“How do you dream up your plot lines?”
I’ve been asked that question many times. And I wish I had a clever answer that would show me in a good light. I don’t. The basic ideas for my plots are relatively easily constructed. I take a real event and simply ask the question, “What if…?” It’s in the writing process that I start the really hard work.
When I started writing Prestwick I had in mind a real aviation incident in which no one got hurt. Then I asked myself the question, “What if the two aircraft had collided?” That was my starting point, but I knew it wasn’t enough to sustain a complete novel. So I then asked the question, “What if they were both badly damaged, but still flying?” And I followed up that idea with, “What if they were both denied permission to land?” Now I had the makings of a novel. It was then a matter of sitting at my computer and writing it... the hard work.
When I started writing The Gallows on Warlock Hill, I had in mind a newspaper report of two sisters who met for the first time as adults. I then asked the question, “What if two such sisters found they had nothing in common?” I envisaged them at opposite ends of the social scale and then asked the next question, “What if they were so far apart socially that one of them actually hated the other?” Sparks would fly in such a situation, but I could see that I still didn’t have enough to fill out a novel. So I asked myself, “What if their process of reconciliation mirrored something that had happened way back in their family history?” Now I was on a roll. I had a plot that would run. I finished off with the aim of making one of those sisters start off as a thoroughly nasty person and end up as the heroine who deserves everyone's respect.
When I started writing King’s Priory I had been reading about airmen from WW2 who died in battle but their bodies were never found. I asked the question, “What if an RAF pilot’s loss made a major impact on a partner left behind?” Okay, it was an idea but not nearly enough at this stage. So, I asked myself the next questions, “What if it had a major impact on a descendant two generations later?” There was a thought. “What if someone in the present-day generation was affected by the loss of that missing pilot?” I kept asking the questions. “What if the present day descendant had to find out the truth about his ancestor in order to save someone’s life?” And, “What if he discovered someone he loved was going to die because of what happened fifty years before?” Now I had the makings of a plot.
I started writing The Long Road to Sunrise after reading about South American Indian tribes only belatedly coming into contact with the civilised world. One account told of an explorer and his wife who took their young daughter with them into the jungle. So I asked myself the questions:“What if a couple of film-makers took their daughter into the rain forest and the parents were killed?”
“What if the child was brought up by an Indian tribe?”
“What if, as an adult, that child tried to find her way back to her roots in the civilised world?”
Now I had the makings a plot.
And that’s my way of doing it. Nothing very clever. Just a matter of asking, “What if…?”