The Crime Readers' Association

Quentin Bates – Ideas?

20th June 2014

There are questions a writer will groan inwardly at hearing, while hopefully maintaining an outward smile, however glassy. Do you make any money from these books, then? That’s a good one. Then there are the comments that the person you’re talking doesn’t ‘actually read’ but would write a book if they had the time. Fair enough. That one elicits an ‘I’d like to see you try’ shrug. Then there’s the character who asks if you’d like to hear a really great idea for a book that they feel someone else should write.

But the awkward one is the question about where ideas and inspiration come from. I was asked this one a few days ago, fluffed a non-committal answer and thought about it afterwards. Hence this attempt to answer it here, just in case the young lady who asked the question is reading this.

Of course, this is a wholly subjective viewpoint. I have no real idea at all how other writers go about this because I haven’t asked them and don’t intend to.

Ideas and inspiration aren’t the same thing. Inspiration, to my mind is what gets you going and there are no better inspirations than a decent cheque or the sight of a dismal bank balance. We’re probably talking about motivation here rather than inspiration, but they come close to each other. There’s no doubt that inspiration and motivation go hand-in-hand, and then there’s the question of discipline as well, the determination to get through that last round of edits of a story that you’ve been through so many times that you practically know it by heart.

But ideas… that’s a less easy matter. I’ll admit that I’m not the sort of writer who plans a great deal. A story tends to start life in the middle somewhere. Then there’s a rough idea of how it might end and  a beginning that’s normally the part that gets dumped and re-written more than anything else.

Sometimes characters spark everything. Cold Steal started life at Luton airport where I was waiting for a flight to spend three days at a fairly unexciting trade show, courtesy of the day job. With a couple of hours to kill in a half-empty departure lounge I dawdled over what was actually a fairly respectable lunch and fell back on that time-honoured pursuit of peoplewatching, and there they were, the outlines of three characters who became part of the book, one serving, another clearing tables and a third reading a newspaper over a forgotten cup of coffee.

Sometimes it can be a snippet from a news report or a mention of some minor incident that can set the imagination rolling. Sometimes that particular item disappears from the finished book, acting simply as a catalyst that starts the ball rolling. The three characters passing through Luton airport that morning eventually didn’t become the central characters in Cold Steal, but they were the spark.

I write about Iceland, my adopted home for many years and while I may be critical of Iceland and much of what happens there, that doesn’t mean I don’t have an enormous fondness for the country. I follow what happens there all the time. There’s rarely a day when I don’t speak to someone in Iceland (How would I manage without skype…?) and the arrival of the radio via the internet has been fantastic. Now I listen to Rás 1 (think a fustier version of Radio 4) through the computer for an hour or two most days, listening to news, gossip, music, discussions and debates, just hearing the language in the background maintains that essential link.

I reckon we all have half a dozen half-formed ideas filed away in a drawer somewhere at the back of our minds. I certainly do. One recent germ of an idea came from a job I did translating a website that included a pretty dry account of how a factory was started up in a remote part of Iceland eighty years ago when there were few people and hardly any roads. That’s when the mental cogwheels start to mesh and the questions start to pop up. What if this or that had happened? Then there’s the question of do I have the time and the resources to do the research it deserves? I hope so, but finding out how a fishmeal factory was built eighty years ago could be a challenge, but it sounds like an interesting challenge.


Quentin Bates escaped English suburbia at the end of the 1970s for a gap year in Iceland that gradually turned into a gap decade, going largely native in the north of Iceland for much of that time and acquiring a new language, a family and an unexpected profession at the same time. He returned to England in 1990, Icelandic family in tow, and has been here ever since.
After a good few years at sea and having trained as a ship’s officer, the shift into writing for a living began, through a series of coincidences, as a journalist for a marine trade magazine. Fiction was something he had always seen as a complete mug’s game, so of course had to give it a try. The advice was to write about what you know, so Iceland was the ideal backdrop.
The first novel (Frozen Out) was published in 2011 in Britain and US, and there are three more since then, as well as translations into German, Dutch, Finnish and Polish. Find out more 

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