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One of the questions frequently asked of a writer is where ideas are obtained. If you are writing, and find yourself lacking for ideas, I have a suggestion: google “missing persons” and then your local city, county, or even neighborhood. You will find enough tragedy, heartbreak, and yes, mystery to write volume after volume.
I am haunted by a particular incident that took place less than two blocks from my home. I am blessed to live in Westerville, just outside of Columbus, near a lovely area known as Hoover Reservoir. It’s a body of water that stretches for a few miles and has hiking and jogging trails, fishing opportunities, and a decent sized waterfall. It is also the situs of a disappearance that has baffled our local law enforcement for almost twenty years. A gentleman named Robert Mohney left his home — and a half-eaten steak dinner — on the evening of July 28, 1996 and was never seen again. His automobile — a cherry red Pontiac Firebird — was found in a parking lot at Hoover Reservoir. One reflexively thinks suicide, but no note was found. No, there is the impression of a meal interrupted and a sudden…disruption, perhaps? Mohney had been going through a divorce but it reportedly was not an unfriendly proceeding; this wasn’t someone, according to those who knew him, who was intent on leaving for the other side. Inquiries were made and the reservoir searched but the man, a good looking guy in his late 20s, was and is gone. Police acting on a tip in 2010 dug up a field in an area north of the city hoping to locate a body and perhaps bring some closure —whatever that is — to Mohney’s family. They came up empty, unfortunately. Mohney is now the subject of high school legend, one in which his spirit can be seen late at night, wandering the banks of the reservoir, seeking peace. What happened to him? How does someone disappear from a popular picnic and recreational area without anyone noticing something? There’s your novel; have at it.
If that doesn’t interest you, here’s another. Over nine years ago a second year medical student at The Ohio State University named Brian Shaffer disappeared one night from a very popular campus-area bar and restaurant after becoming separated from friends. Security cameras show him going into the establishment with those friends but never coming out. Law enforcement has spent hours reviewing video and accounting for everyone who entered and left the place. Everyone but one. Cadaver dogs were subsequently led through the premises but came up empty. There have been rumors a-plenty as to what occurred — everything from sighting in Atlanta to a tie-in with what have become known as the “Smiley Face Murders” — and if you want to feel as if you’re about to slip loose of your moorings, google that term — but nothing concrete has been determined. Shaffer is…gone.
There are more. A number of young women living on the fringes of polite society in a rural area south of central Ohio have disappeared during the past year. I stopped believing in coincidence some time ago; something bad and evil is acting, with impunity, in that area. Further afield, a number of ladies employed in some of the more popular adult entertainment establishments on Bourbon Street in New Orleans go missing under strange circumstances each year. Check out the statistics for the number of people who go missing in your city, your state, your country. There are all sorts or stories, real or imagined, waiting to be told. Be warned: after reading a few of those accounts you will want to take every person you love and keep them close and safe in a locked room. But if you need a story idea, you’re just a few keystrokes away from one, or two, or several.
That’s all I have. Tell me…what’s been happening near you? Are they heavily publicized, or were you surprised by what you found?
“..after reading a few of those accounts you will want to take every person you love and keep them close and safe in a locked room…”
Now there’s an idea in itself~ 🙂
Atlanta metro seems somewhat “quiet” (at the moment), but there’s an ongoing three year old story about a 45 year old woman from Chico, CA, “… last known to be in the Fulton Co (GA). Jail…” Did she disappear in, from, or after incarceration? Three stories there… at least.
And there’s the ATL’s “well kept” human (child);trafficking secret that may be the destination for folks missing from other places across the state, if not the hemisphere (or even further, given our airport).
Depressing~ if not “inspiring” ~
On a festive note ~ Happy Fourth of July to those in the States~
G., those are both interesting stories for sure, though tragic. I’m not sure how old you are but those of us of a certain age will recall the Atlanta child murders, a horrible set of circumstances which apparently persist to this day. I never was entirely satisfied with hanging all of the murders on Wayne Williams, though, in the words of Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Polly, he didn’t miss a lick, I’m sure. Thanks for the reminder. And Happy Fourth of July!
The site for missing persons in my home town is down for maintenance. So my missing persons page is missing.
But our local paper did a story in 2010 that listed some very interesting missing person stories. Very interesting indeed….
Amanda, your town is hardly unique. It’s not against the law for an adult to intentionally disappear, but the number of people who seem to vanish via misadventure or bad intent is startling, at least to me. We hear about the famous ones — Jimmy Hoffa, Judge Peel — but there are thousands. Thanks and Happy Fourth! I’m still chuckling over your missing persons page having gone missing.
Good morning, Joe.
Great idea for a source for story ideas.
I don’t keep up on the newspaper in our small rural community (Logan County). But years ago Paul Harvey said, “If you want to commit a crime, do it in Logan County.” He was referring to the reputation for unsolved crimes. So I assume the archives of the local paper should be loaded with ideas.
I’ve always thought Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the unsolved mystery, was fodder for a book and a movie. If someone has written that one, I missed it.
In any case, keep your loved ones safe and close (and out of the North Carolina coast waters), and have a great 4th of July.
Good morning, Steve, and Happy Fourth to you and yours as well! I was unfamiliar with the Harvey quote regarding Logan County, but I can appreciate it. I’ve had some lovely times in Bellefontaine while travelling to and from but some of the outlying areas of the county are interesting, for sure. You can drive for miles and never see a soul. Stay safe and thanks for stopping by.
No missing persons in my area since 1984, and even then there’s only been 3 cases, each 20+ years apart. The 1984 case looks like a mother and daughter who escaped an abusive home. There have been sightings as late as 2003. Country living has its benefits.
Have a safe and wonderful Independence Day!
Happy Independence Day to you as well, Sue, and thanks for stopping by! Re that 1984 case, I’ve heard — and it may only be an urban legend — of an “underground railroad” that is set up to help abused women and children get out of bad situations and establish new identities elsewhere. Hopefully that is the case here.
An excellent suggestion. Truth may or may not be stranger than fiction, but it’s a great jumping off point. And any day’s paper (or news feed, for you young folks) can be the catalyst. Imagining links between a missing person here, a report of a bar fight there, a lottery winner or lodge president getting an award, and you have the meat for a fascinating story.
John, that’s a great string of scenarios that could provide fodder for several different stories. Thanks for the idea and for stopping by. And Happy Independence Day!
Excellent tip, Joe. If I wrote mysteries, I would release the Googles and go find a missing person(s).
Thanks, Joe! Go for it, we’d all love to read the result. And Happy Fourth!
News reports are a great way to get ideas for stories, especially if there’s a mystery to it or there’s some aspect to it that you can ask “what if this happened instead?” But at the same time, news reports deal with real people. What looks good on the page is actually truly horrible in real life.
So my question for you all is:
As a writer, how do you decide at what point “taking inspiration from real events” becomes “taking advantage of a real person’s tragedy to sell books?”
Thanks in advance.
All the Best,
I love the question as well, Matthew, and of course it’s valid as well when applied to newspapers or to television/radio news as well. And what G said is very true…I wish I could remember who said this, and I came up lame on a quick google search, but it’s been said that if you can think of it, someone has already done it. The way I tend to look at it is that if you, say, write a book about children being abducted, and even fifty per cent of the people who read your book keep a closer eye on their children, then your job is done. Thanks for a great question, and Happy Fourth!
I’m actually British, so we generally don’t celebrate Fourth of July over here (Gee I wonder why 😉 ) but thanks. Happy Fourth of July to you and everyone else who celebrates it on these boards. Hope you have better weather for your fireworks than we usually do for November 5th.
(Yes, we Brits don’t use fireworks to celebrate independence… we use them to celebrate our government not being blown up… I can’t help thinking irony is involved.)
Guy Fawkes has become a bit of a celebrity on this side of the pond as well, Matthew! He may get his way yet from beyond the grave, though he’s probably rolling at the thought of masks bearing his image going for 99 cents on ebay!
Great question~ and a fine line~ I think even if you “come up with something on your own” there’s still a good chance it really happened to somebody somewhere sometime ~ I guess it boils down to how you treat the characters of the trauma, even when fictionalized.
The esteemed Mr. Bell addressed something like this a few weeks back, saying the inspiration, but not necessarily the details, for his Ty Buchanan series, came from local stories in LA. I can’t speak to how those involved in the base stories reacted to these three novels, but the news accounts became good cores for “what if’s” about possible “why’s” if not “insteads…”
G., yes, all three of my Ty Buchanan books were sparked by real events. They were just sparks, and everything else was made up. I think “real life” would hold back my imagination!
BTW, the incident that begins Try Fear (the big guy in the Santa hat and G-string) was just too juicy to resist. Funny thing, a year or so later I was talking to an LAPD cop about my book, and he said, “Oh yeah, I remember that guy.”
James, that Santa Hat & G-string gent just can’t be forgotten. Kind of like telling someone “don’t think of a white horse.” Thanks for the memories(!) and Happy Fourth!
Thanks for the response G (and also Joe above.) I’ll look up that James Scott Bell post, sounds interesting. I agree it’s a very fine line, especially when dealing with a serious crime or missing persons case. I’m sure the last thing any of us wants is to hurt the real victims or their family.
Now that I think about it, I seem to remember one piece of advice I read at some point was never to take all the details from just one case. A particular case may inspire you, but unless you’re writing True Crime you should probably mix things up a bit.
All the Best,
Matthew, interestingly enough Season One of True Detective is based upon a series of real-world murders in Louisiana that occurred in the early 2000s. The story shifted the setting about two hundred miles west and a decade or so early and tossed a few other things in to make it interesting but it’s just real enough to be uncomfortable. You might enjoy checking it out if you haven’t already.
Joe, I’m still waiting for Andy Kaufman to show up in Vegas one day, dressed as Elvis, saying, “Thank you. Thank you very much.”
James, you may get your wish. I seem to remember a couple of years back that Andy’s brother said that he was alive and would make an appearance but then said it was all a joke. You never know. I have a friend who insists that Jim Morrison of The Doors is living out his days in a manor on the island of Corsica. Stranger things have happened.
Wow…did the Google for the small northern michigan area where I am staying right now with my sister and was surprised at the wealth of “material.” Which sounds gruesome when you consider these are real people who have family or friends who are missing them. But this is the grist of our mills, no?
Kris, I’m not at all surprised that there are so many story possibilities up there, both documented and a-borning. I grew up next door to you in Ohio just a couple of miles away from Jeffery Dahmer, and know the guy who ultimately bought his house. My brother insists that we had a run-in with Jeff back in the day (and before he became notorious) though I don’t recall it. You just never know. Hope you are celebrating the Fourth in fine style!
Another source for sparks, is a relationship advice column in our daily paper. There have been a number of letters that I have cut out and tucked away with the thought they’d make an interesting story.
Julie, I bet that file is close to bursting. I grew up in an era where Dear Abby and Ann Landers were daily newspaper staples and even in those cloistered days there were some situations presented that seemed stranger than fiction. Let us know when your stories see print. And thank you for the idea.
I read the Sunday newspaper with scissors in hand. There’s lots of criminal motives in our Local section, and Florida has enough weird happenings that we have much fodder for stories.
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