Everyone already knows the so-called-elusive answer to the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” It’s “Everywhere.”
And it’s true – there are hilarious, imaginative, heart-warming ideas hiding in tree tops, promenading through the park, and nestled in your kitchen cupboards. The writers’ advice to leave your desk and go for a walk is sage. But what about when you don’t have time to go “Everywhere?” Where do you find 30 picture book ideas when your month consists of going to work, coming home and lesson planning, and preparing for the holidays? Sometimes, the answer to “Where do you get your ideas?” can’t be “Everywhere.” And then where do you look?
Here’s the secret. The ideas aren’t always out in the world hiding. They haven’t all been created yet. That’s why you’ve got a built-in idea generator in your head. Then, it’s less about the “where” and more about the “how.” Here are a few brainstorming suggestions.
1. Create unexpected combinations. Make some simple lists: things kids love, things you love, characters, settings, conflicts. Then choose 2 or 3 that wouldn’t normally go together. “A book about turtles” might not stand out on your picture book idea list. But “A book about turtle scientists on Jupiter” has a little more flair.
2. Ask questions. Question your questions. “What if” and “Why” are popular choices, although I like “How” quite a bit as well. Get into the habit of questioning everything you do and encounter. When you drop your electric bill payment into the mailbox, you could ask, “How does this get to the electric company?” Then, “What if those blue mailboxes were actually teleporters?” (‘You mean, like the internet, which is how I actually pay my bills?’ No. It is helpful to ignore logic while brainstorming. That comes in at revisions.) “What would happen if I climbed into one of those mailbox teleporters?”
3. Fracture your own fairytales. Fractured fairytales are a fun writing technique in which you put a personal twist on some age-old, widely known tales. For example, you can change the characters or setting, like The Three Little Aliens and the Big Bad Robot by Margaret McNamara and Mark Fearing, or you can tell what happened after the fairy tale ended, as Jon Scieszka does in The Frog Prince Continued. But once you’ve got a story or two on your picture book idea list, you can even use this technique on your own work. How would your story change if it was set 500 years in the past? Or what if your hero and villain switched roles? This is how you make ideas multiply.
4. Keep your idea-generator turned on. Even if you don’t have time to go exploring for ideas, you might come across them. They can jump out of closets or cross the street in front of your car. But if your brain is stuck on work mode or the household chores setting, you might not even notice them. Keep your gears turning and rust-free, and it will generate ideas for you.