Turning Daily News Into Story Fodder

by Jenn Walton
published in Writing

At the end of last year, I took an enormous risk along with the support of my wonderful husband and community: I quit my job in communications to write fiction full time, for one year. In the nearly six months since, I have regretted not one ounce of that decision. It has been the greatest and most terrifying thing I have ever done for myself. And though I have learned so much more about who I am as a writer now than I knew when I graduated college, I have also struggled with bouts of anxiety and depression. Each of which has greatly affected my motivation and creativity.

When those moments arise, far more often than I’d like them to, leaving me drained and a lot of the time apathetic, I try to employ different tools to help get my creative juices flowing again. One of the ways I do that is through the daily news cycle. News reports are teeming with story ideas and sparks of creativity that we writers can use to inspire both ourselves and the stories we write.

Sometimes all it takes is a few minutes of listening or watching for something to grab my attention, other times it’s an entire segment or long-form article. But when it does happen, and there is a story or a piece of information that sticks with me, I try a few of the following exercises to see where my creativity and imagination takes me.

Creating the Beginning

First, identify a snippet of news that really caught your attention today and summarize it in a sentence or two. For my purposes I’ll be drawing from this New York Times story. My summary is as follows:

“Though cannabis entrepreneurs are on the rise, their parents have been a bit slow to get on board.”

Now, whether you already have a “character” in your summary or not, try thinking of the beginning of this story. What happened just before those few sentences? Was one person involved or was it multiple? Where were they and how did they get to this point? As you start to piece together the beginning remember to use your summary as creative ground zero. And don’t worry so much about how many words you get down or how long it is. The point here is to get your imagination moving again whether it’s to build upon this snippet or to create something completely new. I came up with the following:

“To Sed, everything in that moment felt like a colossal waste. The diploma was slid into her hand and her picture taken in so swift a motion she hadn’t had any time to think. Stepping down from the stage, she just stared at it. A piece of paper that was supposed to have promised she’d go to college after this, but in reality only stood as a symbol of proof that she in fact just narrowly managed to finish high school. College had never sounded good to her, but she couldn’t think of anything else to do.”

Changing the Middle

Oftentimes when we listen to or read a piece of news, we’re likely catching the story in the middle. And like every other person who’s tuned in, we are waiting for it to be resolved. Before you find out how that particular story ends, however, try taking your brief summary and rewriting it. Start with one detail, for example:

“Though cannabis entrepreneurs are on the rise, their parents have slowly been turning them in.”

How does that change the story as you know it? Are the stakes higher or lower? Do the responses of the characters in that story change and how? By changing what happens in the middle of a news story you begin to open your imagination to all of the possibilities of how it began and even how it ended. And if you find yourself in the midst of a creative slump like I do sometimes, changing even the smallest details in a news story might help inspire you to change details in your own stories giving them new life.

Setting Up the Aftermath

Where I tend to draw the most inspiration from news stories is in what comes after or what could potentially happen as a result of that story. Whether on a large or small scale, what we hear on or read in the news tends to have a lasting impact. So far, I have written whole stories based off of short snippets about life in war zones and what could happen after climate change takes hold. Below is the aftermath of Sed’s decision:

“The day she told them about her business was the last Sed ever saw of her parents. They’d disappeared into nothing but smoke, and took the house with them all before the next sunrise.”

Sometimes all that’s needed to get that creative spark going again is getting a small window into a world that’s not your own. That way, you’re free to build on and around it, letting your creativity take on a life of its own.

Whenever you find yourself out of the creative mood, regardless of the how or why, be sure to first and foremost take care of you, but also take the time to ease back into your work. Whether it’s through listening to the daily news cycle or other creative exercises, be patient with yourself and your imagination. You’ll be surprised by the the worlds and characters you think up.

Jenn Walton is a writer, editor and storyteller based in Washington, D.C., whose fiction works are housed mainly in the speculative genre. She is currently working on her first novel project that explores, through the lens of a failing utopia, what happens when society gives in to its fear of the other. She previously wrote for a communications firm where she drafted and edited sponsored and organic content for top-tier academic institutions, Fortune 500 companies and leading philanthropic organizations that has run in The Washington Post, USA Today and the Atlantic. For more from Jenn, please visit her at her website or on Twitter.

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