(An earlier version of this was posted on the Authors Electric blog in January.)
To answer that perennially put question ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ I always have to think hard. Often, for occasions such as talks or workshops, to generate discussion or just activity, it’s a question I put to myself. Because the problem is that completed books are more than ‘ideas’. All sorts of things fit together to make them – characters, situations, progressions, solutions – and it all seems … well, complete, and certainly much more than just a few ‘ideas’. I’ve written eleven novels so far and there’s no real pattern which links them.
The ‘idea’ for the first in my crime series, Material Evidence, came from reading a book on forensic medicine. One of the cases described was very striking so I borrowed it but, by the time the characters had had their say, the details of the killing had changed completely and only one element of the forensic procedures remained.
The second, Rough Justice, was sparked in a meeting with a very rude, unpleasant individual for whose company I had to write a promotional DVD. He was so typical of a particular type of ‘self-made’ male that I wanted to pillory him. So I did and he became a plot-driver. Like all ‘revenge’ it would obviously have no effect on its target but writing it gave me great satisfaction, so maybe it was writing as therapy.
But that little revenge was nothing compared to the one I got on behalf of someone else in the next book, The Darkness. I was at a restaurant near Aberdeen with my wife and some friends (Remember what that used to be like?). The waiter’s accent suggested he was from the west country down in England, which is where I originated. I remarked on it and said to him ‘you’re a long way from home’ and he told me the reason why. His wife and two wee daughters had been killed by a drunk driver who’d been sentenced to just two years in prison but been released after eighteen months. ‘That’s six months for each life’ as the waiter put it. It was such a tragic story and the memory of it stayed with me for years until, at last, I decided to try to exorcise it and started writing The Darkness. It obviously came from somewhere deep inside me because in the course of the story my policeman’s character started changing and he was different in the two books that followed.
The germ of the next in the series, Shadow Selves, was also with me for years. An anaesthetist friend said that if ever I wanted to include an operation in a book, he could arrange for me to see one close up. I jumped at the chance, was worried that I’d faint, but went anyway and was fascinated not only by the various processes that had to be followed but also by the apparent nonchalance with which those involved went about doing them.
But I didn’t use the information until years later. The last (so far) in the modern crime series came from a suggestion made by another friend who suggested that a North Sea oil platform would be a dramatic setting for a crime and that with so many being decommissioned, they were ripe for sabotage – and he was right. Hence Unsafe Acts. But, from the same (non-writer) friend came a totally different idea., one which led to, for me, the very enjoyable experience of writing my first historical novel.
Out of the blue, he said, ‘You should write about a figurehead carver’. He had no idea where the thought had come from but I grabbed at the chance and that was the start of The Figurehead. I love sailing so, using research as an excuse, I sailed across the North Sea as a paying crew member on the beautiful square-rigger, the Christian Radich. I also went to wood carving classes, and enjoyed researching and recreating the Aberdeen of 1840. Even then, though, there was a twist because, although most of my books are basically crime novels, the central female character in that one took over and made it into a romance as well.
Not only that, the unresolved relationship between her and my carver needed another book, The Likeness, to bring it to a resolution. This time, another good friend added to the impulse to write by insisting in her review of The Figurehead that ‘This novel is screaming for a sequel! I hope Bill Kirton will deliver!’
So, while I was the one who wrote them, the ‘ideas’ were definitely those of other people.
The ‘idea’ behind The Sparrow Conundrum, however, is something of a mystery. It’s my first novel but it was rewritten many times before publication and I really don’t know what made me start it. Up until then I’d written plays, but one day I just started writing the story and the characters were so extreme and absurd that I let them get on with it and wrote down what they did. They must have done something right because it eventually won the Forward National Literature Award for Humor.
There are a couple of other novels, each with its own separate trigger, but this is already too much like a promotional spiel. Its intention, however, is to try to direct readers’ and interviewers’ attention away from that relatively uninteresting and irrelevant, (and yet still most frequently asked) question with which I started. It has more answers than there are books, and each one is different. Much more important, I hope it may serve to encourage wannabe authors to trust their instincts, follow their (unique) ideas (then edit, cut, cut some more, and proofread with diligence).