This is almost certainly completely useless to aspiring writers and how-do-you-get-your-ideas questioners out there, but I find it fascinating how books emerge from seeds, so here you go.
For much of the last year I have been trying to write Subtle Blood (Will Darling 3). This has been gnarly because pandemic brain, and I’ve been doing a fair bit of displacement activity when I got stuck. For example, I wrote and published a completely different novel. That’s what I call Pro Crastination.
I have another idea that’s been bubbling away in a slow-cooker sort of way for a while (add ingredients, simmer for two years). In pursuance of this, among much else, I’ve been collecting good names when I come across them and adding them to my name file. I was planning in a vague sort of way to write this book next, but then it as happened, I found myself with an opportunity to pitch a two-book Regency romance project to a publisher. Which was great, except I didn’t have a two-book Regency romance project. Whoops.
I chewed a pencil, went for a walk, and stared into the middle distance a bit. Eventually a name popped into my head. Doomsday. (That’s not an epithet like ‘bingo!’ but gloomier. I mean that Doomsday was the name.)
My mental process then went approximately like this:
–That’s a stupid name.
–No it’s not. He could be John Doomsday. No, more biblical. Ezekiel Doomsday? No, too biblical. Ooh, I’ve got it: Josiah Doomsday, Joss for short.
–Joss Doomsday, right. Not posh, then. And who’s he?
–Well, I don’t know but he’s got to be Gothic, right? Or at least in a Gothicish setting. Something Poldarky. Highwayman. Pirate. Smuggler. Smuggler?
–Smuggler. ‘Watch the wall my darling while the gentlemen go by’ and lurking in the dark. Okay, maybe, but Doomsday is still a bit ridiculous, isn’t it?
–If we’re going Gothic we’re doing it properly. Oooh, no, I know what it is! It’s a Tess of the d’Urbervilles thing!
–Toxic masculinity and everyone dies? Sounds really romantic. I’m sure the publisher will bite our hand off.
–No, you div. Remember the inciting event of Tess, when her common-as-muck father Mr. Durbeyfield learns that his name is a corruption of d’Urberville?
–Yes, because I am you and therefore also did that English degree.
–So Joss Doomsday is a distant cousin many times removed from the noble family d’Aumesty. Which sounds like Doomsday if you squint, see? That’s what links the books. Both set in smuggling country—Romney Marsh in Kent would do nicely, lots of Norman history down there—during the Napoleonic wars so there’s good smugglers and bad smugglers. One book about Someone d’Aumesty, the noble inheritor of a decaying house full of Gothic loons probably mixed up in bad things, and one about Joss Doomsday the Robin Hoody smuggler, with overlapping cast and setting. Hmm?
–Mmm. Okay. Fair enough. Yes, we can do something with this.
–Told you so.
–Don’t get cocky, sunshine.
So my agent pitched The Doomsday Books (two gay romances featuring aristocrats, smugglers, and spies on the Kent coast) and I’m delighted to say they’ll be coming from Sourcebooks starting 2022.
So far so good. With that done, I went off and wrestled Subtle Blood into a complete first draft, which took another two very long months. It’s settling in my head as I write, and I didn’t want to start The Doomsday Books till I’m finished with Will and Kim, so I thought while I was killing time (which brings us up to half an hour ago) I’d have a shufti at my back burner project.
And who did I see in my list of names but Sophia Doomsday.
What the heck.
I stared at it, then realised it rang a vague bell. I went and searched on Twitter, and realised that back in January I’d read Charles Dickens’ own list of good names—including Rosetta Dust, Miriam Denial, and Sophia Doomsday sitting together like the world’s greatest firm of solicitors. I’d read it, tweeted it, added a few to my name list, and promptly forgotten the whole thing. Until my subconscious kicked it back up, and a single surname became the kernel for a two-book deal.
So here’s the question: If the name that had popped into my head at that random moment was one of the others from that Dickens list—say, William Why or Walter Ashes or Ambrosina Events—would I have that book deal now? And what, I wonder, would the books be about?
The Doomsday Books will be coming next year from Sourcebooks.
Subtle Blood publishes 23rd June. Preorder links will be coming soon.
The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting (displacement book) is out now.