I love and hate the question “where do you get your inspiration from?” in equal measure. I love it because it makes me reflect on how I came up with each idea, and I hate it because it makes me feel vulnerable. The worst thing that could happen to a writer is running out of inspiration, and each time I finish a book I think, “I’m never going to have such a good idea again”. So it’s a very worrying question!
I know exactly where I got the inspiration for Only the Innocent from, and I’ve spoken about this a lot – so I won’t go on about it for too long now. It came from seeing something on the news about a woman who had committed murder. There are very few women murderers, apparently, so it made me ask the question ‘what set of circumstances could be so bad that a woman had no choice but to murder a man?’ – and that was the start of the idea. I needed to know why and I had to get inside my murderer’s head.
The Back Road was completely different. To start with it wasn’t going to be a thriller, because at the time I came up with the idea I had no idea how successful Only the Innocent was going to be. The Back Road was going to be a story about a group of people who meet for a dinner party, and in the midst of this party, one person sets a challenge to prove that all men are incapable of honesty and integrity. The concept, unsurprisingly, came from a conversation at a dinner party (nobody actually issued such a challenge, by the way). I took a basic idea of a challenge and expanded it dramatically to make a story from it. In the end, The Back Road retained some of those elements – the dinner party at least – but the threat was much more sinister, and resulted in death.
The key element to the character behaviour in that book was lying, or at least omitting to tell the truth. Some people consider that this is not lying – and that’s where the fun starts. In The Back Road something terrible happens, but because nobody is prepared to be one hundred per cent honest, a tragedy occurs. None of the people lying had actually done anything very wrong – certainly nothing worth dying for – but each small deceit was viewed as unimportant. Until, that is, they were all added together.
Ultimately, the ideas for my books come from people – seeing how they treat each other and behave towards each other. I like to take the smallest flaw in that behaviour and magnify it a thousand times until it becomes dangerous.
One idea running through Sleep Tight is obsession. When I was (much) younger, I was stalked. I knew who it was, and it was more of a nuisance than a threat – but this man was intelligent, and had a pretty solid moral compass on the whole. It stopped him from doing anything too stupid. But it did make me wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t applied any restraints on himself. It was bad enough knowing that he was liable to turn up wherever I was, but it could have been so much worse. He was in a position of power, and I was in a position of weakness – which is exactly what I wanted to exploit in Sleep Tight. And so obsession became a significant part of the theme.
People often tell me that they have a great idea for a story, but in reality their ideas rarely work for me. Generally something bad has happened to somebody they know – even occasionally to the person telling me the story. But horrific as it might seem to be the victim of this story idea, unless I can get inside the head of the person committing the atrocious behaviour, I don’t feel as if I can mould it into a thriller. I need to understand both the perpetrator and the victim and what motivates them.
When I was writing Stranger Child, I was intrigued by the idea of somebody making a very serious mistake and convincing themselves that although they were doing the wrong thing, they were doing it for the right reasons. I wanted to see how one error of judgement, and the lies that then became essential in order to sustain that mistake, could escalate into a truly terrible and terrifying scenario. That one thought led to another. Once I had an idea of the consequences of this lie, I then had to research all kinds of information – from child criminality to the number of children who run away from home – and so the story developed and my imagination started to fly.
That’s how my inspiration comes. By reading about or witnessing behaviour that can be exaggerated until it becomes dangerous, and by letting the resulting research fire my creativity. As long as people continue to be unique, interesting, and with a mix of good and not-so-good traits, I sincerely hope I won’t run out of ideas.
This article was originally published at Killing Crime Time on 8 March 2015
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