Exploring Newspapers for Inspiration
by C.K. Thomas
For a couple of years way back in the 1980s, I worked indexing The Arizona Republic and The Phoenix Gazette for inclusion in a searchable database reporters could access from the computers on their desks. Often I would clip articles to save for myself that I thought would make great starting points for fictional accounts in a novel. Whenever I hit a “dry spell” of the imagination, I often access my bulging news files for inspiration.
More recently, a subscription to Newspapers.com serves as a treasure trove of ideas and factual tidbits to spice up the historical references in my novels of the Wild West. However, this method of research requires constant vigilance on my part to avoid getting drawn into each of the fascinating headlines I run across. For instance, I’m especially interested in writing women’s history, and the following story took me on a short side trip before I got back to the research at hand:
In 1917 a headline in The Charlotte Observer announced Jeannette Rankin as the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress. The interview running with the announcement sported the headline, “The Lady from Montana.” I consulted “the Google” and discovered Jeannette was elected again in 1940, but when she voted against entry into WWII, her popularity with the electorate never recovered. Fascinating, I thought, and was tempted to linger on the brink of the giant pitfall I call “research quicksand.” Fortunately, I’ve learned to make electronic clippings of ideas I come across while I’m researching something else and then quickly pull myself back to my original quest.
Online research remains a mainstay while I’m writing a novel, but it’s still a fun treasure hunt to sift through those old newspaper clippings from the ’80s. The thrill of discovery and flights of fancy I experience are so worth the newsprint ink on my fingers and the sneezes that accompany the search.
While writing this blog, I pulled one of those ’80s folders from the file cabinet and found a New York Times syndicated piece from February of 1985. It’s about novelist Carolyn Chute, who lived in poverty while writing her first novel The Beans of Egypt Maine. When she received her first check from her publisher, she used some of it to install a phone line. Afraid of spoiling the tranquility of the quiet life, she listed the phone in the names of her geese. Reporter Dudley Clendinen noted, “They haven’t had any calls.”
Are you inspired yet? I’m searching for Carolyn Chute on the Net right now …
C.K. Thomas lives in Phoenix, Arizona. Before retiring, she worked for Phoenix Newspapers while raising three children and later as communications editor for a large United Methodist Church. The Storm Women is her fourth novel and the third in the Arrowstar series about adventurous women of the desert Southwest. Follow her blog: We-Tired and Writing Blog.