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by Patricia Tanumihardja

Write what you know—I’m sure you’ve heard this phrase before. What exactly does it mean? To put it simply, you take something from your life—experiences, relationships, where you live, people you know, even your job!—and use it to build a story.

My debut picture book RAMEN FOR EVERYONE (Atheneum Books, March, 2023), illustrated by Shiho Pate, is a great example of how I applied this mantra to my writing process.

 

Brainstorming Ideas

In my other life, I’m a food writer and cookbook author. Surprise, surprise, that many of my story ideas involve food, eating, and/or cooking!

Over my years of PiBoIdMo-ing and Storystorming, I’ve come up with dozens of story ideas that fit the bill. This is what my list of ideas looked like one year:

  • Monster family owns a bakery
  • Caveboy learns table manners
  • Crazy mashup menu: clam chowder ice cream, spaghetti and meatball sundaes, pickles and cream cheesecake
  • Girl wants to be a sushi chef even though it’s against tradition
  • Boy loves noodles

In the same vein, you can write what you know regardless of what you do.

If you’re an engineer or science teacher, your brainstorm list could include:

  • Girl builds a rocket/see-saw contraption to fly to Mars

If you work in fashion,

  • Boy incorporates found objects into his wardrobe to create statement fashion clothing

What about banking?

  • Boy picks up pennies he finds to save for …

 

Big Picture Themes

Of course, an idea is just an idea. The next step is tying your idea to a central theme or thread that will be the unifying element of your story.

If you read several books written by the same author, you’ll notice a pattern. Kelly DiPucchio often writes about friendship (OONA, POE WON’T GO), Ame Dyckman likes writing stories about family (DANDY, WOLFIE THE BUNNY), Pat Zietlow Miller’s books empower children to be their best and truest selves (BE KIND, WHEREVER YOU GO).

Family and culture are two themes that are very close to my heart, so I often brainstorm themes along these lines:

  • Boy connects with grandmother while cooking Lunar New Year favorites
  • Girl stands up for little sister even though she’s annoying
  • Cousins from opposite sides of the globe learn to play together despite their differences
  • Boy wants to grow up to be just like his dad

Do you see a trend?

 

Choosing Which Ideas to Pursue

So you’ve come up with 30 (or more!) ideas, now what do you do? How do you decide which story idea to pursue? Again, think about writing what you know.

In 2014, I was developing recipes for an upcoming cookbook. One of those recipes was ramen. My son, who was 4 years-old at the time, loved to eat noodles. And he was in awe of his dad and wanted to do everything his dad did. I put two and two together and came up with this storyline: Boy loves ramen and wants to cook the perfect bowl of ramen just like his dad.

Of course, you should also factor in other things, especially that you will be spending a lot of time on your manuscript (it took me 7 years of writing and revising before I finally sold mine!). You must be passionate about your idea.

 

Conflict  

Every story needs a conflict. Conflict gives your characters obstacles they have to overcome before they can reach their goals.

So I wasn’t done yet.

To come up with a situation that kids could relate to, I did some time traveling back to my childhood. One incident stuck out: I loved (and still do!) “Hello Kitty” and other Sanrio characters. I wanted to draw these characters perfectly but I was never satisfied. There were times when I would get so frustrated and rip up my drawing paper. One day, a friend saw one of my drawings and asked if she could keep it. I was thrilled and realized that just because it wasn’t perfect doesn’t mean it couldn’t be appreciated.

Finally, I plugged everything I had into this matrix:

MC wants___ but can’t because of CONFLICT/OBSTACLE. Finally, he discovers___and achieves___.

Hiro loves ramen and wants to cook the perfect bowl of ramen just like his dad. But nothing goes according to plan and dinner is ruined. Finally, he discovers he can use his ingenuity and succeeds in preparing a meal that his family loves.

These were the guideposts I used to write RAMEN FOR EVERYONE which launches March 14, 2023!

It’s your turn now. Go ahead, mine your life and experiences and go forth and write what you know. I’m cheering for you!


Patricia Tanumihardja was born in Jakarta to Indonesian Chinese parents and raised in Singapore. As an immigrant twice-over, she’s brimming with stories to tell, and hopes that children of every color and creed will see themselves reflected in books, whether hers or other #ownvoices authors. Pat has two more picture books coming out this year: THE SUGAR PLUM BAKERS: AND THE 12 HOLIDAY TREATS (Disney-Hyperion, Fall 2023) and a picture book biography about Malaysian-born shoe designer Jimmy Choo. In addition to being a children’s book author, Pat also writes cookbooks and loves to weave food centric themes into her stories for young people. Don’t be shy to hit her up for some favorite recipes! Pat lives in the Washington D.C. Metro region with her husband and son where she enjoys bubble tea, dumpling-making, yoga and hiking. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @ediblewords and online at EdibleWords.com.

Patricia is giving away copy of RAMEN FOR EVERYONE (Atheneum Books, when it releases on March 14th)!

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm 2023 participant and you have commented only once on today’s blog post. ↓

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

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