‘What if…’

As a writer, I’ve gone about my daily life – my real life I like to call it – stealing bits of it to turn into fiction: hundreds of scripts for television and, more recently, novels in The Nathan Hawk Murder Mystery series. I call it the ‘What if…’ factor and it makes its presence felt ten, twenty, thirty times a day. Far from being an intrusive curse it’s the fodder I’ve always needed to keep the wolf from the door.

It works like this: what if the most ordinary events in my life suddenly step sideways, as if self-propelled, and with a few tweaks of imagination, become food for a story? Those ordinary events can be anything. Things people say, do or wear, shops I go into, rooms that have a spooky feel to them, rivers I walk along, stuff I find, broken windows, locked doors, sudden news flashes, coincidences, a change in the weather, winding country roads … you get the general drift. They take on a new dimension, usually a dramatic one, as I weigh them up as potential material. Most get discarded but it’s no exaggeration to say that they could all be used somewhere, given the right circumstances.

One such – a few remarks in a conversation I had with an ex-copper acquaintance suddenly had the back of my neck prickling and a day later I turned it into one of the Hawk Mysteries – Evil Turn. This guy told me, in a very disgruntled voice, that he had once been part of team that safe-housed a witness in an IRA trial. It was a young man in his mid-twenties. On the police team there was a policewoman of a similar age who, to while away the weeks protecting this witness, taught him how to read. What if, I thought, they had become so close, so intimate during the process, that one day they just took off into the sunset? No explanation, no note, no apology. What would happen to the case? Would someone go looking for him? Police or suspects? What would they find? The questions become endless.

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That’s one ‘What if…’ that I actually used. Here’s another that popped up just a few weeks ago.

The Muse was lying in the bath, no doubt wondering how to get me started on another book, when part of the ceiling above her collapsed, exposing lathe and plaster a metre square.

I should tell you that The Muse and I live in a thatched cottage with an attic which no one’s been in for 300 years. There’s no access to it, there never was. I’ve often thought that one day I’ll punch a hole in the ceiling and take a look. Now that some of it had fallen this was my chance and I would have taken it but for the lathe and plaster mesh fending me off. But what if, apart from a citadel of spiders (the whole house is like living in a vast fishing net) I found, say, a missing old master, a horde of 17th century treasure, relics from the Civil War or the obligatory body or two. What if one of them was mummified, and me unpicking it unleashed a hitherto dormant strain of bubonic plague? What if, more usefully for a contemporary crime story, one of the bodies was not three hundred years old but just fifteen and had only been there since the last time the place was thatched? It’s great fodder for a story.

However, back in my real life and to be on the safe side, a specialist plasterer’s coming this week to patch up the hole above the bath. He won’t be poking around in the attic.

I’ve experienced literally thousands of ‘What if…’ moments, some more startling and bizarre than others, but all of them useful. And as long as they keep coming I’ll keep writing. More ‘What ifs…’ to come.



Douglas Watkinson is an English novelist, playwright and screenwriter.

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