Where do you get your ideas from? That’s a question often asked in interviews with writers, and it’s something I’m always curious about when I read books by other people. But having written one novel and with another in the pipeline, I’ve realised that the question, at least for me, doesn’t always have a straight answer.
I wasn’t inspired to write The Other Daughter by a single thing, nor did I have an ah-ha! moment; rather it was a collection of ideas and interests, some of which arrived well into the writing process. As far as I can remember, here’s where it all came from:
1. My own background. I’m half British, half Canadian, but I grew up entirely in Britain, visiting my Canadian family sporadically on holiday. What would I be like, I've always wondered, if my parents had chosen to bring me up in Canada instead? I’d be the same person in some ways, but perhaps very different in others, with different cultural experiences, different friends and influences, a different education, possibly different hobbies, and definitely a different accent. I’ve always been a sucker for a Sliding Doors story, the idea of what if?, so this gave me the starting point for my story: what would it feel like to discover you should have had a different upbringing entirely?
2. A newspaper article. The news is a good source of ideas for many writers, and a particularly extraordinary news story gave me the idea for how my main character would end up living a different life to the one she should have. But I won’t go into details as to what that news story was, since it’s a spoiler!
3. My surroundings. Write what you know, they say. Though this novel is far from autobiographical, it’s inevitable that my own experiences would be an influence (and a source of material). I set it in London and Lausanne, two places I’d most recently lived in. One of my main characters is a journalist (as I have been), the other is a teacher (as both my parents used to be), and many of the scenes are set in places I know well. That said, I wasn’t around in 1976, so the historical context of the story, both in the UK and Switzerland, required lots of research. I didn’t set out to write a historical novel, but somehow that’s what happened along the way, mainly due to…
4. Current affairs. When I started writing The Other Daughter in 2016, the issue of women’s rights was once more in the foreground. Trump was elected US President that autumn and I went on a women’s march in Geneva the day after his inauguration, everyone wearing pussy hats and demonstrating about the fact a pussy-grabber was now in the White House, with the risk to women’s rights he presented. I’d become aware, since living in Switzerland, how late some rights came to women here (not only did they not gain the vote until 1971 but rights including equal status in marriage, statutory paid maternity leave and abortion came very late compared with the UK and other European countries). The women’s march and subsequent demonstrations about equal pay inspired me to set my novel partly in the 70s during the women’s liberation movement, in order to ask the question: how much has actually changed?
5. An exhibition. In 2017 I visited an exhibition about a historical wrong in Switzerland which the Swiss government had a few years earlier apologised for. I hadn’t known anything about this before, and I found it quite shocking that a country well known for its wealth, beautiful scenery and high quality of life could have dark secrets. It seemed an apt (and important) counterpoint to include in my Switzerland-set story.
6. My age. I was the same age as my main character when I started writing my novel: 39. I think it’s a difficult age to be a woman because of the expectations heaped on us. By that age society says you should be in a good job, married or in a long term relationship, a home-owner, and a mother. But what if you don’t have any of those things? What if life hasn’t turned out how you thought it would? I wanted to write something relatable, which other women my age could identify with, something that shines a light on the pressures society puts on women to be a certain way – pressures that possibly haven’t changed as much in 40 years as we might think they have.
So there it is: my inspiration for The Other Daughter was a collection of ideas, gathered along a winding road, which hopefully come together in a story people will want to read! It’s not a simple answer to the question, and it’s certainly not the only answer – my second book, nearly finished, doesn’t come from any of these things, while my third is currently only a spark of an idea inspired by something I saw on TV show The Repair Shop, of all places.
But I like the fact there’s no single way to find a story. I like it that ideas come from lots of sources. Perhaps the key is to simply be open to them: read the news, listen to people, visit exhibitions, watch telly, be interested in things.
Hopefully, by doing that, I’ll never run out of ideas…
The Other Daughter is published on 18th February, and is available to pre-order here.