I’ve been a published author for nearly two years now, and I have probably been asked this question over a hundred times. Despite this, I haven’t been able to come up with a good answer – though God knows I’ve tried.
Maybe the question is the problem? It somehow assumes that an author simply sits down and waits for an idea to strike, and suddenly,like some kind of divine inspiration, it does. It also assumes that ‘ideas’ are in a special place, inaccessible to non-authors, and that in order to find them you just need a good map. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Writing is not about waiting for the perfect idea. It’s about writing and rewriting. And it’s about how each idea creates the next.
When I started to write Victim Without a Face the first idea I had was that I wanted to write a novel. That might not sound like an idea, but it was for me. I had been writing screenplays for so many years and was desperate for a new challenge.
A screenplay is supposed to be less than a hundred pages. In fact in some of my contracts – I think it was the Wallander series – the episodes had to be exactly 89,52 minutes long. So my second idea was that my novel should be at least five hundred pages long.
My next idea – the decision to write a crime story – felt natural since I had been working in that genre for so long that I knew its conventions inside out. I wanted it to take place in a city where neither Kurt Wallander nor Lisbeth Salander had ever set foot, so Helsingborg, where I grew up, felt like a good choice. The town is situated in the south of Sweden on the west coast and is so close to Denmark that you can almost see it,even when it’s foggy.
Because Helsingborg is unknown for most people, I decided to have my main character, Fabian Risk, move back to his hometown. That way he could experience the city with new eyes while at the same time being familiar with it.
At this point, I still had no idea what would actually happen in my story. But, by this point, it had naturally become a homecoming story. So it felt right that Risk’s past should come back to haunt him, and bring some of his memories back to life. Since my third idea was that this would be a crime story, it was only logical that those memories were horrible. I hit upon the solution of having a murder victim who attended my hero’sold elementary school. Then, in order to make the story longer (remember my second idea of writing five hundred pages), I had my killer leave behind a clue: an old class photo, with the victim’s face crossed out, implying there would be more victims from that same class.
And so it went on from there. One decision led to the next, and I almost always chose the most logical solution. After I had written several chapters, I became aware of what the story was about, and - even more importantly - what it wasn’t about. Only then did I go back and rewrite previous chapters to fit the story that was emerging.
So where did I get my ideas from? Well, you tell me.