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How Do You Do It?

How writers get their ideas

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

Whenever I am forced into a corner – metaphorically that is – and have to admit (or, more accurately, confess) that I am a crime writer, in fact, the usual response is: ‘How do you do it? How do you think up all those stories and characters and create clever plots?’ In truth, the answer is that I don’t really know. Realistically, a professional writer cannot spend too much time preparing mentally for the task, waiting for that bolt of inspiration from the blue. One just has to get on with it. Writing may be a creative and an artistic pursuit, but it is also a job and has to be approached in a practical fashion: there are deadlines to meet and bills to pay.

Creating a new novel is both daunting and thrilling at the same time and authors approach this task in a surprising variety of ways. Of course if you are an historical mystery writer, you will need to research your background, looking beyond the major incidents of the time into the minutiae of the period, so that details of manners, customs, dress, etc. are accurate and no faux pas are committed. (‘Queen Victoria read the text message she had just received from Albert…’) This takes time and a fair amount of planning. A modern setting requires less research. Or does it? Well, not if you are involving forensics, police procedures or other technical details that need to be checked for accuracy and authenticity.

Then there is the task of writing. In my conversations with many authors, it seems to me that there are two main methods used for creating a story. There is the work-it-out-in-your-head-first approach, where the author knows every last detail of the twists and turns of the plot and has a full knowledge of all the characters, their actions and where they fit into the scheme of things before beginning to write the book. P. D. James planned her novels in this fashion, it appears. American crime writer Jeffery Deaver states that he spends a year on a novel: nine months planning and penning a detailed synopsis and just three months on the actual writing. Margaret Murphy, who writes dark psychological thrillers with Helen Pepper as A. D. Garrett, not only researches her stories meticulously but plots them in the same manner, producing a detailed forty page synopsis before sitting down and typing ‘Chapter One’. In this way the route to the final page is detailed and fixed; there is no room for unplanned diversions along the way.

Then there is the other approach, ‘the suck it and see’ one, as I like to think of it. You start with an idea and just run with it. William Boyd says that when starting a novel you should always know how it is going to end, but it seems that on one occasion Ruth Rendell wasn’t happy with the identity of the murderer when she had finished the book, so she changed the culprit to make the final revelation more shocking and surprising. Of course this volte-face, gave her the onerous task of restructuring elements of the plot and revising the earlier chapters to fit in with the new denouement.

Ann Cleeves, author of the ‘Shetland’ and ‘Vera’ novels, which have become such hits on television, starts her stories by choosing a location and lets this draw her into the plot, which develops from there. Ian Rankin is a keen ‘suck it and see-er’. Ian, creator of Scotland’s grimmest crime fighter, Inspector Rebus, once told me that he had just written chapter five of his latest novel and had killed a character off at the end of it. He had no idea who had done the deed or why but he assured me that it would all work itself out in the end.

Andrew Taylor, whose novels include the Lydmouth series and the bestselling The American Boy, admitted that his approach is similar. He told me: ‘I find it hard to plan more than a chapter or two ahead. Partly because of this, I tend to spend at least as much time rewriting as writing. It’s a matter of building up layers, removing bits that don’t work, tweaking the detail’. Michael Jecks, prolific author of medieval mysteries, confided in me that he usually lets his characters determine the direction of the plot and relies on them to avoid problems. One is reminded of Raymond Chandler’s putative advice: if you have reached a problematic moment in your narrative and have no idea what to do next, just have a man enter the room with a gun!

I have to admit that I too am ‘a suck it and see’ scribbler. To me there is more excitement on the journey if you are not quite sure where you are going and what is going to happen next. Of course there are dangers, too. There can be cul-de-sacs along the way and changes may have to be made to earlier sections in order to fit in with later developments: it appears that the widowed banker of chapter four now has a young wife in chapter ten and the vicar clubbed to death in the vestry in the prologue was by chapter seven actually stabbed in a brothel — a development that requires a fair amount of rejigging.

I began my most recent novel, The Scarlet Coven, with just a single idea. I wanted to set the story in New York in the thirties with two protagonists, a well-heeled louche husband-and-wife couple who do a little detecting on the side. I began writing with only the opening scene in mind: the pair, sipping cocktails in the Algonquin Hotel, are approached by a stranger who knows of their investigative prowess and begs them to find his sister, who has mysteriously disappeared. That’s all I had. I didn’t know where this man’s sister was or why she had disappeared. I had no notion that she had been kidnapped by a group of Satanists or that her brother would be murdered in chapter two. But as I wrote, the plot unfolded itself to me and later in the narrative even brought in a character, a black private eye, I had never expected to meet. Where did he come from? By halfway through, I knew how it was going to end, but the path to the finale was still vague and uncertain.

Just as there are different ways to approach the construction of a novel, the choice of where and when one writes varies tremendously amongst writers. Peter James, bestselling creator of the Roy Grace crime novels set in Brighton, has the remarkable facility to switch off all background disturbances to compose on his laptop. He can write on planes, trains, and in crowded hotel lobbies with ease. John Harvey, author of the Resnick novels told me: ‘I find it almost impossible to write anything worthwhile outside my study/office.’ I am the same. I work almost exclusively in my office at home where I am typing this now. Other environments distract me too much. Andrew Taylor is more flexible: ‘I can write anywhere, but I prefer somewhere without too many potential distractions. In a perfect world it’s somewhere with just me and a laptop.’

It is clear then that there is really no right or wrong way to write a novel. However, once you have discovered the approach that suits you best, I believe it is essential to keep to a routine and persevere until you see those magic words loom on the horizon: ‘The End’.

David Stuart Davies is an expert on Sherlock Holmes and the author of seven novels and two plays about the great detective. He edits Red Herrings for the Crime Writers’ Association. His latest novels are Sherlock Holmes & The Ripper Legacy and The Scarlet Coven.

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