Monday, 5 September 2016

Sarah Ward on Where Do You Get Your Ideas From

Today's guest blog is by author Sarah Ward. Her debut novel In Bitter Chill was published to much acclaim in 2015. She is also a judge for the Petrona Award for translated Scandinavian crime fiction. She is also a crime fiction reviewer and her reviews can be found on Crimepieces. Her latest book is A Deadly Thaw the second in the Inspector Francis Sadler series.

I love Agatha Christie. If I had to cite one reason that I became a crime writer I’d point to the novels from the queen of crime, which I devoured when I was eleven or twelve. Christie is sometimes labelled as ‘cosy’ as much for convenience, I suspect, than from a thoughtful reflection of her work. I’ve always found that she has a keen eye in relation to her characters’ idiosyncrasies and the occasional tart turn of phrase.

In the introduction to Passenger to Frankfurt, not one her better known books but still a decent read, she addresses readers who ask her where she gets her ideas from:

The temptation is great to reply, "I always go to Harrods," or "I get them mostly at the Army & Navy Stores," or, snappily, "Try Marks and Spencer."

It’s a great answer although Christie helpfully goes on to list the places she does find inspiration: overheard snippets of conversation or witnessing a quarrel, for example.

I often think of this introduction when I’m visiting libraries and bookshops to discuss my own books. I start my talks by saying how much I love crime fiction and have done since I was a child. I’m always shocked when people ask if I read crime novels to get ideas for my novels. The thought that another author has already written about a similar subject to mine is more likely to send me into a frenzy of anxiety than provide inspiration. In reality, two writers could take the same subject and produce completely different books but, still, we like to feel that we’re exploring a subject that’s unique to us. In addition, copying another author’s themes or preoccupations sails dangerously close to plagiarism and no true writer wants to flirt with this.

Another question I’m also often asked is whether I look at real-life crimes to incorporate into my books. This is harder to answer because my initial reaction is no, true-life crimes are usually brief, sordid and solved with admirable speed by the police. However, when something occurs in your local community it’s hard not to be affected by it. The Moors murders happened before I was born but a south Manchester childhood was dominated by its repercussions. Similarly, a recent horrific house fire in Derby which killed six children was discovered to have been started by their parents. It shocked and preoccupied my local community for weeks after. People’s responses to these crimes have fed into my books more than the acts themselves.

So where do I get my inspiration from?

With my debut novel, In Bitter Chill, it’s easy to answer. I shamelessly mined my own childhood and a brief abduction attempt when I was walking to school one day. I suspect it’s common for debut novelists to use an incident from their past as a premise to build a story. With In Bitter Chill I also used my interest in my own family history and drew inspiration from the countryside where I live to create both story and setting.

My latest novel, A Deadly Thaw, which was published last week also involves an incident
from my past that’s less easy to write about. One day, opening a national newspaper, I was astounded to see that a college friend had been convicted of multiple rapes of women he’d met on dating sites. I can recall him being a charming, slightly arrogant student who lived by himself and was obsessed with weapons (in my naivety I thought nothing of this!) As a result of publicity following the man’s conviction, more of his victims came forward and I discovered one attack took place while we were at university together. Reflecting on the incident and the sense of shame recounted by many of his victims inspired me to write A Deadly Thaw. What I also discovered in the course of my research was how much the policing of sex crimes and the treatment of its victims has improved.

I’m not sure how sustainable it is, however, to continue to mine your own subconscious for inspiration. For the book I’m writing at the moment, I want to think about women who commit crimes and how they are treated differently from male killers. Nothing comes from my own experience but from the need to explore the nature of what makes someone kill. What is the essence of a killer? However, as I write the book, I notice that a house fire has crept into the narrative and, as characters in my book express astonishment that a woman could be a murderer, I can see how close this is to the attitude of women in my own family and the wider community to Myra Hindley. Perhaps it’s impossible to ever escape the personal in your books.

A Deadly Thaw by Sarah Ward is published on 1st September 2016 by Faber and Faber (£12.99)

Every secret has consequences.

Autumn 2004
In Bampton, Derbyshire, Lena Fisher is arrested for suffocating her husband, Andrew.

Spring 2016
A year after Lena's release from prison, Andrew is found dead in a disused mortuary.

Who was the man Lena killed twelve years ago, and who committed the second murder? When Lena disappears, her sister, Kat, sets out to follow a trail of clues delivered by a mysterious teenage boy. Kat must uncover the truth - before there's another death . . .

You can follow her on Twitter @Sarahrward1 you can also find her on Facebook.

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