When I visit schools, one of the most frequent questions students ask is where I get ideas. One way is to find a fact and then ask questions.
Many of my fiction books began by reading nonfiction. As I’m reading, I’m looking for something I call a “story seed,” a fact that a story can grow from. Once I find that story seed, I start asking questions, beginning with “What if…?” Just by asking this question you can get a story going in your mind. Since I am writing for children, my “what if” questions will include how that story seed would affect a child’s life.
TUKI AND MOKA, A TALE OF TWO TAMARINS began when I was reading an article in the Smithsonian Magazine about animal trafficking. Accompanying the article was a picture of a boy with two tamarins. The topic of the article and wondering about that boy’s life made up the “story seed” that led to my initial what if question: “What if there was a boy who befriended a couple of tamarins but animal traffickers stole them?”
Even though my story will be fiction, it will also be about the real world, so I have to research into that world. Research will not only answer questions, but lead to more questions. The more questions I ask, the better my story will end up. Some of the information I research will never be used in the story, but I won’t know what I will want to use and what I won’t, so I tend to research way more than I’ll ever need. This way I have lots of choices. Plus, I may find some little tidbit that will make a real difference in my story. Information about Brazil nuts was one such tidbit which greatly influenced TUKI AND MOKA.
Below, I’ve shared some of the questions I asked while writing TUKI AND MOKA. You will see how the answers helped to build the story. What if there was a boy who befriended a couple of tamarins but animal traffickers stole them?
Remember, this was my initial “what if” question. It set up the problem for the story. But I also had to think about where the story was going to go, what I wanted the final outcome to be. Of course, I wanted my character to save his animal friends! But before I could go much farther, I needed to get to know this boy, which led to the question most people ask when they meet someone. What’s your name?
When naming a character, you must think about where and when he lives. Because my character would befriend tamarins, I started my name search by researching tamarins. They live all through the Amazon rainforest. I also researched the laws of different South American countries regarding capturing wild animals. I learned that in Ecuador, only indigenous people can keep wild animals but they can’t sell them.
So, I decided my character would be a Native South American who lives in Ecuador. Even though he may speak a language native to his ancestors, my story would be set in modern times, so he would also speak Spanish and could have a Hispanic name. I personally like names that have a connection with the story, so I researched Hispanic names. I chose Eduardo because it means “rich guard.” My character would not be rich monetarily, but he would be rich with animal friends, and he would want to protect them.
So, now I have Eduardo, an indigenous boy in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador who has befriended two wild tamarins. Which leads to another question: What do people do in the rainforest?
More research led to finding out that in Ecuador, only indigenous people can gather Brazil nuts in the rainforest. But now, more questions, questions about Brazil nuts and Brazil nut trees, where and how they grow, how the nuts are gathered, prepared and sold. That led to learning about an agouti, the only animal that can bite open hard Brazil nuts. While researching all this, I still have to keep in mind about the animal traffickers: More questions! More research! How do the animal traffickers capture wildlife?
With traps and nets, and, they sometimes chopped down trees to get to bird nests. Then, they take the animals outside of the rainforest by boat to sell them. Like a jigsaw puzzle, my answers are fitting together to make my story: Eduardo must leave the rainforest too, in order to sell the Brazil nuts. What does he see on the way? Where does he go and what’s his life like there? And, then I had to use my imagination to answer the most important question. How will Eduardo save Tuki and Moka?
I’ll let you read the story to find out the answer!
Getting an idea might seem an insurmountable wall, but as you can see, by asking questions and then combining research and imagination to answer them, a story can form. So, here’s an activity third to eighth graders can do to get a story seed and let your story grow. You will need a bunch of index cards. Get a nonfiction book
. Find an interesting fact and write it down on an index card. (Sleeping Bear Press has a whole series of nonfiction alphabet books about each state in their Discover America
series. You may want to use them. They are filled with interesting facts!)
Under your fact, write a “what if” question
about a kid.
Stories have beginnings (introducing the characters), middles (a problem) and an end (how the problem is solved). Take four index cards. At the top of one write: Main Character. On another put: Problem. On the third, put: Solution. On the fourth put: Interesting Details.
These cards will be your categories for other cards.
Now, on your Character card, write down who your main character is
. (Mine was: a boy with two tamarins.)
Now, think about your “what if” question. The problem for your story is probably hiding in your “what if” question. If you don’t see a problem, ask more questions about your “what if” question until you find something your character has to solve or take care of. Write your problem on your Problem card
. (Mine was: animal traffickers stole tamarins.) On your “Solution” card, write down “I want,” and then write what you want to have happen at the end.
Not how the character solves the problem, just what the outcome is. (My outcome was: I want the boy to save the tamarins.) Now lay your cards out in order: Character, Problem, Solution.
This is your basic story. Put your Details card to the side.
To build on the basic story, ask questions about the words on your cards and write down the answers on other cards. You don’t have to write whole sentences, just enough to remember when you come back to them later. Then, put these cards under one of the four categories. For instance: Ask about your character:
what he looks like, where he lives, what he likes, what he does. Get to know him by asking questions about him. Put all the index cards about your character under your Character card. (Things like “he gathers Brazil nuts” would go under your character card.) Likewise, ask questions about your problem and write the answers on more cards. Put them under your Problem card.
(Mine were answers to: How did the animal traffickers capture the animals? Did they capture other animals? What did they do with them? How and where would they sell them? ) Ask questions about your solution and, again, write the answers on more cards.
(Mine answered things like: How does the boy find the tamarins? Where? What are they kept in? How could he get them out of there without being caught? What will he need? How did he get a knife?) Under your Details card, include any other interesting facts that come along in your research.
(Mine included info about an agouti, how Brazil nuts are harvested, etc.)
Now, use your index cards to write your story! Sprinkle some of the facts you’ve learned into your fiction to make it come alive. If you “get stuck,” ask more questions. NOTE: Don’t start your story with a description of your character. That can be sprinkled in, just like the facts are. A better way to start is to have your character doing something – an active sentence. Judy Young is the author of over a dozen award-winning children’s books, including A PET FOR MISS WRIGHT, A BOOK FOR BLACK-EYED SUSAN, MINNOW AND ROSE, THE LUCKY STAR, and R IS FOR RHYME, A POETRY ALPHABET. TUKI AND MOKA, A TALE OF TWO TAMARINS releases in August, 2013, and the first of four K1 leveled readers, DIGGER AND DAISY GO TO THE ZOO comes out in September, 2013. Learn more about Judy Young’s books at www.judyyoungpoetry.com.
© 2013 Judy Young. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.