Where to Find Inspiration for Your Writing
If you’ve ever thought of writing a book for kids but haven’t found your story yet, I’m here to tell you that story ideas come from these two places:
Lest you think I’m being vague, I’ll share with you my own experience of finding inspiration for my children’s books and you’ll see how this is true. First let’s start with:
Inspiration from Everywhere
For my own books, inspiration often comes from place. One of my earliest picture books, The Witch at the Wellington Library came about simply from living in Wellington, New Zealand and thinking that the old library there seemed dark and spooky and I imagined a witch secretly living there. Once I thought of that I imagined the kind of havoc a witch in a library could wreak― turn the borrowers into the characters of the books they took out, make the books flap their pages and fly about like birds and other such mischief.
Another place that provided inspiration was England’s Hampton Court, specifically its garden maze. When a friend and I got hopelessly lost in the maze, we had the uneasy thought that high in the palace, people were watching and chuckling at our pathetic attempts to exit! This embarrassing thought became the inspiration of another picture book, The Marvelous Maze in which a spoiled prince declares he will only marry the princess who’s clever enough to find her way out of the castle’s maze.
Then there’s Marielle in Paris, inspired, of course, by my great love for that city but also inspired by something else that most often inspires writers: emotion. Marielle is a fashion designer mouse who is inspired herself by the lovely things she sees in Paris, she must overcome her fear of heights—she must fly high to find and retrieve the dresses she created after they were scattered all over Paris. My own fear of heights and my conquering of that fear form the emotional core of the story.
Whether writing for kids or adults, an author’s emotions and feelings are often the inspiration to write. In 1952 a writer in Maine, found himself surprisingly fighting for the life of a sick pig. He was raising to slaughter and eat the pig anyway but when it died, he found himself grief-stricken. The writer wrote about his grief in an essay, “The Death of a Pig.” But the grief did not completely go away; he had thoughts and emotions about life and death he wanted to further explore. The writer was E. B. White and his classic book for children, Charlotte’s Web , grew out of that need to explore. Through the character of the child, Fern, E. B. White used emotion memory to record his own terror at the possible death of his pig.
Now sometimes, inspiration comes from just a fancy. My alphabet book, Pigs Dancing Jigs, came about this way. Lying in bed one night I had a waking dream. (This happens a lot to me and I’d love to know if others experience this so I can know I’m not crazy.) With my eyes closed, I saw an amusing sight: hares long and lean in tux and tails were going up and down an M. C. Escher-like staircase. Hares Climbing Stairs! This vision became the page for “H” in the book, turning an odd vision into reality―or at least― children’s book reality.
Travel too has provided much inspiration for my children’s books. Brave with Beauty, the story of the 15th century Timurid Queen Goharshad who ruled over a vast empire and was an important patron of the arts, was inspired by a long ago visit to this queen’s crumbling tomb in Herat, Afghanistan. I asked myself, “Who was this powerful queen?” and this curiosity led me to research her life and work to discover that she was one of the most powerful women rulers in world history. Brave with Beauty came about from my research based on curiosity and from that I spun her tale. James Clavell also was inspired by curiosity when he wrote Shōgun. Clavell read just one sentence in his daughter’s textbook “In 1600, an Englishman went to Japan and became a samurai.” Clavell was curious, researched this man, and created the novel.
Family history can be a rich source for your story inspiration. Family history gave me the story of my YA novel, Sacred Shadows. The novel is replete with characters and incidents based on real people and true incidents my Jewish mother and her sisters told me about growing up in a Polish town between the two world wars. Strangely, I think my greatest creativity with this book was to tone down the shocking incidents― to tweak the truth so the incidents would appear more believable.
So inspiration can come from place, true events, emotions, feelings, curiosity and research and family history. OK, but what about inspiration that comes from nowhere?
Inspiration from Nowhere
My book Day of Delight tells of one Sabbath day in the life of the Jews in Ethiopia, the black Jews known as Beta Israel. The events of the day are narrated by a young boy and his words begin the story, “Well before the woodcock calls, when morning looks like night, my mother rises.” Now as magical as this may sound, these words came to me as if in a dream and they haunted me. I wrote the words down without completely knowing why or where they would lead. This is the enchanted power of our subconscious. As Freud well knew, our subconscious (which Freud called the unconscious) knows more than we do. It certainly was true for me not only in writing Day of Delight, but writing Gullible Gus, an action packed trio of outlandish tall tales. Where the heck did they come from? I haven’t a clue.
All this is to say that to find inspiration to write for children, you need to “stay open.” Stay open to your experiences, your family’s anecdotes, your memories, your travels, your dreams, thoughts, feelings, fears and visions. This openness necessary to be a writer is a form of mindfulness that not only strengthens what you write, it strengthens yourself. When you stay mindful in this way, you will be most inspired to set down the story that no one else but you can tell. As Ray Bradbury said, “Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way.”
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