06/25/2014 09:44 am ET Updated Aug 25, 2014

How Do You Write a Novel? By Listening

How do novelists get their ideas? Often from listening to other people's stories: in the car, around the dinner table, or even in a crowded grocery store. We're always plucking ideas from the air.

My mother tells better stories than anyone. As a child, my favorite was about the time she babysat for a family in her rural Maine town. The parents told her the children were asleep, and that she could do homework in the kitchen and help herself to a snack. The only rule was that she was not to go down the hall and open the door to the last room on the left.

Naturally, being 12 years old and the beautiful, adored sister of two adventurous older brothers, Mom was a rule-breaker. The minute she heard the car back out of the driveway, she was tiptoeing down the dimly lit hallway to press her ear to that mysterious door. To her shock, noises were coming from the other side.

After a moment's hesitation, Mom slowly turned the knob and inched the door open a crack. A child came dashing out, nearly feral in his animal sounds and movements, blindly grasping at her clothing and body.

This scene may or may not have really happened exactly like this. Researchers have shown how our memories alter each time we take them off some shelf in our brains, examine them, and put them back. As my mother told us this story, she could have embellished the tale, too, adding details to keep my own brothers and me quiet on long car rides.

When people ask how I get ideas for my novels, I tell them that a writer's mind is like that junk drawer in your kitchen. You throw all kinds of things into that drawer: paper clips, rubber bands, business cards, receipts, Legos, odd coins, bits of string. Likewise, writers go around collecting snippets of dialogue overheard at the grocery store, cool looking cars, people you meet at dinner parties, and family stories. The stories that haunt you -- like this one -- are the ones that typically form the genesis for a novel.

In my new book, Beach Plum Island, the central story revolves around sisters whose father, as he is dying, says, "Find your brother and tell him the truth." The only problem is that they don't have a brother, so how can they tell him the truth?

Of course, it gradually emerges that they did have a brother, and the narrative is launched as they begin to search for him. The oldest sister has a dim memory of once opening the door to a bedroom and finding a blind, panicked boy behind it. In the novel, the search for the missing brother reads like a mystery, with the three sisters trying to uncover clues to discover what happened between their parents before they were born.

Novelists weave fiction entertain, to make people think and feel things about their lives, and to promote fresh perspectives on timeless human conflicts. Fiction pokes at the deeper questions we all wrestle with: How can I forgive someone in my family who has betrayed me? How can I learn to love again if I've been hurt before? What does it really mean to be a family? What is the point of parenthood, if your children only grow up to leave you?

I may never know the truth behind my mother's childhood story. Who was that boy? Why was he locked in that back bedroom and kept a secret? As I was writing this novel and asking her questions, my mother told me, somewhat vaguely, that she thinks this child was probably born to the couple's teenage daughter out of wedlock.

"Maybe they kept him in that bedroom out of shame, because they believed this blind child was God's punishment for her sins," I suggested.

"Maybe," she said with a shrug.

For my mother, this story was a memory. She has moved on. For me, the story became a quest: I wrote Beach Plum Island because I needed to create a world where something tragic like this could happen, find out why, and put things right again for a frightened little boy.