The Germ of an Idea: where a book came from

It’s release day for my new thriller Non-Stop till Tokyo right now (click for blurb and extract), which has me thinking about where this book came from.

Well, in part it sprang from my time living in Japan. I could blog for months on that. It was actually quite hard not to write the book as a travelogue with long digressions into food and scenery, and the temptation to bore you with my holiday snaps is strong. (I won’t.) Suffice to say that we travelled widely, made excellent friends, ate extraordinary food, stayed in beautiful places, drank a lot of everything, sat under cherry blossom, watched kabuki and sumo wrestling…no, shut up, travelogue. One of my favourite experiences was getting so drunk on lemon sours that I spent hours in an animated argument about Lord of the Rings with an equally drunk friend. I was talking to Mr KJC about it the next day, when he pointed out that I don’t speak Japanese and our friend didn’t speak English. I have no memory of this being an issue at the time.

Anyway, I wanted to set a book there. Why would I not? But a setting’s not enough, you need a plot. And then someone told me a rather dull anecdote…


Here’s the thing about writing, you don’t know what will spark ideas. Remember the ultra-violent Charles Bronson flick Death Wish? It’s based on the Brian Garfield book, about a man whose wife and daughters are horribly abused and murdered/put in a coma, seeking vigilante revenge. A cry of rage against the powerlessness of the law against criminals and a demand for bloody revenge against offenders.

According to Lawrence Block’s wonderful Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, the germ of the idea for the book was…someone slashed the top of Garfield’s convertible.

Seriously. He took his impotent fury at an act of minor vandalism and did what authors do: turned it up to 11. Death Wish was hugely successful as book and film, but I can’t get over the fact that this is really a story about A Man Whose Car Got Slightly Vandalised.


So, this dull anecdote. Basically, Japanese doesn’t have an ‘l’ or an ‘r’. The sound transliterated as ‘r’ in roman is between the two. (There are people in the world who apparently find it amusing that non-English speakers struggle to hear or make sounds they haven’t grown up with. I suggest those people try visiting people with a click language and seeing how well they do.) Anyway, it is a fact of Japanese that it doesn’t have the sounds of English ‘r’ and ‘l’ (or ‘v’, or ‘w’, come to that).

The Dull Anecdote

A Tokyo foreign office had two British women called Kelly and Kerry. Many of the Japanese staff couldn’t hear or pronounce the difference between the names, and thus confusion frequently arose.


[Edit: I have been reminded that the point of the story was that, with only two gaijin women in the office, it was pretty rubbish luck that they both had the ‘same’ name. You may or may not think this improves the drama levels.]

This is not a story that’s going to get you invited on a chat show. But it sat in my brain, as I thought: yeah, but suppose. Suppose you had two women, constantly confused. Suppose one of them decided to use that. Suppose she set the other one up to take the fall for a crime. Suppose they didn’t work in an office, but somewhere a lot more edgy, meeting a lot nastier people…

There was a lot of supposing to be done. I added a hostess bar, a yakuza gang, a big Samoan-American hero with a terrible attitude an erratic drug dealer with useful friends. I added a panicked flight through Japan, a lot of languages, a lot of violence. I added murder.

But the germ of it was a not-very exciting anecdote. And, just as Death Wish was once Really Annoyed About Minor Vandalism, Non-Stop Till Tokyo began life as Please Get My Name Right, Jeez.

I prefer the anecdote my way.


Non-Stop till Tokyo  is out now from Samhain, via your local electronic retailer. Share stories of where your book came from in the comments! Or anecdotes, as long as they’re more interesting than that one.

Where [oh God please please don’t say it] do you get your ideas? An unexpected inspiration

Gabriel García Márquez was driving his family on holiday when a childhood memory of touching ice came into his head in the form of the first line of what would become One Hundred Years of Solitude. Apparently he slammed on the brakes, turned the car around, jettisoned the family holiday, and returned home to write. I somehow doubt his Nobel Prize for Literature is on the shelf next to a Father of the Year award.

When C. S. Lewis was sixteen, he had a daydream of a faun carrying an umbrella and a bundle of parcels through snowy woods. With somewhat less urgency than Marquez, he got around to writing a novel around that two decades later, adding a lion, a witch and a wardrobe.

Stephen King got Misery from a dream. Arthur Conan Doyle got Sherlock Holmes from his tutor at medical school. Chuck Wendig claims to get his ideas either from shady men in trenchcoats or from you while you’re sleeping.

Mostly, let’s face it, there isn’t an amusing story. You think of a thing and there’s another thing that kind of goes with the first thing, and a what-if, and a where, and then you wonder what kind of idiot would get into that situation, and then you have the outlines of a plot. You didn’t get the idea, it just grew in your head, like blue woolly stuff on forgotten cheese.

All that said…

My four year old likes to play with fridge magnets and present the results.

‘Mummy, how do you say that?’


‘What does it mean?’

‘Nothing, sweetie.’


The other day he called me over to display the word ‘feximal’. Well, if ‘feximal’ doesn’t mean something, it should. Is it a superlative like ‘optimal’, and in that case, what would be a feximal outcome? Is it a classification of nature – animal, vegetable, feximal?

Or is it a name? And if it is a name, whose name is it? What kind of person has a name like that? And what first name could possibly go with it?

Well, I can now tell you. Simon Feximal is a Victorian ghost-hunter, in the mould of Thomas Carnacki and Dr Silence. He has a complicated private life, and a set of living occult tattoos constantly rewriting themselves on his body, and his first story has just been submitted to a publisher.

So that’s where I get my ideas, apparently. Kiddy fridge magnets. How about you?