Three Frequently Asked Writer Questions

Reading & Writing

‘Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?’

This old chestnut crops up from experts and amateurs alike, and with such regularity that the creation of any work of fiction is clearly a source of continuing interest. Whether you relish the planning process or prefer to throw all your cards in the air and see what lands, you still need to be inspired by something.

For me, sometimes it’s about fulfilling a wish.

‘I wish there was a book in which an unusual heroine investigates a crime but proves to be her own worst enemy.’

Sometimes it’s an idea based on a friend’s experience. ‘A friend of mine had to house-sit as a favour to a friend and thought someone was stalking her.’

Sometimes it’s an idea that twists a cliché. ‘How about an old-dark-house tale set right in the middle of a noisy city?’

Sometimes it’s all about a character. ‘This guy thinks he’s doing really well in life but in truth everyone hates him.’

Stephen King seemed to popularise the dual-idea approach. ‘A girl takes revenge for being bullied at school. But she also has latent psychokinetic powers.’ The only trouble with high concept novels is that their permutations are often doggedly worked through by authors. God forbid you write a time travel novel that doesn’t throw up a paradox.

It’s a question with no correct answers, because we all approach it differently.

“Can You Run Out Of Ideas?

I used to think no, but lately I’ve begun to wonder just how straitjacketed we still are by Victorian narrative structures. The wild experimentalism of the 1960s led nowhere. The interactive novel failed. Story structures on TV shows have become braver and stranger (if less intellectually challenging) than in novels. Look at the staggeringly bizarre structure of ‘WandaVision’, which to the 19th century eye would seem incomprehensible, or any of the SF series currently running on streaming services, like ‘Severance’. Look at the MCU film ‘Thor: Love and Thunder’, in which a tourist viking ship is towed across the universe by screaming goats.

Now look at the crime novel. It seems frozen in time, unable to go forwards or backwards. The comic novel? All but extinct. The thriller? Mostly the province of the mature writer and reader. And it seems that if there is an appetite for these categories, there’s only room enough for one or two writers in each.

Does future salvation only lie in the endless reblending of fantasy and myth? Or will there be some kind of breakthrough that combines reality with outrageous ideas?

‘Do You Write under Your Own Name?’

This is often the first (and only) question I’m asked. I can only think of a handful of instances in which authors use pseudonyms, one good example being EM Delafield, the daughter of a count whose real name was Edmée Elizabeth Monica De La Pasture. I’ve written under two pseudonyms, ‘Chris Fowler’ (for the disastrously handled YA novel ‘The Curse of Snakes’) and ‘Little Boy Found’ (née ‘There’s Something I Haven’t Old You’) written under ‘LK Fox’, my mother’s initials plus a surname that would require the book to be filed close to ‘Fowler’.

If you’re typecast, a pseudonym is understandable – but it usually becomes such an open secret as to have no point beyond flattering the author’s vanity.

19 comments on “Three Frequently Asked Writer Questions”

  1. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin First off — sorry to read on Twitter that you won’t be ‘special guesting’ at Waterstones, Islington tomorrow as planned because of health reasons Hope they’re in the temporary ‘under the weather’ category (aftereffects of treatment ?) and not a proper gale. Since clearly everything has been done one way or t’other ad nauseum in the novelsphere, we can at least come up with new questions to be asked of the ink-stained wretches who inhabit it. Like:

    * What’s your favourite word ? Font ?
    * What’s worse for you ? Weak ends or weekends ?
    * Do you change your clothes when writing ?
    * Have you ever written in the nude ?

  2. Alan R says:

    Stu – I would really like to add,

    Do you get rich by working as a writer?
    What is your favourite swear word and how often do you use it?
    Do you ever write with pen or pencil now?
    If you are not going to Islington, can I have your VIP ticket for free drinks?

  3. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Alan R Good ‘uns Alan. Would also add:

    * Would love to read your books. Can I have one ?
    * Are you someone ?
    * Can you lend me a tenner ?

  4. Helen+Martin says:

    There’s also, “If I give you an idea do I get a share of the royalties?”

  5. Paul C says:

    Harlan Ellison was so tired of being asked ‘Where do you get your ideas from ?’ that he always replied ‘Schenectady’

    Dumb questions about writers reminds me of a TV interview with Kate Winslet after portraying Iris Murdoch in the film Iris :

    Q Are you a big fan of Iris Murdoch?
    A Oh yes, I’ve always been a huge fan of Iris Murdoch
    Q Which books of hers have you read and enjoyed the most ?
    A Oh….I haven’t actually read any of her books

  6. A Holme says:

    Weeknights or small peers of the realm.

  7. Peter+T says:

    How many of the crimes that you describe in your books have you committed?

  8. Helen+Martin says:

    Peter T, or planned to commit.

  9. Stu-I-Am says:

    Fascinating, this business of pseudonyms, noms de plume or pen names (at least for three of us here…). Under British and US law (with which I am most familiar) you cannot copyright a pseudonym, but you can copyright/register a work using one. On the other hand, while you can trademark a pen name, you cannot so protect your real name. In order to be able to trademark a pen name, you have to be able to show — here comes the legalese — ‘secondary meaning’ that is, a developed (over time) association between the pseudonym and your unique product brand in the public mind (like ‘J.K. Rowling’). And no, you cannot use ‘Christopher Fowler’ or ‘Jane Austen’ as a pseudonym. But then again, a publisher could obtain the rights to a pen name and use any number of writers to create work under the same nom de plume.

    Of course, well known are the female writers who, in order to be published and in certain male-dominated genres, assumed male or neutral pen names — the Brontës (aka the three ‘Bells’) and Mary Ann Evans (‘George Eliot’) being classic examples. But literary crossdressing works the other way well, with L. Frank Baum (he of ‘Oz’ fame), Dean Koontz. Martyn Waites and even, it is alleged, Benjamin Franklin, among a goodly number of male writers who used female or neutral pen names. Interestingly, both Stephen King and Koontz adopted pseudonyms earlier in their careers, not for anonymity, but because they were so prolific. There was concern by their publishers that they would oversaturate the market. King even went so far as to provide a bio for ‘Richard Bachman,’ one of three pen names he used.

  10. Jo says:

    I’ve got a great idea for a book

  11. Stu-I-Am says:

    Presumably Boris will now have plenty of time to finish his long-awaited (by Hodder and Stoughton, at least, who reportedly paid him an advance of some £88,000) bio of Shakespeare. Apparently his ‘writing’ technique is to ask an academic subject specialist a bunch of questions and then rephrase their answers in his own words. Much the same way CF does with Arthur Bryant. Wonder if a change of title and a pseudonym might be appropriate in the circumstances ?

  12. Martin Tolley says:

    According to David Reynolds’ book “In Command of History”, Boris’s book production method is similar to that of his hero Churchill whose World War 2 history was largely concocted from accounts written by others called “the syndicate” and interspersed with extracts from his own telegrams and observations.

  13. Paul C says:

    If Boris is looking for an epigraph to open his learned tome on Shakespeare he could use this line by Touchstone in As You Like It :

    The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.

  14. Stu-I-Am says:

    Having memory issues ? Can’t remember if you are ? Read more novels. That’s the advice of a noted US neuroscientist, Dr. Richard Restak, a neurologist and clinical professor at George Washington Hospital University School of Medicine and Health, Washington, DC. One early indicator of memory issues, according to Dr. Restak, is giving up on fiction. I wonder if just giving up on Richard Osman qualifies ?

  15. Peter T says:

    David Starkey (I think) made the point that, while Churchill worked extremely hard, employed an army of researchers and hired in experts including people who disagreed with him, Boris believes he can just act the part and make things up as he goes along.

  16. Roger says:

    One effect of using pseudonyms affected Anthony Burgess, Stu-I-Am. He reviewed one of his own pseudonymous novels. Although (or because) the review was unflattering Burgess was fired from his reviewing job when his editor learned what he had done.

  17. Helen+Martin says:

    Roger, I think I know why he was fired but the editor wasn’t really thinking very deeply, was he? It would have been interesting to have the two sides of his head debate the issue, wouldn’t it?

  18. Liz+Thompson says:

    The friend who persuaded me to join Facebook (it took Covid and lockdown as well) told me I MUST use a pseudonym. Because I would certainly be trolled, insulted, cursed etc etc. So I did. I chose Emma Goldman, safely deceased anarchist, writer, opponent of governments, general rabble rouser. Seemed appropriate somehow.
    The real joke is that I have NEVER had trouble on Facebook, whilst I’ve been trolled innumerable times on Twitter under my real name for expressing my support for trans people.
    Not that it’s ever worried me – 25 years as a civil servant taught me to let all the aggression sail over my head, whilst smiling politely.

  19. snowy says:

    Liz, would it be a presumption to far to ask to pick your brain for a few crumbs of info?

    I’m looking into an early 20thC ‘Feminist Outrage’, [You might enjoy it; Winnie is hunted down and publicly thumped by one of the people involved] and one of the many hares I have ‘running’ goes off to God’s Own County. Admittedly it’s Bradford, not your usual stomping ground I know, but you still might know a few bits and pieces.

    So the questions are: What where the local papers of note in the area pre WWI and were any particularly pro Suffrage? Are there any particular local people of note I should keep an eye out for?

    Don’t go to any trouble looking things up, I just need pointing in the right general direction, rather than being taken by the hand and leading to the well itself. [So don’t put yourself out, just whatever may come to mind].

    So that this comment slightly less resembles the begging letter it actually is, I’ll relate one of the other tales connected to the event.

    The ‘spark’ for my inquiry is a case of ‘Suffragette Incendiarism’ that caused a huge local panic. Into our story comes a lady, rather unkindly described as ‘portly’ by the newspapers, she and her companion decide to travel to a neighbouring village to pay a call on party of her acquaintance. On presenting themselves at the door they discover the the other party is not at home, but expected to return shortly. So to pass the time they decide to look around the village church.

    Imagine their surprise on entering when they are confronted by flames shooting out of the vicar’s organ! They raised the alarm, the be-frocked office holder appeared on scene, took one look, picked up his skirt and ran off to summon the Fire Brigade.

    [I like to imagine that the two doughty ladies were made of sterner stuff – and remained in the church using their hats to shovel the contents of the font onto the now blazing ‘steam joanna’, but sadly the papers omit any such detail.]

    When the Fire Brigade arrived*, the ladies were thanked for their hand in the act of divine intervention that discovered the fire and sent on their way to repair their state of dress.

    News of the latest outrage had reached the ears of the local constable, he was on high alert, having been briefed that very morning to be on the look-out for bands of suffragettes roaming the area with the intent to commit criminal arson – [is there any sort of non-criminal arson?]

    As ‘e was proceeding in a Westerly direction on his usual beat, ‘e happened across these two dishevelled and rather be-sooted women, heading away from the scene of the crime.

    Leaping into action, he pounced upon them, [well as fast as his flat feet and heavy hob-nailed boots would allow him], placed them under arrest and marched them back to the vicarage to call his superiors.

    On arrival thence, the vicar attempted to intercede on behalf of prisoners, explaining their part in the event. The sturdy guardian of law and order was steadfast and refused to release them. The local doctor was summoned to provide a ‘good character’, the constable remained resolute, the local magistrate was sent for, came in due course and again vouched for the good name of the prisoners, but the constable was unbowed; he was up for medal for seizing such dangerous criminals, [or at least a letter of commendation from the Chief Constable].

    It took the arrival of his Chief Inspector, [and possibly not so vague threats of being made to muck out the station stables with a soup spoon for the next 6 months], that finally made him relinquish his charges.

    The ladies were finally released and play no further part in the story, but the story doesn’t end there, much more dramatic things were still to come….




    [* I’ve looked into this… it would have taken a while… a crew would have to be called from work/home, when they arrived at the station they would need to get dressed into their uniforms, catch and harness the horses and light the coal under the boiler; before racing to the scene 5 miles away. The first two miles of which is up a very steep hill, it is notorious locally because the bottom of the hill undergoes frequent bouts of ‘urban renewal’ by articulated lorries wrapping themselves around the traffic lights.]

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