One of the questions writers are asked most often is: "Where do you find your ideas?" In fact, I gave this title to a short story I wrote years ago, about a not very successful novelist who conducts a bookshop event. A member of his small audience asks the question, with alarming results. I got the idea for that story from a real life literary event, as it happens.
There's no easy answer to the question, because story ideas are all around us, all the time. You just have to spot them - or more often, tease them out, if they are hiding. As a teenager at school, hoping that one day I'd become a writer of crime fiction, I worried that I wouldn't be able to come up with a plot idea strong enough to sustain a full-length novel. It wasn't until much later that I realised that it doesn't matter if you don't have the whole concept of your novel clear from the outset. The key is to have an interesting starting point - a setting, perhaps, or a type of person, or an event or incident - that sparks your imagination and gets you going. Then you can ask yourself: "What if?"- always a good technique for a teller of tales.
My idea for "Acknowledgments", the story that won the CWA Margery Allingham Prize last month, came along after I read a couple of books which had rather lengthy and (in my opinion) rather rambling and tedious acknowledgments to the authors' countless acquaintances. I thought it might be possible to create a story out of such material. The spark for "The Bookbinder's Apprentice", which won the CWA Short Story Dagger, came when I looked in the window of a bookbinder's shop in Venice. A couple of days after my recent visit to the North East, I was asked to write a story for an anthology featuring a bookshop. I decided that an imaginary lonely second hand bookshop in Hartlepool, a town which I'd just visited, might be a suitable background. And I mentioned on this blog the other day that, during my recent trip to Berlin, thoughts about the reunification of Germany led me to an idea for a story about a reunion in the city between a couple who have not seen each other for many years.
The very idea of meeting someone again after not having seen them for many years absolutely fascinates me. It is at the heart of the seventh and latest Lake District Mystery (which I'd be writing right now if I hadn't been lured away by the temptation of doing this blog post!) And at the week-end, a very enjoyable experience gave me a premise for another possible story. For the first time in 40 years, my school had a reunion. The school (once a boys' grammar school, now a mixed sixth form college, Sir John Deane's) has changed out of all recognition, although the core of the old building has, happily, been preserved. Reassembling for lunch in the old main hall was a very nostalgic experience. And it was fascinating to meet again a group of men whom I'd not seen for four decades. I was pleased to hear many interesting stories of what they have been up to, and as amused as ever to be asked by someone- yes! - "do you write under your own name?" - although it was poignant to pause and reflect on two or three friends who have died in the intervening years. One of these deaths I'd had no knowledge of previously.
A number of chaps were still instantly recognisable, but that was certainly not always the case. And as I struggled to recognise one or two people, the thought crossed my mind - what if someone came back to such a reunion having assumed a false identity? There could be a story there, couldn't there? Or what if some long-buried grudge was rekindled at such an occasion? Or what if a crime committed forty years ago came to light because of a casual remark dropped at a reunion? Ideas are everywhere, you see. It's really a matter of using one's imagination to create something fresh, different and worthwhile out of them.