Great Story: The Collision of Unrelated Ideas by Sam Blake

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Sam Blake

Sam Blake

I’d love to claim this headline quote as my own, but in fact it comes from the great Stephen King, who knows a thing or two about writing. If you haven’t got a copy of his On Writing, order it now! Every published writer I know has read it at least once.

The Mystery of Four is just out in paperback and is my 8th book. It was originally released back in January, and since then my YA debut Something Terrible Happened Last Night came out in May (and was shortlisted for Irish Teen/YA Novel of the Year.) In January 2024 Three Little Birds, my next adult thriller will hit the shops. At every event I do, I’m asked where my ideas come from – and for every book it’s with a collision of unrelated ideas.

For me, stories come from a series of lightbulb moments, which can be anything that sparks my imagination: paintings, articles I read, an overheard moment of conversation, or something I see on TV.  I saw someone describe them recently as ‘glimmers’ which is a wonderful way of putting it. These ‘glimmers’ come together to form a stew of bits of ideas and bits of characters that then blend to produce a story.

It’s the unique combination of ‘glimmers’ that, when combined with your own experience and voice, produce original ideas.  Christopher Booker suggests in his book that The Seven Basic Plots are at the heart of every story, but if you’re worried that your story might have been done before, remember that the ‘glimmers’ that you are bringing together are new, and this story has never been done before by you.

Often, as with Remember My Name or in fact, Little Bones, there’s a plot point that starts me thinking, but with The Mystery of Four, it was more a mixture of things that started with a TV documentary, ended with a significant cat who slipped into the shadows on the first page as I started writing.

Mystery of Four pbThe first ‘glimmer’ came when I was in London, and I came back to my hotel room to catch the end of a documentary made by Trevor MacDonald, who, with a group of crime experts, was tracking down the remains of Fred West’s victims. They strongly suspected that a body had been concealed on a farm, but the owners wouldn’t give permission for them to explore (they weren’t the police). I thought that was a very interesting moral dilemma – closure for the victims’ families is crucial, but the world’s media descending on you and the possible impact on the resale potential of the property are big considerations.

Then I watched the Agatha Christie film Murder is Easy, set in an English country village with a cast of colourful characters. I bought the book because I was interested that the film makers had decided to insert Miss Marple although she’s not in the original story. That storyline got me thinking about a killer who doesn’t follow a pattern, which often can be the downfall of your average serial killer.

I was looking for a new setting for my next book, Remember My Name, was quite quite urban and I wanted a different pace – I wanted to write a summer book and I love the gossip that can occur in a village, particularly an isolated one. I wanted some colourful characters, individuals from different backgrounds who had all found their way to a beautiful village with all the tensions that make villages fascinating. The Mystery of Four is essentially a locked room mystery, something I hadn’t written before.

I’m in several local Facebook forums, and love reading the posts. I liked the idea that the villagers in my story could be discussing issues that are utterly tangential or core to the story, potentially misleading each other and the reader.

While being fascinated by village politics I was also very interested in the politics within amateur dramatics groups – which tied in very well with something else – I love quotes and I’ve always loved Doctor Faustus (the play). It’s the ultimate moral dilemma (back to that) and has some brilliant lines.

As these ideas, these ‘glimmers’, were coming together, my protagonist, Tess Morgan, began to form in my head. In the Mystery of Four, Tess rebuilds Kilfenora House. It’s a hollow shell when she buys it, just like her own life.

Tess has finally returned to Ireland after a long stint in Dubai – her best friend Genevieve Fortune lives in Kilfenora, and shared an Instagram post with her when the house went up for sale. Tess knew it was exactly what she was looking for – somewhere to live but also a business to build, a big project. She needs to rebuild her connections and start again in Ireland. Rebuilding Kilfenora gives her the opportunity to do that.

She has no idea that there is a poison garden in the grounds, that there have been ghostly sightings, or that there’s rumoured to be a curse on the house. She’s focused on its restoration, on navigating a pandemic and opening Kilfenora in its full glory to the public at a grand opening weekend.

Which is where things really begin to go wrong.

Beyond the Kilfenora estate is Kilfenora village, with its Facebook group that we see flashes of as the story unfolds. The pub, the doctor’s surgery, the local Spar and the antiques shop ‘Fortune’s Finds’  all feature. The antique shop is run by Gen and her mother, the indomitable and eternally elegant Clarissa Westmacott, a retired actress who went on to become a streaming star.

Clarissa walked straight into the story fully formed – as did Merlin. Tess looks out of her office window in chapter one and sees him slinking through the shadows beside the stable yard. Merlin is actually Clarissa’s cat, but comes and goes as if he lives in Tess’s house. He plays a very important role in the story.

Character is as important as plot to me as I write. It’s the interaction and conflict between characters that gives you story, and that’s where the magic happens, where the story takes off on its own.

My black cat Merlin, who plays himself in The Mystery of Four, assisting with editing.

The real jumping off point for this book, the light bulb moment that pulled everything together, was Amanda Lees’  The Dictionary of Crime (which is essentially an A-Z of how to kill people). I was reading it over breakfast one morning and got very interested in poisons that are readily available but can be untraceable – Agatha Christie was very fond of poison so you can see how the threads are coming together into an Agatha style story.

Against the background of these elements, last year I spotted some paintings on the Saatchi Gallery Instagram feed that I absolutely loved – the women look like they breathing underwater rather than drowning. For me, these three women felt related – sisters – and they were crying out for a story. They made me think of the three furies in Greek myth, so I started researching who they were and what they represented. They are Megaera, who became Meg and represents jealous rage, Allecto – who became Ally who represents anger and Tisiphone who became Laeticia (Tis) in the story. Tisiphone is all about vengeful destruction.

In The Mystery of Four, they don’t all get to play out as full mythical characters, but Meg is very jealous, Ally’s anger is there, but calm anger, and Tis’s vengefulness is more rebelliousness against her very traditional parents – she’s a hippie tarot reader who lives in a camper van which is in stark contrast to her father’s role as the highly respected local doctor who wants to chair the Tidy Towns committee.

These three form the first tier of supporting cast – there are quite a lot of characters in The Mystery of Four so it was essential that they all had a part to play and had distinct voices and characteristics.

As you can see, there are a lot of elements in this story that grew and developed as I thought about it. Not rushing is vital, let the story grow and evolve. Whether you are doodling ideas on a pad or writing your way into the story (these early chapters are unlikely to become part of the book, but they are essential for you to find your way in), give your story room to breathe.

They say write what you know – which always makes me laugh as a crime writer as I’ve never killed anyone –  but I live in Wicklow and although I live at the bottom of the mountains, I wanted the Kilfenora estate to be isolated from the rest of the world. (It’s also very handy in crime to have a location where there are a few internet blackspots.) I hope I’ve been able to create a village and a slightly haunted country house that feels like you could visit it when you put the book down – if you’re brave enough.

Train your subconscious to look out for the light bulb moments – the ‘glimmers’ – give your idea time to develop and you’ll find your way to a great story.

(c) Sam Blake

Sam Blake photo (c) Alice Rose Jordan

About The Mystery of Four:

Mystery of Four pbMurder is easy … when it doesn’t look like murder.

Tess Morgan has finally made her dream of restoring beautiful Kilfenora House and Gardens into a reality.

But during rehearsals for the play that forms the opening weekend’s flagship event, her dream turns into a nightmare when a devastating accident looks set to ruin her carefully laid plans.

There are rumours that Kilfenora House is cursed, but this feels personal, and becomes increasingly terrifying when more than one body is discovered. Could someone be closing in on Tess herself?

Clarissa Westmacott, ex star of stage and screen, certainly believes so, particularly when she learns that purple-flowered aconite has been picked from the Poison Garden. And Clarissa will stop at nothing to protect the friend she has come to see as a daughter…

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Sam Blake has been writing fiction since her husband set sail across the Atlantic for eight weeks and she had an idea for a book. Her debut novel ‘Little Bones’ (Bonnier 2016) was a runaway bestseller. Across all her books Sam has been an Eason No 1 bestseller for ten weeks, an Irish Times No 1 for six weeks, and has been listed in the Irish top ten for a total of twenty-seven weeks. Both her first novel ‘Little Bones’ and ‘The Dark Room’ were shortlisted for Irish Crime Novel of the Year (2016 & 2021)

Moving away from police procedurals, now writing ‘deliciously twisted’ (Daily Mail) bestselling psychological thrillers, Sam’s focus is on strong female characters and ‘creating genuine page turners with metronomic timing.’ (Sunday Business Post). Remember My Name is her latest No 1 bestseller.

Sam is originally from St. Albans in Hertfordshire but has lived at the foot of the Wicklow mountains, for more years than she lived in the UK. Follow her on social @samblakebooks.

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