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Pat Booksby Pat Zietlow Miller

I have a confession to make.

But you can’t tell anyone, OK?

I’m not fond of historical fiction.

I’m a huge reader with wide-ranging interests, so it pains me to say there’s a genre I don’t particularly like—especially when I know many writers who are working hard to create very valuable books in it. It also pains me because I’m smart enough to know that there’s probably historical fiction out there I would like if I got past my prejudice that historical fiction is all 800-page tomes full of hoop skirts, archaic language and obscure references.

So knowing that about me, what genre would you guess my latest picture book belongs to?

Yup. Historical fiction.


What can I say? Life is funny sometimes.

Interestingly enough, it’s not like I set out to write historical fiction. I kind of stumbled into it. I was initially writing a book called THE FASTEST FEET ON FLEET STREET, set in current times, about two girls competing to see who was the better runner, jumper and double-dutch rope skipper.

But the story needed something more. I wasn’t sure what.

The answer came from a discussion with an editor at a writing conference. She suggested anchoring it in a specific time. That one suggestion set off the proverbial light bulb. I immediately thought of Wilma Rudolph.

I knew the outline of Wilma’s story—overcoming polio and other illnesses as a child to become a three-time Olympic gold medalist and the fastest woman in the world—but not exactly when it had taken place. Research was obviously required.

I used to work as a newspaper reporter, so I know how to conduct research and interview and generally find things out. That part felt familiar as I read books, searched online and emailed experts.

And, as happens anytime I conduct research, l learned things. Things that fit right in with the story I was writing. My research filled in the gaps in my story, strengthened the weak parts and gave it the needed oomph, for want of a more technical term. Soon, the story’s title was THE QUICKEST KID IN CLARKSVILLE, a nod to Wilma’s hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee.

I was able to weave in facts about the poverty Wilma grew up in and how her hometown was segregated during her youth. I also learned that Wilma paved the way for the town’s eventual integration by insisting that her victory parade in 1960 be open to everyone.

I wrote an author’s note. Got the rights to use a photo of the real-life Wilma riding in her parade.

Before I knew it, I had a historical fiction picture book. That I liked. Maybe it was time to rethink my priorities.

So, when my middle-school daughter came home and grumpily said she had to read a historical fiction book and she didn’t want to because all historical fiction was “boring,” I did not agree with her.

Instead, I put out a call to my online friends and soon had a list of more than 50 historical fiction middle-grade titles they recommended. My daughter and I spent an evening at the library looking some up. She left with THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS and TWERP, while I left with TURTLE IN PARADISE and AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS.

While I still wouldn’t say historical fiction is my favorite genre, I now know that I like it more than I used to.

And I’d certainly be open to writing some again.

As I researched, I found great quotes by Wilma that apply to any era. Here are a few:



Thank you, Pat! Sometimes agents and editors advise writers, “This story needs another layer.” You found yours in historical fiction! 

I’m giving away a copy of this spunky book! Just leave a comment to enter and a winner will be randomly selected in early March!

Pat Booksby Pat Zielow Miller

This Thanksgiving, what are you thankful for?

Yes, I know. Your health. Your family. Food on the table. The upcoming football game. And, perhaps, some Black Friday shopping.

Those are all good and worthy things. I am thankful for them too.

But, it’s Picture Book Idea Month. And that means I am thankful for ideas. All kinds of them.

As I writer, I get asked, “Where do you get your ideas?”

A lot.

For a while, I didn’t know what to say.

But then, I figured it out. Or, I should say that Wendy Reid Crisp did. She wrote an essay in a book that is the perfect answer. I wish I could repost it for you here. But, you know, copyright issues.

The essay is on Page 26 of her 1997 book DO AS I SAY NOT AS I DID: PERFECT ADVICE FROM AN IMPERFECT MOTHER. It’s called, “There Are No Big Breaks.”

Anyway it’s about an aspiring actress in New York who is riding the subway and notices a lone grape rolling down the center aisle. She can’t figure out where it came from, but appreciates the absurdity of the moment enough to write a letter to the New York Times. Her letter is printed.

Then, the actress (who, remember, is unknown) goes to an audition. The director thinks her name sounds familiar and finally asks, “Are you the woman with the grape?” She acknowledges that she is. He praises her eye for detail and understanding of human behavior. She gets the part.

Reid Crisp concludes her essay by writing, “There are no big breaks. There are only rolling grapes. Some people see them, and some people don’t.”

To me, successful writers are people who notice the grapes in life. The weird, funny moments. The unexplainable occurrences. The odd socks the mail carrier is wearing. The squirrel that you can’t stop watching because it reminds you of your Uncle Esteban—except, you know, smaller. The snippet of conversation you overheard from the next checkout lane that made no sense but won’t get out of your head.

That’s where writers get their ideas.

sharing the bread cover

For my Thanksgiving picture book, SHARING THE BREAD: AN OLD-FASHIONED THANKSGIVING STORY (Schwartz & Wade, 2015) I got the idea from some weird words that popped into my brain during one of those boring meetings that make you question every career choice you’ve made to get to this point in your life.

The words were:

Mama, be a cooking pot, cooking pot.
Big and round and black and hot.
Mama, be a pot.

They came out of nowhere and raised logical questions: “Who was Mama?” “And why on earth should she be a pot?”

The words made no sense. I hadn’t been thinking about mothers or pots or cooking. But I liked their very weirdness. I emailed them to myself at home and played around with them that night.

In other words, I noticed the grape and decided to do something with it.

Not that it was easy. First, I thought I might create some kind of play or game where kids could pretend to be different items.

Then, I thought the family might find the items instead of being them. Soon everyone was cooking a meal.

But, the rhyme scheme seemed off. So I revamped, using Dori Chaconas’ ON A WINTRY MORNING as a mentor text. When I told her this at a recent Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference, she told me she used a different mentor test to write her book, so I guess we’re all sharing the love.

Then, an editor declined the manuscript but suggested the family make a holiday meal. Enter turkey and cranberries and lots of hair-pulling. (What rhymes with turkey anyway? “Murky?” “Jerky?” “Perky?”)

But, I eventually made the story work, and another editor was interested. Anne Schwartz had me revise again. And again. And then suggested I add a rhyming refrain. Which was incredibly hard to do, but unquestionably added a lot to the book.

Some writers carry notebooks to jot down rolling grapes when they see or hear them. Others keep the grapes corralled in their heads. Do whatever works for you, but notice those grapes. They just might end up in the best fruit salad you ever created.

Oh, and because I do get asked this a lot, here’s what the first stanza of the book eventually became after all the revision:

Mama, fetch the cooking pot.
Fetch our turkey-cooking pot.
Big and old and black and squat.
Mama, fetch the pot.

Have an amazing Thanksgiving!

Pat Zietlow Miller has three picture books in print and seven more on the way. Her debut, SOPHIE’ S SQUASH, won the Golden Kite Award for best picture book text, an Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Honor and a Charlotte Zolotow Honor. It also won the Midwest Region Crystal Kite Award and was a Cybils’ finalist. WHEREVER YOU GO briefly made the Midwest Booksellers bestseller list, and SHARING THE BREAD was, at one point, the No. 1 release for new Thanksgiving books. Pat blogs about the craft of writing picture books at She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with one wonderful husband, two delightful daughters and two particular cats. Find her on Twitter at @PatZMiller.

PrizeDetails (2)

Leave a comment below to enter. One comment per person, please.

This prize will be given away at the conclusion of PiBoIdMo. You will be eligible for this prize if:

  • You have registered for PiBoIdMo.
  • You have commented ONCE ONLY on today’s post.
  • You have completed the PiBoIdMo challenge.

Good luck, everyone!


Book Giveaway

patzmillerA few years ago, my sister in agent-hood Pat Zietlow Miller asked if I would take a peek at her manuscript. That manuscript turned out to be the newly-released WHEREVER YOU GO. I immediately knew it would be a beloved hit because of its lyrical text and universal theme, but once Eliza Wheeler signed on to illustrate, I became certain her art would exponentially elevate WHEREVER YOU GO into the stratosphere. (Don’t you wish we had flying cars to take on that trip?)

Since this blog loves to talk about how ideas originate, I asked Pat and Eliza a few questions about the path to this book’s publication. (Get it? THE PATH???)

Pat, what was the genesis of WHEREVER YOU GO?

This book started when I was at work and a few lines of random poetry popped into my head:

Over a hill, under a bridge, deep in a dale, high on a ridge …

I liked the way the words sounded, so I emailed them to myself at home and started working with them to see where they could go. (Ha! See what I did there?) I realized that the words described places roads could go, which got me thinking about other places roads could go, which led to a first draft of the book.

But, I felt it needed something more. Some heart. So, I set it aside and proceeded to do something I do really well. Worry about my children. This time, it was my oldest daughter. She was growing up so fast! In a few years she wouldn’t even be living with us! Was she ready to be on her own? Would she make good choices?

After some time, I realized that could be the heart my book needed. All the places roads could go also could represent life and its many choices. So I revised my draft keeping all the things I wanted my oldest daughter to know in mind, and that became the book that sold.

And it came out this spring, right before her high school graduation. I could not have planned that, but it was perfect timing.


Eliza, as the illustrator, how were you approached for this project and what attracted you to it?

Connie Hsu, the book’s editor at Little Brown at the time, sent the manuscript to my agent with the loveliest email introducing the project. When I read it, I could see the pictures flowing in my imagination. This is a dream text for an illustrator; no frivolous details or lengthy descriptions—a blank canvas for the art to tell its own part of the story. But I didn’t say ‘yes’ right away, because I could see two directions this story could take: 1) The story of life’s roads, or 2) A cars and trucks book. I wanted to make sure that my vision of it as the first direction was also what the publishing team envisioned, and I was happy to hear that we were all on the same page about staying true to the deeper meaning under Pat’s text. I found out later from Pat that this was a deciding factor for her in choosing Little Brown as the publisher, so it seems it was all meant to be!


Any creature could be the lead character traveling these roads. What made you select a bunny on a bike?

I did try a few different animal choices while doing character development, and it came down to a cat, owl, and bunny. These animals in particular are all pretty cute, but in the end the bunny felt the most age-less and gender neutral. The editor and art director also loved the idea of the bunny’s ears flying behind him/her to help emphasize the motion of the bike. That’s how we landed on the bunny!

Oh, so it really had nothing to do with your last name being WHEELER? 

Hahaha! Maybe that was the whole subconscious reason! You can change my answer to that. 😉

Pat, what do you hope the child (and adult) reading this book will take away?

The message I’d like people to take away is this:

Life isn’t a straight line.

It’s good to have goals in life. It’s good to pursue them and to celebrate when you reach them. But, there will be unexpected detours along the way. Those detours may take you somewhere greater than you ever expected, or they may lead you somewhere you never wanted to be. But, either way, you can chose how to react to where you end up and to take a different path if you’re not happy with your current location.

A long time ago, I read that the most mentally healthy people are the people who see the most options in their life because they can get unstuck from the nasty places more easily than people who can’t envision a different future. So I hope readers will internalize the message that they’re in charge of their own lives and that they always have choices about where they want to be.


That’s a beautiful message, Pat. And it’s one that’s true for writing as well as life. No career is a straight line. It’s rather bumpy. But hold on and you will indeed get the ride of your life!

Thank you, Pat and Eliza, for sharing your journey (GET IT AGAIN???) and for offering the book and an art print from Eliza as prizes to our blog readers!

To win a copy of WHEREVER YOU GO, just leave a comment below. One comment per person and a random winner will be chosen at the end of June.

To win Eliza’s print, take a photo of you with WHEREVER YOU GO and post it on Twitter with the hashtag #whereveryougo. A random winner will be selected at the end of June.

Good luck!

patzmillerby Pat Zietlow Miller

“What process do you follow to write your stories?” I’ve heard that question more frequently as I’ve sold more picture books, and I never know how to answer.

The people asking usually look as if they’re waiting for a golden ticket to inspiration. Like maybe I’ll say that I always walk three times around my living room, stand on one foot, hum the “Star-Spangled Banner” and then run to the computer to start writing before the muse I’ve conjured flies away. Then, they can do the same thing and wait for their own inspiration to strike.

When I tell the truth—that I don’t have a specific writing process—they seem disappointed. But, trust me. I’m doing them a favor. If they knew how things really go down, they might give up writing altogether. I’m a little haphazard.

But, just for you, in honor of PiBoWriMo, I am pulling back the curtain and sharing my process, such as it is. Here’s how I wrote WIDE-AWAKE BEAR, which is coming from HarperCollins in 2017:

Step One:
Have a cranky child.

Three years ago, my youngest daughter was happily napping on the couch. When I woke her to take her to volleyball practice, she had a world-class meltdown. There was wailing, tears and shouting. I tossed her into the car and took her anyway. Afterward, when she was calm, I said, “What was THAT all about?” Her response? “I was a hibernating bear. You woke me up, and I went into a bear frenzy.” (Author’s note: Is that not the best response ever? I love this kid.)

Step Two:
Forget about that adorable incident.

I filed that wonderful remark under the category of “Cool Stuff My Kid Has Said” and went about my business. For several years.

Step Three:
Be bored on a plane.

On a plane ride home from Yellowstone Park, where I was disappointed I hadn’t seen a bear, I thought I should use the flying time to do something productive. So I grabbed a notepad and pen and wrote a story about a bear cub who wakes up in the middle of winter and goes into a bear frenzy.

Step Four:
Listen to your critique group say, “Meh.”

I shared this story with my critique group and got a lukewarm response. They thought the bear cub got too cranky and deserved a timeout. They also didn’t understand why he got so angry. So I adjusted and reworked the story over several weeks. The title changed, and the storyline morphed into a bear cub who woke up midwinter, got scared and couldn’t fall back asleep. I shared it with some more writing friends and adjusted it even more. Then, I stopped, because I didn’t know what else to do.

Step Five:
Let it sit on your desktop for a while.

I wasn’t sure the story was ready. So I worked on other things and didn’t think much about it.

Step Six:
Send it to your agent on a whim.

Then one day, I opened the file and thought, “This isn’t so bad.” (See how I just glow with self-confidence?) I sent it to my agent, hoping she might give me a few ideas so I could work on it some more. But she thought it was ready to go, sent it out and it sold in about three weeks. That’s my quickest sale ever.

So, there you have it. How to write and sell a picture book in six simple steps. You know just what to do now, right?

I told another writer about my lack of a process, and she said, “You do have a process. It’s organic!” And she is absolutely right, because I’ve never once used pesticides in any of my books.

If there’s anything to learn from my post, it’s that everyone’s process is different. As long as you find something that works for you, you’ll be fine. If you’re not seeing the results you want and feel like your process may be fault, try a few different things.

  • Be haphazard—I mean organic—like me.
  • Be super-organized like another writer I know who sets her timer for 45-minute chunks and logs her writing time on a chart posted on her office door.
  • Try writing mornings or evenings to see if something works better. Try different locations, too.
  • Try standing on one foot in your living room and humming the national anthem. (It could work.)

Chances are something will seem more appealing to you and you’ll be well on your way to finding your own inspiration.


To learn more about me, visit or follow me on Twitter at @PatZMiller.


If you leave a comment on this post you could be one of two people to win one of two prizes—a signed copy of SOPHIE’S SQUASH (Schwartz & Wade, 2013) to be sent immediately or a signed copy of WHEREVER YOU GO to be sent once it’s released from Little, Brown on May 5, 2015. Each of these books followed a totally different process than WIDE-AWAKE BEAR. I meant it when I said my process was haphazard.

sophiessquash Miller_WYG_jacket

This prize will be given away at the conclusion of PiBoIdMo. You are eligible for this prize if:

  1. You have registered for PiBoIdMo.
  2. You have commented ONCE ONLY on today’s post.
  3. You have completed the PiBoIdMo challenge. (You will have to sign the PiBoIdMo Pledge at the end of the event.)

Good luck, everyone!


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.

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