It’s so true—ideas are everywhere. As writers, we are constantly on the lookout for grist for our writing mills that we can use to develop into articles or stories. We search the world wide web. We use information from our lives, jobs and careers. We sift back through our own memories from childhood, and much to our children’s dismay, we may even play off humorous things they say and do. We are persistent and consistent in our quest to mine for those little nuggets and ideas that we will make uniquely ours.
However, one fantastic source for ideas may be so obvious that it’s simply overlooked. In fact, until I started thinking back on how I originally came up with the ideas for some of my published non-fiction articles, I too had forgotten about my ‘secret source’—my children’s schoolwork! For example, when my twin daughters were studying about westward expansion in America, I checked out a video about the Oregon Trail from the library. As we were watching the documentary, the narrator commented that the Oregon Trail is the nation’s longest graveyard. If the graves were evenly spaced along the length of the Trail, there would be one every fifty yards from Missouri to Oregon City. Light bulb moment! My interest was piqued, and I began to research. The result was an article entitled “The Oregon Trail: Destiny or Death?” that was published in Learning Through History Magazine.
The same thing happened when my children studied about ancient Rome, ancient Greece, the Great Depression, the French Revolution, and World War I, all resulting in the following articles:
Roman Baths: Ancient Health Clubs
Eureka! Archimedes and His Accomplishments
Herbert Hoover: From Prosperity to Depression
Tragedy In the Temple Prison
A Deadly Cloud of Poison Gas
When my daughters were very young, they learned about various animals during one particular unit study. We became fascinated with the leaf eating proboscis monkeys of Borneo which led me to write an article called “Snoots and Snouts” for Guideposts for Kids, a piece about funny animal noses. This came on the heels of another article called “Power In A Bottle” that I sold to Jack and Jill after teaching a class of second graders about the chemical reaction of mixing baking soda and vinegar to create carbon dioxide.
I once heard a podcast featuring children’s author Kathi Appelt (“The Book Report” 6/25/08). She said that she found her inspiration for writing her non-fiction book, Down Cut Shin Creek: Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky when she was helping her ninth grade son with his research for a paper about the WPA. As she was scanning various websites for information about the WPA, she came across a site called the “Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project.” According to Appelt in another interview conducted by Cynthia Leitich Smith:
“It wasn’t anything that Jacob could use, but with my life-long affection for all-things-horse I bookmarked the page and returned to it a couple of days later. Then I contacted the webmaster who turned out to be Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer, a librarian in Cookville, TN and we started corresponding with each other.
“One day, she invited me to come with her to Beattyville, KT to interview a woman named Grace Lucas who had been one of these librarians. Of course, I jumped at the chance, and both of us just fell in love with Grace and her story. I felt so touched and impressed with Grace’s life and the impact that she and her co-workers made on the lives of so many people, that the book was almost inevitable.”
I loved the way Appelt said, “…the book was almost inevitable!” And due to helping her son with the homework assignment that led her to find a website that inspired to her write her book, the ripples of Kathi Appelt’s discovery continue even further. When another children’s author, Kimberly Willis Holt, saw a picture in Appelt’s book of a bookmobile librarian who worked in a Louisiana bayou community, she was inspired to write her fictional book, Part of Me! I’ve read both of these ladies’ books, and they are exceptional. Thank goodness for that research paper on the WPA!
So the next time you need to help your child with schoolwork, don’t think of it as a chore or an inconvenience. Yes, it is a labor of love, but also consider it an opportunity—an opportunity to mine for writer’s gold. You never know when that perfect nugget of information will turn up to spark your creative interest and lead to greater success in your writing career.