Friday, September 9, 2011

“Where Do You Get Your Ideas?”

Hi, Everybody. It’s great to be back blogging on I.N.K. for another school year. I thought I’d start off the year by answering the most frequent question people ask me when they learn I write books for a living, “Where do you get your ideas?” The short answer is that sometimes my editors suggest my book topics, but more often they come from me, usually after percolating for quite a long time. They can spring from anywhere: a book, magazine, or newspaper article; a TV show; a conference I attend, even a conversation. Sometimes, the topic of one book I write suggests an idea for another book.

Specifically, the inspiration for my earliest book, A Whole New Ball Game, came from an item about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in the book First of All: Significant “Firsts” by American Women by Joan McCullough. Having grown up a baseball fan and studied women’s history in college, I was amazed that a professional women’s league had existed for 12 years and I’d never heard of it. I’d been working on Scholastic’s news magazines, writing one article or more per week, and I was anxious to find a subject I could research in depth. When I met with an editor about possible books I could write, she said she could hear the excitement in my voice as I spoke about the league. It wouldn’t be altogether wrong to say that the topic chose me.

After completing a project that was so meaningful to me, I had a hard time choosing what to write next. So I decided to get some perspective by putting together a timeline of women’s sports history. When I was done, I realized the timeline was actually a terrific outline for a book. Winning Ways: A Photohistory of American Women in Sports (published in 1996) looks at the relationship between women’s participation in sports and changing ideas about women’s roles in society from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1990s. As I was writing it, I wished I could take a deeper look at some of the topics I covered. Ultimately, I did, writing three other books whose content grew directly out of Winning Ways: My first picture book, Basketball Belles (published in 2011), looks at the first women’s intercollegiate basketball game, between Stanford and Cal Berkeley in 1896; Wheels of Change (published in 2011) examines the impact of the bicycle on women’s lives in the 1890s; and my as yet untitled second picture book, due to my editor very soon, will look at the phenomenon of Roller Derby in 1948, focusing on star skater—and notorious villain—Midge “Toughie” Brasuhn.

If someone else suggests a book topic, I’m willing to consider it, but it’s got to resonate with me in some way. Back in the late 90s, Nancy Feresten, Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Children’s Books, asked if I’d be interested in writing a book for their photobiography series. We discussed a number of subjects, but Annie Oakley was the one who clicked. At the time, I didn’t know anything about Annie beyond what was presented in the highly fictionalized musical, “Annie Get Your Gun,” but the more I researched, the more fascinated I became. I learned that it’s definitely possible to “own” a book topic that comes from someone else as long as I can find a personal connection to it. Besides piquing my interest as a pioneering sportswoman, Annie had spent 10 years living in Nutley, New Jersey, which shares a border with my hometown of Clifton. I was very curious to learn more about this “Jersey girl.”

Likewise, it was my editor at National Geographic, Jennifer Emmett, who suggested that I write a history of the Olympic Games. I came to own that topic so thoroughly that I was convinced I had come up with the idea for my two Olympic books, Swifter, Higher, Stronger and Freeze Frame, until I found Jennifer’s e-mail wondering if I’d be interested in the topic.

Of course, a viable book idea needs to be marketable as well as meaningful to the author. Some of that marketability grows out of the author’s reputation and passion for the subject, but these days, that’s not always enough. As the world of children’s publishing changes, I’m finding that there’s a bit more negotiating between author and editor before settling on book topics. But that’s a matter for another blog post.

I’ll be back next month on I.N.K. In the meantime, check out my personal blog on my Web site,, or follow me on Twitter at @suemacy1.

1 comment:

JD said...

Go Jersey! Thank you for a lovely post!

--J D'Agnese