Where do you get your ideas from? It’s one of the most frequently asked questions for a writer. Here is my answer, with reference to my fourth novel, The Long Fall.My usual starting point is to ask a ‘what if?’ question. With The Long Fall, it was ‘what if, in your youth, you had done the worst possible thing to another person? How would you go on living a life?’ This question forms the backbone of the novel, which is set over two timescales – the 1980s, when the act was committed, and the present day, where the outwardly glamorous and successful life of my main character is completely defined and compromised by what happened over thirty years earlier.
Another starting point is my own preoccupations and predilections. I write Domestic Noir. The most concise definition I have come up with for the term is that it is about the terrible things we can do to one another in the name of love, and this is the clay that I work with. As with many writers in this sub genre, I am less concerned with the whodunnit of crime – although I do like to keep the reader guessing – and more with the whydunnit. In the Long Fall, I explore what turns someone from an innocent to a killer, and the extent to which people can be played by others. Because I write with the psychology of my main character at the forefront – a close third-person point of view for the present day, and first-person diary form for the 1980 scenes – I can play with twists that she doesn’t see coming. Sometimes the reader is included in the surprises, and sometimes they are one step ahead. Herding these plot elements is another fine way of getting the ideas flowing.
Another big starting point for The Long Fall was the rediscovery of my own teenage diaries. At the age of eighteen, I set off to backpack on my own to Greece. As well as many great experiences, I also encountered some very hairy moments. As I lay in my tent each night, I recorded everything in a series of tatty exercise books. I dug these out a few years ago and and, as I deciphered my awful handwriting, I also encountered mementos: tucked-away museum and bus tickets, campsite maps, the occasional thin strand of desiccated Drum tobacco from the roll ups I used to smoke, the scribbled home addresses of people I had hooked up with along the way – the truly crazy Dutch girl, the handsome Israeli boy escaping conscription, the American girls who had escaped an erupting Mount Washington (that story found its way into the book). It was all so vivid, yet at the same time it felt as if it was the story of a completely different person. I knew I had to use that feeling. And as it happened I used quite a few of the original diary entries, too!
The final great building block for me is setting. One of the great joys of being a writer is the opportunity to go and research a place you want to write about. It’s a special way of looking at an environment – you need to know the smells, the feel of the grass underfoot, the state of the roads, how the insect bite, the sound or absence of birdsong. It’s all copy, and to travel with such a purpose is an enormous privilege. I felt that, although I know Greece quite well (having returned at every available opportunity since my early backpacking visit), I needed to find the perfect island for my story, so one summer holiday my poor teenage son had to endure three weeks of being dragged around the Cyclades. He managed to put up with it somehow. As it happened, none of these suited what I had in mind and I finally settled on another island altogether, Ikaria, in the North Aegean, which meant I had to sacrifice yet more time exploring sunny beaches, hiking through beautiful countryside and eating at tucked away tavernas. But it paid off. On the south coast of Ikaria, I found the perfect cliff for my opening scene, sat on the grassy top and wrote the chapter. A graveyard I encountered on the way back to my digs that evening provided another scene which evolved into an integral plot point which would never have appeared had I not gone to the island.
So the answer is that, for me, the ideas come from just about everywhere. As a writer you have to keep all your senses open, and be ready to explore the connections between a set of circumstances and notions. Then to get your novel, all you need in addition is about a year to eighteen months and about a hundred thousand words developed over four or five drafts. Simple!
Julia Crouch is the author of four novels: Cuckoo, Every Vow You Break, Tarnished, and The Long Fall (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Long-Fall-Julia-Crouch/dp/1472207238). Her fifth novel, Her Husband’s Lover, is out in January 2017, but samplers will be available at this year’s Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate.
She is appearing at the BritCrime festival on Saturday 7 July at 2pm.