Saturday, May 3, 2008

Newspapers, Obituaries and "Dear Abby"

A newspaper article about a Texas girl who cut Elvis Presley’s name into her forehead was the inspiration for Anne Tyler’s novel, The Slipping Down Life. Flannery O’Connor admitted to collecting “oddities” from the newspaper. Joyce Carol Oates has used newspapers, the Ann Landers columns and True Confessions magazines for sources of her stories. In her essay, “The Nature of Short Fiction,” Oates wrote, “…it is the very skeletal nature of the newspaper, I think, that attracts me to it, the need it inspires in me to give flesh to such neatly and thinly-told tales, to resurrect this event which has already become history and will never be understood unless it is re-lived, redramatized.” Some examples of stories that resulted from such collecting are, “Where are you going, Where have you been?” and her novel, Black Water.

If you haven't already done so, I recommend starting an idea file. Cut out news stories, obituaries, photos, columns, or whatever else sparks interest. Read the tabloids as well as your local newspaper. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have an idea to go with the clipping yet. From time to time flip through your file. Ask, “What if?” Freewrite or cluster ideas.

Usually news stories report the end of the story, like, for instance, the crime for which the criminal was arrested or the winner of the bologna eating contest. You have to supply the details which led up to the headline. Or ask, “What happened next?” and construct your story that way. After reading an advice column, I often wonder what happened. Did the letter writer take the columnist’s advice? Did the situation get worse? The columnist could become part of the story as well.

Sometimes larger newspapers, like The New York Times, include essays about newly married or affianced couples which include details about how they met. Try obituaries. Sometimes they include extensive bios. Fill in whatever details that aren’t supplied. Read the personal ads and the classifieds. List the ad poster’s conflicts. Create a profile. Mix and match details and wants from several ads. Write a scene where your characters meet for the first time. If you have a story idea, keep going.

As always, have fun with it!

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