Karen Pokras Toz on Finding Inspiration
Qamber Kids doesn’t just seek to create fantastic illustrations but we focus on building a community with our authors. One of our favorite #kidlit authors and people, in general, is the lovely Karen Pokras Toz. You may know her as the author of Nate Rocks the World or Millicent Marie is NOT My Name. You may have also seen her adorkable cat pics on social media ;) We invited Karen today, to share a little with us about where she finds inspiration for her dynamic characters. We hope you enjoy!
Hi and thank you so much for inviting me to chat with you today! I always love visiting you and your wonderful and creative team. This is an exciting year for me because it’s my tenth anniversary of being a published author. It’s hard to believe that Nate Rocks the World is ten years old! It honestly feels like I wrote that series yesterday. It’s also an exciting year because I have a new book (finally) coming out this fall called The Backyard Secrets of Danny Wexler.
I love that you’ve asked me to write about character and inspiration. As a writer, I pull so much inspiration from my everyday life. Over the years, my children have been a great source of endless material. Not so much in actual events that I’ve written about, although I’m sure there have been times my son wished he thought of secretly publishing his sister’s diary online as in Millicent Marie or that my daughter wished she could get her brother in trouble like Nate’s sister does in Nate Rocks, but rather in the dynamics of being a middle-grader: school, family, friendships, activities, and drama. So much drama!
In writing The Backyard Secrets of Danny Wexler, I took a different approach when developing my characters and wrote more about my own memories as a middle-grader. The story takes place in 1978 when I was just ten years old. So I started by brainstorming and jotting down random memories that stuck out during that time period: riding my bike, playing tag at the bus stop, jumping rope at recess, specific friends I had in fourth grade, sleepovers, making prank calls… the list goes on. Before I knew it, I had pages of memories that had been locked away for ages. In the end, I focused on three specific memories I had which helped mold Danny Wexler, my main character, as well as a big part of the plot: (1) a fascination with the Bermuda Triangle, (2) an unfounded fear of white vans, and (3) a factory explosion in the next town.
Adult characters come to me in very similar ways. They may be from a collection of observations I’ve made over the years from people-watching (one of my favorite activities), they may be based on someone I know personally or heard about, or they may even be based on myself. For example, despite my love of baking, I’m not the best with meal preparation. I know this because my youngest will occasionally say something like, “This is actually good,” when I serve him dinner. It’s a real ego boost.
When it came time to write the character of Nate’s mom in Nate Rocks, I just knew I had to work on some questionable cooking skills. And she’s not just a bad cook, she’s a horrible cook because I love taking flaws and amplifying them, such as with Millie’s mom in Millicent Marie, who isn’t quite a hoarder, but is definitely one step above someone who might sometimes buy products in bulk. Not only do flaws make characters extra fun to write, they make characters relatable, which is so important.
Occasionally, inspiration for a character comes from the most random and unexpected place. This might be my favorite type of inspiration, and it happened while developing ideas for The Backyard Secrets of Danny Wexler. It was a snowy day in December a few years ago, and a writer friend of mine posted a video on Facebook of herself playing piano. I commented that it was wonderful and that I didn’t know she could play. She responded that she only took lessons for a short time because she was freaked out by her piano teacher’s hairy hands. I didn’t know how or who he would turn out to be, but at that moment, I knew that I needed a hairy-handed piano teacher in my story. He wound up being a major character in the story, and I’ll be forever grateful for that tiny snippet of inspiration.