winston writes the critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries series featuring magazine crafts editor and reluctant amateur sleuth Anastasia Pollack. Assault With a Deadly Glue Gun, the first book in the series, received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Booklist. Kirkus Reviews dubbed it, “North Jersey’s more mature answer to Stephanie Plum.” Death By Killer Mop Doll was released this past January. Revenge of the Crafty Corpse will be a January 2013 release.

Lois is also published in women’s fiction, romance, romantic suspense, and non-fiction under her own name and her Emma Carlyle pen name. In addition, she’s an award-winning crafts and needlework designer and an agent with the Ashley Grayson Literary Agency. Visit Lois at, visit Emma at, and visit Anastasia at the Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers character blog,

Thanks to Lois for her interesting sources for research.  I'll never look at an issue of Road & Track the same again.  Wonder where I put my issue of Car & Driver? ;-) While you're here folks, be sure to register for our January Writing Resolutions Workshop here at Bestsellerology.  And come back on November 15th for our next FREE lecture from bestselling author Allison Brennan: "The Villain's Journey: Part One".


  1. Lois, I'm totally with you on this. It's sometimes the most obscure little news article that will grab my attention. Articles with fewer details work best for me, because I fill in the blanks. My husband probably wonders why he stumbles across newspaper sections with things circled like, "Two men Found Dead. Truck Torched." and in small print "Horse Running Loose." Maybe I should start looking at those sexy ads, too!

  2. It's really neat to be able to say on guest blogs what had inspired you to write the story also after the book comes out. While I was coming up for the idea for Wolf Fever, the WHO was predicting a catastrophic case of flu across the world. So I did the what if. What if werewolves got a strain that affected them in an unprecedented way?

    I've done this with other stories too that are based loosely on some major crime affecting international markets even. :) Or with research and learning about a couple of real wolf stories that I used in my werewolf tales, since they're based on real wolves. :)

    Sometimes I feel guilty about reading bizarre news stories, and "wasting valuable writing time," so thanks for reminding me how important they can be to helping to create a fictional story!

  3. Thanks for stopping by to comment, Terry and Terry!

  4. Many of my stories have originated with organization newsletters. As an appraiser of fine and decorative arts I receive appraisal newsletters, many of them are loaded with news of the past that still affects us to this day. For example, in the 1800's British and US archeologists placed their finds in British and US museums. Today those museums are being sued for the return of those artifacts. This information has enabled me to create a appraiser/detective/hero. Elaine Abramson writing as E.S. Abramson

  5. What a wise perspective on the news! Plenty of human drama there. Thanks for the tips.

  6. Glad you found them helpful, Chris.