Keeping a Dirt File

By Nancy J. Cohen

For mystery writers, having a dirt file is akin to keeping a gold mine in your house. What is it? I’m referring to a folder full of clippings you’ve taken from the newspaper or magazines that may be relevant to your work someday. I get out a pair of scissors whenever I read a paper copy of the Sunday newspaper. A recent issue’s headline caught my eye: Bomb Case Awash in Mystery.
As soon as I saw mention of a pipe bomb found under an SUV in a suburban neighborhood, I knew I’d hit gold. Suspect A noticed something strange under his car. It turned out to be a homemade bomb. He accused his wife’s lover of planting the device. This man, suspect B, said that he was framed by Suspect A and the wife. But it didn’t help his claim of innocence when the wife was found to have a $500,000 life insurance policy on her husband. Then the lover’s DNA was found on the bomb. But was it rigged to go off, or was it set as a false trail? To complicate the issue, police discovered videos of Suspect B and his stepdaughter having sex. Oh, man. I couldn’t have made this up! You know how truth is stranger than fiction? Here’s a perfect example.

When might I use this information? When I’m determining the suspects in my next mystery. I’m always looking for motives and secrets people may hide. Or an article like this might kick off a new plot. Think about the puzzles here. It seems an open-and-shut case about the wife and her lover trying to do away with the husband. But what if it’s really the husband and wife trying to frame the lover? Why would they do that? What if…? And here we go. Our imagination is off and running.

Stockpiling clippings doesn’t only apply to the mystery genre. For my science fiction romances, I obtain articles on futuristic technology, whether it’s on flying cars or electromagnetic weapons. Even the power of invisibility has a basis in reality. I have articles to show for these topics. I also cut out stories of true adventure travel. You never know when my hero might have to explore a volcanic crater or traipse through a jungle. Even off the beat pieces that tickle my fancy go into a general research file. You might need inspiration and one of these printouts could fire your imagination.
So are you a crazy clipper like me? I make sure my husband reads the newspaper first before I put holes in it. What kind of dirt do you look for?

23 thoughts on “Keeping a Dirt File

  1. I found my “dirt” file about a month ago when I was cleaning out my office. It’s labeled BRAIN LINT. Thought I had lost it. It was fun going through years of clips to see what I thought was book fodder at the time. Most of it is just stupid ephermera but a couple things…well, you never know!

  2. Online newspapers have crazy articles too! News stories are excellent sources of inspiration. There’s so much going on out there just waiting to be put in a clever author’s story!

  3. Nancy, I’ve got one of those dirt files, too. Some of the stuff goes back decades. Today things have changes. My morning paper comes in digital form on my PC. If I want to save a clipping, I “snip it” and save the file. Most of the time, I just grab the Internet link to an interesting story and drag it into a “dirt folder” on my desktop. Technology changes but the idea is the same.

  4. So true, Laura and Joe. I still like having printouts to riffle through, though…for the same reason I print out all my manuscripts as I’m writing. Things can get lost online. But online news stories can offer insights just as well as printed ones.

  5. What are these things called newspapers?

    But, yes, I do have a virtual clip file and I jot notes from things I hear in court.

    My current favorite came during a recent plea agreement for theft and arson (not my case). The prosecutor was giving the factual basis and said (and I quote),

    “That is when the defendant and his companion lit the moth on fire and burned down the barn.”

    Now, not funny if it is your barn. Definitely not funny if you are a moth. No, it is still funny. But you couldn’t make that up in a hundred years.

  6. I used to cut articles from newspapers and magazines and often used them as the basis of fiction stories I wrote. But I tend toward using online sources these days. Google has made me lazy!

  7. I clipped a bizarre story one day, about a man who shot his wife in South Central LA, drove to a freeway overpass, got out, shot himself, fell 100 feet to the other freeway, hit a car and killed the driver. That just haunted me. I kept that clipping in a box with others (which I reviewed from time to time). Finally I couldn’t deny it anymore, and that incident became the opening of Try Dying.

  8. I, too, have had a “dirt file” for decades, and more recently I have added a digital one as well. You can’t beat the Dear Abby letters for relationship tangles, and the science news clips make for great scifi ideas. For a long time, I thought I was the only one who did this. Good to know how many of us there are?

  9. I have a question for you more experienced clippers and writers. I have two stories in my dirt file that, like James Scott Bell said, haunt me. They have the makings of a great story. Are there legal concerns with following the details too closely so that the actual case could be identified? I have two, that if I used, are so unique they could be easily drawn to the real incident. Thanks for your feedback and the great article.

  10. Love that you call it a “dirt pile!”

    I have a drawer full of hanging files with clippings and all kinds of interesting articles ripped out of The New Yorker.

    I also have a large, shallow red basket on my desk. It catches all my odd jottings…I should say that eventually it does. I’m a jotter. Paper bits tend to accumulate all over my house. When I’ve had enough of the paper mess, I go through all the bits and the ideas that are keeper go into the red basket. I love seeing my brain on display like that.

  11. Oh yeah, Jacqueline, I forgot about Google. But that’s when you are searching for something in particular. The beauty of clippings (or online copies) is you see something that catches your fancy and save it for later.

  12. Julie, I would be careful about using any material that someone might latch onto as applying to them. Fictionalize it as much as possible. Change the gender of the characters. Alter the motives. There must be some way you can disguise it.

  13. Ah, Lisa, let’s not get into a discussion of the “Piles of Papers” and jotted notes lying around. Actually, one of the talks I do is on Organizational Tools for the Writer.

    When you file those bits and pieces, it’s a lot easier to find what you want. It is okay to have a basket, just remember to clean it out now and then or you’ll end up like I did at one point with years worth of stuff.

  14. Sharon, I like your suggestion of using dear abby letters for relationship tangles. And Jillian, thanks for stopping by. I, too, like the term “Brain Lint.” Very clever.

  15. Clippings from the what-now? Oh, the newspaper. Whoa. I remember doing that, too. I think we still have a local “paper.” But speaking of strange news, get a load of this. Now this is in the New York Times (for those who’ve pony’d up for the online subscription). Thing is, it’s about a shooting in Kalispell, Montana, of all places. It’s really quite interesting. Here’s the link:

  16. Jim, that’s interesting, and it also gives me an idea for a story. What if the husband was purposefully lured into this guy’s garage only to be shot “legally” by his wife’s lover?

  17. Julie – if you want to see how James took that news story and morphed it into the unique opening of his book, check out Die Trying.

    I’m a lawyer and real stories fall apart quickly because after the flash, there is a lot of tedium. Use the action, not the context.

    If I ever used the flaming moth, it wouldn’t be two redneck dumbasses bored and ticked off because they couldn’t steal the dirtbikes chained to the pillars. I would come up with way better context.

    One of my trunkers centers around another true murder – the killer confessed at a seance. How’s that for cool? Well, I framed it in the actual context of the actual trial, wrote myself into a corner, and bored myself to death.

    The tidbit went back in the lint trap and the story went into the trunk.


  18. Terri, I love the idea of a seance to elicit a confession. What if you work backwards to plot a story with this finale? Maybe the killer is superstitious, and the detective plays upon this factor. It’s just such a cool idea to let go.

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