I can trace the inspiration for my debut novel, J.R. Silver Writes Her World, back to elementary school, specifically to fourth grade. My teacher had a collection of New Yorker magazine covers that we used as prompts for creative writing assignments. Like they are today, each cover was illustrated and free of text. They were funny, pretty, clever, and sad, and they were truly inspiring.
Many years later, while searching for a middle-grade story to tell, I thought back to those magazines. What would happen, I wondered, if I put a magical twist on the exercise? What would happen if the stories my protagonist writes come true?
It was a lightbulb-goes-off moment, but there was a lot of work to do to build a whole novel from there! Here are four ways that I continued to dig for ideas.
1. Old Stories That Inspire the New
Middle-grade literature has evolved a lot since I was a kid. Still, I did think back on books that sang to me as a child, and one that stood out was a 1967 novel by E.L. Konigsburg called From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. It’s a wonderfully improbable tale about Claudia Kincaid and her little brother, Jamie, who spend a week hiding out inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Along the way, a mystery unfolds about whether an unassuming statue of an angel that the museum recently acquired was actually sculpted by the famous artist Michelangelo. Claudia makes it her mission to find out.
From the Mixed-Up Files brings a charming slice of New York to life, which I wanted to do in J.R. Silver, and creates a kid-centered adventure that has entertained young readers for decades. Rather than retell the story in the modern age, I used some of its timeless themes and settings as jumping-off points for my novel. The excitement of having a secret, the power of teamwork, and the many treasures inside the Met all play integral roles in J.R.’s escapades and growth just like they did for Claudia Kincaid.
2. Getting Immersed in My Protagonist’s World
One advantage I had in telling J.R.’s story was that I live alongside her, or at least in the same neighborhood. I wanted her surroundings to become almost a character in the book. That led to many hours walking the neighborhood, always with an eye toward what J.R. herself would see. So while the story takes place in the fall and I might romanticize autumn in the Northeast, I didn’t see the changing leaves exciting my 11-year-old protagonist. That means there’s no scene where J.R. revels in the crisp fall air, for example. Instead, every city dweller, kids included, knows what it’s like to dodge dog poop on the sidewalk, and J.R. does just that.
My touring also took me repeatedly to the Met to find galleries and artwork to feature in the story. Most of the rooms I showcased are ones that I hoped would grab middle-grade readers, like an 18th century home in Damascus and an enormous ceiling inspired by ceremonial houses in New Guinea—big spaces that transport visitors.
On one visit, though, I happened upon a portrait of a seated figure holding a rose at a slightly odd angle. The colors are muted and not that inviting. The wall label explained that x-rays had shown that the artist originally depicted the woman playing a cello and then painted over that image to create the version on display. It was lucky that I happened to lean in to read the description—in J.R. Silver, one of the main characters is a devoted cellist, and learning about the evolution of the painting led me to write a new thread in the story. So sometimes inspiration lurks in the little details, and if you look closely, you never know what you might find!
3. Hitting the Pavement and Unplugging
Close look or not, there are times when finding material to work with is really hard. When ideas aren’t flowing, I try to let my mind wander without the distractions that accompany my computer (Twitter! Instagram! Email!). For me, this works best while taking a walk, but various unplugged moments have done the trick. The operative word is unplugged—no podcast that keeps me focused on the news or audio book to immerse me in someone else’s story. No multitasking. If you’re similarly sweating your next literary move, I’d say a quiet walk is worth a try.
4. Sometimes the Internet Does Yield Wonders
Nonetheless, the Internet can be a source of deliciously unexpected material, too. As my work drafting J.R. Silver came to a close, I wanted to refresh my memory of the ornate ceiling at a real-life bookstore called Albertine, which J.R. visits during her own mind-clearing walk. The mural depicts the night sky and is situated in what was built as a grand Beaux-Arts home in the early 20th Century.
I certainly could have walked over for another look, but instead I tried to be quick and went online. As I checked the store’s website, a page about the building caught my eye, specifically about the statue of a young archer in the middle of the foyer. It turns out that it’s a recreation of the one that was originally there, which had itself caught the attention of a visiting researcher more than 20 years after E.L. Konigsburg wrote From the Mixed-Up Files. Eventually, the statue was determined to be a previously-unknown Michelangelo hiding in plain sight just steps from the Met, where it is now on loan.
So I guess sometimes life really does imitate art, and sometimes you just happen to find out about it on the Internet.