Posted in Writing

Originality and Ideas

This post is based on notes I wrote for my talk at the HULF Talk on Research and Inspiration at the end of September, but due to (as ever) trying to fit in more talks and readings than were feasible in the time allowed, I kept this bit back! So here it is for the first time now.

In the first part of my talk, I described where I get my ideas from, and gave a list of suggestions for aspiring authors who might be struggling to know what to write about. It’s a question that often comes up among novice writers.

Once I’ve come up with story ideas, or at least starting points for stories, they need to mature. Therefore I keep an ideas book in which I jot all my ideas down. Sometimes it will be a single line or phrase that’s triggered my imagination, or it might be a detail for a novel or short story that I already have planned. I keep separate ideas books for specific projects too.

Then I leave each idea simmering away, sometimes for years, until it’s fermented enough to turn into a short story or novel, leaving my unconscious to work on it.

I don’t believe in writers’ block, other than in cases where you try to write a story too soon, and the thing won’t come because it’s not ready.

Originality and Novelty

But must all ideas be new? Must they be things that only I have ever thought of?

That would really narrow down a writer’s possibilities! Fortunately, I don’t think they do have to be entirely new, because every author’s take on an idea is different. They see an idea through the prism of their character and their lived experience. It’s common at writers’ workshops to be given an object or a set of of words as writing prompts, yet every piece of resulting prose or poem is always very different. In the same way, if you asked six artists to draw a specific object, each picture would be unique.

It’s also evidenced by the entries I’ve co-judged on several occasions with organiser John Holland for the Stroud Short Stories spoken word event, in which we have to choose ten stories from over 100 entries to be performed at a live event. We recently announced the list of the ten stories we chose for this autumn’s event, which is on the theme of love and obsession. It was fascinating to see how very different each story was. Submissions ranged from laugh-out-loud humour to tear-jerkers, from happy-ever-afters to apocalypse.

Tickets are now on sale for the event, which takes place on Sunday 5th November – so if you’d like to come along and see the differences demonstrated, book your tickets here.

poster advertising Stroud Short Stories Love is Strange event
Click the image to order tickets from the Cotswold Playhouse


Originality and Theft

I’ve also just come across a fabulous book about art and theft written before the advent of AI in its current form. Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon explains the contribution existing ideas and art contribute to new work. Kleon and licenses you to seize what you love and build on it. Do read it – it’s quick and easy and he runs an interesting newsletter too. It’s very empowering, because it justifies what may have felt, wrongly, like a guilty secret.

cover of Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon
A fascinating, easy, quick read – highly recommended

Originality and Research

But why not just write what you know?

When you get to a certain age, doesn’t your life experience give you enough raw material? Wouldn’t that be easier than researching what you don’t know?

Well, yes – and my starting point in my writing is always what I know – the human condition, as lived by me, eg over thirty years of living in a Cotswold village and thirteen years of working at a boarding school. At some point, I plan to write about an as yet untapped part of my past, when I worked as a PR in the 1990s. I also plan to write stories with older female protagonists, having drawn largely on my younger life so far.

But research allows you to deepen a story and also to write about what you know less well, or what you don’t know but would like to. That’s an exciting experience as a writer. Over the last couple of years, I’ve enjoyed researching a story set not in the Cotswolds but in Mousehole, and I’ve learned so much about local legend, topography, history and all sorts.

This brings me to a buzzphrase that sometimes arises when people research topics is “cultural appropriation”. Although I have a small amount of Cornish blood via my great-grandmother, when I started my Mousehole project, I felt slightly uncomfortable. Did I really have the right to write about Cornwall. Then I decided, yes, I do – provided the central character and viewpoint is of an outsider. Although I try hard to get my facts right, I don’t pretend to be an expert or have the authority of a native. I don’t think Cornish nationalists will be after my blood.

My research in Cornwall has taken the form of staying in the cottage where my story is set, spending a lot of time wandering about absorbing the atmosphere, reading masses of history books, visiting the places that will be pivotal in the story, like the monument to the village’s last native speaker of Cornish.

Photo of memorial at Paul Church
Part of my research in Cornwall was to visit this memorial to Dolly Pentreath, Mousehole’s last native speaker of Cornish (taken in March, hence grey sky and bare branches)

Yes, I could have stayed at my desk and consulted Google and Wikipedia, but that’s barely scratching the surface and doesn’t allow you the full sensory experience of the place. It also only tells you whatever people have put online in the first place. Everything there is secondhand, and a significant amount of information online is likely to be inaccurate. But desk research can be a good starting place, especially if you click through to the links at the foot of Wikipedia to the original source materials.

If you’re a writer nervous of taking their first leap into fiction, and you crave licence to lay claim to an idea and make it your own, I suggest you read the kind of books that will give permission to lay claim to an idea and get writing. These include craft books such as Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write and Stephen King’s On Writing. The two books that made the biggest different to me were, very early on, Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer and more recently Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing.

Meanwhile, my thirteenth novel, Driven to Murder, to be published by Boldwood Books in January 2024, taps into my lived experience – not of murder, you’ll be relieved to know, but for Sophie Sayers‘ experience of learning to drive when the village bus service is under threat of withdrawal – a threat that, coincidentally, arose in my real-life village as I was writing the book. It’s surprising how often a story you think you’ve just made up turns out to have at least an element of truth.

I’d love to hear your examples of fact proving larger than fiction. Do leave a comment if you’d like to share an example that’s happened to you.

In Other News

Fellow mystery author Kat Ailes and I will be in conversation about where we get our ideas, how to come up with an original angle for crime novels, and much more, on Sunday 12th November at Stroud Book Festival. We met for the first time last week and chatted for two hours about what we’d discuss in our one-hour talk, so you’re guaranteed a lively event!

banner ad for Cosy But Criminal talk at Stroud Book Festival with Kat Ailes

Book your tickets online here.

Posted in Reader Offers, Travel, Writing

Why My Heart is in the Highlands

This post was  originally written for my publisher, Boldwood Books, to use on the launch of my eighth Sophie Sayers Cozy Mystery, Murder in the Highlands, in March 2023.

When I first visited the Highlands in 2000 with my new Scottish boyfriend, I couldn’t understand how at the age of 19 he had torn himself away from such a beautiful country to live in England. Although he came from Bannockburn, the site of the famous 1312 battle in Central Scotland at which the Scots thrashed the English, Gordon’s heart was in the Highlands, as the Robert Burns poem goes.

Continue reading “Why My Heart is in the Highlands”

Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Out of the Mouths of Aunts

cover of March 2020 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser
To read the whole issue online, click the image

Every month I write a column for the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, a not-for-profit community magazine. In this month’s issue, I shared one of my favourite sources of story ideas: eavesdropping.

As an inveterate eavesdropper, I shamelessly raid overheard conversations for fun phrases to put into the mouths of my fictional characters.

While I may not remember a meeting time from one day to the next (top tip: hold all meetings to coincide with elevenses), when it comes to other people’s one-liners, I have the carved-in-stone memory of a Ten Commandments tablet.

Impressive Pledge

Inspired by old memories

In my twenties, I worked alongside an ardent vegan, in the days when this now common lifestyle choice was rare. One day over coffee she announced that she could only ever marry another vegan. The chance of falling in love with a man who met this as well as all the usual criteria seemed to me about as likely as the miller’s daughter guessing Rumpelstiltskin’s name. Twenty years later, I used her declaration of intent as a starting point for “Housetraining Thomas”, my short story about finding partners in my collection Marry in Haste. (In case you’re wondering, my friend she eventually settled for a vegetarian and in true fairytale style they are living happily ever after.)

Legendary Lessons

A Westonbirt alumna’s quote borrowed with her permission

Working at Westonbirt School in the late 1998, I harvested a great line from former pupil Jane Reid. When compiling alumnae’s memories for the school’s seventieth birthday, I asked, “What’s the most useful thing you learned at school?” Without hesitation Jane replied, “At my prep school, how to steam open an envelope and at my senior school not to sign anything I hadn’t read.” With her permission, I lent her words of wisdom to Miss Harnett (aka Hairnet), the eccentric headmistress in my recent novel Secrets at St Bride’s.

Family Favourites

cover of The Natter of Knitters
Auntie Minnie helped!

I’m equally insouciant with members of my family. Like Bertie Wooster, I’m blessed with a fine collection of characterful aunts. When my father was reading my new novella, The Natter of Knitters, he instantly recognised a favourite saying of his Auntie Minnie’s, spoken in my story by a character worried about the well-being of a very slender neighbour: “Where does she keep her organs?” In a similar vein, my grandmother, spotting someone bending over would say “Have you seen my nice bottom?”

old family photo
Grandmothers and aged aunts – a great source of quotable quotes

I wonder whether I shall pass any memorable phrases of my own down the generations? At the moment, the main contender is “Steady, Teddy”, said to any small child who is getting out of hand (and occasionally my teenage daughter). And that, I confess, was copied from my favourite television programme as a toddler, Andy Pandy. Once a thief…

cover of Young by Name
Earlier columns from the Tetbury Advertiser, available in paperback and ebook

If you’d like to read more of my columns for the Tetbury Advertiser, you’ll find the first six years’ worth in this collection, available in paperback and ebook. I’ll compile another at the end of this year.

Click here to order as an ebook

Click here to order the paperback from Amazon, or ask your local bookshop to order it in using ISBN 978-1911223030.

Posted in Personal life, Travel, Writing

My Dream Office (with a little help from the National Trust)

This post first appeared on the Authors Electric collective blog

shot of Debbie going through a gate into a graveyard
Debbie Young, going places…

“Where do you write?” asked a very pleasant lady at a talk I gave recently to the Cheltenham Writers’ Circle.

I gave my standard answer: how lucky I am to have my own study in my Victorian Cotswold cottage, with a big desk facing a window that looks out over the garden.

But next morning, when I sat down to write there, I shrieked as a sharp pain shot from my spine to my ankle, reminding me that lately I had been spending far too long at my desk-with-a-view – and I felt desirous of change.

Prompted by the arrival of my new National Trust card in the post the day before, and licensed by my friend and mentor Orna Ross to fill the creative well with a weekly “create date” with self, I stowed my purse, my shades, and my notebook and pen into my backpack, donned my walking boots, and set off to nearby Dyrham Park.

photo of Dyrham Park manor in deer park
The long and winding road down through the deer park to the spectacular Dyrham Park
The long and winding road down through the deer park to the spectacular Dyrham Park

Ok, I confess, I drove there (well, it is about eight miles away) – but on arrival, I eschewed the visitor bus service and set off down the path to this beautiful stately home, nestling at the bottom of the deer park, in search of a different place to write my daily words.

A cosy nook beckoned me from inside a hollow tree

This old hollow tree looked tempting. I’ve always had a soft spot for hollow trees since reading Enid Blyton’s The Hollow Tree House (over and over again) when I was a child. Unfortunately this one was roped off from public access.

I proceeded to the main house, skirting round the building – it was too sunny outside to be indoors – admiring beautiful Delft pots of tulips on the way. (This was a few weeks ago now.)

The original owner had served as Dutch ambassador

I thought the chapel would come in handy if my writing wasn’t progressing well and I needed a quick pray, but sadly it was locked.

The chapel now serves as the parish church.

There were plenty of seats to choose from with scenic views of the flowerbeds…

To sit in sunshine or shadow? – depends on which end you choose

…although I might be tempted to take pity on the gardener and lend him a hand with the weeding.

I think he might benefit from a bigger wheelbarrow

Wildflower meadows complemented the formal planting, replete with so many traditional English plants that I found Oberon‘s seductive lines running through my head…

“I know a bank where the wild thyme grows…”
Great swathes of forget-me-nots – a humble plant invested with a special significance in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries – brought me back to the purpose of my visit: to write.
Not forgetting…
I turned my back on the lake to investigate what looked at first glance as a kind of wooden hammock.
Nature’s hammock?

…but closer inspection revealed a forbidding sign.

Then – who’d have thought it? – I found myself on the threshold of the National Trust gift shop. I do like a National Trust gift shop. Thoughts of writing were quickly forgotten as I snapped up a lovely new linen sunhat, a book about drawing (a hobby I’ve wanted to take up for a long time), and some souvenir postcards.
Running out of time to get home for my daughter’s return from school, I got the bus back up the hill to the car park, and returned home feeling like Wordsworth inspired by his visit to Tintern Abbey, rested, revitalised and refreshed by my impromptu outing, back at my normal place of work.
“Home again, home again, jiggety jig”
And where did I write this post? In Dyrham Park’s excellent tea room, of course. At last – I’d discovered the perfect office!
  • To find the nearest National Trust property to you, click here
  • To find out more about my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, click here
  • To order any of the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, click here.
  • To read other posts by the Authors Electric, click here
Posted in Personal life, Writing

What To Do When There Aren’t Enough Hours in the Day

Cover image of Tristram Shandy book showing man facing grim reaper in skeletal form
Confronting the fact that our time is limited

As a compulsive writer, I sometimes find it stressful that I never have enough time to write everything I want, either on paper (where my fiction writing first takes shape) or on my blogs.

Besides this Young By Name blog, I have a new(ish) book blog at and a book marketing advice blog for authors,, not to be confused with the author advice blog that I edit for the Alliance of Independent Authors at

This morning, for example, I’ve been staring at a list of topics and events I need to write up while they’re still fresh in my mind, including recent writers’ festivals that I’ve attended and some social occasions. I know that another day will go by before I manage to make a start on them thanks to some pressing deadlines for some paid freelance work. Continue reading “What To Do When There Aren’t Enough Hours in the Day”