May 18 2016 4:00pm

Headline Hunting: How Real-Life News Can Inspire the Next Thriller

Read this exclusive guest post from Ward Larsen, author of Assassin's Silence, about how everyday headlines can turn into the next thriller, and then make sure you're signed in and comment for a chance to win a copy of the book!

How did you come up with that?

It’s the most common question authors are asked: Where do you get your ideas? Others might answer differently, but for me, there is one clear answer: I get them from the real world.

It is often said that there’s nothing stranger than the truth, and as a thriller writer, I hold to a corollary of that idea—there is nothing more thrilling than the truth. We live in a world where fanatical terrorists create videos of beheadings and corruption is the norm in certain quarters of the world. Not a day goes by without a headline that lends itself to a story.

The inspiration for my most recent book, Assassin’s Silence, came as I read an article about a decades-old radiological accident. The small city in Brazil named Goiânia is virtually unknown outside that country, but any health physicist knows it well.

On September 13, 1987, a pair of men broke into a closed and partially demolished hospital whose disposition was tied up in court. Knowing security on the site had fallen lax, the men raided the building and came upon an abandoned radiotherapy machine. Thinking the heavy source assembly would be valuable as scrap, they separated it and hauled it in a wheelbarrow to one of their homes.

There, they began to disassemble a container that held 93 grams of radioactive cesium-137. Over the course of two days, they hammered away at the metal vessel until it finally surrendered what looked like glowing blue grains of rice. During that second day, one of the scrap-hounds began feeling poorly. Suffering from diarrhea and dizziness, he went to a local clinic, only to be told that he was suffering the effects of something he’d eaten.

His partner kept working. Thinking the glowing material might be a kind of gunpowder, he tried to ignite it unsuccessfully. He soon began sharing his find with family and friends, and they were every bit as intrigued. For two weeks, the cesium was ingested as a cure-all, rubbed on aching joints, and found its way into the food supply.

As cesium was being spread unwittingly across the city, a steady stream of people began arriving at clinics with curiously similar, but unexplainable symptoms. Finally, a visiting medical physicist with a scintillation counter recognized what was happening and raised the alarm.

In the days after the story broke, over 130,000 people presented themselves to overwhelmed hospitals—250 people were eventually found to have been exposed. Of those, four died. Contamination was found on 3 buses, 14 cars, and inside 42 homes. Among other things, 50,000 rolls of toilet paper had to be destroyed in a cleanup effort that took years.

When I read about Goiânia, I knew there was a story in it. Unlike the more serious accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima, it did not involve a nuclear power plant, but far more common and often ignored source material. The individuals involved were not rogue governments or elite soldiers, but ordinary people trying to scrape out a living. So I did what writers do—I began with real life and built a tale around it.

My version of Goiânia is titled Assassin’s Silence.

Comment below for a chance to win a copy of Assassin's Silence by Ward Larsen!

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Assassin's Silence Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at beginning at 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) May 18, 2016. Sweepstakes ends 3:59 p.m. ET May 27, 2016. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.


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USA Today bestselling author Ward Larsen is a three-time winner of the Florida Book Award. Assassin’s Silence is his most recent novel. Follow him on Twitter @wardlarsen or visit

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
Jody Darden
1. jldarden
I'm sure there are many not widely known incidents like this. Fascinating stories could be built around them and this sounds like one! I would like to read it. Thanks for the giveaway.
Todd Henson
2. thedelfrog
That was such an unfortunate event, but I would be very curious to read how the author weaved it into his own tale.
Jim Belcher
3. librarypops
Lawyers!! they rarely handle a gun, but they often kill or injure.
Anne Scott
4. sonnetdog
An amazing story and one I had not heard. How awful. Can't wait to read the book
Cindy Hipolito
5. mysuccess
That is where the big stories reveal themselves, simply, common act of scrounging, which created a result you weren't expecting. Thank you for the giveaway!
6. LStirling
I never heard about this incident, but what a great basis to build a story from! I want to read it!
Janet Martin
8. janmaus
Yikes--I look forward to reading your book
Lance Charnes
9. LanceC
This kind of serendipity was what keyed off my first published novel, Doha 12. I was reading the headlines surrounding Mossad's assassination of Hamas operative Mahmoud Mabouh while using stolen identities, and it just screamed to be the plot for a thriller. Sometimes the world pitches a slow, fat one at you and you just have to swing. Good luck on your book!
Janice Santillo
10. themommazie
Kind of scary, thinking that this and many thrillers are based on actual happenings.
John Clark
11. sennebec
Conversations are a gold mine if you learn to listed well.
Andrew Kuligowski
13. KuligowskiAndrew
An interesting tale in RL, curious how it translates into the author's fictional account.
Patrice Gottfried
14. pkg427
Fascinating how an article can be such inspiration to an author!
Alyson Widen
17. Sunnymay
I remember a show called "Arson" which showed people how to set fires and, by golly, they did. Anchoring a story with a news headlines is similar, but the cases aren't solved quickly. It usually takes many heads with ideas to come up with a plausible solution. I love police procedurals and how they use informants and try to protect their sources. This story seems like one of those that will keep you up at night and that's a good thing.
Dave Cohn
23. davecohn
I have liked all of his books that I have read so far, and look forward to this one.
Susan Pertierra
24. orchidlady01
This sounds like an interesting true story to include in a book.
Sandy Klocinski
28. attea2d
This sounds fascinating! Thank you for the giveaway. Good luck with your book
Tara Overby
29. taravanh
This sounds like a book that will be hard to put down!
Barbara Lima
32. barblima
The story this story is based on is intriging.
Linda Peters
37. linnett
looks like a great read for the summer, thanks
Jerry Marquardt
39. versatileer
Headline Hunting looks like a great thriller. I cannot wait to read this.
40. Shannon Baas
I would love this.
Richard Hicks
41. gmrichhicks
I like the cover and look forward to reading this.
42. tiac35
Seems like a good read. I hope I win.
44. OhLaLa
I want to read it. It sounds great. Thanks.
Kimberly Hilbert
47. asketcher2
This sounds like the kind of book I love to read.
Heather Cowley
49. choochoo
Alright. Scare me more. Motivate me to build my wall and grow my own food. Ugh!
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