Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Looking for the Lightbulb - Part 1

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I write children's articles and books in many genres but one of my favourites is non-fiction. Over the years I've written about topics on everything from the Megalodon shark, the environment, the Titanic, Canadian inventors, kid volunteers, newcomers to Canada, how to draw comics and cartoons, and rats in urban centres to why mozzarella cheese is stretchy, early settlers in North America, holidays and celebrations, common Canadian birds, Myers-Briggs testing, medicinal plants, First Nations' treaties, heavy vs light materials, the search for various vanished people, ... Well, you get the picture...

Many of the articles, and even a few of the books, that I've written have been on topics assigned to me. But I'm proud to say that I have come up with the ideas for majority of my non-fiction books. Proud because getting an idea can be difficult. You can't just sit down and pull one out of the air. You can't just expect the lightbulb to appear above your head and light up!

Getting just the right idea and then finding the hook to transform the idea into something original and spicy, something that can interest an acquiring editor, something that can sustain my own curiosity and enthusiasm as I plunge into days or weeks (if it's for an article) or months (if it's for a book) of research, something that can then grab and hold the interest of demanding readers -- this is challenging.

We all recognize this. I think that's why one of the most common questions I'm asked by readers is "how do you get the idea for your books?"

My answer? I try to have my radar on at all times. When I'm reading, or listening to the radio, or taking part in a conversation, I'll be sifting and sorting, filing away possibilities for later consideration. However sometimes I will hunt for ideas, actively and deliberately. I'll chat with publishers or booksellers to see what they might be needing. I'll check out the shelves of bookstores to see what topics other writers are exploring.

Mostly, I'll spend time on the internet, reading articles and following links that interest me. Then, when I find I keep returning to one topic, looping back again and again, I'll narrow in on it, play around with various takes on it. If I hold it up in the light, does it have enough faces that make it sparkle and shine? If so, I'll do a little more research and write an outline, test to see if it continues to sustain my own interest, tease out the various possibilities.

If the outline seems solid, I'll submit it to an editor as a pitch. Often the idea is rejected at this stage, but sometimes not. An editor might share some valuable feedback which then helps me shape the idea into even more interesting angles. I love this creative transformative process!

How do other non-fiction writers get their ideas? Interested in the question myself and hoping you would be -- and, okay, I admit it, wanting to pick their brains for possible new strategies, I've asked five well-respected writers of children's non-fiction to share their thoughts on the subject. Today I'm posting two responses; I'll post three more next week, as part two of this blog topic.

HUGH BREWSTER has written or co-written about a dozen non-fiction books for young readers and dreamed up many more when he was publisher of Madison Press. His non-fiction titles include DIEPPE: Canada's Darkest Day of World War II (Scholastic) and BREAKOUT DINOSAURS: Canada's Coolest and Scariest Ancient Creatures (Whitfield Editions).

HUGH writes:

"An obvious place to look for ideas when writing about history is to tie in to anniversaries (eg centenary of Titanic, War of 1812.) Also talking to teachers when in schools often reveals subjects of interest to students. New scientific or archeological discoveries can also inspire ideas -- from a new dinosaur species to the underwater discovery of Cleopatra's palace."

LIZANN FLATT has written 11 nonfiction books for kids. "Counting on Fall" will be released this fall from OwlKids Books. Lizann lives in Muskoka with her husband and three kids.

LIZANN writes:

"My ideas seem to come from what I see going on around me but the observation seems to also resonate for me based on my own childhood experiences or feelings. For example, my kids complain constantly about their long bus ride to school. I remember feeling the same when I was their age and I got thinking about how different our lives would be without gas burning engines. That got me thinking about how people used to get around and so I wrote "Let's Go! The Story of Getting from There to Here" a history of transportation in North America.

My idea for my next nonfiction project came in a similar way. As I helped my kids with their math homework over the years I saw how math was being introduced very early on with basic concepts. I also hear their complaints about how math has nothing to do with real life (and I too felt that way) so I put together early math concepts with the idea of wouldn't it be funny if nature used math the way we do, and voila--my forthcoming Math in Nature four-book series beginning with "Counting on Fall.""

2 comments

Wendy, the first book in the Math in Nature series, Counting on Fall, will be published by OwlKids this fall. Then you count on enjoying Sorting through Spring (spring, 2013), Sizing up Winter (fall, 2013) and Shaping Up Summer (spring, 2014).

I look forward to the 'Math in Nature' series. I harken back to 'Biomimicry' by Dora Lee, illustrated by Margot Thompson. Inventions inspired by Nature.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Susan Hughes

Susan Hughes is an award-winning author whose books include The Island Horse, Case Closed?, No Girls Allowed, Earth to Audrey and Virginia.

Go to Susan Hughes’s Author Page