Hello lovely Hive readers! Can I start the year by sending my thanks to you – yes, that’s right, very specifically to you – because, by supporting the Hive network, you’re keeping the independent book trade alive.
And for that you deserve the George Cross, the Légion d’honneur and every other award going. Because when I think of how I fell in love with books as a child, browsing the shelves of my beautifully-curated local bookshop was a massive part of it. As I’m sure it was for you. Or you wouldn’t be here.
Anyway, now that I’ve said hello, I’ll get on to the substance of this blog, which I thought would be about the seven words that every writer dreads hearing above all others. And they are: “Where do you get your ideas from?”
Now, obviously, I can’t answer for anyone else, but I think the reason why such a question strikes dread into so many writers’ hearts is because we don’t really know the answer – other than to say that sometimes it’s nigh on impossible to come up with any ideas. And that’s when it’s going well.
However, there’s always the same starting point when you work in the Murder Mystery genre. After all, there’s a specific contract you make with your reader when you write a Murder Mystery: firstly, that that the story should contain a murder; and secondly, that it should also contain a mystery. And it’s the mystery that’s the fiddle.
As any Murder Mystery fan will tell you, the purest expression of the form is the Locked Room puzzle (Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue – one of the first ever detective novels written – is a Locked Room puzzle).
So that’s what I took as the starting point for my first Death in Paradise novel. I wanted to do a Locked Room puzzle. But, because I’m contrary, I also wanted to do a Locked Room puzzle that hadn’t been done before. So I started thinking about all the Locked Room mysteries I already knew, and one of the things I noticed was how the body of the victim always seemed to be discovered on its own.
Was there a way of doing a Locked Room puzzle where the suspects were also locked inside the room with the victim? Could I get that to work as a Murder Mystery?
(At the very least, I didn’t think I’d ever read or seen a Murder Mystery where the suspects and victim were all locked up together. But I could well be wrong, and if you know of such a story, I’d love to hear from you. I can be reached on Twitter at @robthor.)
But that’s how the idea began: as a concept. A thought experiment, almost.
And then started the tough part of the process. I tried to think of a world – and a set of characters – and a physical geography for the murder – and backstory – and set of motives – that might allow me to do a Locked Room puzzle. Some of the ideas I started to come up with I was able to reject immediately because they were so rubbish – and other ideas I entertained for a long while until, much later, I realised that they were also rubbish.
In truth, it was a brain-sapping grind. No matter how I turned the idea over in my head, I just couldn’t get it to cohere.
And then, after many months of frustrated mulling, the solution to the question I’d been puzzling over for so long came to me in a flash.
From where exactly, I don’t know. But I have to confess, the feeling of relief that immediately washed over me was immense.
And now that I’m thinking back to that eureka moment, I realise that coming up with a story idea is a bit like walking into your local bookshop and wanting a new book to read but not quite knowing which one you want. You wander up and down the shelves somewhat overwhelmed by options, and in increasing frustration – and you don’t even know what you’re looking for, or if you’ll ever find it – and then, if you’re lucky, the book you realise you wanted all along suddenly jumps out at you.
That’s what it can feel like when an idea for a story comes together.
And I know that you know that feeling, because you’re the people who are trying to keep actual real-life bookshops alive.
So, from my shed-in-the-garden in rainy Buckinghamshire, I raise my coffee cup in salute and wish you all another happy twelve months of glorious book buying and even-more-glorious book reading, and above all else a very Happy New Year.
You can purchase Death in Paradise: A Meditation on Murder on Hive by clicking here