Where do you get your ideas? – You look like a nice person?
I don’t go searching for ideas for my novels, rather, it seems, they sneak up and ambush me. Sometimes the idea slinks out of someone’s chance remark during a conversation or sometimes it’s in something I read or see or it’s in a place I visit. I very rarely notice it enough to consciously think, mmm, that would make a good story; what happens is a bit like a haunting with the mood or feeling of the idea staying with me and prodding me from time to time until I actually start turning it over and around, maybe working out a place or a bit of a story and then the character or characters start joining in and I start seeing and hearing them. In other words, the idea takes hold of me rather than the other way around. The other thing is that I often live with this feeling/mood – whatever it is – for quite a long time before I start writing. It’s a bit like a tooth with a hole in it that you know you will eventually have to give some attention.
With my first crime novel A Year to Learn a Woman, I was supposed to be writing a thesis in English literature using Jungian theory but then ideas about the Shadow – that’s the archetype related to flaws, instincts, cravings and failings that we like to repress or project onto others – started a little project of its own in the form of a character who, despite his irreproachable background, embraces his evil self – Mr Hyde without Doctor Jekyll. In fact, the idea didn’t work out that way at all, but from it slunk Travis Crill with his sad, early family background and, yes, the thesis was abandoned; the Idea had taken me over. While I was mainly still thinking about it, I was awarded the Beatson Residency which meant I wrote quite a lot of the first draft of the novel in a holiday home in Foxton Beach – and, believe me, it was very, very creepy to stay there on my own at a time when most houses weren’t occupied writing about a serial rapist. But the place itself hatched into another idea that stayed with me right through the next novel, Hunting Blind, and finally turned into Traces of Red.
Swimming In the Dark also came out of a place. In 2012 I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Leipzig Bookfair. I went to Vespers at Thomas Kirche and listened to the boys’ choir, walked endlessly around the city and spent an afternoon in the old Stasi quarters, now a museum. Alongside beautiful buildings centuries old were the stark and ugly apartment blocks built during the Soviet occupation. With a little prodding from Gerda and Ilse, my main characters, I had to write about it.
I remember when I was only just beginning to write that I read or heard somewhere that as a writer, you should confront what you love most and what hurts you the most and out of that came my idea for Hunting Blind. As a young parent my greatest fear was that something bad would happen to one of my children and I’d always been hugely affected by situations where a child went missing. How do parents survive the sudden loss of a child? What happens within a family after the searches are called off and the media has gone away?
An idea requires quite a lot of settling time while I question and think before I start to make any kind of shape out of it. While I’m aware that a novel is firstly and foremost a story with real places and real characters, I can’t imagine committing myself to all the hard work and the long period of time required to write a novel unless I was entirely compelled by the issues underpinning the story and I believe social commentary is an important feature of crime writing. In Cross Fingers I examine the power of protest whereas Swimming In the Dark gave me the opportunity to write about misuse of power. Traces of Red was partially inspired by cases that were being discussed in the media at the time of convicted prisoners seeking appeals against their convictions. I wondered how it would be for a journalist to, first of all, investigate such a claim, then to become personally involved as the prisoner’s main supporter, only to find out afterwards that he is, in fact, guilty. I already had my initial setting for the convicted criminal – Foxton Beach – and then I had his name – Connor Bligh – I love naming my characters – and then Rebecca Thorne popped in and it all turned into Traces of Red.
Rather sadly while I was writing Traces I fell in love with Connor Bligh, the murderer, and I was just so reluctant to find him guilty that I spent quite a bit of time trying to work out another ending for him – all in vain. But I’d also found I liked Rebecca Thorne so much that she had to have another novel. Cross Fingers came out of my being asked to write a scene for a film script about the 1981 Springbok Tour. I’d worked on it for quite a few hours before I had the call telling me that because there wasn’t any funding the film wouldn’t be going ahead and I could stop writing. But by that time I was already hooked and Rebecca was all set to go.
The title I’ve given this piece relates to the recurring comments I have: Where do you get your ideas? – You look like a nice person! You seem so gentle….I blame it on my Shadow.
As a young and ardent reader of The Secret Seven and The Famous Five, Paddy Richardson always wanted to catch a criminal. As a writer of crime fiction, she can do that in the safety and comfort of her own home. Paddy has written two short story collections and six novels.