When I think about writing something new, I often begin with ‘What if…’ and go on from there. But sometimes I ask myself other questions. Questions such as, what would I kill to protect? What is the one thing we all need? How would I feel if…? I have to get inside my main character to be able to write my story, and I begin with emotions and motivations that I can understand, even if I don’t agree with them.
Another useful question I ask myself when looking for a new project, is ‘What am I afraid of?’ I can remember exactly how I wrote my book Easy Living. (Still not yet revised and published!) I was sitting on my bed one evening in 1996 and thinking, ‘A lot of people write novels about things that we all are frightened of. What is the one thing most people are afraid of? I reckon it’s DEATH.’ And so I wrote a story about death and time-travel. It was the first book I wrote that, when I sat back and looked at it, I thought, ‘Yes, I wrote that, and it’s good.’ It was my breakthrough novel – in my own mind at least. That was when I went from being an aspiring writer to being a writer. It was the first time I realised I could actually do this thing.
Fear can be a terrible, paralysing emotion. But conversely it can galvanise you into action like nothing else on earth. It can be a useful, creative tool. Sit down in a quiet corner and ask yourself in all honesty, ‘What am I really afraid of?’ Getting too ill to care for myself? Losing a loved one? Losing my mind? Not being able to pay the bills? Being attacked? Home invasion? I think most of us fear these big things. But what about smaller, more intimate fears? Fear of losing your hair? Fear of being stuck in a job you hate for twenty years? Fear of heights, or enclosed spaces, or of mice, spiders, black cats.
What about childhood fears? Fear of the dark? Fear of statues and scarecrows? (Thank you, Dr Who!) Fear of your loved one being replaced by a very convincing robotic double that only you can detect? Murderous clowns – thank you, Stephen King! What about getting lost? I can remember losing my mother in a supermarket many years ago and I sobbed as the nice store manager asked me what she looked like – and with a child’s real terror I wailed ‘I can’t remember!’ I remember this with absolute clarity 48 years after it happened. For Spock’s Beard fans, the chilling, relatable vulnerability of the child who says, ‘Mommy comes back/She always comes back to get me.’ Because if some day Mommy doesn’t come back, that is something too terrible to contemplate. For me to write a book around that would have me in therapy within the hour.
What about fantastical things that frighten us as adults and as children: Ghosts? Goblins? Witches? Aliens? Bats? Cockroaches? (I could tell you a bit about cockroaches!) Fear of failure. Even fear of success. Fear of fear, basically. We are told fear itself is the worst kind of fear. But there is something else. If I were to base a short story on an old fear, a primitive fear, a childhood horror, it would be the fear of being alone.
So, fear is a common ground we share with all our fellow humans, and it is the meeting point of understanding, even empathy. It can be so creative, urging you to press on so you don’t get left behind, actually or metaphorically, but it can be utterly paralysing, leaving you cowering and trembling in a corner. But fear is also great material for a writer!