If the question most asked of writers is, “Where do you get your ideas?” then the most common answer has to be, quite simply: “Everywhere.” To readers, that must seem like a cop-out – not to mention annoyingly vague. And yet it’s true. Anything and everything can spark off an idea for a story.
But a novel is the product of far more than just a single idea. After the initial inspiration (which often takes the form of a “What if?” question) there are numerous decisions to be made about characters, locations, subplots and so on. Taking my latest novel as an example, I thought I’d look at where some of these components originated, in the hope of better illustrating the process of constructing a novel.
THE CATCH was prompted by the question: “What if a young man manipulates his friend into covering up a crime?” Pretty soon I’d added a second question: “What if that crime brings them both into contact with some very dangerous people?”
My main characters, Dan and Robbie, haven’t yet acknowledged that their childhood friendship has run its course. Here I drew on my own experiences while growing up: the disappointment when you realise that your soulmate at the age of twelve has become a stranger.
For my bad guys, I’d long had it in mind to write about a ruthless married couple who feel entitled to an even richer lifestyle than the one they presently enjoy. Gordon and Patricia Blake were partly inspired by a notorious political couple who made the headlines a few years ago (and one of them was also influenced by a deeply unpleasant boss in my last job!)
THE CATCH features both conspiracies and cock-ups – and since I believe that crime fiction can and should reflect the society in which it is set, I decided to include an issue that makes me furious: namely the way that large companies often regard public contracts as a licence to print money. I could point to any number of examples, although two particularly egregious cases – the fiasco over security for the London Olympics and the potentially fraudulent overcharging by G4S and Serco for electronic tagging and escorting prisoners – only came to light as I was finishing the book.
Creating a supporting cast is great fun. Robbie is having an affair with a young trophy wife. Her husband, a villainous older man, was inspired by a conversation I overheard at an open air cafe on the Hove lawns. Three tough-looking “geezers” in their fifties were having coffee at an adjacent table. It became clear that none of them worked in a conventional sense; instead their lives revolved around betting on sporting fixtures, mainly horse racing, from which they seemed to earn a very good living.
The character I most enjoyed writing about was a man called Stemper, a cold, efficient killer who forms a rather peculiar relationship with his landlord. Those scenes were inspired by my love of Graham Greene; an attempt to evoke something of the classic seediness of my home city as portrayed in Brighton Rock. And for Stemper’s theatrical upbringing I was able to draw on research I’d done for my first novel, SINS OF THE FATHER, into the lives of comedy actors such as Peter Sellers, Tony Hancock, Sid James and others, helping me to imagine the post war world of backstreet boarding houses and the lonely rootless existence of the touring performer.
These elements and many more were combined to form THE CATCH. Along the way, of course, various ideas had to be amended or discarded. But nothing is wasted. While working on a rewrite, and thinking through aspects of my main character’s life, I came up with a new scenario for someone who could be a slightly older, more successful version of Dan – and from that came the opening scene of the novel I’m writing now.
The Catch is published by Arrow