The Questions Authors Fear Most

Light Man walking“Where do your ideas come from?”

The only other question that depresses me more is: “Have any of your books been turned into films?”

(The inference is always clear. Surely I’ll never regard myself as being a successful novelist until Ben Affleck has starred in a very bad movie based on one of my books. But back to the ideas…)

Peter Robinson, the wonderful Canadian crime writer, tells people that he buys his in bulk from Costco, while Neil Gaiman visits a lovely little ideas shop in Bognor Regis. Val McDermid tells a wonderful story of doing an event with Ian Rankin in Scotland when this question came up. Ian was at the end of a punishing six-week tour and something inside him just seemed to snap.

“Well,” he said, smiling graciously, “when you get signed by a publisher, they give you this website address and it’s got hundreds of brilliant ideas. You scroll down the list, find one you like, tick the box, and it’s yours.”

The audience laughed, recognizing the joke, but the man who asked the question came to Ian after the event and said, “If I give you fifty quid will you tell me that website address?”

What people don’t want to hear is: “I make my ideas up…out of my head.”

They never look happy with this answer. It’s like they suspect there is some huge secret that we’re refusing to share. Maybe I should lie and tell them my ideas come from dark places, insomnia, daydreams, spicy curries, alcoholic binges, and orgies involving animals.

(All of the above are true, by the way, apart from the orgies and the animals.)

NewspaperOK, I’ll give you the truthful answer. My ideas come from real life events—snippets of information, odd facts, and happenstances that I pick up from the radio or newspapers. For most of my career as a feature writer for a Sunday newspaper I would have to look at the important events of the week and think laterally. Where will the story be by Sunday? What new developments can I expect?

The greatest book I ever read on being a feature writer was called Stalking the Feature Story by William Ruehlmann, written in the late seventies. Among many anecdotes, he tells a story of a journalist covering JFK’s assassination who was desperate to find a new angle for a story that was dominating every major newspaper in the world. Eventually he interviewed the tearful black gravedigger who was tasked with the job of digging Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery. The piece was inspiring, moving, brilliant…

When I’m looking for ideas, I’m searching for something that snags my consciousness and makes me ask the question “What if?”

My first novel, Suspect, came from a story I was told by a social worker in Nottingham who had that day taken a newborn baby from a teenage mother whom a judge had deemed incapable of looking after an infant. As the social worker carried the newborn baby down the hospital corridor, listening to the screams of the distraught mother, she looked down at the baby boy and asked, “What if one day you come looking for me? Are you going thank me for having saved your life or blame me for having ruined it?”

What a question! What a hook!

My second novel, Lost, was triggered by an equally random event. I was visiting the U.S., where milk cartons were once commonly used to publicize missing children. Having breakfast one morning, I read about a young girl who had disappeared from an apartment block. She lived on the top floor, and her best friend had rung the intercom asking her to come out to play. Somewhere between the top floor and the front door, the girl vanished and has never been found.

What could have happened to her, I thought. She can’t be still inside the building. Surely they’ve searched. What if there was a secret tunnel? What if she were never in the building to begin with? What if…?

The recovery positionThe Night Ferry began with a four-paragraph story in an Italian newspaper about a young woman who was trafficked from Albania into Italy and promised a job as a waitress. Instead, as so often happens, she was forced into the sex trade to pay her debts. She fell pregnant and had a baby, which was offered for sale on the internet for $7,000.

Tens of thousands of women are trafficked into Europe ever year, many forced into prostitution to pay off the people smugglers. What if they were given a choice, I asked myself. They could sleep with a dozen men every night for ten years or become a surrogate mother for a childless couple. The Night Ferry was born.

Unlike a lot of writers, I don’t have a drawer full of ideas that I can dip into whenever I need one. Each time I finish a book I’m convinced that I’ll never write another because I’ve used up all my good ideas and clever one-liners. Then after a few days I realize that it’s not the ideas but the energy I’m lacking.

My upcoming novel, The Wreckage, is also seeded in real life events. It began with a story that I read in December 2009 in a UK newspaper. It began:

Drug money worth billions of dollars kept the financial system afloat at the height of the global crisis, the United Nations’ drugs and crime tsar has told the Observer.

Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said he has seen evidence that the proceeds of organized crime were “the only liquid investment capital” available to some banks on the brink of collapse last year. He said that a majority of the $352 billion (£216 billion) of drugs profits was absorbed into the economic system as a result.

This was the “what if” moment that led to The Wreckage, an international-conspiracy thriller set in the aftermath of the global financial crisis and the war in Iraq.

I’ve since discovered that I wasn’t the only person to read that article. John le Carré was also taking note. Although it wasn’t the inspiration for his latest thriller, Our Kind of Traitor, it did confirm his premise that a huge slice of the global economy, as much as a fifth on some estimates, is made up by the profits of organized crime.

I’m not going to say that great minds think alike, but very few ideas are completely new, and every writer creates his or her own fictional “truth.”

Let’s face it: Everyone has an idea. I meet people with them all the time. Normally they want me to write the book for them so that Hollywood can make the film and they’ll be incredibly rich and famous. The idea in question is always unique and brilliant and has never been done before. I’m doing the easy bit—writing the novel—but we’ll split everything fifty/fifty.

This is only slightly less annoying than those people who discover that I used to be a ghostwriter and proceed to tell me about their “incredible life” and how I should write about them because it’s sure to be a bestseller like Angela’s Ashes.

IMG_0426For all of those people blessed with a great idea, I have a piece of advice for you, which I give quite graciously. The idea isn’t the hard bit. It’s a very small component of the whole. Creating memorable characters that live and breathe in a reader’s imagination—that’s much harder. Simply sitting down at a desk, day after day, putting one word after another, one sentence after the next…climbing a mountain when you’re clinging to the rockface and you don’t know how far you’ve come and how far it is to the summit, that’s the bit that’s hard.

All fiction is a process of imagining: whatever you write, in whatever genre or medium, your task is to make things up convincingly and interestingly and new.

So here’s my advice: Take your idea and begin writing. You put one word after another until it’s finished. It’s like you said—writing is the easy bit.

Michael Robotham was an investigative journalist and ghostwriter in Britain, Australia, and the U.S before his career as a novelist. He lives in Sydney with his wife and three daughters.

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Mulholland Books will publish The Wreckage in June 2011.