Recently, I was in the green room at a book festival, trying to discreetly slip the cord of a microphone down my top and out below the hem of it without flashing anyone a swathe of pale wobbly flesh while also keeping up a conversation with the my fellow panellists. (No easy feat, let me tell you.) We were talking with the moderator about what questions she might ask us. ‘Whatever you do,’ one of the other authors joked, ‘just don’t ask us where we get our ideas.’
This is a running joke among authors, the ubiquitous question that even Stephen King groans about. The groaning is partly because we get asked it all the time, and partly because, for what seems to be the majority of authors, this is a tricky question to answer. Because the ideas just come. They materialise, somehow, from somewhere. It’s hard to explain the process and we’re nearly afraid to, in case examining it too closely scares the magic away. But here’s the thing: I am not in this majority. I love being asked this question. Because I know exactly where my ideas come from.
My first thriller, Distress Signals, was about a serial killer on a cruise ship. I got the idea from an article by Jon Ronson, ‘Lost At Sea’, which appeared in a November 2011 edition of the Guardian’s Weekend magazine. The article focused on the disappearance of a British woman from a Disney cruise ship, but it was mention of something called the International Cruise Victims Association that stopped me in my tracks. Victims of what, I wondered? And why were there – apparently – so many of them that they needed to organise? This led me down a rabbit hole of Googling, which led me to this conclusion: if you want to get away with murder, a cruise ship seems like the ideal place to do it. Thus, the idea for Distress Signals was born.
My new thriller, The Liar’s Girl, was out March 1 and the idea behind that also came from a magazine article, but in a different way. Back in April 2015, a couple of weeks after signing my first book deal and still floating on a fluffy cloud of delirium because my childhood dream had come true, I went to meet my editor at Corvus, Sara, for the very first time. She took me and my agent out to lunch in a swanky London restaurant, where we started with champagne. I could hardly believe my luck. Not only had I got my biggest dream, but it was happening exactly as I’d dreamed it. More champagne? Oh, go on then. Don’t mind if I do! But then my editor said, ‘There’s just one thing we need to talk about, Catherine. It’s the idea you submitted for your second book…’ They didn’t like it. Did I have any other ones? The champagne was suddenly sloshing uncomfortably around my empty stomach.
Now, I’m not the kind of writer who bemoans the fact that she has SO many ideas and not enough time to write them. I’m creatively monogamous; I’m a one-idea-at-a-time kinda gal. I work on the one I have and hope that by the time I’ve finished it, I’ll have had another one. (So far – phew – it’s worked out that way.) So now I scrambled for something, anything, that I could say that would sound like a fully-formed idea for Book 2 when, in reality, I didn’t have one.
And then I thought of Thomas Quick.
Two years before, I’d read an article in GQ (or rather, on GQ’s website, as I’m not in the habit of buying GQ, much as I appreciate their covers): ‘The Serial Killer Has Second Thoughts’ by Chris Heath. This was a relatively long read and, helpfully, GQ had put this blurb at the top of the article:
“In a remote psychiatric hospital in Sweden, there is a man known as Thomas Quick who has been convicted of unspeakable crimes. Over the course of multiple trials, he would tell his brutal stories — of stabbings, stranglings, rape, incest, cannibalism — to almost anyone who would listen. Then, after his eighth and final murder conviction, he went silent for nearly a decade. In the last few years, though, he has been thinking about all he has said and done, and now he has something new to confess: He left out the worst part of all.”
I read this and thought, that would make an amazing blurb. If I was browsing in a bookshop and I picked up a book that said that on the back, I would HAVE to buy it. He’d been convicted of murder eight times and had committed all these horrific crimes, including incest and cannibalism, but he’d left out the worst part of all?! What could that be?!
And that’s pretty much what I said to my editor. I recited that blurb and said I’d love to write a novel where that would be the text printed on the back of it. She said, ‘Oh my god. I just got chills.’ My agent patted me on the arm, a silent, ‘Well done.’ I smiled and took a triumphant glug of champagne, feeling well pleased with myself altogether.
But hours later, walking down Oxford Street, the warm buzz of the champagne having faded to a low-grade headache, I realised my mistake: I’d pitched a blurb. I had no plot, no characters and I didn’t know what the worst part of all was. What could it be? It took eighteen months, three major drafts and the coffee output of a Central American country to figure all that out, but we got there in the end and now The Liar’s Girl is on the shelves for your reading pleasure. (Let’s hope.)
My version of Thomas Quick is Will Hurley, dubbed the Canal Killer by the Irish media. He confessed to the murders of five young women when he was just 19, describing to Garda detectives how he stunned each one before leaving them to drown in Dublin’s Grand Canal, in detail. His girlfriend at the time, Alison, thought Will was her first love – and that she was his. Tormented by the tabloids and devastated by the truth of Will’s character, she fled to the Netherlands and never looked back. Now, ten years later, it looks like someone is copying the Canal Killer’s crimes. When Gardaí visit Will in the secure psychiatric unit where he’s kept to see if he has any information that could help them – an obsessive fan, perhaps, or maybe even an accomplice he never admitted to – he says that he does have something new to confess, but that he’ll only confess it to Alison. The last thing she wants is to return to Dublin, let alone see Will, but deep down she feels it’s the right thing to do. When they meet, Will says that, until now, despite his detailed confessions, he’s left out the worse part of all.
(Dum dum DUUUUMMM!).
Not all my book ideas come from magazine articles. I’ve just started Book 3 and that idea came from something the PostSecret project posted on Instagram. Meet you back here in a year or so and I’ll tell you all about that then…
(c) Catherine Ryan Howard
Catherine Ryan Howard is an over-caffeinated Corkonian who lives in Dublin. Her debut thriller, Distress Signals, was an Irish Times and USA Today bestseller. It has been optioned for TV by Jet Stone Media and was shortlisted for both the IBA Crime Novel of the Year award 2016 and the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger award 2017. Her second thriller, The Liar’s Girl, is out now. It’ll be launched by Liz Nugent in Dubray Books, Grafton Street, Dublin 2 on Thursday 8th March at 6.30pm. All welcome. Find out more on www.catherineryanhoward.com.
Here’s the trailer for The Liar’s Girl:
About The Liar’s Girl:
Her first love confessed to five murders. But the truth was so much worse. Dublin’s notorious Canal Killer, Will Hurley, is ten years into his life sentence when the body of a young woman is fished out of the Grand Canal. Though detectives suspect they are dealing with a copycat, they turn to Will for help. He claims he has the information the police need, but will only give it to one person – the girl he was dating when he committed his horrific crimes. Alison Smith has spent the last decade abroad, putting her shattered life in Ireland far behind her. But when she gets a request from Dublin imploring her to help prevent another senseless murder, she is pulled back to face the past – and the man – she’s worked so hard to forget.
Order your copy online here.