Sunday, October 7, 2012

Where Do You Get Your Ideas? Mr. Was

Last week in Minneapolis I participated in a fun “This is Teen” event with fellow Scholastic authors Maggie Stiefvater (The Raven Boys), Eliot Schrefer (Endangered), and Anna Waggener (Grim). After the program, we took questions from the audience, and of course one of the questions was, “Where do you get your ideas?”

This common question I answer in many different ways, depending on the context, who’s asking, and my mood at the moment.  I might talk about one specific idea behind a particular title, or I might say, “I don’t know—they just come to me.” If I’m feeling snippy, I might say, “I steal them from other writers.” Which is sometimes the case.

The whole truth, of course, is too long and complicated to give at a book signing or other public appearance. For one thing, it’s different for every book. So in an effort to get myself to post more often, I’m going to answer the question in some detail for each of my Young Adult novels, starting with Mr. Was, my first YA novel.

I’ve always been a vivid and copious dreamer, and was beset by recurring dreams as a child. Some of those I do not talk about to this day. One dream—I must have had it hundreds of times—was about a small door in the back of a closet in my grandparents’ house.

The original hardcover jacket.
My grandparents’ house had several large walk-in closets filled with decades of fascinating junk. We grandkids were given the run of the house, and those closets were great for hiding in, snooping, and getting scared. They held all manner of treasures—parts of an old wooden mannequin, my grandmother’s religious paraphernalia, strange and brittle articles of clothing that no one had worn since long before I was born, secret codes scrawled on the walls by my father or uncles when they were kids, and an “Indian war club” made by my grandfather as a boy. (The club was a length of polished wood with a stone fastened to the end by a leather thong.) There was also a hidden slot—a piece of flooring that could be slid back into the wall, revealing a shallow hiding place large enough for a few coins. Often, we found a penny in there, which we were allowed to keep. My grandfather always replaced the coin for the next time the grandkids came to visit.

In my recurring dream, I would enter one of those scary/fascinating closets, and notice a small door at the back. Every time I would say to myself, “Oh! I forgot all about that door!” Behind the door, I would always find something different: an attic space filled with old toys, a winter garden with scary topiary, another house containing people who resembled (but were not) my grandparents, a secret entrance to my school, etc. Sometimes the dream became a nightmare, other times it was simply an adventure.

This is a common dream. I call it the Magic Door Dream. One can find many examples of it in literature, from The Chronicles of Narnia to Coraline. Clearly, I’m not the only author to dream of magic doors. But I felt I had to write about it because the dream was so powerful and emotionally resonant I knew it could sustain me through the course of writing the novel.

Every novel I write is driven by one or more nuggets of fascination—core ideas that, for whatever reason, provide a power source, a frisson, a sense of something both magical and solid. During the course of writing Mr. Was, when I found myself floundering, lost in the plot or the story, I could always get back on track by returning to my memories of those dreams to re-experience the gut-swirling sensation of facing that little door, the thrill of facing the unknown, of stepping into a secret world that was there just for me.

Mr. Was turned into a time-travel novel, which was not my original intention. It became a YA novel—also not my intention. (The time-traveling protagonist, Jack Lund, starts out as pre-teen, and ends up as an old man, but the bulk of his story takes place while he is a teenager.) Many other ideas came into play, and the story wandered off into areas that surprised me—but always I came back to the original sense of wonder I had experienced in those childhood dreams.

I’m now writing a time-travel trilogy called The Klaatu Diskos, which uses the core concepts of Mr. Was. In a way, Mr. Was is a prequel to The Klaatu Diskos—even though only one minor character appears in both works, the Magic Door Dream is still the engine driving the story.

One more thing: When my grandmother passed away, I bought her house. I hadn’t explored those closets in years, but the first thing I did, convinced that my dreams must have had some basis in reality, was to check every closet in the house, looking for that little door. I never found it.

Next week I’ll post about No Limit and All-In.

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