Are Some Writers Thieves? By Fergus McNeill
I steal a lot of stuff. There aren’t too many professions where you can freely admit that sort of thing but, happily, writing is one of them. I steal indiscriminately, from friends, from family, from strangers in the street. I steal things I see on my travels. I steal from life.
For me, it all began when I attended a Creative Writing evening class. Our term-topic was “Starting Your Novel”, and our tutor had given us an open brief to deliver one chapter each week. I’d recently visited the Severn Estuary to photograph the suspension bridges so, when I needed somewhere to dump a body for the opening of my crime story, that seemed as good a place as any. I looked through my photos, recalling what it was like to stand alone on that empty beach, staring out across the slate grey water, how the wind whipped my hair and stole my breath, and how it felt almost like standing on the edge of the world. I wrote what I remembered, and what my camera had captured… then simply added a bedraggled corpse. And although I didn’t notice it at the time, the authenticity of the setting somehow made everything feel more real, even the things I’d made up.
Later in the term, when I came to the chapters where I needed to write about my charming serial killer, I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what the character looked like, how he dressed, how he spoke. I found it quite difficult to simply conjure a complete person out of nothing, so I started picturing one of my friends in the role. What would my friend be wearing? How would he say this dialogue? It was surprisingly easy to imagine him in the role of the killer (which, with hindsight, should probably have worried me more than it did!) and it certainly helped me to write the character. Knowing him so well, it was simple to imagine him in almost any given situation and describe the scene, down to the smallest nuances of speech, and little behavioural idiosyncrasies.
So my chapter-per-week homework was generally going quite well… until I tried to write about places I’d never been, or people I didn’t know. That’s when I realised I’d been stealing – unwittingly, perhaps – but stealing nonetheless. Locations, mannerisms, turns of phrase… I’d pinched them all.
Rather than stop, I decided the best thing would be to steal a lot more.
I began to base more of my characters, not just the principal ones, on people I knew. I started collecting little bits of local colour, noting down things I’d seen or heard. I would sit in cafes, with my headphones on but with the music switched off, so I could listen to the people around me (people don’t worry what they say in front of you if you’re wearing headphones).
I started writing “on location” – visiting the area where a particular scene was supposed to take place, and sketching out a first draft right there and then. It was like being on the film-set of my story, and it allowed me to pick up all sorts of detail and atmosphere that I might otherwise have missed.
It seemed to work. My fellow classmates responded to the authenticity of my new chapters and, when I was lucky enough to have my first book published, readers got in touch to say how I’d got this place or that place “just right”. It seems that many of us enjoy that sense of recognition we get when a story contains something familiar.
Yet oddly enough, it’s not just locations that people recognise. Shortly after publication, my friend (the one who I’d based my serial killer on) phoned me. We chatted for a while about various things, and then he said, “Oh, by the way… I finished your book.”
At first, I felt a little ripple of pleasure that someone had taken the time to read my story… but then I remembered that this was different. This time, the person in question was essentially IN the story… and I hadn’t told him that I’d stolen his appearance, his speech patterns, and his mannerisms. Nervously, I asked him what he thought of it.
“I enjoyed it,” he told me. “And I really liked the serial killer… he’s a bloody good bloke.”
I suppose it shows that we recognise ourselves, or elements of ourselves, in what we read. And I suppose it also shows that my friend is comfortable with who he is… though he isn’t a serial killer, of course. I hope.
Anyway, I’ve continued my career of crime, stealing as much and as often as I can. I steal real places and use them as authentic backdrops for made-up murders. I steal real people, and real dialogue, and weave them into startling situations. So the next time you’re in a cafe, and the person on the next table is quietly typing away with their headphones on, just be careful what you say… you might end up as a character in a crime novel!
Fergus McNeill has been creating computer games since the eighties, when he started writing interactive fiction titles. Over the years he became known for his own content, and his adaptations of other authors’ material, including working with Terry Pratchett to create the first Discworld game. He also wrote and directed voiceover scripts for a number of award-winning titles.
EYE CONTACT, a contemporary crime thriller, was his debut novel, followed by KNIFE EDGE, the second in the Bristol-based Detective Harland series published by Hodder.
Now running an app development studio, Fergus lives in Hampshire. He is 44, married, with a teenage son and a very large cat.