How to Turn an Idea into a Novel…

All writers are asked where they get ideas from and whenever I start a new project, I often find myself wondering about the process I go through from that first spark to the finished novel. For instance, with Death on a Dirty Afternoon, I know very well where the original idea came from but I’m not so sure how it ended up with the particular characters, events and plot that make up the finished book.

In the early Nineties I spent a couple of years working as a taxi driver – initially for a couple of existing taxi firms and then as an owner-driver. It wasn’t the happiest time in my life and in many ways I’d be glad to have it erased from my memory.


At the time I was struck by the differences I noticed between the small seaside town I knew as a tourist, and my opinion of the same place after I’d experienced it from the point of view of a cab driver. From the usual sea-front amusements, deck chairs, flower gardens, theatre and other familiar sights in such a place, I was suddenly plunged into the seedier side of the town. I got to know the drug-pushers, the prostitutes, the villains and ne’er-do-wells, the pubs that held ‘lock-ins’ til the early hours, the illegal gambling dens and the places to avoid on a dark night.

At some point, I wrote a poem about the place, but it was dreadfully gloomy and (rather unsurprisingly) didn’t portray the town in a positive light. Nevertheless, the idea of writing about it in some way has stayed with me.

So the basic idea was that the story would be set in a fictional version of that very same seaside town with my taxi-driver hero somehow getting involved in a murder. And since I never plan any further than the title, all I knew was I wanted it to be a bit Raymond Chandler-ish in tone.

When I started writing, I noticed the images in my head (the ones that usually hang around when I start a new book), totally changed as soon as I’d written the first line.

Very quickly I realised the fictional town I thought I was creating had turned into a completely different fictional town. And whenever I had my protagonist go anywhere, it was down the streets and alleyways of the new town. Also, my hero (Terry), isn’t quite as witty as Mr Chandler’s creations, though I quite like his voice.

What I’m trying to say is that the idea I started with, even though it sounds basically the same, was very different to what I ended up with. And I know that doesn’t matter, but it’s one of those things that always niggles me a little – the way we constantly make decisions about plot, character and interactions, and how each decision can take the story in a new direction.

If it were possible, I’d love to be able to write all the different versions of a book from that first idea, just to see where each one ends up. But then I’d just lumber myself with a load of strangely-similar tales. Probably.

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