Whenever I’m asked, ‘Where do you get your inspiration from?’ my usual answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ I wish I did, because then I might be able to encourage more of those all-too rare ‘eureka’ moments. I’ve heard it said that writing is 20% inspiration and 80% perspiration, and while the ratio may vary from writer to writer, that sounds about right. When it comes to writing, as with so many other things, inspiration only gets you so far. The rest comes down to graft and perseverance.
The Lost, the first in my new series featuring police firearms officer Jonah Colley, started life as an idea I had during a swim. I’m a firm believer in hooking the reader into the story as quickly as possible – ideally from the first line – so a strong opening is important. The scenario that came to mind was of an off-duty police officer going to meet someone late at night in an abandoned warehouse, discovering a nightmarish crime scene and then being brutally attacked himself.
As a first chapter, that seemed rich with possibilities and atmosphere. But that was as far as it went. At that stage I didn’t know who this character was, exactly what had happened at the warehouse or what came next. Details like that had to be built up and pieced together by trial and error, which pretty much describes my writing process. Although I try to plan as much in advance as I can, the story inevitably changes and evolves as I write. That used to bother me: now I accept it’s simply how I work. Every writer is different: the trick is finding out what works for you rather than believing there’s a right and wrong way to go about it.
For me, the plot always hinges on its characters. They’re its driving force, the reason why things happen. It’s the way they behave, their choices and motivations, that govern the action and direction the story takes, so it’s only when they’re fully developed that the plot really begins to take shape. That’s why I’m drawn to writing about troubled or conflicted characters, because they hold potential for more interesting drama.
Jonah is no exception. He’s haunted by the disappearance of his young son ten years ago, a tragedy he still blames himself for. But after the events at the warehouse, he comes to suspect that what’s happening in the present might have its roots in the past, and that everything he believed about ten years before might not be true.
When it came to revealing exactly what did happen on that fateful day, I decided to hold back from describing it in the main narrative, and instead periodically jump back in time to present the actual events themselves. Alternating between different timeframes like this avoids having to use lengthy exposition – it shows instead of tells, in other words – and gives the reader two storylines for the price of one. It can also be a good way to ramp up the tension, cutting away from the action in one timeframe at a crucial moment to create a succession of cliff-hangers that propel the narrative along.
But for it to work both storylines, past and present, have to be equally compelling. And deciding when to cut between them calls for careful judgement. Jumping backwards and forwards too often risks making the narrative disjointed and confusing. Conversely, if you overstay your welcome in one timeline then readers might forget what’s happened – or lose interest – in the other.
I chose to keep my ‘flashback’ sequences in The Lost relatively short, spacing them out between longer sequences set in the present so that past events were revealed in a drip-feed that added to the larger picture. But once again it was a case of trial and error, and I admit to shuffling these sequences around quite a bit until I felt I’d got the balance right.
Because that’s the other thing about writing: you don’t always get things right the first time. At least, I don’t. I’ll plough through multiple drafts and rewrites before the finished manuscript emerges. It isn’t the most efficient way of writing but, for better or worse, it seems to be what works for me. As for The Lost, I’m glad to say that initial idea I had during my swim – of Jonah reluctantly going into a dark and dangerous place to help a friend – made it through to the final version, albeit with a few changes along the way. I don’t know if that counts as inspiration or not, but it was what every novel needs.
A starting point.
(c) Simon Beckett
About The Lost:
‘A terrific thriller from one of our finest crime writers at the top of his game.’ Peter James
A MISSING CHILD
Ten years ago, the disappearance of firearms police officer Jonah Colley’s young son almost destroyed him.
A GRUESOME DISCOVERY
A plea for help from an old friend leads Jonah to Slaughter Quay, and the discovery of four bodies. Brutally attacked and left for dead, he is the only survivor.
A SEARCH FOR THE TRUTH
Under suspicion himself, he uncovers a network of secrets and lies about the people he thought he knew – forcing him to question what really happened all those years ago…
Order your copy online here.