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).

What Identity Crisis?

Cliché alert – ‘No two writers are the same’. OK, but there’s more because ‘No ONE writer is the same’ either. Here’s what I mean.

We all know the publishing business has changed significantly and increasingly quickly over the past ten years or so. When I started writing novels as opposed to plays, you polished your MS, printed out a copy (not cheap if it ran to 400-600 pages) and sent it out to agents and/or publishers. Postage wasn’t cheap either (you also had to cover the costs for its return if they didn’t like it). Then, through the (sometimes) months you waited for them to reply, you got on with the next novel. Meantime, you also had your day job and you were a husband, wife, lover, significant other, hermit, father, mother, son, daughter, outcast, or whatever other roles you chose or your social situation imposed on you. See what I mean? There were (and are) several people inhabiting your body. But, back then, the writer bit was just that – you wrote, sent your stuff away, waited patiently but eagerly for a reply, got rejected and did it all again or got accepted and wrote another one.


Today, though, even that writing bit has fragmented. Dissociative Identity Disorder is a serious mental condition and not a term to be used lightly but being a writer today doesn’t just involve the one role. There’s still the writing (the best bit), but there’s also:

  • the PR person, desperately trying to create and project a cuddly profile;
  • the fish out of water, trying to learn and apply marketing techniques;
  • the social networker, scrolling through tweets and Facebook comments with all the other writers;
  • the blogger, trying to sell books;
  • the harlot, willing to do just about anything to claw his/her way up the sales lists;
  • the reviewer;
  • and the unrecognised genius, whose novel will change the course of humanity but lies misunderstood in the depths of a computer.

I exaggerate, of course, but only on the basis of fairly common experiences shared by most of us.


But why am I saying stuff you all know anyway? Because what I’m really doing (with very little subtlety) is crawling towards a point and, en route, grabbing the chance to boast about yet another of my ‘selves’.

Several times, over the past few years, I’ve become an ‘award-winning author’ and, this month, I’ve been given another one – this time for The Figurehead. OK, trumpet blown, so what?

The first time, the news turned me into a six year old on Christmas Eve. And yet, simultaneously, I  rejected (and still do reject) the idea of ‘competitive literature’. Even though I know there are terrible novels out there as well as terrific ones, I applaud anyone who’s had the stamina and the commitment to actually write one and see it through to the end. But if I deny the competitive element, where do sales figures fit in? In the end, being able to add that little ‘award-winning’ tag to me and some of my books theoretically gives me a wee marketing edge. Reality-check, though: I’ve worn the tag long enough to realise that it is emphatically ‘theoretical’. It doesn’t sell any more books and seems merely to provide new opportunities for friends and family to find satirical ways of saying the words  ‘award-winning’:But it also opens up another tricky area when it comes to the various ‘selves’ I was speaking of (and at last we’re nearing the point. My awards were for very different books – a spoof spy/crime thing,  a stark revenge/vigilante story with a pretty chilling resolution, two historical romance/crime novels. So what does that make me? A funny man? A Romantic? A scary man? And what about the other stuff, the police procedurals, the non-fiction, the kids’ stories?

Years ago, my then agent, the late Maggie Noach, introduced me to someone as ‘a nice man with nasty thoughts’. Multiplying your ‘selves’ can be counter-productive because readers, naturally enough, like to know what to expect when they buy a book. If they’ve enjoyed your gore-saturated slasher mystery, they’ll probably feel cheated if your follow-up is a light-hearted romantic romp through the tulips. In a way, they impose an identity on you – and they have every right to do so. Ah, but what happens if it’s not you but the characters in the follow-up who decide that they’ve gone off the idea of sinking their fangs into lily-white necks and instead want to fall in love and settle down in a semi-detached in Cheltenham? Not much I can do about it. How confusing this writing stuff is.

(The above was written by award-winning author Bill Kirton.)