People often ask me where I find my ideas for books. The answer is, everywhere: a snippet of conversation overheard in a coffee shop; a news article that catches my eye; pictures, places or a piece of music that set my imagination firing. But in the end, it always boils down to one question: What if…?
What if an optimist, who has everything going wrong for them, meets a pessimist who has everything he wants? (Fairytale of New York). What if you received the perfect kiss in a Christmas market only for the person who kissed you to disappear? (It Started With a Kiss). What if two people fell in love before they’d even met? (Somewhere Beyond the Sea). No matter what the story becomes, it begins with the same question.
In The Day We Meet Again, the ‘What If’ appeared suddenly. I had arrived for a meeting in London an hour early. Realising I was near St Pancras Station – and knowing how much my dad loved it – I decided to visit it for the first time. I loved the station the moment I set foot on its upper concourse. I was gazing at the beautiful glass ceiling when I bumped into someone and quickly turned to apologise – only to realise I was saying sorry to a statue!
The statue is of Sir John Betjeman, the much-loved British poet and one-time Poet Laureate, who campaigned to save St Pancras from demolition. A little larger than life, his statue is wearing a trilby and mackintosh, a cloth book bag in one hand. Around his feet, carved on a circle of slate, are the words of one of his poems:
And in the shadowless unclouded glare,
Deep blue above us fades to whiteness where
A misty sealine meets the wash of air.
He looks delightfully dishevelled and one of his shoelaces is untied. He’s gazing up as if looking at a train departure board and the hem of his mackintosh is billowed out, as if caught by the rush of wind from a passing train. There aren’t any barriers around him, which is how I ended up bumping into him. He’s just there.
And that’s when my ‘What If’ moment arrived.
What if two people met by this statue when their trains were delayed? What if they were heading in opposite directions on yearlong adventures? And what if they fell in love?
Straight away, I knew the two delayed travellers would be called Phoebe and Sam. I knew that Phoebe would be about to board the Eurostar to Paris and Sam would be headed north of the border. It was surreal and hadn’t happened to me in nearly ten years of writing books, but the ‘What If’ was so strong.
I think what thrills me about ‘What Ifs’ is the world of possibilities they contain. What could happen? What would I choose in my characters’ shoes, and how would I feel? I’m a big believer in possibility: that nothing is ever carved in stone and that life can change in a heartbeat. It’s a little scary maybe, but mostly I find great comfort in the thought that other roads exist, that anything is possible.
Possibility is everywhere, if we dare to seek it. I hope, when you read Phoebe and Sam’s story and see them pursuing their ‘What Ifs’, it will inspire you to seek out yours.