Don’t ask -- Bill Kirton

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 pose 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. 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 punish him. So I did.

But that little revenge was nothing compared to the revenge 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.

Two others came from suggestions made by another (non-writer) friend. First, he 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.

Then, on another occasion, out of the blue, the same friend said ‘You should write about a figurehead carver’. He had no idea why he’d said it 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.

The Sparrow Conundrum is a mystery. It’s my first novel but it was rewritten many times before publication and I’ve no idea 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 others, 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).

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Eden Baylee said…
Hi Bill, good to learn about the genesis of your books.

I think we both know that ideas can come from anywhere, the difficult part is to be open to them.

Good thing you're always paying attention and curious. I think curiosity is a must for writers, don't you?

Wendy H. Jones said…
Great post, Bill. IT's always a tricky question to answer because the answer is an amalgam of different sources. Whatever it is, it certainly helps you write cracking books
Sandra Horn said…
Thank you, Bill - fascinating! I've used germs of ideas in the picture books, if I may dare to compare them with full-length novels - and also found that the characters took over and wrote their own stories. Ain't the brain a wonderful and mysterious organ?
Jan Needle said…
I think I started writing because I had too many ideas to cope with. My first published 'work' was in the Labour Party news letter my dad used to produce in Portsmouth, although when I realised he'd only used it because my spelling was so hilarious I got my first case of authorial hump and refused to write chapter two. Problematic for something that had been promoted as a serial. But after that ideas just poured out of me, and never really stopped. Then at fifteen I discovered drink and I didn't care! When I used to do talks about writing and got asked the darling question, I just said I didn't know. Seemed to do the trick...
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, all. Your enthusiasm for this remarkable gift we share helps convince me that I'm doing something more or less right - and that I'm not (necessarily) crazy.
Peter Leyland said…
Great post on where ideas for writing come from Bill, something that always intrigues me.
Reb MacRath said…
It is a terrific and provocative post, Bill. Moreover, it calls for a follow-up post that I hope you'll consider: on 'germ ideas' that we don' follow..or that we follow but in different, unexpected ways. In the same post, you might get into how and why we say goodbye to a series we've stayed with for years. How do we know when it's time, though we may have more ideas? You abandoned the Jack Carston mysteries. And, though I'd egged you on, I said goodbye not long afterward to my Boss MacTavin mysteries. Somehow I knew, that's all I can say,
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, Peter and Reb.
Reb, it sounds to me as if that blog you’re asking of me should really be coming from you. Fascinating subjects. look forward to them.

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