Next Tuesday, my sophomore novel, Paper Chains, will be released into the world. In the weeks ahead, I’ve got school visits, a book festival, a writing conference, a library event, and the high-profile privilege of being interviewed by a fourth grader (one of the perks of writing for kids.) This particular fourth grader asked some really insightful questions, one of which I’m absolutely certain will be posed again at my upcoming events:
Where do you get your ideas?
As authors, this may be the question we’re asked most often, and others (including Stephen King, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Neil Gaiman) have answered it with great insight. I love this question because to me, it embodies a core curiosity. Where do these stories we love come from? If we keep walking upstream to where it all began, what will we find?
I have two answers for this question:
Stories are all around you.
Stories are within you.
If you think of your current work, you can probably find both origins. Often (but certainly not always), the outer spark that starts a story—the part from the world around you—gives rise to its plot, and the inner spark—the part from within you—gives rise to its theme.
In early conversations about Paper Chains, I would tell people, “The idea came from The Snow Child, an adaptation of a Russian folk tale my grandmother read to me when I was a little girl.” And this is true. Paper Chains is a bit of an allegory of the Snow Child. Katie’s relationship with her parents, her cultural heritage, and parts of her personality were drawn from this core idea.
But as the manuscript—and my understanding of it—progressed, I realized that I’d set out to do more than write a story inspired by a book my grandmother read to me. I realized that The Snow Child—and, in fact, all the stories I’d grown up with—had become part of who I was, and so had the grandmother who read them to me. And without even realizing it, that had become what I was writing about: the idea that we are all made of stories, sort of a “story soup” (to use a term coined by one of my characters) composed of not only our own life experiences, but the stories that shaped us as well.
I really believe this. I’m shaped by stories. They are all around me, they are within me. And maybe, for me, that’s what’s so sacred about writing. It’s a way to give back to the well and wealth of stories that have made me the person I am. In five days, Paper Chains will be released, and the process will come full circle. This idea that came from around me and within me will be out there in the world, and it will become part of each person that reads it. And maybe someday, pieces of Paper Chains will find their way into another story, and the cycle can begin again.
If you, like me, are looking for your next story, I hope the idea will come from both places. Because when we can say something meaningful about the world around us and the soul within us, that is a story worth telling.
Elaine Vickers is the author of Like Magic and Paper Chains (HarperCollins). She loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption.