Katy Upperman on Letting Ideas Stew For Years

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.

Today’s guest for the WHAT is Katy Upperman, author of contemporary YA romances Kissing Max Holden, The Impossibility of Us, and How the Light Gets In.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book? 

I started working on How the Light Gets In in 2010, and have returned to the story numerous times in the years it took to sell the manuscript. Way back in the beginning, the book had a different title, different characters, and a very different plot. But it’s always been a story about ghosts (literal and figurative) set on the Oregon coast. The point of origin was a combination of elements that inspire me: the beach, a run-down Victorian, a haunting, a decades-old mystery, swimming, and a layered romance.

I also found inspiration in themes that fascinate me: families moving forward after tragedy, the way some people can help us wade through grief while others hinder forward motion, and how sister relationships can grow and change and, sometimes, bend to the point of breaking. So, the point of origin for How the Light Gets In was really a whole bunch of different components that I eventually pieced together to form a story.

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

I wanted to write about a girl who was sad, confused, and angry, but by the end of the story, I knew she’d need to have gained understanding and perspective, and that she should be taking steps to reclaim the parts of herself she lost along with her sister.

The plot of How the Light Gets In was built around moments that would challenge its main character, Callie, and help her grow. Those include interactions with her aunt, with whom she has a complicated relationship, interactions with Tucker, a local boy she meets on her first morning back in Bell Cove, and interactions with her sister, Chloe, in the past and the (ghostly) present. Additionally, I wanted Callie to discover a mystery within her aunt’s Victorian, one that would parallel her current situation in important ways, as well as keep the reader guessing. Because it was endlessly challenging to fit all of this into a cohesive, compelling narrative, I kept Callie’s character arc in mind while plotting, as it’s what brings the whole story together.

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

Yes—every single time! My process is this: Let a new idea stew. Map out characters’ goals, motivations, and the main conflicts. Write a detailed outline. Feel incredibly confident. Begin drafting. Flail. Flail some more. Revisit and revise the outline. Draft. Revisit and revise outline. Draft. Revisit and revise outline. Draft. Repeat, repeat, repeat, until the first draft is done.

For me, epiphanies come as first drafts grow. Characters surprise me. Seemingly brilliant plot twists start to seem cliché. New ideas—better ideas—burst forth as I get to know the story on a deeper level. So, while I outline, my outlines are flexible and always changing.


Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

Fresh material is very hard to come by. I envy writers who have notebooks full of hooky ideas—that is so not me. I’m character-focused; interesting people pop up in my imagination all the time. Interesting circumstances do sometimes, too. But weaving a workable plot around those fragments of ideas is tough! It takes me months or even years to have an idea fully-formed enough to attempt a first draft.

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

I work on whatever is inspiring me most. On the rare occasion I have more than one idea percolating, I choose the one that makes me want to write—the one that feels the least like “work”.

I have 5 cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?

I have two cats, and they’re most definitely my writing buddies. One or both of them almost always ends up on my lap when I’m writing, which is pretty perfect, actually, because they keep me pinned to my seat, forcing me to do nothing but work. I can’t imagine making a go at a manuscript without my furry officemates nearby. J