Where did your story come from? is a question I often ask editing clients. Knowing the writer’s first idea spark can help me see places where the train of writing goals aligns with or runs off the rails. But it also offers me a hint of something writers themselves may not be aware of—the story’s thematic engine.
Writers often mention an emotional event behind this inciting inspiration—something they saw/felt/lived through/overheard. Often, it’s something that to most people would seem unremarkable, but for them, worked like the grains of sand that inspire entire pearls.
What turns one person’s rock into another’s gemstone is a glint of thematic resonance with their own life story. Often, we’re not aware of this consciously. All we know is that this snippet of overheard conversation, or that sighting of a damaged butterfly sticks so persistently it must become story.
"The story must strike a nerve — in me. My heart should start pounding when I hear the first line in my head. I start trembling at the risk." Writer Susan Sontag.
But sometimes, finding the real beating heart of the inspiration takes a bit of digging. The fundamental seed of my middle grade novel Viva, Rose!, came from a childhood memory of seeing a colorful Mexican serape draped over a chair in a bedroom of my great Aunt Hannah’s house in Bensonhurst Brooklyn. Eventually, I realized the serape had to be connected to stories I’d been told about my grandfather’s cousins Rose and Abe who lived in San Antonio Texas. Rose had a lovely singing voice and flaming red hair, and her brother Abe dressed like a cowboy, pool-sharked the locals at the billiard hall, and in his early twenties, defied the restrictions of his Russian immigrant orthodox Jewish family to ride with Pancho Villa’s gang during the Mexican Revolution.
A cowboy relative who’d chosen a life of radical adventure was fun to wonder about. Many years later, I gave my sister a T-shirt with a picture of Pancho Villa’s gang on it, and we joked about which bandito might be our cousin. And then she came back from a trip to Texas with a copy of an article she’d found in a San Antonio library about Abe himself that confirmed our family legends and created some new ones as well.
It was the first story idea I’d ever had that told me it had to be written as a novel. But it wasn’t until I realized that a youthful Rose had to be the protagonist that I was finally able to write it.
So the glimpse of the serape was where this story came from, and the larger-than-life tales of western cousins. But from my down-the-road perspective, I’ve realized that the real reason this idea stuck and grew was the story of personal definition and self-actualization it represented. That’s also why the story didn’t really move for me until I streamed it through Rose. As the younger sibling, she was still tied to her parents’ rules and boundaries as she watched her brother gallop off. In spite of the fact that Abe physically risked his life, she was actually the character with the highest emotional stakes and biggest potential growth arc (essential qualities, btw, for a story’s protagonist).
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the theme of self-definition appears in some form in every work of fiction I’ve ever written. And if you look over your own work, I bet you’ll also be able to see the glint of your own special thematic resonance shining within them as well.
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