Thanks to Tara Lazar and her Picture Book Idea Month, I’m trying to generate a nonfiction topic each day for 30 days.
In past years, I easily came up with 30+ fiction ideas—after all, you just make them up. But this year, nonfiction ideas are what I’m collecting.
And you can’t make them up. You have to find them. But that's even better--it’s like a scavenger hunt.
Nonfiction ideas are everywhere, often hiding in plain sight. When you are attuned to finding ideas, they will ping like text messages arriving on your mental radar.
Here are five ways to find them:
1. Watch TV. The major networks show documentaries, but your best bet are channels devoted to them, like A&E, Animal Planet, Discovery, The History Channel, and National Geographic. On Pacific Warriors, men and women were out fishing in the Pacific in kayaks, catching fish as big as their boats. The narrator mentioned that the swordfish is the fastest in the ocean, and that the ono is the most vicious fish pound per pound. Ping!
CBS Sunday Morning yields several pings each episode. In the most recent, I was curious to learn more about Nick Benson, the slowest writer in the world. Nick is a third generation stone carver whose family has engraved many of the monuments and markers at famous tombs and memorials. Their shop was built in 1705—they are the second owners. You can view episodes online--be sure to have paper or keyboard ready.
2. Peruse magazines. One I like is The Smithsonian. They have an online version. How can you resist an article about “how thousands of dead bugs became a mesmerizing work of extraordinary beauty.” In September, there was a short article about another fish that intrigued me. It's warm-blooded! The October issue has an article about Armstrong Custer—not as hero but as horse thief. Ping!
3. Read newspapers. Read with an eye for the unusual, the surprising, the one that makes you think, "Say what?" In one of my local papers, an article mentioned there was a German POW camp right here in my small Texas town. That fact demands follow-up investigation. Who knew?!
4. Travel. You can travel abroad, travel our country, or simply take in a local museum. I found the subject of my current project in an area museum that's smaller than my house. A recent trip to New Orleans yielded ideas garnered from a sugar plantation, a cemetery, a paddle wheeler, and a church.
5. Wonder. Catch yourself every time you wonder--write it down. That might lead to interesting investigations and discoveries. Waiting at a traffic light, I wondered how the mechanism worked that allowed longer green lights during peak traffic, and skipped the turn light when no car was in the lane. Yesterday I wondered how mosquitoes could find me even on a sunny day with a breeze in a wide open space. They bit me through my clothes! Anytime you find yourselve wondering, "Why..." you might have the kernel of a publication that will interest other curious readers. BONUS: If you are around children, their questions can be inspirations.
Once you get yourself attuned, the pings will become so frequent you might feel like a xylophone. You will need a big notebook—or a number of small ones stashed in your car, your purse or briefcase, and anywhere else handy for when discovery strikes. Your idea stash could lead to an essay, an article, a book. Or possibly, a blogpost!
I recently attended a community green event where we created our own vermicompost bins--otherwise known as a worm farm. The idea is to recycle kitchen veggie scraps by feeding them to the busy, homebound Red Wrigglers (Eisenia fetida). In return, they silently create an incredibly fertile compost to use in our gardens.
As I tore up strips of newspaper for their bedding, it occurred to me that a red wiggler is a great role model for a writer. They take in eggshells, carrot tops, spoiled strawberries, potato peelings, spinach leaves, and even coffee grounds. And what they leave behind after digestion is a product that is nutrient rich and capable of supporting life.
Further observation revealed five reasons to imitate a Red Wriggler.
1. Worms aren't easily discouraged.
Worms have no teeth. Yet they will tackle egg shells, bits of carrot, even coffee filters. Digestion is accomplished by a constant ripple of their muscles which works the food through their very long digestive system.
Writers may dread revising their first draft, which can be as dull as a worm's mouth. But through repeated muscle movements of our fingers on the keyboard coupled with the powerful juices of a brain in gear, we can improve and polish our words.
2. Worms reside among words.
Damp recycled newspaper makes a good home, and even a snack source, for my worms. They literally live in the stories.
Good writers surround themselves with words, constantly reading the works of others. It gives them company, informs their work, gives them mentors, and is a great pleasure. Instead of newsprint, writers need a library card.
3. Worms are what they eat.
I feed my Red Wrigglers with nutritious scraps. I avoid oil and salts, either of which can kill these busy little eaters.
I feed my writer brain with the expertise of others (conferences, online courses, professional books and magazines, and online socializing with other writers). I avoid negative people, including my own inner critique, either of which can kill my forward momentum.
4. Worms convert garbage into gold.
Over the course of a couple of months, my wrigglers do a Rumplestiltskin number on recycled kitchen waste. They spin it into high-nutrition compost that will grow my plants like Jack’s beanstalk in no time.
Over the course of many months, writers spin facts and ideas into an engaging composition that will grow the minds and imaginations of young readers.
5. Worms are not picky.
Newspaper, tea bags, bits of cardboard, and veggie scraps all go into their worm tummies and given time, come out as castings coveted by gardeners for its fertile properties.
Writers should develop a worm-brain. Worm-brain isn’t a dread medieval disease. It’s the ability to be hyper-alert to story ideas that are thinly disguised as Life.
Here’s how worm-brain works. I was watching the Kentucky Derby. I saw so many nonfiction topics laying around the track that I hurried to record them in my pocket notebook.
Worm-brain often begins with “why" or "how?” Why do women wear such exuberant hats at the Kentucky Derby? Why do the racehorses seem to have a buddy horse before the race? Why do they run counter-clockwise?
Or, you could be examining worms…
Don’t be picky. Jot it all down in your omnipresent notebook. You never know which bit will become a fertile source for a blog post, magazine article, or book manuscript.
Do you have worm-brain? Share your inspiration with us in the comments.
Ah, books. I never outgrew my love of children's books. My passion became a career--I was an elementary school librarian. And now I write books for kids!