Ideas, Ideas, Ideas

My desk

Where do the ideas come from?

I was once sitting in Crediton Church (which I can heartily recommend) and listening to Exeter Chamber Choir giving a redition of Faure’s Requiem, when I suddenly had a flash of inspiration: a scene sprang into my mind of a number of scruffy, ill-armed, but violent ruffians swooping down a long grassy incline towards a group of terrified pilgrims at the bottom of a hill.

It was a truly spine-tingling moment, and I have no idea where the idea came from. Which is pretty much the same as most other brilliant concepts. You never can tell where they come from. Still, that scene became the beginning of Templar’s Penance.

I’ve often been asked about ideas and where they come from. I suppose for an author like me, ideas are my main stock in trade. After all, I don’t just have to have ideas about general plots, I have to have ideas about individuals, about their character, motivations, urges, even their looks; I have to get ideas about scenes that engage all the characters, about which order in which to place the scenes. I desperately need to have inspired beginnings and endings to my books (this one’s sorted now, thanks, with a starting and finishing scene). I need to have good ideas about how to structure the story. When the story will be placed in history. All this, and I haven’t much of an idea where each idea comes from.

Some, like sitting at the church and listening to music, can be quite easy to recall. Others sort of sit at the back of my mind for a while and gradually work their way through my lumber-room of a mind until I become firmly aware of them. But I think that more often than not my ideas come from my own experiences.

It is a fact that after thirteen years of selling computers I had a good understanding of people. The key to being a successful salesman is always to be able to put yourself into the other person’s shoes and see a situation from his or her point of view, and the same is true for a novelist.

I didn’t always succeed. There were some notable crooks who took me for a ride. One of them has been killed about seven times in my books now. But crooks were few and far between. For the most part, I was fortunate to have good clients and excellent colleagues.

Of course I am very fortunate in that my stories have all been driven by the type of book I was writing.

Early on, I had no faith that I’d be writing for very long. I had thought that the probability of success was pretty small, so I used my writing as a means of funding my hobbies – mainly studying history. I chose themes that appealed to me: Templars, then witches, tinmining, mercenaries, tournaments – anything that took my fancy, really. And always, while researching these themes, new ideas for plots and people would spring out at me.

Soon I grew fascinated by the history of the period, and especially in the history of Devon, and how the people here were affected by the great affairs of state. I think it was at this point, when I was writing about aspects of Devon life, that I began to find the ideas coming so thick and fast that it was hard to keep them under control.

Of course modern life regularly intrudes.

The motivations of people have not radically changed in the last few centuries. We are still driven by greed, lust, jealousy and so on. And while Hobbesians would have us believe that all those in medieval times were nasty, brutal and distinctly likely to stab first and ask questions afterwards, this isn’t the whole story. There were many humane, kindly and generous souls. You only have to read Chaucer and Boccaccio to see that.

And so often a story will turn on a couple of little details that draw the reader up short.

Animal cruelty, beating a maidservant, the incredible misbehaviour of priests and the clergy, all make me pause for thought. There is nothing so startling as reading that our medieval ancestors thought bating cattle wasn’t cruel – it was essential. They believed that it was the only way to tenderise the meat, to set the dogs on the animal before killing it. They weren’t intentionally cruel.

But yes, it is the medieval clergyman that gets to me quite often. I’ve even had American fans writing to me to ask what I’ve got against the clergy, I’ve had reviews that state I don’t know what I’m writing about, because I have some kind of crusade against religion, and one notable writer who accused me of making up “unbelievable” stories about nuns.

So, let me state here that all the instances I’ve used in my books, when I mention the idea that the folks were religious, do not come from my over-fevered noggin.

Where there are scenes involving vicars, rectors, chaplains or nuns, they are taken from the records. The only work that has been done has been editing to make the scenes more believable to a modern audience. That’s the choice of my editor, I hasten to add, not mine. I’d always prefer to let the reader judge whether it’s believable or not.

I will add some more about the medieval clergy in a soon to come post, but for now I’ll just point out that of all the men in England in 1320, roughly a third of them were involved with or employed by the Church. It really is not so surprising that there were some rapists, thieves, blackmailers, and murderers among them.

But the great thing is, all the ideas I use come from the actual events of the time. I make use of the Coroners’ Rolls for details of murders, I use the records of the Grand Eyre, I use chronicles, Church records, and manorial rolls. These give me all the facts I need.

And then, when you have your facts, the basics of the story, the characters you want, and a good location, I find that the other plot developments follow on naturally.

OK, I can’t stop here without mentioning the other two things that make writing easier.

A Scrivener screen with book 31. Don't think it's giving away too much!

First, is that fantastic piece of software called Scrivener ( It allows me to write without effort. All my research, my notes, my ideas, are there while I write. Scrivener allows me to type the story without intruding in the way in which I write. And the other software is the mind-bogglingly useful iThoughtsHD on my iPad ( It’s mind-mapping software. I place all my ideas onto this, and it works as a cross between a flow-chart and a white board. Wherever I am, at home, walking the dogs, or sitting on a train, I can plug in new thoughts in a rough sequence, and send it to my computer at home. And then it’s all sucked into Scrivener in the right order, so that I always know what my scenes should contain and the order in which they should run.

So, having thought I was writing about a simple “ideas” theme, now I know I have to write a blog on software and another on the clergy. Which first? Hmm.

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