Heart, history and a hero: Getting from good to good enough by Pat Zietlow Miller

quickest kid in clarksvilleWhen I sit down to write, I almost always begin with an idea.

But a lot can happen along the way.

And where I begin – even if the idea is good – isn’t always where I end up.

Which is exactly what happened in the case of THE QUICKEST KID IN CLARKSVILLE, my new picture book from Chronicle.

When I started, I had a simple idea. Two girls, competing to see who was more athletic. There was running. And jumping. And rope-skipping. An initial I’m-not-sure-I-like-you reaction, followed by shared interests and friendship.

It seemed zippy. Generally, I was pleased.

But, I wasn’t sure the story was strong enough to stand out on bookshelves full of other titles. The story was fine. Maybe even good. But I couldn’t shake the feeling it wasn’t good enough.

It needed something to make people want to choose it over other options. But what?

Writers who encounter this problem often reach out to friends who are willing to let them sift through the best of their brains and pick what will work for the story.

I’m fortunate to have generous friends with brilliant brains. So I shared the story with some of them and sifted through their thoughts, taking the insights that rang true to me and setting others aside.

By the time I was done, the story had changed drastically. It had heart, history, and a hero.

Originally, it was set in the present time on Fleet Street, an imaginary spot in an imaginary town. Everything that happened was made up by me.

The revised story was set in 1960s Clarksville, Tennessee, a very real city with a very real hero – three-time Olympic gold medalist Wilma Rudolph who, at that time, was the fastest woman in the world.

Now, both of my fictional girls admired Wilma immensely and wanted to be just like her. They competed to see who was faster and moved from suspicion to friendship as they prepared to attend the very real victory parade Clarksville held for Wilma.

This parade was significant in more ways than one. It celebrated a great athlete, but it also was the first major Clarksville event that was fully integrated, because Wilma said she wouldn’t attend unless everyone could come.

Most of my story is still fiction. My two main characters – Alta and Charmaine – did not exist. But the setting I put them in certainly did. And so did their hero, Wilma Rudolph, who helped them (and, I’m sure, a lot of very real children) start to dream.

I remember first hearing about Wilma Rudolph when I was in grade school. Wilma had retired from competing by then, but the story of how she’d gone from a child in a leg brace who was told she’d probably never walk without it to becoming the fastest woman in the world was still being told.

When I decided to add Wilma to my story, I did a lot of research. I read her autobiography, a biography and the wonderful nonfiction picture book WILMA UNLIMITED. And, I wove facts from them into my fictional story. I also included a note at the back of the book with a partial list of Wilma’s many accomplishments, information about her role in the civil rights movement and a photo of her riding in her victory parade.

All told, this story ended up in a very different place than where it started. But, as I said before, that’s a good thing.

I can’t wait to see where my next idea ends up.


Pat Zietlow Miller began her writing career in college as a sports reporter and has had a fascination with Wilma Rudolph ever since. The Quickest Kid in Clarksville is her picture book tribute to the inspirational track star. Pat is the author of several picture books including Sophie’s Squash, Wherever You Go, and Wide-Awake Bear. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband, two daughters, and one pampered cat. You can visit Pat at Patzietlowmiller.com.