Saturday, September 07, 2019

Guest Post: Janet Laurence

 Hello, Aline here. It's my pleasure to introduce you this week to Janet Laurence, a woman of many talents and very much a live wire.  She has not only written cookery books but a book about how to write them, she was 'Bon Viveur' to the Daily Telegraph newspaper and is the writer of contemporary novels as well as several crime series.  So she's well-placed to write about That Question.


Any writer will have been asked the same question whenever they give a talk: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’

It’s as if there is a shop you can go into, look along the shelves, browse the items stacked on the display tables, and find a few ideas that will fire your new book – or whatever it is that you need ideas for. Whereas in real life ideas are all around, if your mind is open to them.

Ideas for the first crime novel I wrote, A Deepe Coffyn, came from a talk given by P D James. Up until that point, though a great admirer of her crime novels, I had never met her, nor had I written a book, any book! It was at a conference of Southern Writers held in a lovely centre (now, alas, gone) just south of Chichester. There were peacocks in the garden uttering their unbeautiful cries every now and then.

Phyllis told us all we had the perfect setting for a crime novel. It provided a ‘closed circle of suspects’, which she said was important, and the peacocks added an unusual touch of atmosphere. Unlike many speakers at such conferences, Phyllis did not disappear immediately after her talk but stayed the rest of the weekend, allowing any of us who wanted to speak with her. Awe struck, having told her how much I admired her books, I said I didn’t think I could ever write a crime novel because I could never guess ‘who dunnit’ in all the ones I read.

‘Ah,’ she said gently, ‘you see, when you know whodunnit, it’s all much easier.’

 Her talk and my conversation with her came back to me some months later when I had to produce various pieces of writing for a course I went to at the same conference centre. I’d gone there hoping to be helped into writing a romantic novel, I was keen to pursue a career rather on the lines of Mills& Boon. Instead, I ended with all the makings for the first in my culinary crime series featuring Darina Lisle, roving cordon bleu cook. ‘Have knives, will travel,’ kept running through my brain as the course attendees were instructed to write various pieces.

I bashed out a first page, then samples of conversation, and various scenes to order on my portable typewriter (no lap top in those days), following the same characters, and gradually realised I had the makings of a crime novel. So I created a weekend symposium of the Historical Epicurean Society (and I still can’t understand why there isn’t one), held at a centre providing a closed circle of suspects, a cook,my main character, to provide the historical food, and a murder.

Both the conference and the creative writing course taught me, first: that if something somebody said, be it a speaker or in general conversation, reverberated in my mind, it was offering me something. Some idea. I might not know exactly what or if I could use it, but there it was, mine for the taking.

 Writing the ten books in that series, I found that as I was approaching the end of one, an idea for the next would gradually take shape in my mind. Where had I found the idea?

I set that series in the food world, one I knew quite well as I wrote the weekly cookery column for the Daily Telegraph at that time and was one of the very early members of the Guild of Food Writers. So I had a licence to talk to anyone I thought might be able to give me background information and, maybe, ideas I could use.

There was an importer of specialist foods who told me some of the problems they had as well as showing off their range of foods. Then and in the train going home, my mind was turning what he’d said into possible ideas for characters and dastardly motives. I think he was the only person I sent a copy of the book that resulted from their help (acknowledged in the book), who didn’t write and thank me! There are definitely informants who have been dismayed at what I have read into their seemingly innocent factual account of their dealings.

 When I sent Peter Bazalgette the book I wrote after he had so kindly allowed me to attend a day’s recording of the Food and Drink programme he produced and directed for the BBC, he wrote back saying he’d had no idea the programme contained so many possible areas for conflict and resentment.

That’s what I mean about opening one’s mind to possible ideas. After I sent a book to someone I worked for as a public relations consultant he asked me to promise never to set one of my novels in his world! So far I haven’t.

 I find that the really interesting part of writing crime is the way that murder – and which of us does not write about murder? – and its subsequent investigation throws a spotlight on relationships. Being suspected of murder, or being close to someone who could just possibly have killed someone, could be likened to being in the cauldron stirred by the witches in Macbeth, with its ‘eye of newt and tongue of frog’, etc, etc.’ The resulting crime novel brew raises previously unsuspected passions and reveals reasons that could well be motives for murder.

Which brings me to the heart of any crime novel: what can set one human being to kill another? It is the most dastardly, most final action one person can take against another. Here I find a valuable source of information in newspapers, particularly the Daily Mail. For instance, there has recently been a story regarding the havoc current public interest in having their DNA analysed can produce. A remarkable number of men have been dismayed to discover that the sons they had regarded as their progeny were, in fact, sired by another. That could well engender murderous thoughts against the wife but I find I can’t stop thinking about one particular case where the husband is suing the wife for the money he had spent in bringing up the son, I think he was about seven years old when the husband discovered the child wasn’t his, and he’d rejected the child from his life (I think I saw from a later story that he hadn’t).

 Now, for my purposes, the reaction of the supposed father isn’t my main interest. What occupies my mind are the possible feelings of the child as he grows up with a father that isn’t a father, who rejects him for no fault of his, and the terrible question mark over who is his biological father. Add a mother whose personality so far as the child is concerned is irrevocably changed and there is a story that could well lead to murder.

 Of course, wherever the idea comes from, by the time whatever work it inspired has been written, the actual source has been changed out of any recognition. This is the nature of creative writing.

One book I wrote arose from a news clipping about a child who found a beauty box that had been accidentally left behind on a beach. When the owner was finally tracked down, it turned out that she had felt unable to face anybody without her makeup and therefore hadn’t come out of her room until the box that contained what she considered ‘her face’ was found. When the book was finished, the only factor that remained from that cutting was the reliance one of the main characters had on her looks and their effect on others.

These ‘ideas’ are spurs that set my mind working. They can show themselves anywhere and at any time.

Talking to people, particularly people one doesn’t know, often produces amazing details of others’ lives. I find myself thinking, and sometimes saying, ‘there’s a story there’. Usually I don’t note the interesting details or history down and such is my chronic lack of memory (nothing new, I lost it when I was about ten. One week I had total recall, the next - a blur) I usually forget whatever it was. I would be totally lost without my diary. However, I was once told that if an idea is good enough, it will return. Which infers that if it doesn’t return, it wasn’t worth much. That is calming but I don’t really believe it’s true.

 Waiting in a station or airport, travelling in a train or on a bus, can produce ideas and characters. Body language can be almost as informative as words and faces can suggest characters. It doesn’t matter if your translation of that language or facial looks is way off beam. The ideas that have arisen can form the basis of a short story, or of a sub-plot.

 I was watching an episode of ‘Who do You Think You Are’ when the subject that week discovered a couple of ancestors along the line had been part of the fairground world around the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth century. All of a sudden, there on the TV screen was a large wooden screen illustrating various jungle animals and I was carried into another world. In the same programme was a marriage certificate that stated the bride was a spinster. But there was an earlier marriage, one that seemed to have been forgotten. Which, I thought, surely meant that the second marriage had not been legal. The ideas churned in my mind. I recorded the repeat of that programme so I could watch it again and again. Two essential cogs for the second book in my Edwardian Ursula Grandison series had been put into place.

 If I think a television programme could possibly provide ideas or background information, I record it. Easy enough to delete if it doesn’t.

True crime books are fertile grounds for ideas. I read in one that suicides are never committed lying down. Well! Mulling over this interesting fact, it occurred to me that what looked on the face of it a genuine suicide, could be questioned by someone aware of the ‘never lying down’ information. So I had a turning point for the first in my Edwardian series.

 Ideas come in all shapes and sizes. Some can kick-start a book, others can help along a plot in difficulties. An audience member at a talk I gave complained he couldn’t see how to sort his plot out and could I please tell him what he should do. Keep working at it, I said, especially before you go to sleep at night, and keep an open mind. Eventually, I assured him, he would find the answers.

 So maybe there is an Ideas Shop out there. We just take it along with us as we try and sort out our plots and characters. May mine never be shut!


Anna said...

Guest Janet, thanks for this excellent post. I believe it was Bach who answered the "idea" question with "It's all I can do to keep from stepping on them when I get out of bed in the morning."

Rick Blechta said...

I like that, Anna. Thanks!