The most common question asked of authors is ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’
Well, in the interests of pre-empting that question (and so nobody will ever ask me), here are a few notes on what inspired my stories – well, as much as I can remember, starting with the Holocaust-based novels:
The Sugar Men:
When I released the volume of short stories ‘Tales of Loss and Guilt’ I picked a couple of stories out to release free on Kindle as tasters. I have to admit that although the short story ‘The Lucky One’ had won a prize and had been printed in a magazine, the reaction to it took me by surprise. So many people suggested it should really be expanded to a novel or novella, but I resisted this for a long time, figuring that it would show a lack of imagination on my behalf. I also wanted to develop as a writer and explore different areas and genres. But eventually the comments got to me, and I kind of missed Susannah, and so started thinking how I could expand her story, although I knew it had to have another dimension. So I researched the experiences of the children of holocaust survivors and slanted the whole story from their point of view. Both the success of The Sugar Men and my personal enrichment and education researching it led me to realize there were so many more stories to be told about the holocaust.
After taking a break from writing about the Holocaust to write a little comedy, I sifted through ideas for another Holocaust Echoes story. I wondered what the younger generation had to learn from holocaust survivors, and the seed of the story was something which happened when we moved into our current home. The previous occupant was an old man, who sadly died. In the loft of the house we found a lot of his personal effects, and that was all I needed to create the kick-off point for Rosa’s Gold. I also researched British soldiers’ experiences in the war and wanted to mould a story around that, and the lasting effects it would have. The result was a dual narrative tale, juxtaposing a young man’s war experiences with a young girl’s problems coming to terms with a family tragedy. Well, that was the seed of the story.
There’s a theory of writers that the first novel is inevitably biographical to a large extent. Yep, I have to hold my hand up to that one. My mother does have Alzheimer’s disease, and a few years ago I did have to take time off work to look after her while my father was in hospital. The characters of Ian’s parents are very loosely based on my own. I have to admit that writing some of the Alzheimer’s scenes brought me to tears.
The backstory came from a completely separate short story I wrote much earlier. The seed of that story came when I heard my wife say ‘It’s a baby!’. It turned out she was referring to hedgehogs, which we sometimes get in our back garden and have occasionally overwintered (yeah, me and my Rock’n’Roll lifestyle). My first thought was ‘A baby what?’ My imagination grabbed it and I wondered what would happen if two naïve teenagers actually did find a baby, and specifically how their ensuing actions would affect their lives from then on. I send it to a writing friend of mine who read it and burst into tears, which is always a good sign.
I wove the two stories together, imagining Ian’s parents as the couple who (as children) found the baby.
These are the sixteen short stories in ‘Tales of Loss and Guilt’:
I’ve long forgotten where some of the ideas for these came from, as some were born and raised in a couple of weekends many years ago. The common factor (bar one) is that they were all submitted to Writers’ Forum magazine, where they were critiqued and by the highly skilled Lorraine Mace and Sue Moorcroft.
Guilt’s Beady Eye:
The idea for this came from reading another story about a seedy drugs deal, and I considered twists to the theme: what could go wrong, and what would happen if someone from the other end of society were involved. The first critique highlighted a big plot hole, the revised story won first prize in that month’s competition.
The idea for this came from observing the comings and goings at a petrol station – and wanting to write something scary, yet tongue in cheek, with an odd character and as many twists as you could feasibly squeeze into a short story.
Scents of Loss:
I got the idea for this from a friend of mine who took his dog out for a run one evening and lost it in a large forest. The man in question was a widower. I thought it was a poignant image and ran with the theme, changing most of the details by the end.
Choice but No Choice:
This is a location-led story. I remember looking up at a radio mast and thinking it would provide great opportunities for tension in a thriller. The first draft had a plot twist which was (quite correctly) disparaged by a critique, which showed me that you can take twists too far.
The idea for this story came from a writing class exercise on character creation, specifically developing a slimy, devious sort. Door-to-door salesmen came to mind.
The Turning Point:
Some time ago I spent a terrible evening trapped in my car in snow, wondering whether I was ever going to get home. I also wondered whether there was some higher explanation for the weather. The rest, as usual, was simply imagination, with a nod towards The Twilight Zone TV series.
A Bridge too Near:
For years I’ve walked over a certain motorway bridge and occasionally pondered on how many people might have considered flinging themselves into the oncoming traffic below. I tried to write a serious piece at first, but my sense of humour got the better of me and it morphed into a seedy comedy.
This is another I don’t really have an explanation for, except that I was trying to get into the mindset of teenage girls and mistaken conclusions.
It’s Good to Talk, So Make Someone Happy with a Phone Call:
This did actually happen to me! Well, the basic premise of the story did. My wife took a garbled call from my nephew’s phone. The message and ultimate explanation was the same as in the story – the middle section was my imagination taking over again.
This story developed from a writing class exercise based on a picture of a snowed in cabin. The basis of the story was a rather desperate, adrenaline-driven scribbling session in class, later honed and revised into something calmer and more atmospheric.
One of the first stories I wrote, and I think it shows. It started as a character study of two people in their Autumn years, and the attitudes and misunderstandings that could follow.
Hot Smoke in a Cold Climate:
The basic premise of this story sort of happened. My wife and I were at some stately home for the day, sitting on a bench eating a packed lunch. We’d seen the tree-watching man off and on all morning, and I kept asking my wife, “What’s he doing?”. We never found out, but this is my imagination’s take on it.
Part of a Plan:
Another day out, at the seaside, just observing the comings and goings on the beach, and wondering where a story could go if one of the seagulls started talking to a boy busy building sandcastles. Like The Turning Point, I was aiming for a creepy 1950’s sci-fi feel to this one.
Christmas Without Captain Coral:
This started out as a straightforward crime story, but I couldn’t take it seriously – probably because I don’t like police procedural fiction. I had no end of problems with the plot, and at one stage there was so much going on in it I was going to develop it into a novel. But it was too complex so I cut it down to a slightly longer short story.
The Lucky One:
This came from a writing class exercise. I think it was a Stephen King method whereby you ‘seed’ a story by having two characters confined in a room and letting them get on with it. Obviously you need a ‘situation’ or ‘relationship’ between the two. My choice was an SS guard and a Jewish prisoner.
Sweet Celestial Caress:
This started out as my attempt to take a title I found appealing and mould a story around it. Loosely based on someone I know, it looks at loss from a parent’s point of view, with a little gentle paranormal woven in to give it some depth.
Now, the two grittier books, released under the pen-name Ray Backley:
Slow Burning Lies:
This story came from another writing class exercise. I’ve forgotten exactly what the task was, but it was something like a dream sequence. The reaction when I read the short piece out in class was positive, with many ideas on where to take it, so I ran with it, sorting the plot out as I went, concentrating on the characters. The experience was something of an adrenaline rush. Some of the scenes are dark and gory, especially the bear scene – which I really didn’t enjoy writing. I wanted to write the ending to that it made some sort of sense, to be positive about the enduring spirit of human nature, and yet leave something to the reader’s imagination.
Bad and Badder – the five stories in the order they appear:
I was mulling over ideas for stories about bad people, it occurred to me how often we trust professionals with our lives. I started thinking of the worst thing a professional medical person could do to someone. Somehow blinding them seemed more cruel than simply killing them. The situation, the motive and the rest of the plot for Juked came from my own (occasionally warped) imagination.
Many years ago, when I was a boy idly watching TV, I saw a short Spanish film called “La Cabina”. It was unlike anything else I’d ever seen so I carried on watching, and by the end of it the thing had scared the bejesus out of me. Here I took the basic idea and changed the setting, the context, and the plot to a large extent, with my imagination taking the reins as to where it went.
The inspiration for this came from one or two TV programmes about serial killers, in particular the unsolved ones. I considered a fairly straightforward situation, pitting a serial killer against the sister of one of his victims. I tried to make it a “fair fight” by making him have no clue as to her identity, and the rest of the story kind of wrote itself. As I wrote the first draft I genuinely had no idea which one was going to “win” at the end. One or two parts of this made uncomfortable writing.
For this story I wanted to focus on a victim of bullying and the lifelong effects it might have. Although the plot almost ran away with itself towards the end as Craig was revealed to be a much worse person than was first apparent, I still tried to write the story from Jack’s point of view, and how he grew and overcame his childhood trauma, so it’s slightly more of a character study more than a straightforward thriller.
I had the idea for this kicking around for a long time, and that idea was really the embryo of Bad and Badder. The concept of the story is retribution for animal cruelty – or perhaps just cruelty in general. It was originally going to be a novel, but I felt didn’t possess enough depth or plot ideas. So I decided to write it anyway and see what I could do with it. By the end I also had another couple of ideas for stories based on bad people. It’s ironic, then, that it’s more of a horror than a thriller.