Inspiration isn’t always linear; oftentimes, story ideas emerge out of unexpected nuggets colliding. Here’s how the premise for Dead Ringer ultimately came together.
A clickbait article
“I found my twin on YouTube.”
When you’re scrolling distractedly through Twitter, that’s the sort of thing that catches your eye. Some 5 years ago, I stumbled across the story of Anais Bordier and Samantha Futerman, a pair of twins born in South Korea and adopted separately, in France and the USA respectively. The details of the case of didn’t stick with me, but the mode of discovery did: they found each via YouTube and Facebook.
It spun me off thinking about social media and how easy it is to find and connect with people via the internet. But what if the person you found wasn’t your twin but your non-blood-relative doppelgänger?
Dead Ringer quickly crystallised in my mind as a story about two women from completely different walks of life who just so happen to look identical. They meet through an app that lets you find your “double”.
A conversation with my sister (and a tragic true story)
It was a hell of a start to a phone conversation: “Where could you kill someone in Cumbria?”
My sister didn’t miss a beat: “Scout Scar. Easily.”
My sister lived in Kendal, Cumbria for a long time. My dad’s side of the family is also based nearby, in Lancashire, so I have many memories of travelling through the gorgeous, often desolate, countryside in this part of the world.
What a place for a murder.
During that particular phone conversation, my sister and I brainstormed many possibilities for ways to die in Cumbria. Ghoulish, maybe. But, although the Lake District and the surrounding area may resemble Eden, there are dozens of accidental deaths there every year. Some of them could even be murders disguised as accidents.
(I hope MI-5 weren’t listening to the call. I imagine them scribbling furiously in a dossier: This person sounds unhinged. Are they planning a murder??? Note: Only a fictional one, I promise.)
I considered writing about a murderous shove off the top of Scout Scar, a craggy hill in the Lake District. But the idea that made it into Dead Ringer was: Walney Island and its sinking sands.
I was familiar with the real life case from 2004 in Morecambe Bay, when 21 Chinese immigrants died after being cut off by the tide while collecting cockles on the sands.
Being a follower of true crime comes with the dubious bonus of getting to imagine yourself dying in any number of scenarios you wouldn’t otherwise have dreamed up. The idea of being stuck out on the sands was so chilling, I felt compelled to write about it.
Dead Ringer isn’t set in Morecambe, but a little further north, on Walney Island, a place with a rich history all its own. Yet it’s an island most people have never heard of. The surrounding area is a strange mix of the historical (nearby Piel Island was pretender to the throne Lambert Simnel’s hiding place) and the new (in Barrow-in-Furness across the water, eerie cream-coloured buildings house nuclear submarine secrets).
My novel wasn’t always set on Walney Island. In early drafts, the setting was Kendal. But, as I struggled through the many drafts a writer makes of their novel, I decided to relocate the action of the book. I’m glad I did. It’s a place that breathed new life into the story.
Millennial burnout and memories of my own early 20s
Dead Ringer is not autobiographical, but I did draw on my own experiences of feeling lost, post-university. The trouble with your early twenties is that you’re plagued by the idea you should be having the Best Time Ever. In my case, that made being skint and alienated even harder to handle.
I graduated from university into a recession and, despite being a Type-A smartie-pants overachiever, I couldn’t get a job in my dream field (publishing). In fact, I couldn’t get any job except office temping. Then I got fired from the office temping job for insubordination. Whoops.
Now, I can look back and laugh at this period in my life. At the time, though, it was devastating. It’s too easy to see how I could have been seriously derailed – particularly if my mental health hadn’t been supported by friends and family.
Millennial burnout has been well-documented, particularly the idea that my generation is building our hopes and dreams on sinking sands (ooh, see what I did there?). Yet a lot of novels skip over how gruelling the debt and uncertainty associated with being young can be.
I wanted Dead Ringer to be a novel where the scariest monsters are psychological.