Doug Johnstone Asks ‘What if…?’

doug-johnstoneMy blog is normally fairly light-hearted but if you’re looking for a laugh,  you won’t find it here, I warn you now that this post has a much darker tone.

Apart from visiting my close friend Katy, I can’t think of any other reason why I’d want to spend a Wednesday night, or any night for that matter in Clydebank. But I was lured there by free tickets to see Doug Johnstone, a writer, musician and journalist based in Edinburgh. Doug was appearing at Clydebank Library as part of Booked! West Dunbartonshire Festival of Words.

This great book festival is now in its 11th year and runs until 1st June so there’s still time to get catch other free events, making a trip to deepest Dunbartonshire well worthwhile. 

Katy and I joined a crowd of fellow bookaholics to hear about Doug’s writing career and his fifth novel, Gone Again, which has just recently been published. Doug read out an extract from the novel and this blurb from Doug’s website gives you a flavour of the book.

‘It’s just to say that no-one has come to pick Nathan up from school, and we were wondering if there was a problem of some kind?’

gone_again_royal_hb_unsewn2As Mark Douglas photographs a pod of whales stranded in the waters off Edinburgh’s Portobello Beach, he is called by his son’s school: his wife, Lauren, hasn’t turned up to collect their son. Calm at first, Mark collects Nathan and takes him home but as the hours slowly crawl by he increasingly starts to worry.

With brilliantly controlled reveals, we learn some of the painful secrets of the couple’s shared past, not least that it isn’t the first time Lauren has disappeared. And as Mark struggles to care for his son and shield him from the truth of what’s going on, the police seem dangerously short of leads. That is, until a shocking discovery…

imagesWhen Doug responded to the Q and A session he explained that the idea behind Gone Again was his reflection on asking himself ‘What if…’ which would trigger a whole series of events. He wondered what would happen if his own wife simply didn’t come home one night from work and how he would cope and react to such a traumatic situation. The chain of ‘What if…’ scenarios inspired him to write Gone Again and this provided the engine to drive the book’s plot forward.


Chilling footage filmed by an eye witness.

Because I’d been out all day and then off to Katy’s for tea then Clydebank Library, I’d missed the live news that men had attempted to behead a soldier on a busy London street in Woolwich, one of the first terrorist murders on the British mainland since the 7/7 suicide bombings of 2005. To say that I was shocked and appalled by this attack would be an understatement and I was grateful that I went to bed without seeing the horrific footage of one of the attackers yielding a knife with bloodied hands and calmly talking to a witness. That image would have guaranteed a nightmare.

After catching up with the news the next morning, what struck me were the many combinations of ‘What if…’ scenarios that could have produced very different outcomes. ‘What if…’ the witnesses had turned on the attackers and had also been killed by the terrorists for intervening. ‘What if…’ the soldier had taken a different route back to the barracks, what if and so and on until my head was full of the emotional and political consequences from such a tragic event.

I wouldn’t be brave or clever enough to try and tell tales of terrorism in my own writing but Wednesday’s events and Doug’s comments about ‘What if…’ scenarios will stay with me for a long time. Like the split second decisions in the film, Sliding Doors, our lives can change forever in an instant and the drama involved is what makes me want to read a story like Gone Again and write my own ‘What if…’ story.

Does a series of ‘What if…’ scenarios help to drive your writing forward? Have you used real life events to inspire ideas for your writing?


11 thoughts on “Doug Johnstone Asks ‘What if…?’

  1. I am trying to write a story right now that came from a very vivid ‘what if…’ (inspired by a real life life thing that happened to me – actually tiny, but it *could* have had huge consequences) I had 17 years ago! It’s been lurking in the back of my mind ever since so I thought I’d try to get it out. It’s already changing so much from what I thought it would be, and I’m a mix of sad about that and intrigued to see where the chain of events will take me.

      • I am just starting to write this year, after a looooong time away from (creative) writing. So far I’ve done a children’s MS (for roughly 9-10 year olds) which I submitted to the Kelpies competition end Feb. I reckon the first section needs editing down further, but I am setting it aside till July (because copyright resides with them till then, anyway). Now I’m writing down this what-if idea I had ages ago. It’s heading novel-wards but I don’t really know where I’m going and the characters are starting to take over the plot…so who knows if/when it’ll be done! I’ve not written a short story since I was about 25…what form of writing do you prefer yourself (to write, and to read?)

      • Hi Catherine, I’ve never attempted writing for children as I think it would be a lot harder than most folk think so all respect to you! I’ve written some short stories and have been lucky enough to get most of them published. At the moment, I’m writing my 3rd novel. I enjoy reading contemporary Scottish fiction and admire writers like Janice Galloway, Isla Dewar, Laura Marney and Anne Donovan. The WIP I’m working on is a coming-of-age novel set in 1985 and uses my home background/setting as the inspiration for the story.
        Good luck with your ‘what if’ story/novel and let me know how it progresses. 🙂

  2. Hi Helen, what an interesting post. I don’t often ask “What if” in my writing. I tend to concentrate on character first, and try to realise them in my mind before I figure out what they get up to. I do ask “What if” about my own life though … what if on that day in 1992 I’d gone to A and not to B, what if I’d taken Art at ‘O’ level instead of cookery! (Showing my age there). What ifs are quite unhelpful really though aren’t they, because they don’t exist … there is only what happened. But what ifs are impossible to resist!

    • Hi Louise, Thanks. Yes there’s no point in dwelling on ‘What ifs’ in our own lives as that’s pointless but I do like thinking about ‘What if…’ when imagining my characters and how they would react in different scenarios. And the beauty is that my fictional characters can have a lot more adventures than I could ever get away with in real life! 😉

  3. I suppose every different kind of writing has its particular trickiness. There are certainly hard things to wrestle with in writing for children but then again…I’m sure I’d enjoy your WIP and it would ring lots of bells (I left school in 1988) but I’m in awe of you being to remember enough detail from the mid-80s – I’d have to be on Google every other minute checking stuff! Maybe once you get in the groove it all starts flooding back?! (I am already remembering dragging our Bakelite phone on its long cord into my sister’s room – it couldn’t reach mine – in an attempt to chat more privately with friends… so alien to my own teenagers’ experience!).

    • I’m blessed (or cursed depending on the situation) with a great memory and you’re right that it does come back to me once I’m writing. Funny that you should mention the phone scenario as I’ve already described yanking the phone cord from the hall into the bathroom to try and get some privacy! Yes, with mobiles, my teenagers don’t realise how lucky they are to have such privacy 😉

  4. Hi Helen, I often do a ‘what if’ excercise right at the beginning when I’m thinking about a book or a viewpoint, especially with characters who may be quite different from me. I think that if you are writing and in the middle section your plot is not moving well or needs an added something, it can help to do it. I really value my thinking time though. Often when we get an idea the next thing we do is write about it. I would say, don’t just think your way through it. Often your idea could be made more subtle or tighter in places. Thinking time always wins.
    An interesting and thoughtful post, may thanks!

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