At the start of lockdown in 2020, myself and my agent Simon Trewin began a series of interviews with hugely successful authors to get an insight into their process – every single interview yielded nuggets of gold, but one that has stuck with me and I’m continually requoting was Andrew Miller’s observation that a debut novel needs to be ‘original and fresh’.
Actually every novel needs to be original and fresh, even more so if it’s dealing with a literary trope that could leave it feeling like every other novel of a similar story. Unplanned pregnancy, fantasy portals (mirrors, doorways, paintings), affairs are all used repeatedly, it’s what YOU do with them that makes the difference.
When it comes to writing a bestseller, Stephen King maintains that really great story comes from the collision of two unrelated ideas. By melding two ‘lightbulb moments’ a new idea develops that should, by definition, be original and fresh.
If you are starting 2022 with the plan to write a book, or are half way through something, or indeed preparing to submit, think about your story in those terms – ask yourself is it original and fresh? If it’s not, does it need another idea to change a familiar plot into something much stronger that will grab a reader, but first, grab an agent or editor?
My debut, Little Bones, came from the collision of two completely different ideas but they were related through an old suitcase. One day, when I was driving home from running a Readers’ Day (with Sarah Webb), I heard something on the radio that linked with something that had stuck in my head years before.
I’d watched an RTE documentary about an Irish girl who, discovering she was pregnant, left Dublin for Manchester, where she had the baby in secret. It died, and she wrapped it up and left it in a suitcase under her bed. When she came home for Christmas the body was discovered, and in 1948 she was one of the last women to be convicted of infanticide in the UK. Driving home that Sunday, I heard a documentary on the radio about a playwright whose play The Country Dressmaker had saved the fortunes of the Abbey Theatre. Despite his success, he died destitute, leaving all his plays to the nation – in an old suitcase, on his bed. The stories were linked by a suitcase, and the one thing Belinda Ann Regan would have wanted most in the world, a wedding dress.
In Little Bones, Garda Detective Cat Connolly arrived on the page with a bang. There are lots of female detectives out there, but there’s only one who is a kick boxing champion who finds a baby’s bones in the hem of a wedding dress.
The Dark Room plot was definitely an amalgam of ideas. It was the height of summer, and I was in Helford Passage, Cornwall, where we’ve been going every summer for three weeks for about fifteen years. I was sitting beside the river (literally only a few hundred yards from Frenchman’s Creek) when a picture arrived in my head of a dark-haired woman in green shorts, jogging down the beach, a German Shepherd lolloping along beside her. I could see her so clearly – her hair pulled up into a loose pony tail, her feet pounding the wet sand.
Directly across the river from where I was sitting is an old cottage and the ruin of what looked like a tower – a building that I discovered was the original customs officer’s gaol. I felt sure the ruined building and the woman were somehow connected, but I had yet to find out how…
Then, a few days later I visited Mel Chambers’ ceramics studio in the nearby village, and I was struck by the hares on the tiles she makes. A print of running hares had recently lit a creative lightbulb in my head, and suddenly the story of a country house hotel called Hare’s Landing, with a ruin in the grounds, began to unfold – but it wasn’t in Cornwall, it was in Ireland, in West Cork. I still had to work out who the running women was, and find out what the story was behind the house. She became Caroline Kelly, a reported from New York who needs to get away from a toxic situation at work. In Hare’s Landing she meets Rachel Lambert, a film location scout, who is in fact the owner of the German Shepherd – and Jasper goes on to play an very important role in the story. The country house hotel mystery ha been written many times before. And two women meeting in an isolated location to join forces, we’ve seen in many books. But the reasons the two women are there and what happens when they get there, make The Dark Room original and fresh (no spoilers, you’ll have to read it!)
My latest book Remember My Name, also came from two totally unrelated ideas. The first has happened to us all – someone called me and didn’t hang up properly – and it started me thinking about what might be overheard in those crucial few seconds. In Remember My Name, for Cressida Howard’s husband, Laurence, it’s a conversation overheard with a woman that he really didn’t want his wife to listen in to, and it starts of chain of events that end in murder.
After a chance conversation with my agent Simon Trewin about how much some major retailers know about our shopping habits, and what our online purchases could reveal about us to the wrong people, I began to wonder who could get hold of that information and how they might use it. And the story grew. Remember My Name is twisty and pacey and features a fantastic character with pink hair called Brioni O’Brien. There are lots of books where a crucial phone call changes the path of the characters’ lives – my bestseller Keep Your Eyes On Me was influenced by Dial M For Murder, and a phone call coming at a certain time is of particular significance. Remember My Name takes the same plot point, a telephone call, but does something completely different with it.
Ideas can come from anywhere – the most important thing is to capture them as they are passing. It might be years before the next piece falls into place, or it might all suddenly come together (which is much more helpful when you are on a deadline).
Look at your story and stress test your idea – ask yourself is it original and fresh?
© Sam Blake
About Remember My Name:
If she’d turned off her phone, instead of listening in, perhaps no one would have died…
When Cressida Howard catches her entrepreneur husband playing away from home, she hires security expert Brioni O’Brien to get the evidence she needs for a speedy and financially rewarding divorce.
But what Brioni uncovers goes beyond simple infidelity. Because Laurence Howard is also in bed with some very dangerous people. Bribery and blackmail are the least of his worries as someone comes after the women in his life – someone who is out to destroy Laurence and his empire, whatever the cost.
And Cressida and her teenage daughter could soon be collateral damage, if she and Brioni don’t act fast.
Order your copy online here.