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).

Alchemy or Serendipity?

(This post was previously published on April 7th on the Authors Electric blog site.)

When it’s going well, there’s a certain alchemy to writing. I’ll explain with reference to the last (so far) of my novels, The Likeness. It’s embarrassing to admit that, when it was a WIP (Work In Progress), the IP bit went on for ages. In the good old days, it used to take me about 6 months to write the first draft of a novel, but The Likeness crawled on (and off) for at least 2 years. It eventually made it over the 70,000 word mark but I had no idea why it had been so much like hard work.

It’s a sequel to The Figurehead, which is a historical crime novel that, in the course of writing, also became a romance, and part of the reason why I’d been dragging my heels was that I wasn’t sure how I intended to resolve the problems of the relationship between a figurehead carver, John Grant, and Helen Anderson, the daughter of a rich merchant. The novel’s set in 1841, when attitudes to marriage and extra-marital goings-on didn’t leave much scope for … well, anything really.

But then something – a bit of alchemy – came out of the blue. As well as the romantic relationship and the obligatory crime, the story’s architecture relied on two separate threads: the arrival in Aberdeen of a theatre group to perform melodramas at the Theatre Royal; and the determination of Helen, an only child, to become involved in the family business. And, without me planning, or at first even noticing it, they both began to reach a crucial stage at about the same time. For me, it was an interesting – and pleasant – discovery. But I soon realised that it was more than just a coincidence and I started looking at them in a different way, not as the writer but as a sort of analyst of how the various elements were working, what their ‘significance’ was. In a way, I started thinking like a potential critic or reviewer. I don’t mean that I did it consciously; it’s just now, writing this, that I realise that’s the best way to sum up the experience. I wasn’t looking at the situation and wondering where to take each thread next; instead I was aware of what turned out to be pretty obvious parallels between them. On their own, which is how it seemed, these two separate elements had started feeding off one another and were moving closer together.

It’s not magical. The two threads were part of my imaginings. They belonged in the same mental space, and were, I suppose, bound to inform and affect one another, but that’s at a subconscious level. The effect it had when I started considering them at the conscious level was to help me to understand them better and see how I could exploit the parallels. It was one of those ‘being in the zone’ experiences which now and then make writing such a privilege.

There’s a secondary motive, however, for choosing this subject for a blog. As I mentioned in a previous blog, apart from introducing me to woodcarving, which I took up as part of my research and still enjoy, The Figurehead  allowed me to indulge in a dream I’d always had – to sail in a square-rigger. For just a few days I was a paying member of the crew of the Christian Radich on a voyage from Oslo to Leith. She’s the ship which featured in the old BBC series, The Onedin Line. If you don’t remember, or don’t know the series, you’ll see just how beautiful she is if you watch the opening of this Youtube clip:

Anyway, as well as the self-indulgence of taking turns at the wheel of such a vessel, it gave me the material for a long short story, Death Ship. I tried to make this permanently free on Amazon but apparently, that can’t be done. So, if you’d like to know what it was like on the North Sea in a fresh South-Easter (with added murders), it’ll either cost you 99p. for a Kindle copy or you can email me and I’ll send you the typescript for nothing.

Not again surely.

tl-webThe blog has suffered because it’s been a busy summer. But I have a new book to flog  so it’s time to juggle priorities. I mentioned in my last posting that The Likeness had taken me four times as long to write as any of the previous ones, and now a couple of early reactions to it have set me  asking myself different questions about it. So far, it’s had two reviews, one of them an assessment for acceptance by Awesome Indies, and they’ve both given it 5 stars and been very complimentary. The most recent one,  however, says that,

‘the ending is one that intrigues the reader about what will happen next – I do hope this is not the last time we’ll meet these powerful characters’.

In fact, a couple of months ago, in a finely detailed analysis of the ending of the first draft, one of my beta-readers wrote that the story’s still not over. Specifically, she  said that Helen,

‘will not be taken seriously in 1841 Aberdeen, but possibly in another world.  The New World?  Or Europe?  Seven years later was the Europe of the Revolutions.  Aren’t Helen and John perfect for reflecting that?  As a benevolent Capitalist, Anderson would realise he must branch out and have representation overseas.  So, Vancouver, New York, Boston or Marseilles? Helen and John are the real pioneers.’

Given that I had no intention of writing even this sequel, the idea of a third in the series seems absurd. And yet, and yet…

When you’ve spent a long time with characters, seen them through a few crises, watched The Figurehead_fronttheir relationship grow, they really do exist for you, and you get curious about them. So far the two books have taken them to an arrangement that seems to satisfy them both without unduly worrying Helen’s parents, but will it work? How will Helen’s involvement in her father’s business progress? Will the ideas she gathered in The Likeness prove to be practical and successful? And also, there’s no question but that it would be very interesting for me to transport them to North America or Marseilles and either find out what happens to all those emigrants flowing out of Scotland or indulge my Francophile tendencies.

I have friends who write sagas and I’ll be asking them whether they decide right at the start that there’ll be a certain number of books or whether what the characters do decides that for them. Mind you, on that basis, the series might not end until the characters died. But even then, what if they’d had offspring? They’d still be on their various journeys. And, since the pattern in each book is that, while all the other stuff’s going on, John also solves the problem of a mysterious death, the repetitive structural aspect might begin to stretch their credibility. I mean, ‘Bye Honey, I’m off to do some more carving’, is a bit different from ‘Bye Honey, I’m off to solve a mysterious death’.

Writing fiction is endlessly fascinating. I’ve created characters in other books, with other ages, different contexts, most of them more or less interesting, but the way in which these two people, Helen Anderson and John Grant, have come alive for me is new. I think both the books in which they appear have satisfactory endings, with all the loose ends tied up, but the sheer charisma and character, especially of Helen, suggest that there could be plenty more adventures for them. It’s just a pity I have to write them.