Sunday, March 7, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Ripping Off Headlines

I'm not a newshound by any stretch of the imagination. We don't take a paper, though we pick up the local alternative weekly; we hardly ever watch the news; and though he regularly listens to NPR the headlines my husband chose to call up on our Yahoo page are from The Onion. I have websites I go to for science and literary news, and other than that, my current events knowledge is random.

But I don't write thrillers. If I did, I'd be all on top of the news looking for the next book. Case in point: over in the mainstream news forum of the Fortean Times Message Board, I saw people discussing the "Bulger case." In a nutshell, in 1993, in Liverpool, two 10-year-old boys abducted, tortured, and killed a two-year old boy. I'd never heard of it, but you can imagine the publicity and strong feeling in Britain.

The case began being discussed again this week because one of the two perpetrators, released on probation with a new top-secret identity in 2001, violated the terms of his release and was returned to jail. Official information on what he'd done to break probation was not provided; which prompted one of those displays of watercooler invention that support my contention that everybody gets story ideas all the time. He'd contacted the family of the murdered boy; the family of the murdered boy tracked him down for payback; he'd fallen asleep on a friend's couch and didn't check in with his probation officer; he got in a drunken brawl with a co-worker; he's a junkie; he surfs the web for kiddie porn. A co-worker's husband on the force with contacts says this, someone who ought to know says that - you know the game.

Yes, game. A ghoulish game, but a human one; and one writers have to play. This one's a little outside my comfort zone, but Hobkin and Vikki Vanishes both began with news only a little less horrific than this. I'll tell you how that worked some other time. Right now, I'm looking at the branching roads that spread out from this particular horror, and here's how I parse it.

First of all - you commit a crime like this at age 10, you wake up every morning for the rest of your life as the person who committed this crime. I am naturally reminded of Nancy Werlin's The Killer's Cousin, which explores this reality.

The fact that two boys are in this situation is particularly fruitful for the YA thriller writer, as it automatically opens up the possibilities for character development. Whose ideas was it? Was this a twisted blood brotherhood rite, a case of a dominant personality and a subservient one feeding into each other, a bizarre outbreak of normal childish aggression? Do they blame each other? Support each other? Ignore each other? Is one repentant and one not? What about their families - is there a little brother who looked up to one, was either of them abused, were they spoiled rich kids? The anonymity of the two boys allows us to project our own fears, theories, and fictional purposes onto the blank canvas of official secrecy.

The water cooler gossip I saw reported on my message board exemplifies the rich selection of plots that can arise out of this situation. If the repentant one contacts the family to try and make amends, that's one story; if the family is hunting both down for revenge, that's a very different one. Drunken brawls, drug abuse, chaving at the restrictions of probation-based life all lead in different directions. And what's going on with the other one? Is he really making good; or is he the dominant, unrepentant one, minding his p's and q's in order to keep his indulgence of his evil impulses under police radar? Maybe the repentant one is framed by the unrepentant one because he realizes his old friend is up to his old tricks!

At this point, if you're thinking: "Ick, gross, shut up, these are real people you're talking about, what if the family of the murdered boy stumbles on this blog somehow?" well - so am I. If you want to rip your stories out of the headlines, and you have any sense of decency, I recommend you do this stage of the brainstorming process in the privacy of your head and your trusty notebooks, detaching your fiction from the fact as fast as possible. How Truman Capote could live with the idea of the families of the victims reading In Cold Blood I can't imagine. Invent your own details, change the setting, change up genders, mash this crime together with others, do everything you can to separate the reality from fact.

Exploiting the real pain of real people for entertainment is - ooh. No. How'd you like it if somebody did that to you? You'd hate it, that's what! You'd hate the author. You'd hate everybody who made the book a bestseller and a blockbuster movie. The fact that people are ghouls and eat this stuff up with a spoon is disgusting.

But it's real. So the thing to keep in mind when you're ripping off those headlines is: How do I do this in a way that isn't disgusting? How do I mine this horror for the urgent and important themes it contains; the questions of evil, responsibility, maturation, forgiveness, vengeance, endurance it raises, without falling into a morass of sensationalism? How would I want this story told, if it began with my own story?

And when you've figured that out, write the hell out of it.

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