Don’t Ask…

(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).


Next  month, we’ll vary the sequence but for now  the collaborative stories created by author Eden Baylee and myself continue. If you’re new to the concept, you’ll find its background and an introduction here.

Without any specific pre-planning (as usual) this month’s story took unexpected turns and is different from those that preceded it. We hope you find it interesting.

Prompt: “If you don’t take chances,” said the man in striped pyjamas, “you might as well not be alive.”
Parts 1 and 3 and title: Eden
Parts 2 and 4: Bill


Runaway Dreams

The last time I saw Robbie was 1998. It seems like much longer than twenty-two years ago, but that’s how time warps while on the run. He was the love of my life, at least for the short life I’d led up to that point. If I’d stayed in that small town, I might have met others who rivalled him for my heart. There’s no way of knowing for sure and no point in asking “what if” questions anymore. In effect, he’s gone.

Finding someone now would be difficult, almost impossible given I’m never in one place for too long. A couple of years ago, a group of circus performers stayed in the same boarding house with me for a week. It was the last time I slept with a man. He was the least attractive of the bunch, but his quirky personality drew me to him.

“If you don’t take chances,” said the man in striped pyjamas, “you might as well not be alive.”

Not exactly a great come-on line, but it did the trick for me.

In between philosophical discussions, we had sex every night until it was time for me to go.


Perhaps in keeping with his clunky philosophy and his bizarre attire, the sex was pedestrian. Even, in a way, sexless. But the alternative was booze, and, needing to stay alert for any signal that it was, yet again, time to move on, I couldn’t risk that particular release. Getting caught was one of the chances I wasn’t prepared to take.

I didn’t tell him I was leaving and, to be honest, it’s never occurred to me to wonder how he reacted to it. Robbie still smiles through some of my dreams, but until now I’ve  never given poor Stripey, as I called him, a second thought.

And yet it was the so-called crime which brought us together. His act, which involved fire-eating, had gone wrong one night and, after a visit to emergency at the hospital, he’d got back late. I was the only one there and he told me everything, even showed me the burns to his chest. The costume he’d been wearing made them look like a tiger’s stripes. I sympathized. We began swapping stories, and he said what I’d done was excusable because it was what he’d call ‘justifiable revenge’. We had a tentative hug and that’s how the sex started.


My mind isn’t right these days. Why else would I be thinking of Robbie and Stripey? This job isn’t working out, too much starchy fast food and sugar. I need to find a healthier place if I’m going to be paid only in food and tips.

A ruddy-faced, large woman waves to me from the corner of the room. “Miss, can I order? I’ve been waiting for ten minutes already.”

I wipe my hands down the front of my apron and make my way to her table. “Sorry. I didn’t see you come in.”

“Hard to miss me, isn’t it?” She smiles and shows off rotten teeth.

“I … I—”

“Oh don’t worry.” She hands me the menu. “Just give me the breakfast special, double helping of homefries and a chocolate milkshake.”

“Yes, Ma’am, and sorry again.”

“Be good if I could get the shake now.”

“Of course.” I dash off to ring in the order, but a man at the bar catches my eye. I don’t recall him sitting on the stool earlier. His face is partially obscured by a scarf, and he has his head down. I figure I might as well get his order before I forget.


Big mistake. I sidle up to him, reach to tap him on the shoulder but change my mind and just give a little cough. He raises his head. The scarf falls away and the near empty diner is split with a scream. The big woman is standing, staring at us.

“Robbie?” she yells, half-accusation, half-question.

The man jumps to his feet, his scarf slips from his shoulders. I pick it up and try to hand it to him. But he’s already at the woman’s table and the two of them are held together in a tight embrace. Shocked though I am, I’m still moved by the tenderness in the way they look at and hold one another, but the sound of a car door closing outside gets my attention. I sigh and shake my head. It’s Mr Wilson again, still wearing that sports jacket that looks like a pyjama top, and his friend, Sergeant something-or-other. It’s not fair. I suppose I’ll have to go back with them again.


I look at the embracing couple again and call out “Robbie”.

The man looks across at me.

“How about sex?”

“No, thanks.”

He looks genuinely sorry.

“I will,” says the woman.


As usual, we’d love to hear your feedback.











Friends is the latest in the 800-word story series. You’ll find the first one here and the second one here.

I can’t speak for Eden, but I’m fairly confident that, like me, she finds that our collaboration continues to help us learn more about both our own writing and writing generally. This month it was my turn to write the opening and, having to include the seemingly unpromising prompt of ‘She found a diamond bracelet in the back of the car’, I really had no idea where to start, so, not even trying to guess where it would take us, I decided that the sentence suggested something about luck and took it from there. In fact, as you’ll see, the subject became something else altogether.

Prompt: ‘She found a diamond bracelet in the back of the car’
Parts 1 and 3 and title: Bill
Parts 2 and 4: Eden

* * *



Petey and Joe had been friends since Primary School and, even back then, it was Petey who had the girls and Joe who wondered why he didn’t. Neither was funny-looking, but Petey had the chat. He even used it to try to shift some of the girls’ attention to Joe. It sort of worked a bit but, in the end, it was always Petey they wanted to be with.

Up until they were both fifteen, it was OK, but when kissing and the other hormone stuff kicked in, Joe’s frustrations and envy began to show more openly and they spent less time in each other’s company. In one way that was good, because with Petey out of the picture, Joe got more female attention, but each missed the other and the rare times they were out together, they talked mainly about the pre-girl bits of the good old days.

One Saturday evening, though, the girl thing did come up.

“It’s just luck,” said Petey.

“Yeah, but it’s all one way,” said Joe. “Luck’s supposed to even out.”

Petey couldn’t argue with that and anyway, he was meeting Sally at ten, and so it was nearly time for him to go.


Joe had no interest in meeting Sally, but Petey insisted. The boys left the pub and walked toward where Petey had parked his car.

“Come on, you’ll like her. Besides, I’ll give you a ride home after I pick her up. You’re on the way.”

“Oh, where are you going?” Joe tilted his head in his friend’s direction.

“Umm … well …”

An uncomfortable silence filled the air. “Is it a secret?” Joe said.

Petey blew out a loud breath as if exhausted. “Of course not, don’t be daft. Sally wants me to see something at Colemans, that’s all.”

Joe screwed up his face. “You mean Colemans, the jewellery store? That Colemans?”

Petey nodded. “That’s the one.”

“It’s late, the store’s closed, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is, but she wants to show me something in the display window, been bugging me about it for weeks.” He raked his fingers across his hair. “I’ve put her off, but I can’t any longer. I’ve been meaning to tell you, but …”

Joe stopped mid stride. “Tell me what?”

Petey turned to him just as they arrived at his 1980 beat-up Ford Mustang. With a sheepish look, he said, “Sally and I are getting married.”


The silence as they drove was awkward, menacing. At Sally’s house, Joe, looking straight ahead, asked, “Why?”

“Why what?”

“Marriage. Why?”

“Dunno,” said Petey. “Love, I s’pose”.

“Yeah, right,” said Joe.

Sally was waiting for them. Joe moved from the front seat to the back. She took his place and kissed Petey, who jerked his head towards the back seat, said, “This is Joe” and drove off again. There was tension between them, an edge, and the silence stretched. At last, Joe’s voice, its pitch higher, came from the back seat.

“Better than your last… fiancée.”

The final word was a sneer. The silence returned, then Joe again.

“Daisy, was it? Debbie?… No wonder they put her away… Bloody liar… Just a slag… Said she found a diamond bracelet in the back of the car… a Rolex on a basin in the bathroom… that credit card on the pavement… Yeah, right.”

Silence again.

“Bloody chancer … She was anybody’s you know. All over Bennie every Friday night… it was his watch she nicked…”

Sally looked at Petey, who shrugged his shoulders.

There was the echo of a laugh and the silence fell again. Sally turned her head. Joe was crying.


Before the car came to a full stop, Joe opened the door.

“Hey!” Petey looked in the rearview mirror.

“Let me out!”

“What the—?” Petey hit the brake; the car lurched forward. Joe lost his balance and fell into his seat. The door slammed shut.

Petey immediately turned to Sally. “You okay? You hurt?”

“I’m fine … fine.” Sally smoothed down the front of her dress. “You weren’t going fast.”

“You sure?”

“Yes,” she said, breathless.

Joe ran out of the car. Petey put the car in park and ran after him. Moments later, he grabbed Joe by the arm, swung him around, and punched him in the face.

Joe fell, blood flowing from his nose.

Petey stood over his friend, hands on hips. He appeared ready to kick Joe when Sally ran up behind him. “No!” she yelled. “He’s bleeding.”

“I don’t care! You shouldn’t be here. Get back in the car.”

Sally ignored him, knelt in front of Joe and handed him a tissue.

Joe wiped his nose. “I love Petey.”

“I know,” she said, in a voice filled with compassion. She took his bloodied hand and pulled it to her belly. “Maybe you can love Little Petey too.”

* * *

As usual, comments, critical or otherwise, are welcome.