To answer that frequently put question ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ I always have to think hard. Sometimes, if I have to read something from one of my books – when I’m giving a talk or doing a workshop, for example – it’s a question I ask myself. Because completed books are always that – complete. Things fit together, there are progressions, solutions, and it all seems … well, complete. Equally, the actual concept of ‘a book’ has changed since the arrival of ebooks in all their formats. I still love books as independent objects but, as a writer, I appreciate the opportunities that ebooks represent. Somehow, by bringing the book-reading process closer to the way we use computers and communicate by texts and IMs, they’ve brought writers and readers into an even closer intimacy. OK, your ebook is just one of maybe hundreds sitting anonymously in the guts of someone’s Kindle or Nook, but when they access it, contact with the writer feels more personal. Readers and writers are relating to one another in that area where FaceBook and Twitter chats occur, where people are ‘friends’ and ‘like’ one another, and where opinions about your work are more freely given. The democratisation ebooks have brought has had both positive and negative consequences but there’s little doubt that they’re the future.
To get back to the ideas behind my own books, it’s hard to remember any single, exact trigger that started it all moving. So here, all I’m trying to do is retrieve glimpses of where each of my (so far) eight novels came from to see whether there’s any pattern to it.
I’ll take them in order of publication rather than when they were actually written. The first came about because the publisher Piatkus liked a thriller I’d sent them (the story which eventually became The Darkness) but wanted a police procedural. So I created a copper, DCI Jack Carston, and wrote Material Evidence. The original idea came from reading a book on forensic medicine. One of the cases described was very striking so I borrowed it but by the time the characters had had their say the details of the killing had changed completely.
The second, Rough Justice, was sparked in the course of a meeting with a very unpleasant individual for whose company I had to write a promotional DVD. He was rude, self-obsessed and so typical of a particular type of male that I wanted to punish him. So I did. Unlike crime, writing lets you do that and get away with it.
But that little revenge was nothing compared to the revenge I got on behalf of someone else in the next book, The Darkness. I went to a restaurant with my wife and some friends and noticed that the waiter had a west country accent. I said ‘you’re a long way from home’ and he told me the reason why. His wife and their two little daughters had been killed by a drunk driver who’d been sentenced to just two years in prison but released after eighteen months. ‘That’s six months for each life’ as the waiter put it. I felt so sorry for him and the feeling stayed with me for ages so eventually I started writing The Darkness to get rid of it. It was only the second novel I’d ever written and its first versions were pretty blatant vigilante vengeances. But the more I worked on it, the more shaded the choices became and, in the end, I didn’t want it to be a straightforward ‘The guy deserved to be punished’ story but tried to make readers feel uncertain, maybe even uncomfortable, about where their sympathies lay. It obviously came from somewhere deep inside me because in the course of the story Jack Carston started changing too and he was different in the two books that followed.
One of the seeds of the next, Shadow Selves, was also with me for years. Ages ago, an anaesthetist friend said that, if ever I wanted to include an operation in a book, he could arrange for me to see one close up. I jumped at the chance, was worried that I’d faint, but went anyway and was fascinated by it. I came away with copious notes, but they stayed locked in the computer until the extra idea I needed to use them occurred to me. That idea was to set the story in a university so that I could draw on my time as a lecturer for authenticity and have a sideways look at academia at the same time.
Unsafe Acts and The Figurehead both came from suggestions by another friend. He said that, with North Sea oil platforms now being decommissioned, they were ripe for sabotage and made a great setting anyway – and he was right. I have a rather tenuous claim to fame in the acknowledgements of Ian Rankin’s Black and Blue. I’ve written lots of material for use on offshore platforms and Ian wrote to ask what procedures Rebus would have to follow if he visited one. I was able to tell him and I also put Jack Carston through the same experience in Unsafe Acts. One of its main themes concerns the crime of what’s still colloquially known as ‘queer-bashing’ and it was disturbing to learn that, for all the advances that have been made in countering homophobia, there’s still a residual feeling that it’s ‘excusable’ in certain circumstances.
Those are the five books so far in my detective series. As I said, the idea for my historical novel, The Figurehead, came from a friend. One day, out of the blue, he just said ‘You should write about a figurehead carver’. He gave no reason and didn’t expand it further. But I like sailing, I did a PhD on French theatre in the 1830s and 40s so I had a feel for the period and I was tempted. So I went to carving classes to find out what it was like to carve a figurehead. I also sailed as a paying crew member on the beautiful Christian Radich from Oslo to Leith, realising a dream of being at the helm of a square rigger under sail. And, since the layout of the streets and quays of Aberdeen Harbour is more or less the same now as it was in 1840, it was easy to fix the setting. Even then, though, there was a twist because, although all my books are basically crime novels, the central female character in this one took over and made it into a romance as well.
The Sparrow Conundrum is a mystery in both senses. It’s the first novel I ever wrote and I’ve rewritten it many times since but I’ve no idea what made me start it. Up to then I’d written plays but one day, I just started writing the story and the characters were so extreme and absurd that I just let them get on with it. It, too, has gone through countless versions but the characters must have known what they were doing because last year it won the Forward National Literature Award for Humor. (The Darkness, by the way, won silver for Mystery at the same awards.)
Finally, Alternative Dimension is a novella I just had to write after spending some time playing the game Second Life™. There was no single source for it but the striking thing was that, in the game, people were so willing to shed inhibitions and open up to total strangers that there were umpteen stories to be told about it. I set it in a different (fictional) online game and wrote it under the name of my avatar, Jack Lefebre.
So there doesn’t seem to be a pattern and, in a strange way, I have the feeling that the original idea for any book may have little to do with how it eventually turns out. In nearly all mine, the themes and issues that give the book its specific point are things that have developed through the creative process and they may end up miles away from whatever triggered it all in the first place. The real constant in shaping and deciding a book’s ‘completeness’ is the characters who inhabit them, whether they’re composed of printing ink or pixels.
Whatever you read, and however you read it, happy reading.
For readings and trailers of some of Bills work go INTERACTIVE