Where do writers get their ideas?
How do you begin with an idea and turn it into a book?
People often ask writers where they get their ideas from.
One answer is that I’ve no idea. Another is that ideas are all around us. You only have to read a newspaper, watch the news, talk to a colleague, overhear your neighbour’s conversation on the train. Personally, I always seem have to have a hundred ideas bubbling around. Not all of them will make it into a book, of course. But, for me, at any rate, ideas almost always begin with curiosity. I wonder why someone might do that… I wonder what that feels like… I wonder what would happen if…
For me, ‘What if…?’ is almost inevitably the starting point. I can’t imagine how you become a writer unless you are incurably curious. (That’s a polite way of saying ‘nosy’). Curious about the world, curious about people. Curious about what makes people tick. The same reasons as I became a journalist – a love of language and indefatigable curiosity – have propelled me into writing fiction.
Naively, it seems, I’ve been surprised by how often readers assume that a writer’s work is autobiographical. Only last weekend, referring to my first book Knowing Anna, my aunt said to me, ‘Tell me about Anna. I’m guessing she was a friend of yours.’ She was surprised – and I think a little disappointed – that the answer was no.
Of course, of course you draw on your own experience when you’re writing. But it would be pretty dull, surely, if you just rehashed bits of your life? Well, I'm not sure my life has been that fascinating anyway, to anyone else but me. ‘If it hasn't happened to you, how do you know about x, then?’ I was asked at one point. I confess I was taken aback. The answer, I suppose, is research and a bit of imagination. Is it such a great secret that a writer of fiction makes stuff up?
Anyway, where did I get the idea for The Restless Wave?
Well, the starting point was my first book. If you’ve read Knowing Anna, you may remember Anna’s father, William, had a rather overbearing father, who found it hard to settle back in to family life after seeing action in the Second World War. Specifically, he’d been an army chaplain at the Battle for Normandy in the summer of 1944. In Anna, William’s father only merited three paragraphs. But increasingly I found myself wondering about this as yet unnamed man. Who was he? Had the War changed him or had he always been like that? And if so, what had happened? I wanted to know.
I’m also interested in what we pass down the generations in our families. Aside from our genes, there are the values and the interests we pass on in an intentional way. But what about the things that aren’t talked about, that inform the whole tenor of family life? Especially at a point in our history when people very deliberately wanted to put the War behind them and concentrate on rebuilding their lives in peacetime.
I should probably also confess that at this stage I wasn’t quite ready to let go of the Meadows family. I’d become enormously fond of them, perhaps especially of William. It wasn’t that I wanted to write a sequel – and the new book most definitely isn’t one – but a companion novel? Why not?
So my starting point was the desire to find out more about William’s father. To try and understand him, and see how his personality and his behaviour had shaped the lives of future generations. Of course, for this to become a whole book, I needed a lot more ideas besides. The story unfolds through three central characters: Edward (William’s father), his daughter Hope (one of William’s older sisters), and her daughter Nell (William’s niece). So each character needed creating, and the threads of the three stories needed weaving together into one narrative. And that’s when the fun really begins…