Peter the Great collected – among many other things – human teeth. With the sort of authority only the ruling class possesses, Peter felt free to pull the samples himself from anyone with appealing dentition.
The Dutch taxonomist, Willem Cornelis van Heurn, collected like a madman. Willem had a thing about moles, dogs, and pigs. Unfortunately, he didn't contribute much – if anything – in the way of new insights to the world of taxonomy, he just collected. The teeth and artful mole skins have been photographed by Rosamond Purcell in her book Finders Keepers: Eight Collectors.
Just like Mr. Great and Mr. van Heurn, nonfiction writers are collectors – of a sort.
The Smithsonian article where I found this information, is jammed into one of the seven folders I have for collecting interesting ideas. The folders contain twenty-seven old envelopes, twelve spiral notebooks (large, medium, small), one paper place mat from a seacoast restaurant and one from a local Chinese place. There are newspaper articles and magazines articles – too many for me to count right now.
I've been collecting these snips and jots for nearly three decades. In my collection: the history of bubblegum, peat moss, barber poles, blizzards, cochineal, wigs, stone-aged diets, the history of cleanliness, skyscrapers, ancient shoes, and a sweet little seawater-to-gold scam two scoundrels perpetrated on the town of Lubec, Maine back in the 19h century.
If you find yourself drawn to the larger ideas of history, science, mathematics, discovery and exploration, among other 'true' stories, nonfiction may be your calling. If you love quirky little side stories, you're probably a nonfiction writer, too.
The demand for nonfiction has always been big, and now it's even bigger. Schools expect children to read nonfiction at the earliest stages of their school careers. Publishers are looking for a way to target this market.
It's easy enough to start a collection of ideas. First, pay attention to the things and ideas you love. Use the bookmark tool on your browser. Clip magazine and newspaper articles. Pay attention to what you're listening to on National Public Radio or what you see on television documentaries. At the very least, these things are great conversational fodder for cocktail parties. The caveat, of course, is that a few people will secretly think of you as a geek. Not that that's a bad thing . . .
The body of your collection can reveal a lot about your interests. Are you a specialist like Willem van Heurn? You are if you find the majority of your collection focuses on one particular aspect of the world – like outer space. There's a place for you in the world of children's writing. Publishers are looking for people who can write reliably on topics that interest kids – like space. Publishers like experts. Become the expert!
You may be a generalist like Peter the Great. There's plenty of room for the writer who can find the interesting and arcane – and can write with authority on many topics.
Don't rely on your memory to store these ideas. Write them down, cut them out, file them away. You may not write about it until your mind has had some time to process it, which may take years. Thankfully, this usually happens in the far reaches of the brain while we're going about our business. You may not have the skill level yet to tackle some ideas you've collected. If you're paying attention, you'll likely know when you're ready to tackle a project.