Where do you get your fiction story ideas?
It’s a question which gets asked of authors so often it has become a joke. Part of the joke is that most of the time authors have no idea where the fiction story ideas come from that end up becoming books.
Unusually, however, I can tell precisely where my ideas came from because I deliberately set out, at the beginning of my writing career, to find as many interesting stories, to meet as many interesting people and to sample as many interesting experiences as I possibly could – so that I would have plenty to write about.
There is always a temptation for any writer to stay safely at home and live inside their own head, but it is hard to write convincingly about the outside world unless you have explored it personally.
I started as a freelance journalist. That certainly got me to a lot of different places, meeting a lot of interesting people, but I never seemed to be able to spend long enough in any one place or with any one person to learn about them in depth. So about twenty five years ago I swapped to ghostwriting. People are wary of talking to journalists for a variety of reasons, but with a ghostwriter they develop a relationship of trust, which is when you start to find out what is really happening.
As a ghost I can sink deep into other people’s lives and spend long periods in places I would never be welcomed for long as a journalist. From palaces to homeless shelters, from corporate boardrooms to brothels, I am able to ask as many intrusive questions as I want and I can get to know the widest possible cross section of people. It would be impossible not to be mentally stimulated in such a position and once you are mentally stimulated you inevitably start to come up with fiction story ideas.
I have published more than eighty ghostwritten books but every few years one of the these fiction story ideas becomes so strong I cannot resist taking a few months off from ghosting in order to see where it leads me.
The Overnight Fame of Steffi McBride (Blake Publishing) came from my exposure to the twin worlds of celebrity and reality television. Pop stars, soap stars and participants in media circuses like Big Brother, Strictly and X-Factor, all find themselves pursued by book publishers and in dire need of writing help. The more I found out about how the world of celebrity worked the more fascinated I became. A person – often a young and attractive person – would become embroiled in one of the soaps like EastEnders or Coronation Street or would prove to be able to sing or dance or just be endearing on a reality show. They would then find virtually all control of their lives taken away from them and put into the ruthless hands of producers, publicity agents and brand managers. Before long they would be being attacked by packs of reporters and photographers, predators who have been surviving in the media jungle for many years longer than them. The results were nearly always dramatic and traumatic. The public was desperate to find out more about them and so the spiral would move ever faster.
From spending so much time amongst these people was born the fiction story idea of Steffi McBride, a girl who came from nowhere to become the star of the country’s most popular soap opera. The whole country fell in love with her and it seemed as if all her dreams had come true. But someone out there had in their possession a secret about her past and the heartless media revelations blew apart everything she ever believed to be true about her family and about herself. It is not hard to see where some of those ideas came from.
I spent several years ghostwriting for people who had been abused as children or trafficked around the world as slaves or bonded labourers. From these heart-breaking stories sprang the fiction story ideas which led to me writing Pretty Little Packages (Thistle Publishing). In this novel I used a ghostwriter as the protagonist and narrator. Ghostwriters, I believe, are useful in this role because we lead such episodic lives, much like policemen, doctors, lawyers, journalists and private detectives. Every time the phone rings with a new project we embark on a new story, which will probably come full circle within a fairly tight timeframe. It is a perfect breeding ground for fiction story ideas.
In Pretty Little Packages the ghost is informed by a girl called Doris that someone has “stolen her beautiful breasts”. She asks for his help and he finds himself plunged into the dark and dangerous worlds of people-trafficking and modern slavery. Much of the action happens in the Far East, a part of the world where I have worked a great deal as a ghost, which helps when it comes to descriptions and atmosphere.
At the other end of the social scale from slaves and the abuse victims are the rich and the powerful, who also like to write books. Since they are always short of time they also need to employ ghostwriters to do the actual writing, particularly if English is not their first language. The global elite, whether they are political leaders or business leaders, live in a world which ordinary people seldom get to see inside, which puts ghostwriters at a huge advantage. They also live the sort of lives which produce endless fiction story ideas.
Secrets of the Italian Gardener (RedDoor Publishing) is a novella I have written as a result of those encounters, again using a fictional ghostwriter as the narrator. In this case he has been hired to tell the story of a Middle Eastern dictator during the Arab Spring. Trapped inside the dictator’s besieged palace the ghost, who is harbouring a terrible secret of his own, forms an unlikely friendship with a wise and seemingly innocent gardener and unearths more than he expects as the dictatorship crumbles around him. He discovers that the regime, and indeed the garden itself, is not all it appears to be and he discovers the shocking truth of who really holds the power and wealth in the world.
Without the access that ghostwriting has allowed me I would have found it hard to write convincingly about the people who own and run the modern world. Once ghostwriters have infiltrated the confidence of their clients, people tend to forget that we are there. If we were journalists they would remain on their guard, always putting on an act and maintaining their image, but because we have been given a trusted position as the tellers of their stories they relax. All we have to do is keep watching and asking questions while their guards are down and the fiction story ideas will keep coming.
Andrew Crofts is a ghostwriter and author who has published more than eighty books, a dozen of which were Sunday Times number one bestsellers. He has also guided a number of international clients successfully through the minefield of independent publishing.