When I visit schools, students often ask where I get my ideas. Generally, I offer a nebulous response such as “Anywhere…Everywhere.” I’m not simply being flippant. Ideas comes from the strangest places, and they often come when I’m least expecting them. Sometimes I can see almost immediately how an idea might bloom into an article or book. Other times the process is somewhat akin to giving birth to an elephant. Almost always, it takes a good deal of work and research to turn an idea into a usable piece of writing.

The other week my wife, Debbie, and I went to the University of Delaware library to see a special Revolutionary War exhibit. This field guide to the 13 colonies gave generals an overview of all the strategic places where battles might take place. It was a fascinating exhibit, but try as I might I could not think of a way to translate any of the information into usable form for a children’s book or article.

While we were in the library, however, we wandered through other parts of the building and found a brand-new exhibit of books about the Civil War. Most pertained to Abraham Lincoln, but it was another book that caught my eye–the autobiography of Sarah Emma Edmonds, who impersonated a man and served two years in the Union army. Not only that, but she also served as a spy, assuming the guise of a slave and an Irish peddler. She also worked as a nurse.

What a fascinating person, I thought! My mind immediately began turning over ways that I might turn this story into a picture book for youngsters at the older end of the picture book spectrum (ages 8 to 10). I did some preliminary research and found only a single middle school/young adult biography of Edmonds that was written several years ago. I saw my book as occupying a different niche and got excited about the prospects.

Alas, a second round of searching on Amazon.com revealed not one, but two, picture books about Edmonds that came out just this spring. I intend to find copies of them, but I doubt that I can find an angle that is sufficiently fresh to justify another book on the same topic. And that’s the other thing about ideas–you have to go through a lot of them before you find ones that are unique, marketable, and appropriate for your interests and talents.

Random Thought of the Week–My computer shared my disappointment in finding out about the other books on Sarah Emma Edmonds. As I completed my search, it gave me an error message and promptly shut down. The problem turned out to be a crashed hard drive, and even the best efforts of a computer whiz friend were unsuccessful in bringing it back to life (even freezing it overnight, which I learned sometimes revives it long enough to get the data off of it). So my sage advice to others this week is to be more diligent than I was in backing up files. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I backed up and when, what I have available in other places such as e-mail attachments, and what is simply lost. Live and learn!

 

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