Saturday, October 2, 2010

Calling all writers: Published and Pre-published

By Norma Huss

Writers find ideas everywhere. One of my ideas for a novel (in final drafts) came from a rural road sign. (The road's name may disappear even more completely than the murder victim.) An idea for a published short story came from more than a year of news about a murder and the trial.

One of my favorite idea generators is my local paper's weekly Flashback column. One recent story, originally from August, 1910, told about the strange thefts of soap from the basement lavatories of the local post office. The thefts were solved when a large dead rat and 16 pounds of soap bars were found behind a locker. It appeared the rat had stolen each soap bar as it was replaced and dragged it sixty feet to its hiding place. The short item noted that it hadn't been determined if the rat starved to death or died from eating soap.

How could I spin that into a mystery with human consequences? An historic mystery with the boss docking the employee for stealing the soap before the rat was discovered, then the employee killing his boss? Other animals steal things. Crows steal shiny objects, perhaps? Someone's antique ring? Update the time to the current year? Or go forward to a future time with a story about a super mosquito that is trained to steal military secrets. Or is it a robot mosquito? Or how about a robot bear? Or a real bear five hundred years ago doing away with caches of food and the ensuing battle among hungry tribes?

Another article from July 1960, a mere fifty years ago, tells about a local fire
Old brandy
company's bicentennial celebration with a bottle of 100-year-old French brandy. There were 200 guests. The brandy that had been stored in a chest in the bank vault a century earlier, was mixed into a large bowl of punch. Everyone received a cup full, the mayor gave a toast, and the punch was consumed within seconds.

Nothing criminal there, right? But think of the possibilities. Your question for today is this:

How could that item be altered to create a mystery?


Today's question by Norma Huss of the Sinc Blog Army, author of Yesterday's Body.


Wendy L DarJean said...

I grew up in the coastal town of New Bedford, Massachusetts, a port of call for commercial fishermen for more than three centuries..

From the mid-1700's thru mid-1800's, New Bedford was one of the largest ports for processing sperm & blue whale oil & blubber in the US.

An essential ingredient in most soap, lipstick and other products was/is the oil extracted from sperm & blue whales. In the case of the rat hoarding the soap, it was likely attracted to the scent of whale oil extract.

When food was scarce, people would eat the soap made with whale oil extract. Though it had little to no nutritional value, the soap did have a high caloric content which helped to sustain the early colonists through the harsh New England winters. Whale blubber also served a vital role in the diets of native Alaskans. Though nowadays many traditional Alaskan receipes have substituted CRISCO or Lard in place of whale blubber.

What likely killed the rat and the people who drank the 100yr old wine? Toxins introduced into the extracted products from a spoiled sperm/blue whale carcass or man-made toxins ingested by the whale from within the environment.

Ambergris, a dark waxy substance found in the digestive tract of sperm whales, was used in France to manufacture fine wines. This was the likely culprit in the deaths of celebration participants...

Anonymous said...

I can't tell a story based on that, but I can tell you that every agent or editor I've spoken to over the years has wished to murder people who use the term "pre-published." A manuscript has been pre-published if it has appeared in print previously. People are not pre-published. They are unpublished.

Marcia Talley said...

I love mining the 'local police reports' for material. Recently, while on vacation in the northwest, I cracked up over the crime reports in Bozeman, MT.

"An intoxicated man was running around a parking lot on Dunston Road and jumping on cars."

"A man sent a naked photo of himself via email to a woman he did not know and the woman threatened to post the pictures around town. Police told the man not to send naked pictures of himself to strangers."

"A bear was in a red Chevy Suburban in a parking lot on Firelight Drive around 10 p.m." [I wondered if he was speeding?]

The big news of the day was, of course, the woman who fended off a bear attack using a 14 inch zucchini.