A Writer’s Inspiration: How to come up with new ideas…
I’m often asked whether my writing is inspired by real life. And by real life, people usually mean my life.
Occasionally, I do lift small details from my own life and use them directly in my writing—the way my
sister’s hair falls, the taste of the coffee at the Cocoa Bar, a café in my neighborhood. More frequently, I lift
deep themes—such as what it feels like for me to be a mother—and refract them through unrecognizable
For instance, Reconstructing Amelia is set in Park Slope, my own Brooklyn neighborhood, and many
scenes take place in restaurants or shops I frequent. Not because I thought the story was specifically about
Brooklyn—I think its themes are universal—but because I have a real emotional attachment to my
neighborhood and wanted to set a story there. And while many of my characters share incidental
personality or physical traits with people I know or have known—in fact, one looks exactly like one of my
very close college friends—none were lifted wholesale from my own life.
Often the central question in my books is one I’ve personally grappled with; however, when I sat down to
write Reconstructing Amelia I was asking myself: how can I stay close to my children as they get older?
How can I ever keep them safe in this increasingly complex world? The main themes in my new book are
equally close to my heart—especially the question of how, as a parent, you can resolve your own family
history to carve out a different future for your own children. But the only scene in Where They Found Her
directly taken from my own life is the significance of pancakes at the start of a romance (and to know more,
you’ll just have to read it).
When people ask about “real life” and my work, they also want to know if my stories are influenced by the
news. As with my personal life, I never use actual news or current events directly in my writing, but there
are countless real-life stories reflected in it.
For instance, my new novel, Where They Found Her, begins with the death of an infant that was inspired
by a similar story I heard on television years ago. More recently, I was deeply affected by a local news
story about a mother charged with leaving her child in a subway station or, more specifically, the comments
a TV news station collected from commuters about the incident. Those comments—some hostile, some
sympathetic—definitely informed how I handled certain scenes in Where They Found Her. Similarly,
campus assaults played a role in my new book from the start, but the plethora of recent accounts about how
such incidents are handled by universities influenced how those events played out in the final draft.
In the end, I think “real life” influences my work greatly, but not in the way you might think. The closer a
theme is to my own life, the less the details will be recognizably similar.
That said, if you’re my husband, you’ve seen details from our courtship put right on the page, and if you’re
my children, you’ve seen bedtime rituals repeated wholesale. And if you’re a very good friend, you may
see a character who looks like you or who shares your name. Luckily, my nearest and dearest know that
any veiled reference is always a sign of love—even when their fictional doppelganger has turned into a
villain by the final draft.