People who haven’t written a story are often mystified by how authors come up with their ideas. Even regular readers are in awe of the process.
A friend recently asked me if I had a criminal mind, as I write crime stories. She’s acted as a manuscript reader for me, and after critiquing my second novel in which a serial killer was dispassionately taking victims as part of an online roleplay game, she was understandably nervous about having anything to do with me! I answered her, by saying that criminality showed the extremes of human behaviour, so was memorable, for going beyond what is acceptable by society’s rules immediately implies the stories of the perpetrator and the victim need exploring.
It’s difficult to make a story based on the status quo, on peace and quiet: a tranquil sea is boring—we need waves to draw the eye and stir the emotions.
Writers are observers, noticing things that others don’t and storing them away for future use. Any skills I have as a writer were partly influenced by my father, who was a noted industrial photographer, quite a shy man who used his camera as a way of interfacing with people; it was his shield and his magic wand. He noticed the strangeness of what people did, commenting on these aberrations almost as a visitor from another planet sent down to make a sociological study of human beings.
After he died, I came across a poem that made me think of his attitude to people, written by Sir Walter A. Raleigh—not the famous Tudor writer, courtier and explorer, but rather a 19th/20th-century English professor:
“Wishes of an Elderly Man, Wished at a Garden Party, June 1914”:
I wish I loved the Human Race;
I wish I loved its silly face;
I wish I liked the way it walks;
I wish I liked the way it talks;
And when I’m introduced to one,
I wish I thought “What Jolly Fun!”
Sir Walter A. Raleigh (1861-1922)
I think that writers have this slightly detached stance, observing people and mentally recording their activities with a view to devising stories that rewrite what really happened. Writers remember unusual names, strange news stories that somehow swiftly disappear from the media, and amusing incidents that made them laugh and which might entertain their readers.
My ideas come from all over the place, including the news. For instance, there were a series of killings in Bombay & Calcutta from 1987-1989, with the victims being homeless people. The murderer was never caught, which in itself is attractive to a writer, for who knows where he is now?
With so many British people homeless nowadays, living on the streets, what if an anonymous killer decided to do clean up?
As a child in the 1960s, I was terrified at the prospect of meeting an escaped inmate of a mental institution, a doctor who’d been incarcerated for killing his patients. The newspapers called him Doctor Death, which was bad enough, but what really scared me about him was that he was 6′ 6″ tall, wore a floor-length raincoat and apparently walked without swinging his arms, owing to shoulder injuries. Imagine how spooky that would look. I watched every man who walked past our house, checking that he was swinging his arms! They caught him after a few weeks, but what a great character to resurrect in a story.
When I lived in America, a local mortuary did a stocktake of their inventory, including their dead clients, and found that they’d somehow got two extra corpses that they couldn’t account for….One would have been bad enough, but two looked even more suspicious—were they connected, and how were they sneaked into the cold storage vaults? They’d both been murdered, from the wounds on their bodies, so presumably, their killers had somehow accessed the mortuary—a real case of hiding something in plain sight. One of the regular characters in my Cornish Detective series is a forensic pathologist with a morgue so I may give her a mysterious guest.
I got the idea for the title of my last novel, The Dead Need Nobody, from a Jo Nesbø novel in which his protagonist Harry Hole thinks just that as he leaves an autopsy of a murder victim. My next novel in the series will be called Kissing and Killing, which was a phrase I stole from a throwaway comment by a member of my writing forum, The Colony. I hadn’t heard it before, but it will be an ideal title for a plot in which my detective is in love for the first time since being widowed.
While planning a story, I make loads of notes, including reminders of expressions my characters use, as well as descriptive passages of how the weather, wildlife, vegetation and sea state would be at that time of year. Ideas are will o’ the wisps, so it helps to pin them down in a document. Having a store of ideas helps my grey matter come up with more while in the throes of typing words on the screen.
Where do you get your ideas from?
Did a childhood memory re-emerge to fertilise a story?
Have you been inspired by a news story?
Or, by an unguarded comment that you overheard?
Even by the lyrics of a song?