How to Write from the Headlines

17 Feb
Jane Hawley's story, "The Suitcases of San León," tells the story of bus depot workers who must decide what to do with the suitcases of travelers murdered by the Mexican drug cartels.

Jane Hawley’s “The Suitcases of San León” tells the story of bus depot workers who must decide what to do with the suitcases of travelers murdered by the Mexican drug cartels.

In a recent interview, the late New York Times journalist David Carr was asked if cable news drove coverage of events, and he answered, in short, no. The current news cycle, he said, is so full of large, complex stories that news organizations don’t know where to look. In other words, the news is driving the news. As writers, we inhabit and absorb this same news cycle, and because of the size and savagery of some of these events, it’s tempting to incorporate the headlines into our fiction. The question is how to do it?

A terrific example of a story based on an actual news event is Jane Hawley’s “The Suitcases of San León.” The story was inspired by a narco massacre in the Mexican border city of San Fernando and, more generally, on stories about suitcases arriving at depots without their murdered owners. You can buy the story for $1 at Amazon, where it was published as part of the journal Day One.

How the Story Works

The real-life massacre in San Fernando—or any massacre, for that matter—has a two essential sets of people involved: the murderers and the victims. Focusing a story on characters based on these real-life people is possible but difficult. It involves detailed research, which may or not be possible from a safe remove. It also involves some sticky questions of ethics: Is it okay to fictionalize the lives of real people? The less historical remove the writer has from those people, the more difficult it is to answer this question.

The next level of involvement in the headline includes people with direct connections to the event but not an immediate presence at the actual massacre: the narco bosses who ordered the murders, the officials who provide cover to the narcos, the victims’ families, witnesses, the police, and the people who discovered the bodies. Generally speaking, the farther the story moves away from the immediate event, the more freedom it has to roam. An event like a massacre acts as a kind of black hole, overpowering everything around it with its gravitational pull. A story about a victim of a massacre is likely to be almost purely about the massacre. But a story about a witness or an accessory or family member can give those people lives beyond the event—but that freedom is not limitless.

A third level of involvement includes people with no direct connection but whose lives are impacted in specific ways by the massacre. When fictionalized, these are characters whose connection to the central event is thin or tangential. They are removed from it by several degrees, and, as a result, they can have problems and concerns in their lives that, to them, rival the problem that the event causes. There is inherent tension between those problems—how does the character balance them? A victim’s brother or mother or spouse will drop everything to deal with the event. But someone at a remove will not.

It is at this third level that Hawley writes “The Suitcases of San León.” The story is told from a group point of view—the “we” of the workers at the San Leon bus depot. Their connection to the massacre is indirect. When the victims were pulled off of the bus, their suitcases were not pulled off with them, and so they arrive ownerless at the depot. The workers must decide what to do with the suitcases, and when they decide, they must live with the consequences (mental, emotional, and situational) of those choices. As you read the story, you’ll notice that the narcos become a stronger presence toward the end, and their presence suggests the gravitational pull that the massacre exerts on everything around it. By setting the story at a remove from that event, Hawley gives the characters room to develop. If she had set the story closer to the actual massacre, that room might have been very difficult to create. As a result, the story might not have added complexity or depth to the headline where it began. The distance from the massacre also gives the story a chance to surprise us. We’ve all heard about the atrocities committed by narcos, but it’s likely we haven’t thought about the way those crimes alter even the most mundane aspects of Mexican life. Empty suitcases are such a great starting point for a story that it’s hard to imagine it being written about anything else.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a story from a headline, using “The Suitcases of San Leon” by Jane Hawley as a model:

  1. Choose the headline. There is no shortage of news to choose from: geopolitics in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, and Libya and internal politics and/or savagery in Nigeria, Mexico, and Venezuela; racial and ethnic strife in Ferguson, New York, and, most recently, in North Carolina; political unrest in, of all places, my home state of Kansas; drones; surveillance; a train derailment in West Virginia; and blizzards across the northeastern U.S. Simply choose the news you’re following the closest and that you find yourself imagining yourself into.
  2. Chart out the first level of involvement. Who bears the most immediate impact of the headline? Who is it about? Are there sides? If so, what are they?
  3. Chart out the second level of involvement. Who is connected to the news but not immediately present? Or, who is present but not at the focus of the headlines? Who are the journalists not talking to? This level often contains family members, police, witnesses—people who are among the first to react to the event.
  4. Chart out the third level of involvement. Who is not present or connected to the event/news but is impacted by it? People in this group are often going about their business, only to discover that the news has forced its way into their lives. In the case of the winter storms, most of the stories are from this level, people whose lives have been disrupted, sometimes urgently (first responders) and sometimes with unforeseen consequences (a couple on the verge of divorce but now trapped together by the snow).
  5. Choose the level for your story. To do this, you will likely need to determine how much of the headline you want to write about. Are you interested in the event itself or the way it ripples outward, effecting everyone? A lot of great fiction has been written about war, some of it from the point of view of soldiers (first level), some focusing on family members (second level), and some focusing on the people back home without relatives in the fighting (third level). Once you decide how much distance to put between your characters and the event, you can think about how the event will intrude into their lives. The closer they are, the more forcefully and overwhelmingly it will intrude. The farther they are, the more subtle its effects may be.

Once you choose the level of involvement and know how the event will sneak into the story, you may find that the story begins to write itself. You’ve given yourself something to write toward and, once the event arrives, tension to work with.

Good luck and have fun.

One Response to “How to Write from the Headlines”


  1. An Interview with Jane Hawley | Read to Write Stories - February 19, 2015

    […] To read an excerpt from her story “The Suitcases of San León” and an exercise on writing from news headlines, click here. […]

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