In the case of Shanghai Girls, that spark was as simple as an advertisement.
The main characters in the book are Pearl and May, sisters who are “beautiful girls” in Shanghai in the 1930s. “Beautiful girls” were girls who posed for advertisements that appeared on posters and in calendars and sold everything from perfume to cigarettes. It was one of these ads that gave Lisa See the idea for Shanghai Girls.
See explains in an NPR story:
The ad, part of a collection See has accumulated, shows two girls sitting together in beautiful summer dresses. It’s an advertisement for bug spray, so dead insects fall around them.
See says she looks at the ad every day. “Over the years, I have thought about, ‘What were those girls like? What were their lives like?’ ” she tells NPR’s Melissa Block. “That time period in China was very glamorous on the one hand, and yet war was coming, there was a lot of turmoil politically.”
From these glamorous beginnings, Pearl and May fall fast and hard. And thus begins their saga.