In the last several months, I’ve heard from a few people who had their precious ideas taken by someone else. Sometimes, another person might have the same idea and get it published first, which is not stealing. It’s natural for that to happen sometimes in creative communities. But I have heard stories from friends doing research, going to small libraries to look for materials in the local history department and being told that someone had been there the week before looking for the same information for a picture book or an article. Turns out the person who got to the library first had been sitting in a discussion group or a workshop with one of my friends. Now that is stealing.
What I really don’t understand is why anyone would want or need to steal. There are way too many ideas in the world already! I have hundreds of ideas, and I do mean hundreds, and so far I can’t see my way through developing them all. When I get published, and my career gets going, I will get even more ideas. And I think they are all exciting. Some may turn out to be duds, but there will be plenty for me without turning into a green-eyed monster about someone else’s gold nugget. There are enough cookies for everyone, people!
See a great blog post by Kate Messner on how many of her picture book ideas actually turn into a book after running the gauntlet.
In the spirit of being part of a wonderful creative community, I want to share where I get my ideas. No, I have not been published, and I do not have an agent. But I have oodles of ideas, and I believe in them (thank you Best Critique Groups and Best Online Communities and Best Course Instructors . . . and wonderful husband!)
Each person is excited by different things and can own an idea in a unique way. I personally think the dumbest jokes are the funniest, but lots of you out there probably think they’re silly and not that funny. When I was kayaking with my son, he said, “Mom, what do you get when you cross a lake with a leaky boat? About halfway.” I thought that was hilarious. Everyone is different. If someone else has a gold nugget that excites you, take your excitement to a good website or library and read more about that topic, be it science or history or food or art. Gold nuggets are out there waiting for everyone.
These are the places I get most of my gold nuggets. These are primarily nonfiction, but fiction ideas aren’t far away. I got the idea for my latest fiction manuscript just from reading Judy Blume’s website. I’m sharing this because I’m certain no one will end up with the same crazy idea I did!
Here are my inspiration and fascination places and the sources for so many things I want to share with kids:
1. TED talks. I listen to the NPR TED Radio Hour podcast, and when I think kids should hear about something amazing, or if I get a kooky idea for a fiction picture book, I write it down. Guy Raz, the host of the TED Radio Hour, organizes each hour-long show around a theme inspired by the TED talks themselves. TED conferences began in 1984 (here’s the first TED talk), and Raz uses talks from every year in between then and now. He interviews the speakers, asking inspired questions and adding to the information in the talk. Then I go to the talk itself and listen (and sometimes watch the visuals, too). I think they are fascinating. One example is the talk given by Bernie Krause, a bioacoustician who talked about a part of our world we rarely think about. I listened to it months ago and still think about it. There’s a great kids’ story or two in there somewhere.
2. Marketplace and Marketplace Weekend podcasts from APM. These shows are about economics around the world, but their stories, even though they all have money connections, are all about people trying to make a life for themselves. The show includes book reviews, interviews, segments about people who have just passed away, anniversaries, histories, product features (like the foam noodle kids use in a swimming pool), new businesses, old jobs that people don’t do anymore, making a living in a refugee camp, and many things that might surprise you.
3. Magazines like Smithsonian, Archaeology, Discover, Popular Science, or anything else about history or science. I also read the magazines and newsletters I receive from nonprofits like the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which puts out a beautiful quarterly magazine called Living Bird. The magazines from EarthJustice, the Humane Society, World Wildlife Fund, Defenders of Wildlife, Doctors Without Borders, or any organization you might be interested in are usually full of scientist and activist profiles and unique, interesting, relevant projects, like rescuing turtle eggs before they are buried by a housing development. I also get ideas from National Geographic Kids (we subscribe). They publish some kooky stuff.
Did you know a University of Maryland physics professor has built a two-story dynamo, a model of earth, filled with liquid sodium, to find out how the earth creates its magnetic field? He is in the process of spinning it a little faster each time and measuring the magnetism created by the motion. He is very nice and gives tours of his lab to people like us, who found out about his work from a single column in Smithsonian. Kids’ Magazine Article Alert!
4. Reading the display boards at museums. Seriously, museum professionals know what they are talking about. They know all the most fascinating stories about their collections, and they put those stories on display to invite you, the lifelong learner, to take a step closer to history or art or dinosaurs. I take pictures of boards. I took dozens of pictures at the National Cryptology Museum.
5. Researching books for my kids. My kids don’t always appreciate . . . let me rephrase that . . . my kids don’t have any idea how hard I work finding things for them to read. For fiction, keeping track of a maturing mind and changing tastes has been a challenge. Many times I go way outside their reading levels. I gave the new Captain Underpants book to a 15-year-old. Sometimes I come home with an armful of Gary Paulsen only to discover that the younger kid doesn’t like what the older one liked. Bummer! For nonfiction, it’s easier to go with the flow and find books on whatever they are fascinated by at the moment. Right now it is astrobiology, which I had never heard of till my son talked about it. But I have learned so much from their fascinations with dinosaurs, marine biology, marine geology, astronomy, bacteria, gross boy stuff, and all kinds of not-so-gross stuff. In other words, I’ve read a lot of kids books over the last several years and will be eternally grateful to the brilliant nonfiction authors who have helped educate my boys. And me.
6. Reading nonfiction for grownups, or even just the reviews. Are you paying attention to what is going on in the adult nonfiction world? Just browse a table or shelf at a bookstore. Anything that is interesting for adults is interesting for kids, too, with only a very few obvious exceptions. My husband joked that I should write a picture book about the Donner Party, but of course he didn’t realize that there are already several children’s books about that horrible tragedy. There are kids who want to know and authors like us who want to tell them.
7. For other ideas, you have to take Nonfiction Archaeology with the amazing Kristen McGill Fulton. You will get way more than you can imagine.
There are plenty of other places to get ideas, but I have too many already. Hopefully my list will help someone.
What fascinates you?