October Theme: Inspiration (but not mine!) by Tracy Barrett

I took a different path to publication from the one that most novelists follow. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on a medieval Italian poet that you never heard of: Cecco Angiolieri (see, told you!) and I figured that if I could research and write about him, I could research and write about anything. I sent some sample writing to a children’s nonfiction editor, and she assigned me a book.

Yes, she assigned me a book. Not too inspiring, huh? Sounds like homework! But that’s how it often works with unknown nonfiction writers. This specialist in medieval Italian poetry was asked to write a book for second- to fourth-graders about Nat Turner, who led a slave revolt in Virginia in 1831. A fascinating topic, but not one that had ever caught my imagination as the subject of a potential book. In other words, there was no inspiration.

But as soon as I started my re- search, and then even more as I tried to tell the brutal and disturbing story in a way that my readers could grasp, I fell in love with the topic. The struggle for freedom, Turner's terrifying visions, the slave-holders who quoted the Bible to support their horrendous practices, the horrifying deaths—they were all the inspiration I needed.

I went on to write a total of ten non- fiction books (and—so far—nine novels) for young readers. In some of the non-fiction cases I had a choice of topics from a list provided by the publisher; in others, I was pretty much told, this is a book we need. If you want to write it, fine; if not, we’ll find someone else. But in only one case (a book about the Trail of Tears) did the inspiration start with me.

My four-book series The Sherlock Files also came from someone else’s inspiration. The packager Parachute Publications had wanted me to write a series for them for a while, but none of my ideas really struck a chord with them. Then someone else sold them a concept: Two American kids living in London discover that they are descended from Sherlock Holmes. They’re given their ancestor’s cold-case notebook and set about solving his unsolved mysteries. Did I want to write a book outline and a chapter based on that premise and see if they could find a publisher?

Did I ever! I loved the idea, and once again, as soon as I got into it, enthusiasm hit, and inspiration for the mysteries, characters, and everything else followed.

In mainstream Western society, first comes love, then comes marriage. But in many cultures, arranged matches frequently lead to love and successful marriages. In the same way, inspiration sometimes comes to an author only after she lives with and learns about her characters and their story for a while.


  1. That last line is so true--it even takes a while to know your characters when the book is entirely your own creation! I would think, though, that these "assigned" books also wound up adding depth and richness to novels of your own making. (Each finished book helps and enriches the next project, I think...)

  2. Great post, Tracy. I got my start in a similar way. One of the things I love about writing nonfiction is I am always learning something new (that, in itself, is inspirational). And Holly is right, many of the fascinating things I discover along the nonfiction journey invariably find their way into my fiction work. Here's to your next great assignment!

  3. Absolutely true--I learned not only facts, but a lot about writing. The standard for publishable nonfiction is as high as it is for fiction, but the editors are so much less inundated by mss. that they can take the time not only to edit but also to discuss with you why they want certain changes. It was like a writing apprenticeship!


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