by Jane Yolen

I could go on a metaphoric streak about ideas, talking about stalking the shy idea, cultivating the wild idea, setting traps… etc. …

But honestly, ideas are thick on the ground. They are everywhere. If you’re a writer, just take a walk outside and ideas will come to you at once.

Take my hand. Here we are crossing from my house, over a set of stone steps, walking down to my daughter’s house. It is evening. There are sun-activated lights.

I think: fairy lights. What if a child going over a stone walkway to her grandmother’s house, fantasizes a story about fairies guiding her to their queen. Or perhaps fireflies are out. The child in the picture suddenly begins to see that lights are not just random, but patterned. She grows into a famous scientist studying fireflies. Or perhaps the child is lost and the lights call her home. Or. . .

See—the single idea of a child walking in the evening and lights—sun-activtated, or firefly or fairy lights—I already have the beginnings of three different stories from one idea.

And if the same story was written by, say—Patricia Polacco, Dan Santat, or me—you would get three very different stories indeed.

So it’s not the idea by itself, but what you do with it that matters.


How do I know this? Well, after 366 books (#s 365 and 366 are being published March 6 of this year) I think I can say reliably that those ideas are everywhere. But if you are not alert to them, you will probably be stomping on them every time you put your feet over the side of the bed. (And what kind of monster is under your bed anyway?)

So being alert is a start.

But another important part is—take time. Time out or time in. Time for yourself, and time to just quietly keep your eyes sharp.

I call those days I am not writing, “gathering days”. When I am walking outside, I am always aware that I am breathing in stories. When I read a newspaper or book or story or poem by someone else, I find stories there as well.

When I sit in a train or a plane, and listen in in on conversations of strangers—gossip is also a story starter. You learn about individual voices by eavesdropping.

Patricia MacLachlan regularly uses things her grandchildren have said as story starters.

My COMMANDER TOAD books began when my son Adam was bright and brave since he was afraid of going up the stairs for bed which meant going down the long dark hall to his room.

Maurice Sendak has said that WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE came about because of at family parties his aunts and uncles leaning over and pinching his cheeks when he was a very small and saying, “You are so cute, I am going to eat you up!”

OWL MOON was a story I saw played out in my own family as my husband took our children out owling.

Oh—and when editor Bonnie Verberg called me up and said, “My son Robbie is three years old. He hates to go to bed and he loves dinosaurs. Can you do anything for him? And HOW DO DINOSAURS SAY GOODNIGHT was born. Robbie is now graduated from NYU. I like to think I had a little bit to do with that!

Yep, ideas everywhere.

So don’t ask where do you get your ideas. Ask yourself: “What can I do with all the ideas I have?”

And then go out there and cultivate that wild idea.

Jane Yolen, often called “the Hans Christian Andersen of America,” is celebrating her 365th published book in 2018. Her works, which range from very young rhymed picture books to novels for adults and every genre in between, have won an assortment of awards including two Nebulas, a World Fantasy Award, a Caldecott, the Golden Kite, three Mythopoeic awards, two Christopher Medals, the Jewish Book Award, the Kerlan Award, and the Catholic Library’s Regina Medal, as well as six honorary doctorates. She lives in Massachusetts in the winter and Scotland in the summer. She writes every day. Follow her on Twitter @janeyolen #Yolen365 or on Facebook and visit her website:

Also see Jane’s previous Storystorm post about how a haunting photograph of the “angel” apartment building in Paris prompted a new picture book. 

Jane is giving away a signed copy of OWL MOON.

Leave ONE COMMENT on this blog post to enter. You are eligible to win if you are a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.

Good luck!