Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Where do you get your ideas?

The dreaded question asked of writers the world over. Now while personally I’ve been stalking authors – ahem, I mean, going to author events for years and have only ever heard it in the context of authors saying they’ve been asked it, I don’t doubt its popularity. Because that’s what everyone wants to know. It’s what I want to know whenever I read a book with an intriguing premise and/or a huge twist. How did he come up with this? Where did she get the idea for that?


I can tell you exactly where I got the idea for Distress Signalsthe 12 November 2011 issue of the Guardian Weekend magazine. Specifically its cover story, ‘Lost at Sea’ by Jon Ronson.

Someone left their copy of it behind them in a cafe in Cork, and my mother picked it up and brought it home for me to read. This is something she does all the time: she saves magazines and newspapers, or just clippings from them, or nowadays she’s more likely to email a link to a thing she’s read that she thinks you might be interested in. Thinks. And that’s the problem, because more often than not the link between the article and an area of interest to you is tenuous at best.

For instance, back when I was self-publishing, she thought that all I wanted was to read local community newsletter stories about the latest Tom, Dick or Harry who’d written a 400,000-word opus about every single thing that had ever happened to him, ordered a box of them from CreateSpace and was now flogging it to family and friends while wondering aloud where you send submissions for the Booker.

(I didn’t, for the record.)

Even here, on this occasion, the link was weak. Once upon a time, I worked in Walt Disney World. Not directly for Disney, but for the global hotel brand that operated one of the resorts next to Epcot – and decidedly on dry land. Three and a half years after I returned home, Mum sees a story about a Cast Member (employee in DisneySpeak) who’d disappeared from the Wonder, a Disney cruise ship (run by an entirely separate branch of Mouse Ears Inc), and thinks Oh, Catherine worked for Disney too, she’ll be interested in that. 

Mickeys Very Merry Christmas 003

Me in Magic Kingdom in 2006

Turns out though I actually was, although not because of the Disney link.

I’d never been on a cruise ship or been even mildly tempted to get on one – the biggest ship I’d ever been on was an overnight passenger ferry to France. Still, I had what I would assume are typical ideas about it for someone who’d never been: suntanned pensioners, buffets and cocktails, cabaret shows. Bad stuff that could happen to you on a cruise were, in my head, mostly limited to: (a) claustrophobia because you didn’t book a cabin with a balcony, (b) getting stuck with annoying people at dinner and (c) Norovirus. (The Costa Concordia would add another possibility to that list – sinking – in a couple of months’ time.) As for the rest… Well, terrible things happen in hotels too, on occasion. I knew that from experience. Many suicides, for instance, happen in hotels. A cruise ship is primarily a floating hotel. What’s the difference?

The difference is that if something happens to you in a hotel in New York, the NYPD will come running. If something happens to you in a hotel here in Dublin, the Gardai will quickly arrive on the scene. But what happens when you’re on a ship that’s sailing in international waters? What happens when you’re in no country at all?

Rebecca Coriam was a British citizen working on a ship that was based out of L.A. – a ship owned by a company headquartered in the UK – who disappeared somewhere between the U.S. and Mexico. But yet her disappearance – potentially a crime with a witness list of 3,000 passengers and crew – was investigated by one man, a police officer from the Bahamas, who couldn’t start his investigation until he’d flown over a thousand miles to meet the ship. Why? Because maritime law governs cruise ships when they’re in international waters, and it states that the authority on board is that of the country where the ship is registered. Cruise ships tend to be registered in ‘flags of convenience’ for tax purposes, e.g. Bahamas, Panama, Libya. And no authority is on board, ordinarily – they have to be invited on, which only happens after the fact.

Would you go on holiday to a country that had no police?

Moreover, on a ship with thousands of passengers and crew, a disappearance might not be noticed immediately. And what if it wasn’t a disappearance? The ship might continue to sail away from the location where it happened, the crime scene could be a cabin that’s getting professionally cleaned once a day and potential witnesses – crew and other passengers – could leave the ship and go home. It’s also surrounded by the perfect place to dispose of evidence: three hundred and sixty degrees of open sea.

I was horrified. But at the same time, I was reasonable. This was a horrendous tragedy, yes, but surely it was an isolated incident…? Then I read something that stopped me in my tracks, so much so that I actually took out a pen and highlighted it.


International Cruise Victims. International Cruise Victims. What was happening out there that a group like this existed – and clearly needed to? I started researching the answer online, reading the stories I found with my jaw on my desk.

I came away with three clear ideas in my head. There are no police at sea was the first. The second was the horrific challenge of looking for a missing loved one, searching for them all by yourself, when you had the whole world to check and no one to help you. What would you do? Would you – could you – ever stop, give up? How far would you go if you just had to know what had happened? And the third, which came later, when the wheels in my crime-writer-brain really started whirring, was this: A cruise ship is the perfect place to get away with murder.

I once watched an interview with Edna O’Brien where she talked about writing being her way of grieving for what she read in the headlines. I think of Distress Signals a bit like that, a way of working out for myself the question that I kept asking when, after reading Ronson’s article, I started researching the laws, circumstances and attitudes that seemingly enable cruise ship crimes to happen so frighteningly often: how can this be? 

That’s where I got my idea.

You can now read a preview of the first three chapters of  Distress Signals here. If you’re on Facebook, you can enter the giveaway currently running on my Facebook page. The prize is a signed copy and a gift. (Ends Friday 8th.)

The original article by Jon Ronson is online here and it’s also included in his collection of journalism, Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries, which is available here. Rebecca Coriam’s parents have established a website here, and also had a hand in founding the Maritime Victims International Helpline initiative. You can visit the International Cruise Victims website here. Cruise Junkie keeps a running tally of how many people have gone overboard from cruise ships going back to 1995. It’s currently at 270. 

20 thoughts on “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

  1. Sally says:

    So interesting, Catherine! When I read the opening of Distress Signals that you shared the other day, I immediately thought of this article that I read back in 2011 and found it to be fascinating (and alarming!) It is amazing to now hear you referencing it as it is exactly what came to mind. I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of Distress Signals now!

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I had a similar experience when I read WHAT KIND OF MOTHER ARE YOU? by Paula Daly (great read, if you haven’t read it). It really reminded me of this episode of Oprah I’d seen years ago where a mother had accidentally left her child in a car with tragic consequences and was being interviewed about it. It was fascinating because on one hand she was responsible for what happened, and in other ways it was difficult to blame her for it. And then I got to the end of the book and here’s an author’s note, saying that was the genesis of the idea!

  2. Green Dragon Artist says:

    Wow. Now I’m NEVER going on a cruise! 🙂

    I get my ideas from all sorts of places, but usually when I’m falling asleep. You know that half-dozing state when your brain has already gone through all the mistakes you’ve made that day, and is now ready to dredge up old ones? My mind starts wandering and making up scenarios. Occasionally, it grabs onto whatever WIP I’m working on and starts unraveling the knots on a problem with the plot, the character, etc. I’m pretty good about remembering the details I’ve worked out in the morning. Years of writing down my dreams in a journal helped with that.

  3. Karen says:

    Funnily enough, I wrote a short story called Overboard based on this very feature, a few years ago! Shocking that so many deaths occur at sea every year, and are never solved. Another reason why I’d NEVER go on a cruise.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Really? That’s amazing. There’s actually another book out this summer that’s also about murder on a cruise ship: The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware. (I really enjoyed her debut, In A Dark, Dark Wood.) I don’t know if the Ronson article specifically was her inspiration but it could be! I’m kind of amazed really there isn’t more “cruise-lit” (or “ship-lit” was Ruth’s term) thrillers in the mainstream. Can we read your short story anywhere?

  4. brmaycock says:

    It is so lovely that your mum does that! My mum’s kinda like tha, but in a more disorganised way. She hears the word ‘author,’ rings me up and tells me she heard about somebody promoting a book on RTE Radio 1 and had I heard of them? She generally can’t remember the name of the author and so we have a fun game for around ten minutes of ‘guess the name of the author.’ Hints: She writes those kind of heavy literary books, she’s married to the guy … You know the guy … By then she’s forgotten the main point of the story and we go back to ‘how’s the book doing … NOW’ and ‘when you say it’s going fine how many are you selling … ‘ etc. Mums, you got a love em … Oh and by the way the ‘Would you go to a country that had no police,’ could be a tag line to the most messed up book ever!

  5. EDC Writing says:

    Cruises, historic seas, Greek, Roman and more, sailed UK to USA felt Titanic’s spirit…there is something, always something of the sea, distant horizons…that pulls you…to the balcony…the rail…a barrier…a gateway…to a story…works for me…always

  6. ridicuryder says:

    Hi Catherine,

    Some of my ideas come from convoluting or inverting. Like you were IVFed at Disney (instead of having a regular job there) as part of a homegrown labor force and your Mother is actually one of several fluffy characters you play / costumes you wear (she is the itchiest). You are a very good performer except you’re always hounding Disney management about a ride you want to develop where foodie writers on a ship compete to best describe lunch buffets. There’s a lot of gluttony and sometimes there’s a murder for desert.

    A little sliding back and forth with variables like these and often something interesting pops out…

    (now I have to get back to writing my damn book)

  7. Debbie Young says:

    Great insights, there, Catherine – and I really like that Edna O’Brien reference as well. One of the reasons I hardly ever read a newspaper these days is the instinct to invent backstories (mostly heartbreaking) behind the all-too-transient headlines. So much tragedy behind what soon becomes yesterday’s news, and I think books like “Distress Signals” are a great way to raise awareness of important issues, as well as being a gripping piece of fiction. (I say this with the advantage of one who’s been lucky enough to receive an ARC of it – review to follow shortly!)

    I have only once been on a cruise, for a week with a job I had at the time (yes, I know, it’s a hard life), and though I enjoyed it, I did find it a slightly unnerving experience – so much going on behind the scenes to wonder at, and fascinating people-watching opportunities! I think that a cruise ship would be a great setting for a series of murder mysteries, whether cosy (Jessica Fletcher Casts Off…) or not-so-cosy.

    It would be a brave cruiseline that invited you as a guest speaker to talk about your book – but might be worth offering your services in return for a free cruise, in the interests of research. After all, it might help that line show they have nothing to hide? 😉

  8. hilarycustancegreen says:

    I remember this article and I remember being affected by it too. I am often moved by what I read in papers and the stories definitely affect some of the events in my writing, though the reverse happens too. You write some scenario and bingo, there it is in the papers a few weeks later. Photos in papers stay with me, even when I have no idea what the story is.

    Clever post. I REALLY don’t like thrillers, but I might have to read Distress Signals now.

  9. foxemerson says:

    I’m looking forward to reading Distress Signals, though it sounds like it is going to be heart wrenching! Did you have a hard time writing the tougher scenes? I know as an author that you become really connected to your characters so when something bad happens to them, you feel the impact. When I wrote Monique – a true story about a North London prostitute – even though I was recounting someone else’s story, I found myself feeling her pain and emotions as I wrote it. It’s a tough book. I wonder if you felt the same way during Distress Signals. Good luck with the launch, I’ll be looking out for it.

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