Whenever I spoke to writers’ groups, “Where do you get your ideas?” always came up. Like the unique platypus, the final story is usually a combination of odds and ends that somehow fit together. I eavesdrop, soul-search, collect bizarre facts and observe animals and fellow humans. Some ideas come from experiencing life itself. When I was a reporter, I covered The Salt Grass Trail, an annual event where we ride horseback or in wagons once followed by the pioneers, sleep under the stars, and eat from the chuck wagon. Many of the riders are genuine ranch hands on a “busman’s holiday.” I was one of the substantial numbers of wannabees.
Armed with a large supply of liniment and a boutique western outfit, I rode the three and a half days and ended up with the worst sunburn, sprained ankle ever, and er, uh, various sore spots. The real cowboys were no worse for wear. I concluded that the difference was their practical work gear from the broad-brimmed hat to the pick-toed boots. It inspired my non-fiction book; HATS ARE FOR WATERING HORSES: Why the Cowboy Dressed That Way. That book was the springboard for the biography for children, HATS OFF TO JOHN STETSON, and THE COWBOY CAPER, the humorous Sebastian [Super Sleuth] series. Whoever said that you are limited to only one book per idea? If something raises your curiosity, follow through with research. You never know where it will lead.
Perusing a century-old school reader, I came across a tall tale about a trapper, John Coulter, and recognized his name from the Lewis and Clark expedition. Everything I’d learn about the adventure had been more about the sacrifices and hazards. If Coulter had a wild imagination and sense of humor, he appealed to me as a different viewpoint. Further research inspired WHO’D BELIEVE JOHN COULTER?
But the most unusual catalyst was probably a dot on a pre-colonial map that hung on my neighbor’s wall.
With the dot was a hand-lettered notation: “Goody Sherman’s pig penned here.” I was immediately intrigued. Who was Goody Sherman? Why was one pig so important that it was on a map?
Research brought up more names. Captain Robert Keane [keeper of the pound], Deer Island [the pound: where livestock spent the summer], and Governor Winthrop. A governor would have left a broad footprint in history. He was the logical place to start.
His diary referred to Goodwife Sherman as “that woman and her pig.” Ah ha! Conflict, animosity—all the ingredients of a suspenseful story was coming together. He mentioned a seven-year court battle over “that pig.” Through the Library of Congress, I secured the court records, which contained a wonderful collection of little-known facts.
By the time I concluded my research, it had a stack nearly three feet high. Goody’s lawsuit became more than an argument over a pig. The Magistrates and Deputies originally met together, Parliament-style. They became so divided over the fate of the pig that they refused to meet in the same room. This strong, determined woman lost her case, but she nonetheless split the government into two separate houses, inadvertently creating a model for our congress when our forefathers wrote our Constitution150 years later.
I came to know this woman as if we were contemporary neighbors chatting over the fence. I cared what happened to her, a sign that I was ready to write. The story theme grew beyond a picture book; the goal morphed into a chapter book. It seemed a natural for classrooms and school libraries as a supplemental text in social studies, history, celebrating The Constitution, Women in History, and so forth. That was something that teachers were always clamoring for, and librarians would stock up.
It didn’t sell well. In fact, it never made back its advance. The publisher couldn’t wait to drop it. The book, like Goody Sherman, faded into obscurity.
Perhaps the title torpedoed sales. It sounded more like humorous fiction than a story based on a historical event and a little-known figure. It is difficult to gain acceptance, no matter how factual, when it goes up against long-accepted facts. Whatever the reason, the two other biographies followed like lemmings. I suppose many of us wish that we could have retroactive-do-overs. Maybe I should have insisted that we keep the qualifying title, GOODY SHERMAN’S PIG: How a Pig Split Our Government in Half. Perhaps the impressive list of sources should not have been omitted. It didn’t look like authentic history.
Consider this a cautionary tale. Be prepared to argue your case for what you believe is appropriate to include. You might have to sacrifice a page’s worth of story to make room for the source list, but it could be worth it to be accepted by your target audience.
Whenever you hear yourself utter “hmm” or “I wonder,” follow through with research. You might stumble into the best story yet. Don’t overlook your family tree for ideas. It’s the ordinary people unaware at the time that they are making history. Their anecdotes could become the springboards for your best stories, even if you disguise them in the name of family peace. I have, but I’m not telling!
The above-mentioned titles are available on many of the online booksellers if you’re interested.