patzmillerby Pat Zietlow Miller

I’ve heard some authors talk about how they are inspired to write their stories.

They say their characters talk to them. They have whole conversations with those characters, interviewing them about their name, background, problems and motives.

They also share stories of times these characters high-jacked the story, taking it in an entirely different direction than the author planned. Sometimes that works out, and other times the authors have had to cut uncooperative characters to get their story back on track.

I think that all sounds awesome.

But it’s never happened to me.

I’ve also talked to authors who see pictures in their heads. Their stories unfold in their brains like a movie on the screen.

That’s also very cool.

But it’s never happened to me either.

So where do I get my inspiration?

Ideas for my picture books usually come one of two ways:

1. Snippets of words.
My two upcoming rhyming picture books started when I was busy at my day job and some words popped into my head.

For SHARING THE BREAD: AN OLD-FASHIONED THANKSGIVING STORY (coming in 2015 from Schwartz & Wade), the words I heard were “Mama be a cooking pot, cooking pot.” That was it. I think my initial reaction was “What?”

For WHEREVER YOU GO (coming in 2015 from Little, Brown) I heard “Over a hill, under a bridge, deep in a dale, high on a ridge.” And I had a very similar reaction. “What am I supposed to do with this?”

In both cases, I wrote the words down and emailed them to myself at home where they sat for quite a while. Then, I started playing with them. And working. Because the rest of the books did NOT just pop into my head.

I had no idea SHARING THE BREAD was going to end up as a Thanksgiving story—and it didn’t become that until a late revision. And, I had no idea WHEREVER YOU GO would end up being a story about how the choices we make determine our destination.

But those lines got me writing, which was inspiration enough. And I’ll always be grateful for whatever made them dance through my head.

2. Admiration.
thenewgirlandmeSometimes, I read a picture book I just adore. One that makes me stare in awe and wish I could produce something even remotely close to its perfection.

And often, I’ll try to do just that. I’m not trying to copy the book I love. But I am trying to capture some part of its essence in another form. THE QUICKEST KID IN CLARKSVILLE (coming from Chronicle) came about after I read Jacqui Robbins’ and Matt Phelan’s THE NEW GIRL… AND ME.

The final books are nothing alike. Jacqui and Matt’s is a modern-day story about a new girl at school who owns an iguana. Mine is set in 1960 and features two girls who idolize Olympic sprinter Wilma Rudolph. But I was inspired by the way Jacqui captured friendship in her book and wanted to see if I could do something similar.

starsAnd WHEREVER YOU GO’s style was inspired by the lyricism of Mary Lyn Ray’s and Marla Frazee’s so-wonderful-I-can’t-even-stand-it picture book, STARS.

When I fall in love with a picture book, I’ll spend a lot of time reading and re-reading it. First for fun, then for structure, then for language and plot and pacing and page turns. I may even buy an extra copy to write on. All this soaks into my head and helps my future picture books be better.

It’s kind of like golfers studying a professional’s swing by playing the video in freeze frames and slow motion so they can see every last movement.

I also have to mention my current picture book SOPHIE’S SQUASH (Schwartz & Wade, 2013). It was inspired by a few extremely cute things my daughter did. Then, I added a bunch of stuff that never happened to turn a cute moment into a fully realized story.

Both my methods of inspiration have one thing in common. There’s something that I hear or see that captivates me enough where I want to put in the work to come up with something wonderful of my own.

But I’m going to keep listening for my characters, just in case they decide to get chatty.



Pat started out as a newspaper reporter and wrote about everything from dartball and deer-hunting to diets and decoupage. Then, she joined an insurance company and edited its newsletter and magazine.

Now, she writes insurance information by day and children’s books by night. Her newest release is SOPHIE’S SQUASH, illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf.

Pat has one wonderful husband, two delightful daughters and two pampered cats. She doesn’t watch much TV, but she does love “Glee” and “Chopped.”

You can learn more about Pat by visiting her website at or following her on Twitter at @PatZMiller.