The Long and Winding Road from Idea to Finished Book


The Long and Winding Road from Idea to Finished Book

Stefan Ahnhem's latest Fabian Risk thriller was released in his native Sweden this week so we asked him to tell us about the long journey from the first spark of an idea to a published novel. 

'The saying ‘What doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger’ perfectly encapsulates the journey Eighteen Below had to take before it got developed into a novel.

It all began eleven years ago, when I went to my local hairdresser. It’s one of those places where you don’t need to dig too deep in your pocket if you just want a quick chop, but you can’t expect anything more than that. Forget everything you know about a proper haircut and you’d be fine. You didn’t need to book in advance, you could just drop in and wait until one of the ‘hair removers’ were free.

Normally you’d be seen immediately, but this particular afternoon there were already six people waiting and only one man working with the scissors. So, for the first time ever, I had to sit down and wait for at least twenty minutes.

I leaned over to the pile of thumbed magazines – remember this was before everyone had smartphones – and tried, but failed, to find one without nude women on the cover. Finally, I chose one because of an article listed. Yes, I know it’s not the first time you’ve heard that but, although I write fiction, this is the truth and nothing but the truth.

The article was about two Swedish twins who earned their living by stealing other people’s identities. In different, inventive ways they got their hands on credit card numbers and used them to shop all over the world. This wasn’t a big problem for the cardholder, because the bank always paid – they want everyone to feel safe and keep using their credit cards!

Unfortunately, the twins had more aces up their sleeves. They would change the victim’s address – this is horrifyingly easy to do in Sweden – and then file a police report saying that the victim’s identity card had been lost. The identity card form would be sent to the victim’s ‘new’ address, so the only thing the twins had to do was fill in the victim’s name, sign with a counterfeit signature and attach a photo.

Two weeks later the new identity card would arrive as registered mail, and they could go to the post office and pick it up – as it was their own signature and face on the card, no one suspected a thing. Of course, they had to ensure all other mail went to the victim’s mailbox in order to keep him unaware.

Now they could do almost anything. They could make payments in the victim’s name, they could go to the victim’s bank and tell them to empty all the accounts, take out new loans and so on. Like parasites, they literally drained their victims of everything with a price tag.

Then one of the twins got caught and was put in custody. The prosecutor had all the evidence she needed to get him behind bars for a long time. Normally you would think their career would be over. Unfortunately – or fortunately for me because I’d just found the perfect crime story – they had another ace up their sleeves.

I won’t reveal what it was here; I can only say that it blew my mind. I forgot all about my haircut and let everyone go before me. I was busy borrowing a pen, taking notes and getting all the different elements of the story in place. In less than forty-five minutes I had the whole story laid out and it was nothing but beautiful.

At this time I worked as a screenwriter for the second season of Henning Mankell’s Wallander series. I wrote a thirty-page treatment – a detailed description of every scene in the programme – and sent it to the producers. To my surprise they weren’t that impressed. ‘It’s not believable,’ they said, and then I told them that it in so many ways it was a true story. They told me to go away and rewrite it.

So I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote over and over again. It’s not called ‘development hell’ for nothing. After a couple of months I was so tired of the rewriting process that I decided to stop and put all the different versions in a drawer and concentrate instead on developing another idea. It was called ‘The Leak’ and it only took two months until I had a final draft of the script that everyone was happy with.

Normally when you put an idea in the drawer they tend to stay there. You do it for a reason, and that reason will keep the drawer closed forever.

Except this time.

Regardless of how much I tried not to think about the idea it was constantly there, interrupting my thoughts, demanding my full attention. But I had to pay my rent and didn’t have time to work on an idea no one, except me, was interested in.

It wasn’t until five years later that I opened the drawer (or actually the file on the computer) and started to work on it again. I’d been hired to develop a whole new season for Helene Tursten’s TV series about Irene Huss. The first two seasons had adapted all of her published crime novels, so I now had to come up with six new stories. It should be no surprise that one of them was the story about the twins.

And they loved it. In fact, they loved it so much they decided to use it as the first episode in the series, marking that this season would be a new chapter in Irene Huss’s life. Unfortunately, the show then got cancelled for reasons that are beyond my ability to understand. The only thing I could do was to put the idea back in the drawer again, thinking that maybe it wasn’t that good after all.

At this time I was so sick and tired of television that I decided to write a crime novel. In English the title was Victim Without a Face and it became a huge success both in Sweden, the UK and a lot of countries around the globe.

Luckily the idea of the twins refused to give up and kept shouting and interrupting me from the drawer. So I decided to give it a last shot. It is now an investigation Fabian Risk and his colleagues in Helsingborg have to deal with, and I have to say I’m happier than ever. I think it’s my best novel so far. And so it should be – I’ve rewritten it enough times!

Today identity theft is one of the most common crimes in Sweden. In fact, it happens more often than bicycle theft. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the same in the UK. Maybe the world just wasn’t ready for this story eleven years ago. Maybe the twins were so ahead of their time that it took until now for their story to become believable. I don’t know. But one thing I do know when I look back now, is that it couldn’t be Kurt Wallander solving the case. Neither could it be Irene Huss or another Scandinavian murder investigator. It had to be Fabian Risk and no one else.

I hope you feel the same when you read it.'

Eighteen Below will be out in hardback and ebook in January 2018.