I discover most of my stories by accident. I don’t go looking for them, they find me, in the sense that something I read, see, hear or muse on will suddenly – or gradually – reveal its story potential to me. It’s a matter or learning to be alert, of asking myself why a newspaper article or an overheard conversation is lingering in my mind, and musing on it.
For example, when I saw a snake disappear down a hole in a concrete slab I asked myself, ‘What if I were to dig up the slab and find a body?’ (and so my novel, Under the Cold Bright Lights was born). When I read a newspaper story about the mutilation of miniature show ponies, I asked myself, ‘Who did it, and why?’ I didn’t need to know the real answers: as a fiction writer I made up my own (and you’ll find them in the novel, Peace).
Some ideas might give me a whole book, others only a character or a scene, and many lay dormant, waiting for another idea to round them off. I can sit on an idea for years before it’s ready to find its way into a story.
If I was obliged to list types of sources, they would include:
Interesting characters seen or met: the man I saw begging cigarettes from people at a party and paying for them with coins from his pocket: what makes him tick?
Other art forms: music, photos, paintings.
Overheard conversations: I once heard two kids chatting on the tram, one saying to the other, ‘Everything went wrong when Grandma came to live with us.’ I could write half a dozen novels from that one line.
Places: When on a family holiday in Noosa I began to see my thief, Wyatt, sneaking around there (see The Heat).
The life stories people tell us: my hairdresser has given me great insights into housing estate life, some of which found their way into Chain of Evidence.
Witnessed incidents: driving home along a back road late one night, I came upon a car that had been stolen and set alight by kids: I used it as a pivotal plot point in The Dragon Man.
Speculations: Many novels and stories emerge from an author asking, ‘What if…?’
Personal experiences: the trick here is to view them dispassionately, so that their story potential is revealed.
Newspapers: Most of my novels draw on newspaper stories to some degree. As soon as I read that Victoria Police were hiring retired detectives to work cold cases, I saw the main character in Under the Cold Bright Lights. An article about the damage done to a regional community by a Ponzi scheme helped me plan Wyatt’s moves in Kill Shot.
I never rehash what really happened. I use actual events as a springboard for ones I invent.
All writing is driven by a question
Having specific ideas to build on is great, but any piece of writing needs a general driving force behind it. Ideally, a problem is posed and an answer beckons, or there’s no forward momentum for writer or reader. Even a shopping list is driven by a question: ‘What do we need for dinner tonight?’ One of the most common questions driving novels and films is, ‘Will the lovers get together at the end?’
Many crime novels are constructed around the question: ‘Whodunit?’ (who committed the crime?). But it’s not the only question. In some of my Challis and Destry police procedurals the reader knows whodunit (ahead of the police), meaning that other kinds of questions are posed: ‘What kind of person is the bad guy?’ and ‘How will he or she be caught?’ And the question driving my Wyatt novels is, ‘Will he get away with it?’ (Wyatt is an armed holdup man).
Most of my ideas are a sentence on a scrap of paper. They’re a long way from being a scene or a character, let alone a novel.
My next stage is to interrogate the idea to see how sound or useful it is. For example, I’ll ask: Why did he do X? Why didn’t he do Y instead? Would she do A, given the type of person she is? What would happen if she did B instead? Who has most at stake here? Would he risk giving that up? What might change her mind? What’s holding him back? What is she hiding?
Causality is at the heart of fiction, even if deeply buried.
And even if the idea is workable, could it happen, given that many other factors come into play? For example, if it’s winter I need to remember that night falls early and a dirt road might be too boggy to drive along. If it’s 5 p.m. Friday, at the start of a holiday weekend, Inspector Challis’s drive home from the city is going to take a lot longer than an hour. If the local newspaper appears on a Tuesdays, it can’t report a Wednesday murder until the following week.
When necessary, I do research. Who attends first at a murder scene? Who else attends and what are their specific tasks? Does a special vehicle cart the body away – I was surprised to learn that it’s often the local undertaker’s hearse. Who’s in charge of a rural police station? When writing Peace I needed to know if Hirsch’s service handgun was a revolver or an automatic pistol, and whether or not the prisoner compartment of his police 4WD was air-conditioned.
I’ve found the local police very helpful, keen to talk about a job that is often maligned and misunderstood. But while trying to be realistic about daily procedures I’m mindful of what might happen when a police officer is tempted by a bribe, bullied by a superior officer, or feels loyal to the culture that nurtures him (see the sub-themes in Blood Moon and Bitter Wash Road for example).
Other sources of information include books, the internet, and telephone calls. The main thing is not to swamp the story with technical information. I’ve learnt the importance of selection and suggestion.
I can get it wrong of course. One of my readers writes me letters along the lines of: ‘You cannot catch a tram on the corner of X and Y streets, the stop is a hundred metres down the road’. At least he’s reading the books.
I also weave in quirky facts and local colour to help make the plot, characters and setting true to life. Hirsch has chronic back problems from all the heavy gear strapped to his belt, for example. At certain times of the year there are ibis and Pacific herons poking about on Peninsula farmland. I’ve seen rich city holidaymakers be rude to the local shopgirls. A service station near me displays photographs of cars that have fled without paying for petrol.
To plan or not to plan
A big question for fiction writers is to plan or not to plan. There’s no right and wrong approach. John Grisham is a planner, so is James Ellroy (he wrote a 216-page outline for LA Confidential). Agatha Christie would sketch out the whole book in her head, often doing domestic chores, before she sat down to write. P. D. James would plan for eighteen months, write for eighteen months.
Other writers say they don’t plan. James Lee Burke never sees more than two pages ahead; Tony Hillerman often didn’t know culprit or motive until the last couple of chapters.
I wrote my early (non-crime) novels and short stories as voyages of discovery (in line with Sean O’Faolain’s belief that three elements need to be present at the start: a character, a situation and a promise). That approach didn’t work with the crime novels: coincidence reigned (always the enemy of fiction); characters acted out of character; I couldn’t balance plot and character. And so I plan the crime novels in minute detail, taking several weeks. Even so, I’ve learnt to trust my instincts ahead of the plan. Just before Snapshot went to the printer, I changed the ending and the identification of the killer, responding to a niggling voice in my head. I’d conceived of my ‘literary’ novel The Stencil Man as a prison story (a wartime detention camp), until a voice in my head told me the main character was going to escape. I was halfway through the novel by then, and had to recast it completely, asking: Why does he want to escape? How? How’s he going to manage on the outside? Will the reader buy it, or will they think it’s a cheap stunt? The planning and the writing always involve balancing the demands of the plot with those of the characters.
I also use (consciously and unconsciously) certain tricks and techniques to stay ahead of the reader and ramp up tension: turning points, partial or doubtful outcomes, sudden reversals, hidden secrets rising to the surface, red herrings, and withholding and delaying tactics (as Charles Dickens said: “Make ‘em laugh, make ’em cry, make ‘em wait”). These can enrich all types of fiction. How often have you read a novel in which the prose is gorgeous, the characters absorbing, the themes interesting – but nothing happens? You’re dying for someone to pull out a gun.
At the same time, I try to be fair to the reader. Detectives must detect, not rely on chance or guesswork. The ending should be in the hero’s hands, not the cavalry riding to the rescue. I avoid using cheap tricks to get out of the corners into which I write myself. I don’t withhold obvious information from the reader. My heroes are rather like you, or me: they’re not superheroes who can shrug off a hit on the head, they do have a private life involving friends and family, they’re not idiots who go to deserted parks at 2 a.m. to meet an anonymous source…
I write several drafts, first in longhand, then on computer, refining as I go along, until it’s the best I can make it, but knowing that the editor will suggest changes. The whole process can take a year.