Monday, October 22, 2018

Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep by Sarah Albee

At school visits kids always ask me where I get my ideas.

I talk about how it’s important to keep a notebook handy. Ideas can show up suddenly, often when you’re busy doing something besides sitting at your desk, and snagging them can require lightning-quick reflexes, like capturing the snitch in a Quidditch game.
I usually tell them a funny story about how I got the idea for my book Poop Happened in a flash one day, just after my two-year-old son flushed his superballs down the toilet and stopped it up, an hour before fifteen people were due to show up at our house for a dinner party. 

But honestly? That’s kind of an incomplete picture of how writers get their ideas.  Ideas can percolate inside us for a long time. They can bubble up from our depths when we least expect them.

Because as every nonfiction writer knows, and as every teacher knows who reads a lot of student writing, the best writing stems from who the writer is, and what she cares most deeply about. Writing epiphanies are not random.

The fact is that questions about sanitation and other details about everyday life have interested me since I was a child. Yeah, I was That Kid. I wanted to know how a knight in a suit of armor went to the bathroom. I wanted to know what kind of real-life poison might have been in Snow White’s apple. I wanted to know why those kids in portraits I saw at the museum were wearing corsets and long skirts and crazy ruffled collars.

So here’s my backstory.

My grandparents on my mother’s side immigrated from Sicily to New York City in 1918. My mother, the oldest of five kids, grew up in a tenement on the Lower East Side. Her family shared one toilet with three other families on her floor. She learned English, but my grandparents never did. My grandfather was a street sweeper, working for the department of sanitation.

When I was a kid, I begged my mother to tell me stories about her childhood—the shared toilet, the bedbugs, the shabby neighborhood. Those stories became part of who I am. (Also, it wasn’t until about third grade that I realized other kids’ grandparents knew how to speak English.)

As for my father—he was a professor, and in some ways a rather eccentric man.
He wrote a lot about the power of preventive approaches to many public health issues. While other kids were sitting on their parent’s knee listening to Good Night Moon, I was hearing about how in 1854 John Snow deduced that cholera was water-borne, and convinced public officials in London to remove the handle of the Broad Street pump.

So the flash of inspiration I had the day of my dinner party was not random. Nor was my idea to write a book about epidemic diseases that happened at a time in the not-so-distant-past when insects were part of everyone’s lives.

Or about history through fashion. That book idea evolved to become less about the one percenters who wore the fashionable clothes and more about the people who picked the cotton, dyed the fabric, and sewed the clothing.

Or about the importance of regulations to prevent ordinary working people from being poisoned by radium, lead, arsenic, nicotine, and other toxins.

When I talk to new writers just starting out on a path to publication, I give them an exercise to do: Think about the authors out there that you admire. Now say their name, and quickly come up with a word or phrase that you associate with their writing. For instance:

—Melissa Stewart: a celebration of science

—Loree Griffin Burns: a love of nature

—Jess Keating: zoology/funny animal facts

Then I tell them: Play this word-association game about future-you. How do you want your future readers to describe you as a writer, five or seven or ten books from now? I suggest that they consider focusing on topics that help amplify to the world the things they truly care about.

This exercise works with student writers, too.

The best writing, both nonfiction and fiction, reflects who we are as people, and what we care about most deeply.

Sarah Albee is the New York Times bestselling author of more than 100 books for young readers. She divides her time between living at the library and traveling around the country, visiting K-8 schools and talking with kids about history, writing, and books.


  1. Loved reading about your family history, Sarah & I loved both Poison & Dog Days of History! Great exercise!!

  2. I'm frozen just looking at that photo of your dad. It sounds like you had an interesting childhood, one with the right ingredients that turned you into a writer. I'll have to think about your "logline" for a writer. An interesting concept, one that would definitely help me focus my energy. Thanks!