Finding the Heart of Your Story

I had the opportunity to spend a lovely day attending an inspiring workshop called “Creating the Hearts and Bones of Your Next Nonfiction Picture Book.” Sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Chapter of SCBWI, the presenters were Colorado powerhouse writers Beth Anderson, Laura Perdew, and Julie Danneberg. These three women, who are prolific nonfiction picture book authors, are also former teachers. They were eager and willing to share their expertise with attendees.*

I needed help getting started on drafting my next picture book biography. I had done hours and hours of research and had filled two spiral notebooks with fascinating information about my person. I found everything about her interesting, important, and worthy. I would look at my research and try to imagine fitting her story into 1000 words– and I was paralyzed.

What I needed to do was to find the “heart” of the story. But how?

Fortunately, Beth Anderson’s presentation was just what I needed to hear. Beth’s books pulse with heart and every sentence in her books contributes to her identified heart. Everything else is left on the cutting room floor or salvaged for the back matter.

Heart, she explains, isn’t the theme, the hook, the nugget, or the emotional arc. Instead, the heart is more elusive and more important. Sometimes called the “so what?” or take-away, it is the vital idea that lingers in the reader’s heart.

The key to finding the heart of your story is to focus on your connection to the story. Beth suggests you think about why you love your topic. Ask yourself repeatedly why you want to tell this story. Why does this story matter? What is the story REALLY about?

Through this idea of heart, an author will find the way to make their story stand out. At its essence, this vital idea will allow children to connect with the story and feel part of it. She suggests digging deeper and deeper until you find that one extraordinary and meaningful idea.

When researching, Beth gathers ideas in a list at the front of her research, recording insights that might be or contribute to the heart of her story. She looks for a key idea or a question that could guide the story. This should be a fresh take that pushes thinking or a personal angle that resonates.

Beth has been focused on how heart matters since she started writing. In her blog series, “Mining for Heart,” she reviews published picture books through the lens of that one idea that drives the book. Her insights and recommendations were helpful to me as I explored the concept related to my own work. You can access her blog here.

After the workshop, I went back through my research, riffling through the information with new eyes. I started analyzing and began to identify where my passion for my subject started and what would resonate with readers. It’s been fun to explore ideas and tangents. The different perspectives are helping me wrestle the story I want to tell into a meaningful book.

Thanks Beth, for a wonderful presentation and your dedication to helping other writers tell their stories!

*As an extra bonus, the workshop was held at the incomparable Penrose House of the El Pomar Foundation in Colorado Springs. The sprawling, historic, Italianate mansion next to the Broadmoor Hotel was built in 1910. The foundation is dedicated to serving non-profit organizations and is available free of charge to groups like ours. The beautiful setting added to the day.

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