How Do I Get Story Ideas?
As a debut author, I get asked about the inspiration for my stories a lot. Where do I get my ideas? Now that my first novel is published, how will I come up with the next one? Do I ever worry I’ll run out?
I love these questions because I think the way inspiration works is fascinating. I also love answering these because it gives me an excuse to tell the story about how the idea for my debut novel, SIGNS OF YOU, arrived in my life. Because when it showed up, it changed the course of my life.
I announced at the age of five that I would be a writer. And I meant it. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been rushing to grab a pen and scraps of paper so I can jot down bits of stories. Lines of dialogue. Story titles. Character names. Tragedies. Comedies. My mother loves to talk about the drawers and trunks and bookshelves I filled with stories in my childhood home. If my brain is given a job to do, it will find a way to avoid the task at hand and create fiction. Like a kid who always stares out the window when she’s supposed to be taking a test. It’s just what I do.
But by my mid-twenties, it was driving me crazy. I’d completed two novels and countless short stories, and when the rejections from an agent and magazines came flowing in, I figured that these characters’ voices that sailed through my mind were signs of some sort of mild madness I was just going to have to tamp down if I was going to accomplish anything in life.
So I quit.
I enrolled in graduate school and didn’t write one single creative word for two years. I thought I was finally free of this “story thing.” I was relieved! I could finally focus on a “real career” and grow out of this fiction nonsense. My brain was finally battening down the hatches and straightening up! I landed a job as an attorney at a very large law firm in Chicago. I bought a suit. I wore high heels. I was on my way.
And then SIGNS OF YOU showed up.
I bolted upright in bed one night, drenched in sweat. I had a vision of a girl. She stood in a grocery store and caught a glimpse of her mother at the other end of an aisle. There was only one problem: her mother’s funeral was two years ago. I had no idea who this girl was or why she was seeing her mother. Had her mom faked her own death? Was she still alive? I had to find out.
For the next seven years, this story became my singular obsession. I had theories about what happened to the girl’s mom, but I didn’t know for sure. I started researching all sorts of things. Disappearances, folklore, stories about strange sightings. It was like following a trail of breadcrumbs. I had no idea if any of my research would lead me to the answer I was seeking, or if at the end of it all I would have a novel worth the paper it was printed on, but I kept going. And going and going and going. The mystery took shape. The surprising answer about what happened to the girl’s mom came into focus. The ending shocked me and made me cry. Writing this story was the greatest adventure of my life. The novel I finished became SIGNS OF YOU, and with it I landed an agent and then a book deal. My greatest dream, the goal I set when I was five years old, finally came true.
Now, looking back, I can see that for me, story ideas don’t arrive in nice, neat little packages. I didn’t sit up in bed that night that SIGNS came to me with the mystery solved, the clues planted, the premise all mapped out. No, all I saw was a girl and a mother who was supposed to be long gone. That was it.
So it’s not that I get hit with great ideas; it’s that I get hit with breadcrumbs. Little, tiny, dried up pieces of toast that fly in my face and seem like nothing but an annoyance at the time. I have a weird vision or a dream. Or maybe something I’m reading in the news piques my curiosity. Or maybe I overhear a comment in a coffee shop that makes me wonder about something. And instead of brushing these little moments off, my job is to be aware of them. To listen. To follow them even though they may be a trail to nowhere. Because sometimes, one of those little roads I take ends up being a novel that moves into my heart and my life and changes it for the better forever. Sometimes, it’s art.
That’s my answer about how I get ideas—I don’t. But I see little signs all around me, and I follow them.
So, look for signs. And trust what you see. It just might be a really important story knocking on your door.
About the Author
Emily France graduated from Brown University before going on to law school, where she was the editor-in-chief of the law review. She finds creative inspiration in all things spiritual, from sitting with Benedictine monks for 4 a.m. vigils in a Rocky Mountain monastery to trekking to Buddhist and Hindu temples in India. Now she writes full-time and lives with her husband and their fearless Tibetan Spaniel in sunny Colorado—the closest place to Nirvana she’s found. Signs of You is her debut novel. Visit Emily online at www.emilyfrancebooks.com and follow her on Twitter @EmilyFranceBook.