How Inspiration Comes in All Shapes & Sizes:
I am often asked, “How do you come up with the inspiration for your stories?”
I am constantly having to come up with children’s story ideas for books and the Story Spectacular podcast. The short answer is: Inspiration comes from EVERYWHERE!!!
Sometimes it’s taking an old story from the public domain and reworking it to give it a modern twist. Other times inspiration comes from the things I am interested in as an adult. I try and consume a lot of content that enriches my curiosity. Maybe it’s listening to a Science/Nature podcast. Shows like Varmints, Every Little Thing, and Stuff You Should Know, give me lots of great story ideas. After listening to a few podcast episodes about bats and echolocation, I was inspired to write the podcast episode “Buffy the Bat.”
I also love to listen to audiobooks. The book River of Doubt by Candice Millard details Theodore Roosevelt’s harrowing expedition down a tributary of the Amazon River. That story was not suitable for children, but I was fascinated by the subject matter. I took my newfound interest in the Amazon and simplified it into a story that was suitable for children.
Write With Feeling!
One thing all of my stories have in common is that I felt an emotional connection to the subject matter. Even before you start writing the plot of your story I think it is so important to map out how you want your story to make people feel.
Let me give you an example of how I came up with the story “The Shape Escape”
After you finish consuming a great piece of content, write down the topic or theme. I have a whole list of story starters which are simply, one or two-word ideas to work from. Examples of a few of my Story Starters are:
The Erie Canal, Things that Glow in the Dark, Lobsters, Weather, Lighthouses, Trees…
Start with something that simple and think about why you are excited by that idea? And what would make a child excited about it too?
One afternoon when I was brainstorming for a story idea, I chose the topic “shapes”. I sat down with a piece of paper and drew a circle, a square, and a triangle. At first, they were empty. So I drew some faces on them. How do I bring these shape characters to life? What made me excited as a kid?
Tap into your childhood!
Two things immediately popped into my head, Pee Wee Herman, and The B52’s!
Pee Wee Herman- I was never allowed to watch Pee Wee’s Playhouse at home but I would catch glimpses of it at other people’s houses. That show bent reality. It felt like a dream. There was a talking chair that looked SO REAL! It made me wonder if chairs only talked in Pee Wee’s Playhouse or maybe the chairs in my house would also talk when no one was looking! I would sneak around the corner to try and catch my dad’s brown corduroy recliner in the act! I wasn’t sure what to think about Pee Wee either, he didn’t scare me but the chaos he created made me anxious but at the same time amused. That show really made me question and test the world around me.
The B52’s- The album “Cosmic Thing” by the B52’s was one of the first CDs my parents got for their cool new CD player. I made them play the song “Love Shack” for me all the time and would dance around the living room. The word “love” means something different as a kid. It’s not a romantic feeling but instead, a feeling of blissful connection towards your friends and family. I thought it was SO cool that the people in the song were getting together and having a party with the people they loved! I wanted to turn my Dad’s tool shed into a “Love Shack”. The Tool Shed Love Shack never came to fruition, but one day I got to experience the ULTIMATE LOVE SHACK. In first grade, I went on a trip to California for my aunt’s wedding. At the wedding reception the DJ put on “Love Shack” I was like “ARE YOU KIDDING ME RIGHT NOW? You guys know this song TOO?!!!” I grabbed the microphone and began singing dancing like a total maniac. Everyone was on the dance floor. It was just euphoria! In my head, I was screaming “I LOVE EVERYBODY!!!!” I got to experience my version of a “Love Shack” and it was one of the most exciting memories of my childhood.
I took that energy and those feelings from my childhood memories, and wrote the plot of “The Shape Escape”. It’s a very simple plot. Some shapes live in a valley. An Octagon, a Square and a Tiny triangle. A big bully Circle is bouncing around wreaking havoc. The other shapes put it in time-out in a fortress at the top of a mountain. But one day the circle escapes and the tiny triangle emerges as the unexpected hero.
I followed a simple plot structure of hook, rising action, and resolution. And yes, plot is also very important. For kids books, I think the simpler the plot the better. But the feelings are what makes the story SING!!!
I wanted my shapes to come alive the way Pee Wee Herman made the objects around his house come to life. It was important to me that the character of the Circle was not scary but instead a silly wreaker of havoc and MAYHEM! This character was directly inspired by Pee Wee. I even did my best Pee Wee Herman impression for the voice of the Circle when I recorded the podcast. For the book illustrations, I drew the Circle in a way that gave me that same feeling that Pee Wee did. A feeling of chaotic amusement.
Then I wanted the story to end with a surprise dance party that celebrates the tiniest shape in the valley. I wanted to capture that same feeling of surprise and euphoria that those childhood memories of the B52’s gave me. I paid homage to the B52’s by singing a short original song for the Triangle in the podcast episode and illustrated a dance party for the Triangle at the end of the book.
This is one of my favorite stories because it came from such treasured memories. I hope the shapes delight you too!
I encourage you to spend some time with your imagination. Look at some old pictures from your childhood. Recall some of your favorite memories. Allow those feelings to propel your flow, your words your story. Let your mind go to unexpected places. Who knows what sorts of remarkable inspiration you may stumble upon…