People often ask me where I get my ideas from and whether what I write is based on my own experience. When I did my first creative writing course with the OU there was an emphasis on ‘writing what you know’ but I soon found that what I know is actually quite limited; what I can imagine gives me much more scope for stories.
Of course, there are things in my books which are very much based on my life and there are characters who resemble people I have known, and I hope that makes my writing richer. Somebody told me recently that she could really relate to a scene in Merciless because of the way I’d described it. Was it the cold canal bank in winter? Was it the cliff top at Flamborough? Nope… it was the scene where Caroline makes a crisp sandwich in her father’s kitchen. Crisp sandwiches were a real treat when I was a teenager and my description of making one had tapped into somebody else’s nostalgia. I was really chuffed!
The germ of a story, for me, can often come from a fleeting thought or a series of what ifs. Often I’m away from my desk, usually walking and something will just ping in my brain. It can be a line of dialogue. It can be a visual image. It can be a feeling of déjà vu or jamais vu that unsettles me and forces me to look at my surroundings differently. Sometimes somebody will tell me a story that I immediately want to twist into a crime thriller.
At work last week I was involved in filming a series of videos for an adult learning course (not my normal job) when I heard some of the crew talking about stories they’d been involved with. The sound man started telling us about something and my brain suddenly moved up a couple of gears and I started tapping notes into my phone. It wasn’t his story that I wanted to write – it was just one image he gave me which would make the most wonderful opening to a thriller. It’s now safely stored away for future use.
This morning I was walking my dog (hence the cute pic of her at the top of this piece) when a man walked past me and stopped. I realised he’d said something to me so I slowed down and turned back to him. He smiled and asked how I was keeping – exactly as if we were old friends. He must have registered my blank look because he frowned and asked, ‘It is Pauline, isn’t it?’ I explained that I wasn’t Pauline and he went on his way looking a bit embarrassed. But he left me wondering about Pauline... Does she really look like me (poor thing)? And why hasn’t the man seen her for a while? That led me into a whole train of thought about doppelgangers and mistaken identity and a plot started to develop.
So the answer to the question is that I get my ideas from all sorts of places. Some are based on real life and others are pure fantasy. But I really love the ones that ambush me out of nowhere and then just won’t go away.