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Turning an Idea into a Plot by S.A. Dunphy

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Plotting and Planning
S.A. Dunphy

S.A. Dunphy

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I’m obsessed with notebooks.

I have little spiral ones I keep in the breast pocket of my jacket. I carry one everywhere with me.  I go to a specific shop to buy these – they only cost a couple of euro for a pack of five, and they fit snugly in my hand when I need to write something on the hoof.

I shouldn’t need any others, but I can’t help myself, and can often be found browsing the notebook section of bookshops and stationary stores. I am helplessly attracted to big hardback ones which I am prone to impulse purchasing.  I’m a sci-fi nerd, so I’ve got notebooks with Star Wars characters on them, and ones that look like the TARDIS, and a couple emblazoned with the Batman insignia.  I buy these sometimes just because I like the look of them, and have no intention of writing in them.  That said, I almost always have a hardback notebook (of a more practical utilitarian variety) in my tote bag, and I sometimes find myself scribbling in it if I’m on a bus or in a waiting room.

Before I leave the house I check: keys, phone, money, pen, notebook.

I feel somehow naked without having the tools to write with me.

You never know when you’re going to need to write, you see.

Because the germ of an idea will sometimes insert itself into your consciousness, and when that happens, you’d better be ready to get it down – those flashes of inspiration are like dandelion seeds and will blow away as quickly as they blazed into your vision.  You’ll have a vague sense they were there, but that lightening moment of: ‘this could be something I might be able to work with’ will be gone.

You have to get them down quickly.  Once you do, they can take root, and that’s when the magic happens.

The third in my series of crime novels featuring criminologist David Dunnigan began with a bizarre idea that sought me out – I certainly never would have gone looking for it.

I was teaching a class in my college one evening in the September of 2015 when one of the students, a bright young lady who seemed very sensible, asked if she could have a chat with me.  Assuming she would have some question about the finer points of the theory I had been expounding, I was surprised when, as soon as the other students filed out, she burst into tears.  Offering her a tissue, I calmly informed her that whatever the problem, I’d heard it before, and that the best course of action was to just rip the plaster off and speak her truth.

“I’m afraid you won’t believe me,” she sobbed.

I assured her there was nothing I had not dealt with at this advanced stage in my career.

“I’m being haunted by Slender Man,” she said, and broke down in a further flurry of sobs.

I have to admit that, despite my previous assurances, I was flummoxed.  I took one of my trusty notebooks from my pocket, and, pen poised, asked her if this Slender Man was some kind of gangland figure, or a sex offender like Larry Murphy.  Had she thought about calling the police?

“You don’t understand,” she told me, suddenly looking a little pitying. “Slender Man is like… the devil.”

I blinked.

“You think you’re being haunted by the devil?”

“Well maybe not the devil, but he’s definitely a demon or something.”

My years working in child protection have taught me that the best course of action when completely dumbfounded by something is often to remain quiet and listen, so I did just that as the young woman outlined a sequence of events that, on the face of it, appeared utterly benign and apparently unconnected, but which proved to her she was, indeed, being stalked by an evil presence: her phone had been shutting down and messages had been disappearing or not getting through; she had seen some odd graffiti; she, at times, felt she was being watched, particularly when she walked her dog along a wooded path near her home.

I told her that I would look into it and have a chat with her the following day.

I could have added that I had experienced virtually all of the same symptoms of this “haunting” within the past 24 hours, but thought I might come off as insensitive.  Instead, I took to the wild and untamed reached of the Internet, and went monster hunting.

It took me all of fifteen minutes to establish that Slender Man was the invention of an online horror writer, Eric Knudsen, who published his stories on a forum with the cheery moniker Something Awful.  Inspired by weird fiction authors like HP Lovecraft and Oliver Onions, in 2009 he sculpted a modern-day bogeyman, a figure that was faceless and without motive, and seemed to capture the nihilistic zeitgeist of the millennial.

Knudsen gave very little detail beyond some hazy images created on photoshop and a couple of lines of text, hinting this creature targeted children and teens.  Within months the idea had gone viral and myriad ‘creepypasta’ stories (short online horror fiction dressed up as urban myth) fan art and even video and film emerged, much of it suggesting that Slender Man was, in fact, real.  The character was given a history by fans, a vintage stretching right back to the Middle Ages.

By the time my poor student stumbled upon the figure he had taken on a layered, sinister life all of his own, popping up in video games, music videos and a hugely popular Youtube series.  So omnipotent was the entity, according to some stories, simply investigating him could attract his attention and damn you to a horrible death at his tentacled hands…

I decided not to focus on that aspect of the mythology the following day, but calmly and methodically showed my student how she had been duped by an (albeit very creepy) modern folk tale.  We went through the “signs” of the haunting, the events that had convinced her she was being stalked by the bogeyman, and all of them could be easily explained away.

She left my office much happier and more relaxed.

And as she closed the door behind her, a figure stepped out of the shadows of my subconscious.  I reached for my notebook, and began to furiously scribble a character sketch.  I even had name for her: she told me she was called Mother Joan.

To be clear, this was two years before I started to write fiction.  I’d written nine volumes of memoirs of my time working in child protection, all of which had done very well, but this character, this ghostly figure right out of a horror story, seemed to be begging for a home.  I finished the outline – it was all there: the cowl, the hunting knife, the plain-chant that would warn her victims of their impending doom (I had a notion this ghoul would hunt evil men, men who deserved an unpleasant demise), and closing the notebook put it away.  I didn’t know what I was going to do with my new creation, but I reckoned an opportunity would present itself sooner or later.

Three years almost to the day my publishers at Hachette asked me for a short outline for Book 3 in the Dunnigan series, and without pause or preparation I wrote:

David Dunnigan just received the phone call he has spent eighteen years waiting for.

A young woman has been found — and she’s claiming to be his niece Beth, who disappeared as a child. Is she telling the truth? And, if she is, will Dunnigan finally rid himself of his demons, and help her to rebuild her life?

Meanwhile, an investigation into a gruesome murder leads the criminologist to five prominent men, seemingly unlinked, who say they are being stalked by a shadowy figure. But ‘Mother Joan’ seems to merely be an urban legend, a ghostly avenger who punishes the wicked. So, if these men fear her wrath, what sins have they committed?

As Dunnigan pursues this strange mystery, enemies from his past are closing in. And when the case leads him to the crowded streets of London and then to the dark forest of Kielder, myth and reality become terrifyingly linked.

But is Dunnigan prepared for what, and who, he will face?

I sat back and smiled.  She was back.

Fumbling around in my desk drawer, I found the notebook with that character sketch in it, and flipping it open, greeted an old friend.

(c) S.A. Dunphy

About If She Returned:

‘Taut, compelling and authentic … an edge-of-your-seat thriller’ Andrea Carter

David Dunnigan just received the phone call he has spent eighteen years waiting for.

A young woman has been found — and she’s claiming to be his niece Beth, who disappeared as a child. Is she telling the truth? And, if she is, will Dunnigan finally rid himself of his demons, and help her to rebuild her life?

Meanwhile, an investigation into a gruesome murder leads the criminologist to five prominent men, seemingly unlinked, who say they are being stalked by a shadowy figure. But ‘Mother Joan’ seems to merely be an urban legend, a ghostly avenger who punishes the wicked. So, if these men fear her wrath, what sins have they committed?

As Dunnigan pursues this strange mystery, enemies from his past are closing in. And when the case leads him to the crowded streets of London and then to the dark forest of Kielder, myth and reality become terrifyingly linked.

But is Dunnigan prepared for what, and who, he will face?

Order your copy online here.

About the author

S.A. Dunphy is the author of the David Dunnigan series, which includes After She Vanished, When She Was Gone and If She Returned.
Shane Dunphy has worked for fifteen years as a frontline child protection worker in many different parts of Ireland. He now teaches social studies and psychology and is a regular contributor to television and radio programmes on issues of child and family welfare. He is the author of several non-fiction books, including Wednesday’s Child and The Boy They Tried to Hide.

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