“Where do you find your ideas?” someone asked me recently, perhaps not expecting me to take her so literally as I settled down to fill her in. It’s one of my favourite questions, because every book has a story. Well, I should hope every book has a story, I hear you say. Let me explain myself better – every book has a story behind the story. A where-I-found-my-idea story. And to me, those are almost as interesting as the books themselves.
So where do you find your ideas?
The answer is (and the answers are) everywhere. The everyday interactions, the overheard conversations on the bus, the odd look on the woman’s face when her husband turns away. The things people do when they think no-one is looking. The things we almost do ourselves, the actions we stop ourselves taking, the revenge plan we don’t follow through. (Just me?)
The not-terribly-worrying but impossible to explain footprints in the snow.
For me, this time round, it was that last one. It happened during the big snow of March 2018 – we’d been snowed in for three days, and had finally escaped and gone to my dad’s house. Out in his garden, he showed me the footprints. Large prints that didn’t belong to any of us, trailing across his back garden. Curious, yes, but not a big deal. And then I thought, my dad lives in a built-up area of Dublin, but what if you lived in the middle of nowhere, miles from your nearest neighbour, and woke to find strange footprints in your garden? That could be creepy.
Stephen King is quoted as saying, “Two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun” and that’s so often the case – two everyday occurrences collide and become a nugget of an idea.
Indeed, a few days after the footprint incident, I read a review of a book called I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara, about her search for the identity of the man she called the Golden State Killer. And I decided that my main character (she of the middle-of-nowhere home) would be a true crime fan – an armchair detective with her own personal reasons for researching unsolved mysteries. And I began to write The Sleeper Lies.
So where do other writers get their ideas? Very often, the stories behind the stories revolve around very everyday occurrences. Something we read or watch or hear sparks against a germ of a plot, and suddenly, it all makes sense.
Liz Nugent’s Skin Deep was inspired by the Divine Comedy song, Lady of a Certain Age, and Catherine Ryan Howard wrote Rewind after hearing about secret video recordings in Airbnb rentals. Long before Airbnb existed, Stephen King came up with The Shining after a real-life creepy hotel stay in Colorado in 1973.
Sam Blake wrote Keep Your Eyes on Me after a chance conversation with a stranger on a plane, and Jane Ryan was prompted to write 47 Seconds when human remains were found in her local area.
The plot of a new Maeve Kerrigan book once came to Jane Casey in a dream – which is exactly how Stephenie Meyer came up with the Twilight series, and C.S. Lewis came up with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.
Some works of fiction are triggered by real news stories – The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy was inspired by the story of murdered Elizabeth Short, and Emma Donoghue’s Room came about when she read about the Fritzl kidnap case, specifically about Elisabeth Fritzl’s five-year-old son Felix emerging for the first time into a world he’d never known. Joyce Carol Oates’ My Sister, My Love is a fictional novel based on the infamous murder of JonBenét Ramsay, and Leila Slimani wrote The Perfect Nanny after reading about a real-life nanny who allegedly murdered the children in her care.
Some books come not from news stories but from letters and ads in newspapers, such as Around The World in Eighty Days and much more recently, Nicola Cassidy’s The Nanny at Number 43. And some are inspired by the less headline-grabbing, more everyday stories – Gail Honeyman wrote Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine after reading a newspaper piece on loneliness, which featured a woman who spoke to nobody between leaving work on Friday evening and going back on Monday morning.
So if you’re looking to write a book, where do you get your ideas? The answer is in books and at bus-stops, in dreams and in cinema seats. In bold news headlines and in tiny sidebar articles. In classics and classifieds. In theatres and TV shows. In other words, the answers are everywhere.
(c) Andrea Mara
The Sleeper Lies will be launched on Thursday February 27th,6.30 pm in Dubray Books, Blackrock, Co Dublin. All welcome.
About The Sleeper Lies:
One Window, Three Lies.
I step forward, breathing fast. Movement. I force myself to take another step. I think about all of it, all of the deaths and all of the accidents and all of the pain. And I know what I need to do.
It’s March 2018, and the country is covered in snow. Roads are impassable, shops are running out of food, and official advice is to stay indoors. Marianne lives on her own and works from home, so this isn’t a problem. Until she wakes one morning in her house in the middle of nowhere and finds footprints trailing all across her garden. Half-asleep, she is at first curious. Then she realises the footprints stop at her bedroom window, and curiosity gives way to unease. Who was looking in at her, while she was asleep?
As the big freeze worsens and the stalker begins to leave disturbing mementoes, Marianne’s thoughts go back two decades to the schoolyard outburst that tore her childhood apart. Old feuds resurface, and the mystery of her mother’s death is pulled back into focus. Marianne begins to see patterns – is there a link between her stalker and the true crime story she’s been obsessively researching, or does the answer lie closer to home?
In the end, 24 days is all it takes for everything to come crashing down.
Order your copy online here.