Pat Zietlow Miller On Inspiration

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees’ mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own, as well.


Today's guest for the WHAT is Pat Zietlow Miller, who has four picture books in print and six more on the way! Her debut, SOPHIE’ S SQUASH, won the Golden Kite Award for best picture book text, an Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Honor and a Charlotte Zolotow Honor. It also won the Midwest Region Crystal Kite Award and was a Cybils’ finalist. Her newest, THE QUICKEST KID IN CLARKSVILLE releases today from Chronicle!

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

My new book, THE QUICKEST KID IN CLARKSVILLE, had two specific points of origin. I started writing the story because I had read the wonderful picture book THE NEW GIRL … AND ME by Jacqui Robbins and Matt Phelan. It was so amazing that I really wanted to see if I could write something anywhere near as good. So I started writing my own friendship story featuring two girls – Alta and Charmaine – who both wanted to be the fastest kid on their block.

The resulting story was perfectly fine, but not particularly noteworthy. I set the story aside and it didn’t take out again until I attended the Rutgers One-on-One Plus Conference and talked with Random House editor Chelsea Eberly. She suggested adding a historical element. The second she did, I know just what I was going to do.

That’s how Olympic gold-medal-winning sprinter Wilma Rudolph joined the story. She gave my girls a common hero and gave the story a specific setting – 1960 Clarksville, Tennessee.  The story wouldn’t be what it is today without those two pivotal moments.

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

When I researched Wilma Rudolph, I learned she was more than the fastest woman in the world. I learned she’d overcome physical and economic challenges to earn her success and that she’d played an important part in integrating her hometown. I worked those elements into my manuscript, as well.

The story’s basic plot stayed the same, although I changed how the girls competed to see who was faster so that their challenges were loosely based on Wilma’s three Olympic events. And, I made Wilma’s real-life welcome-home parade the final event in the story where Alta and Charmaine realize they can be friends instead of competitors.

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

My drafting usually goes one of two ways. 

1. My first draft is exactly what I had in my mind as it moves from my head to the paper because I had it fairly well thought out before I started. Of course, then it changes when as I think about it further and share it with my writing friends.

2. My first draft is nothing like what I had in mind because I started out with only a few words or a fragment of an idea and I figured it out as I typed. Stories that start this way also usually go through a lot of changes as I revise.

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

I almost hate to say this, because I don’t want to tempt fate, but I get a lot of ideas. Those don’t always turn into things that are worthwhile, but I’m constantly noticing things odd, interesting or unusual things and pondering how I might be able to turn them into a story.

I think writers tend to notice stuff other people look past. My husband is a sports reporter, and I remember accompanying him to a high school basketball game. He was evaluating the players and analyzing the defense and tracking points and rebounds. I played basketball, so I understand the game, but my big takeaway was the cool socks one team was wearing. I think that says a lot about how I think.

I wrote a blog post about where writers get ideas that you can see on Tara Lazar’s Picture Book Idea Month blog. Spoiler: It mentions rolling grapes.

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

I go with whichever idea I’m most excited about at the time. Usually, there’s one that I just can’t stop thinking about. So I follow that one until I’ve exhausted all its possibilities. 

I usually have several manuscripts in various stages at any one time. But, one of those is always the primary manuscript and I only work on the others when I’m stuck on the primary one or when it needs to rest for a bit.

Sometimes the perfect word eludes me. If I can’t come up with it in the moment I usually write something in ALL CAPS like A GREAT WORD HERE and move on to catch it later in revision. Do you roll with the flow, or go find that word right away?

My preference is to find the right word or phrase at the moment I’m writing. I’m kind of compulsive that way. But although that’s what I want to do, it’s not always the best thing to do. So I often put notes in manuscript saying things like: “ADD SOMETHING FUNNY HERE.” 

That captures my ultimate plan for the manuscript, lets me keep going without losing momentum and lets whatever I need to eventually add simmer on my brain’s back burner for a while. And, eventually, the perfect thing bubbles to the top.