I get asked ‘where do you get your ideas from?’
It is probably the first or second serious question most writers get asked. The strange thing is that I strongly suspect most authors – unless they have just got the one great novel in them and they were born with it inside their skulls, which I always take with a large pinch of salt – will admit that they haven’t got a clue where the ideas come from.
Personally, I think the ideas emerge, as if by osmosis, from a writer’s interests, obsessions, natural curiosity but most often from questions. Literally, what ifs?
Bear in mind that most authors – well, certainly the ones who write a lot of words – spend an awful lot of time inside their own heads making up stuff.
Now, all of the above is generic; sort of circling around specifics and that does not really answer any question at all. So, lets move on to a case study.
My novella THE PAINTER comes out as an audio book this month, often a spooky thing for a writer because you always wonder how the narrator will interpret one’s text. More of that later.
THE PAINTER was a concept, a half-formed ‘idea’ in my head for years, a continuation of many of the themes I developed, although not the story lines of UNTIL THE NIGHT, my saga about Bomber Command in WWII.
UNTIL THE NIGHT was the story from the British side, unashamedly and deliberately so. Over the years I had planned to tell the broader story from several different perspectives. To date I have added two more books to the BOMBER WAR SERIES, one THE CLOUD WALKERS is about the Battle of Britain, THE PAINTER is about living under the bombs in Germany.
It took me an eternity to find stories, hooks if you like, to hang these books on. One finally clarified in my head from some verses I wrote years ago. The other, THE PAINTER hit me between the eyes listening to a song at a concert.
Specifically, ‘The Painter’ by Hannah Martin of the duo ‘Edgelarks’; a song based on stories told to her by her grandmother about growing up in Bielefeld in the Second World War.
Suddenly, I had a title for the book – THE PAINTER – a place, a narrator and I knew exactly what the book was about. ‘Just like that’, as they say. Except, I only ‘got it’ in that moment because I had been thinking about it for years. What Hannah Martin’s lyrics gave me was the voice of the narrator (a teenage girl) and context (Bielefeld).
Coincidentally, Bielefeld was (and is again now) where one of the great railway viaducts of Western Germany – critical to the Nazi war machine in WWII – sat upon the land like indestructible stone, concrete and steel fixtures. And in THE PAINTER the book’s narrator, fourteen-year-old Christa, lives in a house less than a mile from the massive Schildesche twin railway viaduct.
‘The Painter’ of the title is Hannah Martin’s great grandfather, an artist swept up in the chaos and futility of a war that threatens to destroy everything he loves.
So, with THE PAINTER what the uninitiated call ‘inspiration’ was a song, a beautiful, elegiac song full of pathos and sadness that spoke to the despair of an age which hopefully, we have moved beyond in our lifetimes.
Unusually, because I already had THE PAINTER in my head I focused on technical stuff very early in the project. I had never written anything in the voice of teenage girl before; I’m a guy, why would I without a really good reason? I had written several detective books in ‘the voice’ of a thirty-something moderately hard-bitten detective but Christa in THE PAINTER was a fourteen-year-old girl in a society in which to be fourteen was still to be a child.
Now this is where myths get dispelled. I thought about this then I discussed, as I will, THE PAINTER as a future audio book project – remember at this stage I had not written a word – with Lesley Parkin who had narrated a couple of my ‘moderately hard-bitten detective’ books by that time. Lesley was interested: ‘Hey, I was born in Germany; my dad was in the RAF!’ In fact, it transpires she was born not a million miles away from Bielefeld, in fact.
Six degrees of separation and all that! I took this as an omen – a good one. ‘Okay, I’ll write it in your voice,’ I said. ‘Are you okay with that?’ Yes. And there it was, one of those unspoken I’ll write it and you can have first refusal on doing the audio book kind of conversations.
So, before I wrote a word I not only had a notional ‘voice’ for Christa, I also had a real voice (Lesley’s) from the books she had already narrated for me.
So, with THE PAINTER there was a ‘yes’ moment where I saw the whole thing in my head. That is rare. Usually, I find I have to start to write a book before I really ‘get it’. It is not that you do not know where you are going, you start with the basics of the three-act play everybody is familiar with from TV drama – start, middle, end – but it is the journey from the beginning to the end which is the object of the exercise not the spectacular start and stunning denouement! A writer must earn the right to have the great ending. The ‘middle’ is often the hard bit. But I hear you say – ‘don’t you plan these things? – yes, I do but so do governments and banks and businesses and they don’t always get it right either!
Basically, the creative process is…complicated. Part of the complexity arises from its accumulative nature. Just as we are the sum of our life experience, temperament and so on; books, stories are a distillation of elements one pulls in from the corners of one’s life, knowledge and research, the things people say to you and…let’s be honest, random chance.
THE PAINTER would probably be a different book but for Hannah Martin allowing me to use the title of her song and the essence of its lyrics to build a narrative arc in a particular context, and without my interaction and previous collaboration with Lesley Parkin, Christa, the book’s narrator would have ‘sounded’ different in my head.
Which brings me to the audio book of THE PAINTER – which is NOW available on Amazon and Audible.co.uk!