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.
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?