Tuesday, April 1, 2014

True Crime Becomes Fiction

For me, it is SO easy to make things up. I begin with a story or character or even a place, and then I just go with it. Most of the time I have no idea what is going to happen, but apparently my pen does.

When I am at school in the summer I can let my imagination run wild through the many assignments given to me throughout the program. I love it! However, when I return home I have to switch my brain back to AP format and a journalist point of view.

When I became a journalist I thought, This job won't be that difficult, I write all the time. Oh, how wrong I was.

Recently I got a phone call from a local law enforcement officer explaining there had been a shooting in a nearby town. Throughout the course of the day, different people called in and gave their side of the story and information they had.

By the afternoon the story was that a man had hurt a younger girl, and the younger girl called her father, so the father flew in from the West Coast to get revenge. A shoot-out began as the two men drove at high speeds down a major highway in our county. One of the men was shot in the shoulder, but managed to kill the other man and another woman before he was shot in the head. He still got up and walked afterwards.

Sounds a little crazy, right? That's because a lot of it is. It would make an interesting murder mystery, but in the world of journalism and reporting the news, the truth is key.

This is where my job begins. Because the case was spread over multiple small towns in the county, I first talk to each sheriff. If I can't get in touch with them, I call the police chiefs in each of the towns. Most of the time, with cases like this, I get turned over to the bureau of investigations, which opens up another can of worms, in that they have a press department to deal with reporters, which means I typically don't get much information.

Piecing together a story that is accurate takes a lot of time, and people don’t want to wait. If they hear of a shooting, they want to see an immediate story on our Twitter or Facebook page. If they don’t, they wonder why on earth this is not being reported. This is news!! It is, but every single detail in this story MUST be confirmed, which is not so in creative writing.

The beauty of my job is, I not only get to gather information and figure out what actually happened in a jumbled-up case like this, but I am inspired to create new characters.

We can find characters all around us. I love turning people I talk to on a daily basis into characters. Not everything has to remain the same, but if I think it's funny that the local police chief enjoy hunting and prank calling his friends, I might use that later for one of my characters.

It's always a good idea to write down interesting places or characteristics because you never know what you might need later on for a story. While I have to work hard to find out the truth, the original rumors are much more interesting and can be turned into something later through my creative writing once I leave the newsroom.

So, here is a challenge: Go to dinner alone; try a fancy restaurant. Why not treat yourself? Be sure to bring a notebook and watch the people around you. Try to describe everything the girl several tables down does. Does she use her cell phone throughout her meal? Does she have fancy shoes on? Maybe she looks as if she’s dressed for a date but she’s alone. Take those descriptions and create her character.

PS: I did this in a restaurant a few weeks ago, and the family a few tables over thought I was so strange for eating alone (why is that? I love it!) and talked about me the entire time. The result? I created a nosy woman who talks too loudly about others because she has a hearing problem. See? It's not that difficult! Now, let's see what you come up with!


Courtney Warren is a writer for her local newspaper, as well as a graduate student at Hollins University where she is pursuing a degree in Children’s Literature. She has a bachelor’s degree from Delta State University, the home of the Fighting Okra (which she is incredibly proud of). She loves to read just about anything placed on the shelves but has a special place in her heart for the Harry Potter series.

When she is not writing about herself in third person, she loves to write stories about middle schoolers with spunky attitudes who intend to save the world, as well as drinking Earl Grey tea from a very prissy teacup.

Check out her blog, Tea, the Spirit, & a Pen.

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