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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!

janeyolen© 2013 by Jane Yolen

I have a Muse who works overtime, or at least that’s how it looks from the outside. But I think about something my late husband once said. An ardent birder and, in his retirement, a bird recordist whose tapes now reside in both the Cornell Library of Natural Sounds and the British Natural History Museum, he was known in the birding community as “a lucky birder.” That meant he seemed to find more rarities and more hard-to-see birds than anyone else. But his response was, “I show up.” And that’s what I think the Muse actually is: the writer showing up every day and doing the hard work of writing.

If you write FOR a particular market or FOR a particular editor you will often miss the mark. But if you write because your fingers have danced across the keyboard, because a character has tapped you on the shoulder, because a story has settled in your heart, then even if you never sell it you have done the work you were meant to do. And sometime, dear readers, real magic happens.

Let me tell you about a picture book I recently wrote because of a haunting photograph I saw on line. If I had stopped to think about its saleability, I wouldn’t have started it. But I plunged in.

parisangelThe photograph was of an apartment house in Paris on which a three story, three-dimensional angel with widespread wings had been carved on the facade. There was a newspaper story about how the angel had been built and survived World War II.

I knew there was a story there, and three things leaped out at me: angel, Paris, World War II.

Before I knew it, I was beginning to write a picture book (40 page picture book at first which I eventually got down to the more ordinary 32 page format), called “The Stone Angel.” It was about a Jewish family and the daughter about six or seven narrates. The Nazis come in, the yellow stars, escape to the forest where they live with Partisans, and then their escape across the mountains to Spain and then to Britain where they stay in the country till war’s end. And on their return, the father’s job is reinstated and he finds an apartment in, yes, the angel building.

A picture book? Really? Not a novel? It sounds like the plot of a novel. Yeah, I kept hearing that in my head and I kept dismissing the idea. I finished the picture book, sent it editor Jill Santopolo who was doing my fairy tale novels. It was not her kind of thing at all.

And in two weeks, she’d bought the book, found an illustrator, helped me shrink the text to a 32 pager (saying, “I love this as a 40 page book and if we can’t make it work at 32 pages with the same power, I can make the case for the longer picture book.”).

But sometimes the magic works.

© 2013 by Jane Yolen, all rights reserved


owlmoonJane Yolen is an author of children’s books, fantasy, and science fiction, including Owl MoonThe Devil’s Arithmetic, and How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?

She is also a poet, a teacher of writing and literature, and a reviewer of children’s literature. She has been called the Hans Christian Andersen of America and the Aesop of the twentieth century.

Jane Yolen’s books and stories have won the Caldecott Medal, two Nebula Awards, two Christopher Medals, the World Fantasy Award, three Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards, the Golden Kite Award, the Jewish Book Award, the World Fantasy Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Association of Jewish Libraries Award among many others.

Her website presents information about her over three hundred books for children. It also contains essays, poems, answers to frequently asked questions, a brief biography, her travel schedule, and links to resources for teachers and writers. It is intended for children, teachers, writers, storytellers, and lovers of children’s literature.

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