Not that question again.

It’s an old chestnut: the audience asks, where do you get your ideas? Sometimes it’s said with a little awe in the voice. Other times with a smidgen of fear, as in, I’d hate to see what you dream about at night you whacko! However it’s asked, writers hear it often, and often have a canned response. From the news, from my interests, from my secret criminal contacts, from deep in my amazing imagination, or from the air around me.

But where do you really get your ideas? Sometimes, as a writer, you don’t know. They come to you while you’re washing the dishes, or brushing your cat, or falling asleep. With my new novel, Jump Cut, I had this idea to have a reporter fake a news story, and get caught.

So where did that idea come from? It’s a question I’ve asked myself.

Like Mimi Raynard, my main character, I went to journalism school and studied broadcast news. An interesting class was Communications Law where we studied not only shield laws that protect reporters from having to name their sources for stories (an issue in Jump Cut) but also some rather sensational cases of fraud by reporters.

The case that stuck in my mind happened in the early ’80s. Janet Cooke was a young reporter at The Washington Post when she wrote about an eight-year-old heroin addict named ‘Jimmy.’ The story freaked people out. An EIGHT-year-old shooting heroin? The report caught the attention of Mayor Marian Barry and the police chief who sent people to try to find and help Jimmy. But no Jimmy could be found. Bob Woodward, the Post editor, submitted Cooke’s story for a Pulitzer Prize which it won in 1981. Within days, after investigation of her falsified college degrees, Cooke admitted she had also made up Jimmy. She resigned and returned the Pulitzer. And hasn’t worked in journalism since.

Ms. Cooke is often raised as a cautionary tale to budding reporters. However difficult your job is, however much pressure you feel to find a sensational story, it isn’t worth making up sources. You will get caught. In my novel Mimi Raynard is desperate for a new job so she dresses up as a Russian Mafia Madam in a resume tape that she doesn’t send out. She wants to, she thinks it’s brilliant, but she can’t square it with her conscience. But still the tape gets her into all kinds of trouble.

Your characters have to get in trouble. But the balance between your character’s flaws and their triumphs is a delicate one. The redemption of the character’s honor can be very satisfying. I love to pull the rug out from under my characters and see what they’re made of. Mimi comes straight out of my imagination, in case you’re wondering. She makes mistakes, she’s human. But can she redeem herself? You’ll have to be the judge of that.

So, writers, where do you get your ideas? Hmmm?

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  • Most of my ideas were from real life: yep, I lived so much of it because I was involved in a unique life working with victim/survivors of rape/sexual assault and domestic violence. I also collaborated with my sister, pioneer police woman Trula Ann Godwin (Iowa Archives of Most Influencial Women). Her cases often involved people living in my housing project and I was a nurse often tending in one way or another, with many she helped: both of us working with street people. She was the victime of rape in her home after the birth of her fifth child catapulting her into police work after male officers bungled her case. We made a heck of a team collaborating, and now I carry out our dream of the writing as breast cancer claimed her. I am anxious to follow you now on your blog and to know more of your work. My organization The Trula Godwin Project, started in her name posthumously puts high risk victims underground and maintains a victims underground mail system.

    • A

      Sounds like you’ve got a lot of experience, Joyce, and enough material for a lot of books!

      • Well, my friend,I have a feeling I will run out of life before I run out of stories, LOL. Eleven are out there, but all told, I have written fifteen (two as a ghost writer) and some for specific people so I won’t publish them. Main thing is, write as long as you enjoy it, and don’t wait until you retire, like I did. Thanks for responding, Lise.

  • Like most writers, my ideas come from a variety of sources. The most interesting ones come from dreams that may be totally whacked out and unrealistic, but have the kernal of a plot imbedded. Sometimes, like with my novel, ‘Mankind’s Worst Fear’, it came about as a reaction to a low quality movie about a madman who uses a submarine to travel into the future. I just felt I could do far better.
    Often it’s a compendium of a series of unrelated scenes, but ones I feel deserve more development. A tweek here and there, string together a plot, addd character depth, enriched the scenes and there you are.

    • A

      Interesting, David. I’m pretty visual so I usually get a single picture, or a single scene, stuck in my head. With One O’clock Jump I had a vision of a dark night, a woman in a white dress floating face down in the river. Then I have to work-work-work to get an entire plot from a single thing like that!

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