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by Heidi Tyline King

I hesitate to give away my treasure trove of ideas, but let’s be honest: There are more people dead than alive, meaning that there are plenty of obituaries—and people who led insanely interesting lives—for all of us writers to mine for stories. Obituaries are mini biographies readymade for children’s nonfiction picture book writers. I began reading obituaries for fun but they have become integral to my writing process.

First, they’re great sources of inspiration for good writing. When I get stuck on how to mark time quickly or what phrase to use as a transition between unrelated life events in a story, I spend time reading obits for examples. They’re also ideal for helping writers identify a singular event to chronicle in a life. You don’t always have to write a birth-to-grave story; consider the life of Katherine Johnson, the mathematician whose work for NASA became the central narrative for the popular book, Hidden Figures. Papers like The Guardian or The New York Times are filled with obituaries exuding strong writing and examples of how to distill a life down to its essence in a few hundred words or less.

I also turn to obituaries for motivation. I am full of self-doubt and “poor me”s, especially when my writing gets stuck. In the name of “research,” I’ll pull up my file of obituaries and begin reading about the ordinary people in the world who did extraordinary things—despite advanced age, disabilities, or a lack of education and resources. Their stories and ability to overcome keep me going.

And then there’s the most obvious reason for reading obituaries: subject matter. I am currently finishing my second children’s book on John Bonner Buck, an expert on firefly research and bioluminescence, whose obituary I clipped way back in 2005. Buck’s life’s work centered around a question that I believe all children ask: Why do fireflies flash? My book explains how Buck found the answer and went on to become a preeminent scientist in the field of bioluminescence.

To make the most of obituaries in your work, I suggest the following:

1.     Scan obituaries for compelling characters.
I skip the celebrities and look for people that I haven’t heard about, people who made notable achievements in a particular field of study, worked behind the scenes on a well-known event, or devised a new way of doing things. Don’t forget to delve into the archives for the forgotten stories of people who deserve to be known.

2.     Set Google Alerts to narrow interests.
Sifting through obituaries is one way to find interesting subject matter. Another is to set a Google Alert and have the search engine curate content for you. You’ll get obituaries delivered to your inbox about people working in fields that are of most interest to you. Every now and then, you’ll get a gem that you would have never sniffed out on your own.

3.     Branch out and look for other sources.
Once you’ve identified a person to consider writing about, do a quick search for other sources to learn more about their contributions. Obituaries in other publications and articles about their work help you compile research to consult when you’re ready to write and help you build a stronger story. For example, I ran across an article about Buck describing him as a “scientist’s scientist.” The idea that he loved process and the practice of science became an underlying subtheme in my book.

4.     Discover secondary themes.
Speaking of subthemes, a good biography has several running through throughout. In my latest picture book, SAVING AMERICAN BEACH: The Biography of African American Environmentalist MaVynee Betsch, the story centers on her activism to save a beach, but it’s the subthemes of music, environmentalism, discrimination and racism, and resilience that carry the story.

5.     Write in the genre that’s most comfortable to you.
Above all, obituaries are simply sources of inspiration. I have a degree in journalism so writing nonfiction is what I’m best at doing. But obituaries can inspire writing in genres from poetry to science fiction.

The next time you’re struggling with characters, plot, motivation, and writing succinctly, take a break and scan the day’s fresh batch of obituaries or leaf back through your file for ideas. There are people whose stories are waiting to—and worthy of—being told.

Heidi Tyline King writes nonfiction picture books from her home in Tallahassee, Florida. Follow her on Instagram @heiditylineking and visit her at heiditking.com.

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My Books

Coming soon:


TIME FLIES
"7 ATE 9/PRIVATE I" BOOK #3
illus by Ross MacDonald
Little, Brown
April 26, 2022

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