Are there writers on the planet who haven’t been asked: “Where do you get your ideas?” If so, I’ve yet to meet them!
The easiest and perhaps least helpful answer is: “Anywhere and everywhere.” As Lisa Cron points out in Story Genius, her craft book for writers, the wisp of an idea could come from a startling image, an issue that grabs on to you and won’t let go, or a “What if?” question that fascinates you. My forthcoming novel, Leisha’s Song, grew out of witnessing (okay, eavesdropping) a conversation between a Black grandmother and teenage granddaughter while we were waiting for a bus in New York City’s Port Authority that would take us to Connecticut. From their conversation, I gathered that the granddaughter was leaving New York for boarding school. The teenager pleaded not to go. She would be leaving all her friends and neighborhood to attend this fancy school with “a bunch of rich white girls.” The grandmother was insistent: her granddaughter was smart, and this was her shot at a better life. That one conversation sparked the premise for Leisha’s Song. Leisha is a gifted young woman of color from the Bronx on scholarship at a New England boarding school. She’s been raised by her grandfather who’s poured all of his deferred hopes and dreams into her success. But what if her hopes and dreams start to diverge from her grandfather’s? Aha! Lots of possibilities for conflict, the life blood of fiction—and life.
While in the early stages of developing a novel, I tend to focus straightaway on characters and their back stories, Cron recommends taking some preliminary steps before diving into character development. Specifically, she advocates that we writers first write about the initial pinprick of an idea that grabs us, why we care, what our point is, and finally focusing on “What if?”
Since one of my writing groups is beginning to work our way through Cron’s book, we are trying out her approach. I have to admit it’s really made me think about how to go about developing an idea. Below is my first homework assignment in which I’m thinking about my next YA novel:
Step One: Write about the instant the idea first grabbed you
While I have a novel for adults and a middle grade novel in progress, I was thinking about what I might like to work on for my next YA novel. It occurred to me that I’ve always been fascinated by true crime stories about people who go missing where it’s not clear what has happened to them. Did they choose to disappear? Commit suicide? Or were they victims of foul play? And what is it like to be a family member left behind in limbo, with no closure? What if you’re a teenager in this situation, and your parent has disappeared?
Step Two: Why do you care?
I’ve always been interested in challenging and stressful family dynamics and their impact upon young people trying to navigate the transition to adulthood. I’m familiar with grieving and loss from my own childhood, so I guess it’s not surprising I’m interested in exploring those issues.
Step Three: What Is Your Point?
In terms of the external plot, I think that readers will think about how investigating a missing person case can lead to peeling back layers of secrets and dysfunction in the missing person’s immediate orbit (family, work, friends, etc.)
In terms of the internal plot, I hope readers will think about resilience and finding ways to move beyond the discovery that people whom you thought you knew and trusted were not necessarily who they pretended to be.
Step Four: What If?
What if it’s summer and seventeen year-old Callie, an aspiring ballet dancer, gets a call from the director of her little sister’s day camp that their mother never showed up to pick up her daughter? They haven’t been able to reach their mom or Callie’s stepdad or dad. What if Callie rushes over to pick up her little sister, and before long, it becomes obvious that their mom is missing. What if the police undertake a search for her and Callie is faced not only with dealing with her own distress but is also trying to comfort her little sister, who’s been acting quite withdrawn of late, as well as her stepdad? What if several days later, at a secluded beach three hours away, Callie’s mother’s car turns up and her clothing is found on the beach? A note tucked into her sneaker says, “I’m sorry.” No body turns up, but the police rule the case as a probable suicide or possibly a faked disappearance. What if Callie doesn’t believe that her mother would have committed suicide or chosen to disappear? She knows her mom has struggled with depression, but she’s been on medication, and at breakfast on their last morning together, she’d been discussing their family end-of-summer vacation plans and treating her daughters that night to dinner at the mall and some back-to-school shopping. What if Callie decides to investigate what was going on in her mom’s life and in the lives of the people close to her mom to figure out what really happened to her mother? What if it turns out that several folks might have had a reason to get rid of her mom, and as Callie draws closer to uncovering the truth about what happened, she ends up putting her own life at risk?
So there you have it, my fledgling thoughts about my next YA project. Obviously, it needs a lot more fleshing out and development, but I’m excited to work on it.
Meantime, I’d love your feedback and learning about ideas you’re working on for stories!