Tag Archives: fantasy

How Do Writers Get Ideas?

question-mark Every time I do an author visit, I get asked this question, and I always stumble as I try to answer it. Most writers I know dread this question. How do we explain what happens in our brains? How do we describe the way everything we see, read, hear, and do generates story ideas?

Interesting ideas are all around us and seem to hop into our heads all day long. As John Steinbeck said, “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them and pretty soon you have a dozen.” Maybe the key is not how we get ideas, but what we do with them. Perhaps taking a peek into an author’s brain might clarify this process.

Say we walk into the grocery store and see a scruffy-looking girl with a backpack struggling to reach for a box of cereal. Nonwriters might think, “Poor girl, she looks a mess. I’m surprised her parents let her out of the house looking like that.” Or maybe, “I wonder where her parents are.” Some might judge her choice: “I can’t believe she’s picking that sugary cereal. Kids her age should have healthy breakfasts.” Caring souls might ask, “Do you need help reaching that cereal box, honey?” Suspicious people might wonder: “She doesn’t look like she can afford that. I hope she’s not planning to shoplift.”

dogWriters may think those thoughts too, but then their brains start racing. Hmm…what if she’s a mess because her family’s homeless, and this is their only food for the day? Where might they be living? In a homeless shelter? In their car? What would it be like to live there, and how did they end up there? What would a little girl like that want or need if she were living in a car? And the writer is off, plotting a new story or maybe even two. Perhaps all those questions might lead to a story like Barbara O’Connor’s How to Steal a Dog, where a girl living in a car is lonely and wants a pet so badly she decides to steal one.

Or the writer might think: That girl looks sad. What if her mom left, and her dad doesn’t pay much attention to her? Maybe she’s lonely and needs a friend. What if a stray dog wandered into the grocery store, and the girl tried to save it? Maybe similar thoughts ran through Kate DiCamillo’s head as she plotted Because of Winn Dixie, the story of a girl who misses her mother and adopts a stray dog.winn-dixie

Perhaps the writer notices the girl looks neglected. Her next thought might be: What if she looks so scruffy because her parents are dead. Maybe she lives with mean relatives who don’t take good care of her. But what if the relatives don’t realize she has secret powers? Hmm… what if she goes to a magical school and… Oh, I wonder if it would be better if it were a boy, and he goes to wizard school. The plot could easily turn into Harry Potter.harry

Another writer might think, That girl’s all alone. What if that older lady choosing a carton of oatmeal befriends her? Maybe the two of them could form an unusual friendship. Or wait… What if the old lady is a kidnapper, and when she sees the girl alone, she pretends to help her and she invites the girl back to her house and…

Or maybe the girl’s only pretending to look at cereal, but she’s really been stalking the older lady… Why would she do that? What if she thinks the lady is the grandmother she’s never met? Is it really her relative? If so, why wouldn’t she have met her grandmother? Maybe her mother ran away from home as a teen? So how did the girl discover the grandmother’s whereabouts? Will the grandmother be overjoyed to discover she has a grandchild? How will the mother react when she finds out?

And once again, several story ideas have formed in the writer’s mind. He can’t wait to get home and jot them down. Or if he carries a small notebook, as most writers do, he’ll scribble some notes in it. The whole way home, his brain will be whirling with what-if questions.

A fantasy writer might look at the girl and think: What if she took that box of cereal home, and a fairy popped out when she was having breakfast? Maybe the fairy could grant her one wish. I wonder what she’d wish for. It looks like her family needs help. Oh, but what if she has a brother who’s deathly ill? Would she give up her wish to save him?

Or the writer’s thoughts might run in other directions. What if the fairy was bad at spells and messed up the wishes? Wouldn’t it be funny if… Or What if that isn’t a backpack, but a jet pack? She could fly off with that cereal. But where would she go? And how did she get that jetpack in the first place? Once again, the writer has the seeds of plot or two.

We could keep going with story ideas just from seeing one girl in a grocery store. Now imagine living inside a writer’s head. Everything sparks ideas for stories. We’re always asking questions about what could happen. Or wondering why people do things. And everyone we see or meet becomes a potential story. Yes, even you. So beware when you’re around a writer. You never know when they might make up a story about you.

But what about you? Can you think like a writer? As you go through your day, ask yourself: Who is this person really? Why is she doing what she’s doing? What would he be like if he lived in another country or on another planet? What if that person is only pretending to be a teacher? What if she’s a superhero in disguise or a kid (or animal) who switched bodies with an adult? What if something magical or unusual happened to her? What if this person got into trouble? Who would save him? What does that person dream of? How could I make her wish come true in a story? What does that person need? What’s the scariest idea I can come with about this person? The most unusual idea?

Ideas are all around us. You don’t need magic to create a story, only a little imagination, a lot of curiosity, and many, many questions.


A former teacher and librarian, Laurie J. Edwards is now an author who has written more than 2300 articles and 30 books under several pen names, including Erin Johnson and Rachel J. Good. To come up with ideas for her books, she people-watches and eavesdrops on conversations in public places, which starts her brain racing with questions. To find out more about Laurie, visit her website and blog.

An interview with author Delia Sherman on her latest middle grade fantasy

imgres-1Congratulations to Delia Sherman on the recently published The Evil Wizard Smallbone, and thanks for joining us here at the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors.

How did you come up with the idea for this book?
It began with a short story I wrote for an anthology called Troll’s Eye View, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. The theme of the anthology was to retell a classic fairy tale — from the point of view of the villain. As I always do when I want to build a good, juicy fairy tale retelling, I went to Fairy Tales From Many Lands, a book I’ve had ever since I can remember. I’ve long wanted to retell the story of “The Wizard Outwitted,” a Russian fairy tale full of shapeshifting and trickery and wizard’s duels (because, I ask you, who doesn’t love a good wizard’s duel?), so I did that. In 3500 words. Which didn’t actually leave me room for the wizard’s duel. Or, indeed, many of the things I wanted to say. So I thought some more about Nick’s training and development and went to the Blue Hill Fair (the very same fair Wilbur attended with Fern in Charlotte’s Web), where I talked to a trapper about gray wolves and coyotes in Maine and to a pig-farmer about pigs, and it all came together somehow.

There’s quite a bit of shape-shifting in this novel, and the descriptions are so vivid. Did you research wolves and coyotes, for example, to capture them so well or perhaps you have observed or spent time with these animals?
It was all research. My terrible secret is that I’m horribly allergic to all animals, and can’t have one and breathe at the same time. Which is why I suppose I almost always end up putting animals in my books—they’re guaranteed to be hypoallergenic. But I digress. I read a lot about wolves and spiders and rats and coyotes (and some other animals that I ended up cutting out because the book was getting too long. Nick turned into a crow once. I was sorry to see that go.) But I think my best source ended up being nature video on You Tube, where I learned what a rat sees and what the fox says, pretty much first hand.

What was the hardest thing about writing about wizards?
Figuring out the magic. I didn’t want it to be “Alakazam, wave my hand, you’re a frog”-type magic. And I didn’t want it to be too formulaic and scientific. I wanted it to seem as if it could really work and still be mysterious and wonderful. So I read about folk magic (think horseshoes for luck and salt to keep evil away) and formal magic (pentagrams and chants) and mixed them with things I personally think are cool (books that talk back to you and magical snow-blowing).

What was the easiest thing writing about wizards?
Stuff that is magic as well as used to do magic, like Smallbone’s coat and hat, Fidelou’s pelt-cape, enchanted bookstores and talking books. I’m sure I borrowed many of them from folk lore, from old fairytales, from books I read as a kid and don’t even remember reading, but they all felt as if they just showed up when they were needed, demanding to be added. So I did.

Are you a plotter or a pantser?
A little bit of both. When pantsing leaves me without anywhere to go, I plot for awhile until I can see my way forward, and then I go back to making it up as I go along. That’s the first draft, though. For all other drafts (Evil Wizard took seven), I have to make a plan, or I just make things worse.

There are so many surprises and unexpected reveals. How did these plot twists come about?

Now that I come to think about it, it has to be fairytales again. You read enough of them, you realize that one of the patterns is this: The hero has an adventure, which leads to another adventure, which develops a side-quest, which gets him embroiled in another adventure altogether. I guess I’ve read so many fairy tales over the years that that kind of thinking is just part of the way my mind works.

How much were you aware of both following the wizard apprentice tale type and how much did you consciously deviate from it?
Well, I was working off a fairy tale, and I have seen Disney’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and read The Sword in the Stone, although the Wart is not really Merlin’s apprentice. Setting the story in modern (more or less) Maine was a big deviation, as was Nick’s original complete lack of interest in being a wizard—or even believing that magic exists. I think what really happens when I retell a fairy story is that at some point the story I’m writing takes off from its roots and grows into something slightly different. Except for the wizard, the shape-changing, and the wizard’s duel, there are not really a lot of similarities between Nick’s story and the original.

This is set during a hardscrabble winter in New England, and it’s very cold and described so well. Is this a climate/area you know first-hand?
I began to write this story when I started staying at my friend’s house on the coast of Maine. I’ve never been there in winter, mind, but I’ve read books set there (also in Finland, which is very like Maine in many ways). I spent one of the coldest, darkest, and most uncomfortable years of my life in an inland town a long time ago, and I lived in Massachusetts for a long time, some of it in a house heated by a wood stove. So I do know plenty about snow, wind, cold, and even chopping wood.

Why did you write this book?
I haven’t the foggiest notion. All the time I was writing it, I kept thinking maybe I should be working on something else, that it wasn’t really the kind of book I write, that Nick was difficult and I don’t know anything about motorcycles or small towns (I grew up in New York City, after all). And yet, I kept working at it. I guess the real answer is that I’m a lot more like Nick than I thought.

The wizards in this novel are quite idiosyncratic. How did you come up with the idea for such a grumpy wizard (SmallBone) as well as his nemesis (Fidelou, the wolf wizard).
There are lots of grumpy wizards in literature. Even good wizards like Gandalf and Merlin and Dumbledore and Chrestomanci can be plenty crabby and short-tempered. Another thing wizards have in common is that they tend to be loners. You don’t read much about wizards with lots of friends and family (except in Harry Potter). So I just took that crabbiness to its logical extreme. Fidelou, on the other hand, is only interested in power. He wants it all, no matter what he has to do or who he has to hurt to get it. That, in my opinion, is what real evil is.

The main character, 12 year-old Nick Reynaud, can’t really read at the beginning of the novel. One of the main changes is that he learns to read and grow in confidence as well as security. How did the choice for Nick to be such a struggling reader come about?
Well, he says he can’t read; he can actually read perfectly well, and has a taste for science fiction and fantasy, just like his Mom. Still, I suspect he hasn’t read much until he gets to Evil Wizard books, partly because Uncle Gabe doesn’t have any books in the house and partly because he can’t see the point of the books he’s expected to read in school. He’s indignant when the bookshop gives him E-Z Spelz For Little Wizardz, but he reads it because he really, really wants to learn magic. I guess I believe that having a reason to read something is more motivating than just being told that it’s good for you.

Hillary Homzie is the author of the Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009). She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page.

A Chat With Author Kelly Barnhill

Book jacket for The Girl Who Drank the Moon. Some books grab you from the first moment you see their gorgeous cover. Such was the case the first time I saw Kelly Barnhill’s beautiful middle-grade fantasy, The Girl Who Drank the Moon.

Anticipation grew even more when Barnhill and her publisher released two prequels to the story last month on Entertainment Weekly (read Part 1 and Part 2 for a taste of Barnhill’s storytelling). So I was delighted to have the opportunity to chat with Kelly and to help her celebrate the release of The Girl Who Drank the Moon.

Hello Kelly, welcome to From the Mixed-Up Files! Which middle-grade books did you love when you were younger?

A: I wasn’t much of a reader before fifth grade. Like at all. I knew that one should read, and I was very good at pretending to read, but the ability to sink into a page just wasn’t there for me. What I did love was listening. My parents read to us all the time, and I can remember listening to Grimm’s fairy tales, and later C.S. Lewis, and later Tolkien, and later Dickens. I also —thanks to a garage sale purchase of a Fisher Price orange plastic record player — loved checking out books on records from the library. Because, once upon a time, that was a thing. I listened to Treasure Island and Kidnapped and Just So Stories and both Jungle Books. Later, when I started seeking books out on my own, I loved weird things. L. Frank Baum, particularly. And Roald Dahl. And Daniel Pinkwater. And Diana Wynne Jones. And Ursula K. LeGuin. And Andre Norton. You don’t have to scratch my skin very deeply to find the undercurrent of those writers, pulsing in my veins.

Q: Which came first, the story itself or the prequel?

A: Oh, the story. For sure. But one thing that I didn’t realize when I started writing the story was how much Xan’s unremembered history would come to play in the way the action unfolded. There is much that I couldn’t include in the story itself, simply because Xan had chosen not to remember it — because memory is dangerous, as is sorrow. Or so Xan thinks. Anyway, the idea of her as a child in the company of a bunch of irascible magicians and scholars — many of whom do not have her best interests at heart — intrigued me. And so some of the cut pages and a bunch of the notes started swirling around until a story emerged.

Q: Last year, you wrote a novella for adults called The Unlicensed Magician. Can you talk a little bit about the differences between writing for adults and for children? Which do you prefer? Should we expect more adult stories from you in the future?

Writing a novella, I feel, is a bit like the Spanish Inquisition — no one expects it. I have written and published quite a few short stories for grown-ups that have appeared in a variety of journals. I like writing short stories; I like the muscle of it and the precision needed. It’s an entirely different skill set from what is required for a novel. And while I’ve written a few short stories for kids, the vast majority of them have been for adults. I’m not entirely sure why this is. Maybe my “adult fiction voice” is just more narrow than my “children’s fiction voice.” Or something.

When I started “The Unlicensed Magician,” I assumed I was writing a short story. And then 30,000 words poured out over the course of a couple days — just like that. This was a muscle that I didn’t know I had, and when I finished, I was tired and sore and had no idea what to do with the thing. I’m glad it’s found an audience, and that people seem to like it. As far as the intended audience goes — man. I don’t know. I will think and think and think about a story — just the story — and have no idea if it is a kid’s story or an adult’s story or just a weird story that only I would like. I don’t really know that until I’m done. Really, all I think about is the story itself — what the experience is, what the language feels like, what the big ideas are underpinning the whole thing. I don’t think about audience until the very end.

Author Kelly Barnhill

Author Kelly Barnhill

Q: Like you, I attended my first nErDcamp this year. Can you talk a little bit about the experience and what it meant to you as a writer and former teacher?

A: nErDcamp is magic, plain and simple. I have been fighting for so long — first as a teacher and then as a parent — for reading instruction in schools that is humane and empathetic and inspiring and challenging and ultimately joyful. Reading instruction and encouragement that helps young minds to be more than they are through the power of radical empathy in books. And I have found myself thwarted and frustrated at every turn. Coming to nErDcamp felt like coming home. So many joyful teachers! So many joyful book pushers! So many joyful writers and readers and kids! It was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.

Q: You teach writing to adults and children and you mentioned on your web site that a big part of that involves “un-teach(ing) what they have already learned.” Can you elaborate on that?

A: When we learn to write, we learn there are rules, and when we actually write, we throw those rules away. So often, my students come to me already stuck in particular boxes of what they think “good” writing is, and is not, and what kind of writer they think they are, and are not. And primarily, I think a lot of kids and adults have learned over the years that their ideas just aren’t good enough. That they don’t have a story to tell. That an idea for a story is something that happens to other people — special people. This is balderdash. All of us are built out of stories. I have to un-teach them the lie in order to teach them the truth.

Q: What books are on your nightstand right now?
A: A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC, by V E Schwab. And after that, I have some marvelous Murakami waiting for me. There is something about summer that simply begs for Murakami. After that, I plan to read MR. FOX, by Helen Oyeyemi and a few Diana Wynne Jones books that are due for a re-read.


Oh, how I loved A Darker Shade of Magic and so did both of my children (readers, please note that it is technically adult, although I let my 10 & 11 year old read it!). Thanks so much for your time, Kelly, and best of luck with your new book.

THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON releases today from Algonquin Young Readers.