Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
You may be a writer who has no trouble coming up with plots and story events, tumbling your characters into one mess after another easily and without too much thought.
But if you have trouble devising believable plots, a perusal of newspaper articles, whether on paper or online, could give you enough ideas to last your entire writing career.
I’m not necessarily talking of stealing an idea in full, enough so that readers would recognize the plot or some of the events. I’m talking about using as inspiration a kernel of some story. You may not even use the idea for your main plot—maybe something you read in a newspaper or news magazine is perfect, with a twist or two, for a secondary plot. A piece of back story. The key to a character’s motivation.
Try reading through some stories online. It’s likely that one that interests you will lead you to other stories and other information and additional topics that inspire something for a story you’re working on. Use it. If a topic or oddity or event catches your attention, it’s likely to catch the attention of others as well. So take what you read about or discover and put it to work in your fiction.
But use the tidbit or information in a way that fits your story. That means you might need to change it from its original form. You need the interesting (or unbelievable) event to fit your story’s genre, setting, characters, and other events. You don’t want to steal a story whole from the headlines, as some TV shows do, and plop it into a novel and call it your own. But you can certainly let the events of a true story influence you.
You are already influenced by all sorts of real-life people and events—there’s no prohibition against using topics from the news to add the feel of reality to your fiction.
News reports have shown us—
police killing citizens
citizens killing police
countries invading their neighbors
cruise ship illnesses and accidents
kids killing other kids
acts of uncommon bravery
acts of uncommon cruelty
parents leaving children in hot cars
revenge porn sites
discovery of mummified remains in odd places
the rise of new political groups
wars based on religion
demonstrations based on race or economic factors
hiding of kidnap victims for years
cities falling into ruin
the search for the perfect selfie
teenager revealing too much of her personal life online
not getting a job/getting fired because of negative Internet presence
shoppers killing each other over the last toy, sport shoe, fancy purse
the rise (and possibilities) of 3D printing
wild weather extremes
stories that seem true at first glance but which prove untrue after an investigation
Can you see it, a mystery based on the discovery of a mummy in a place no mummy should be found? Or maybe a love story based on the same discovery—what if the love story took place two thousand years ago and an explorer finds the remains of one of the lovers today and recreates the love story from the clues left behind?
Or the discovery of a mummy could lead to a horror story. A mummy that’s found and then lost again could make a fun and humorous YA adventure.
So many options out of one news story—don’t feel that you can’t take a snippet from real life and wrap a fictional adventure around it. You can. You can use any piece of information or news that moves you. You can use any piece of information and fashion it into fiction.
Make it Real
When you can’t come up with either the main plot or some event or issue that you need as an influence for a character’s motivation or goals or personality, get thee to a newspaper and see if you can’t find something “real” that can be folded into your fiction to flavor it with a touch of authenticity.
Don’t copy events detail by detail, but allow your imagination to grab hold of a real-world event and then add it, like a spice, to your story. Instead of relying on old standards—plot lines that came from some event so far back that you know nothing about it, but likely something based on a real event or a scientific possibility or fear—substitute something more modern: cyber crime for a traditional kidnapping, ruining a person’s reputation via social media rather than killing him, hijacking a plane and hiding it rather than demanding a ransom midflight. Or hide the plane for political purposes. Or merely pretend to hijack and hide it. Maybe you don’t actually take the plane somewhere, maybe your plane never even leaves the airport. With readers primed (from reading the same news stories you read), they may expect a plane to turn up in some hidden airbase. But if you perform some literary sleight of hand, your plane might be hidden at the same airport from which it supposedly departed on its ill-fated trip.
Don’t be shy about taking the influences of the day and working them into your fiction. All ideas come from somewhere—it really is okay to use real-world events to inspire story events. Do you think all the famous novels from the past came solely from the minds of the writers, with no outside influences whatsoever? It’s not true. We are all inspired. So take what moves you and use that inspiration to influence your readers. Make them cry or shudder or laugh because they can imagine such events happening. Give readers believable fiction, events that they can almost see and touch.
Writers of historical fiction do this all the time, borrow real-world events for their novels. They may use a complex event or they may simply pick one thin sliver from the real world—a character related to a famous person, perhaps—but they bring reality to their fiction in a way that readers recognize and respond to.
You can do the same.
Make it real. And don’t hesitate to use the real to color your fictional worlds and events.