HOW DO YOU KNOW WHAT TO WRITE ABOUT?
Other than thinking up a title, I find the actual ‘what am I going to write about?’ one of the hardest things about being an author. One of my friends, Diana Beaumont, my old editor and now a literary agent, once gave me some great advice after I’d showed her one of my outlines. She read it ominously quietly, before putting the piece of paper down. ‘Alice, you’ve got to think of something you feel passionate about because that story and all the characters in it will become your company for the next year to eighteen months. This…’ She gestured to my outline, ‘isn’t you’.
She was right. I had embarked on a story about four mothers juggling careers with raising their children, but in the end, deep down, I couldn’t relate to it enough – Diana had seen right through me. It’s an important and interesting subject but it didn’t feel like ‘me’. I was trying to write something someone might like to read, rather than feeling so passionate about a subject that I was driven to write a story about it.
I know when I’m on to something because I wake up in the middle of the night, having to jot down an idea. While I’m swimming lengths I’m thinking about the plotline. While writing One Step Closer To You I had an idea about the twist while I was swimming backstroke and in my excitement I nearly drowned! And who knew traffic jams could be such a great place to work on dialogue in my head? I must look like a fool acting out scenes in the car but who cares? Everyone knows writers are a little mad. If the idea is right I become consumed by the story; I eat, sleep and breathe with my characters. I feel their disappointment, their jealousy or their nerves on a date. In my latest novel I became Polly, my vulnerable heroine. I imagined a Ben in my life and being a single mum to Louis. I tried to put myself in Polly’s shoes: what would I do if my first love returned? I missed the characters desperately when I’d finished.
But I still haven’t told you how I think up the idea… each book has been different. By My Side was inspired by a magazine piece on Canine Partners, Monday to Friday Man by Darcy and my dog walking friends, Ten Years On was sparked by a conversation about a young woman divorcing and having to return to her parent’s home for support. All it takes is that one idea, that one moment of sitting next to someone at a supper party or eavesdropping a conversation on the tube and a small spark becomes a flame. With One Step Closer To You I met someone through a friend. She was a recovering addict, my age, someone who had nearly lost her home, her independence, her self esteem, her sanity and finally custody of her two children. But she’d pulled herself back together, she was happy, she’d fallen in love again. It got me thinking… and suddenly I had goose bumps down my arms. Addiction? I wanted to know more. I think I have an obsessive gene; it’s probably common in writers…I couldn’t rest until I’d called her to see if she were willing to meet to talk to a nosy old Alice…