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Lesson Plan Booster: Surprising Origins of Famous Fiction

For many students, writing doesn’t come easily. If they find the idea of forming a coherent narrative intimidating, the idea of writing an entire novel might seem almost unimaginable.

Students may not know that some of the most popular works of fiction ever written--including the Harry Potter series--actually sprung from their authors’ spontaneous ideas. Tall tales made up off the top of the storyteller’s head have gone on to live in the pantheon of literature, proving that one good idea and a solid grammatical base is all that’s required to produce great fiction.

This discussion guide is appropriate for use in English, literature and writing classes.

Grade Level:         6-12

Student learning objectives

  • Students will gain a better understanding of the creative process and the origins of fiction.
  • By using examples of great works that have had humble or surprising origins, the goal is to increase students’ comfort level with attempts to pen their own fictional stories.
  • Students will draw inspiration from authors J.K. Rowling, Mary Shelley and Lewis Carroll in order to jump-start their own creative processes.


  1. Explore the differences between oral and written storytelling with the article “Storytelling and Writing” by children’s author Rafe Martin. Here are sample quotes:

“[Oral story]telling depends on 'presence,' 'vibes,' that indefinable something built of silence, the body’s flow, voice-tones and rhythms, as well as on words and word-choice as they extend into the thrust and flow of narrative.”

In contrast:

“The shape [of a written story] has to be strong enough to sustain re-reading through which the hidden, at first overlooked details, and rich, subconscious layering and patterning out of which the narrative emerges, can reveal itself. Novels also will especially need complex characters that voice cannot easily sustain, as well as vivid action, interior revelation, vast locales, and complex, back-and-forth dialogue.”

  1. Explore the idea of storytelling inspiration with the article “Pep Talk for National Novel Writing Month: Advice for Young Writers,”by children’s author Rafe Martin. Here’s a sample quote:

“If you do these four things: read, pay attention to your wishes and dreams, pay attention to the world around you, and nourish your imagination, and if you like words and stories, you’ll never run out of ideas for stories of your own.”

  1. Familiarize yourself with the origins of some of the most well-known books of all time. Some examples are:

a. Harry Potter - Joanne (J.K.) Rowling was devastated by the news that her mother Anne had become seriously ill with multiple sclerosis. The author has described how at one point her mother was reduced to crawling upstairs. In these difficult years, Joanne worked a variety of temporary jobs while beginning a parallel life as a writer.

It was during this period that the most important moment of her life occurred. In summer 1990, while traveling to London by train, Rowling said an idea took shape: "All of a sudden the idea for Harry just appeared in my mind’s eye. I can’t tell you why or what triggered it. But I saw the idea of Harry and the wizard school very plainly. I suddenly had this basic idea of a boy who didn’t know who he was, who didn’t know he was a wizard until he got his invitation to wizard school. I have never been so excited by an idea."

The birth of Harry Potter was followed six months later by the death of Rowling's mother; Anne Rowling passed away in 1990. Her mother's passing sent Rowling into a tailspin, and she moved to Portugal to take a job as an English teacher. When not teaching, Rowling spent her days in local cafes, writing in longhand the first draft of the first Harry Potter book. She found love, albeit briefly, with a journalism student whom she married in 1992.

When the relationship went bad, Rowling returned to Scotland and struggled financially, enduring a deep depression brought about by circumstance and frustration. She was forced to fill in endless forms and attend demeaning interviews in order to secure a weekly allowance of about $100 a week in public assistance. Only after a period of counseling was she able to tackle her depression and begin writing again.

After a number of rejections, Rowling finally sold the book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (the word "Philosopher" was changed to "Sorcerer" for its publication in America), for the equivalent of about $4,000 in 1996.Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone became hugely popular, attracting an audience of young boys and girls as well as adults. With the public demanding more, Rowling quickly got to work on six more books. By the summer of 2000, the first three Harry Potter books had earned approximately $480 million in three years, with over 35 million copies in print in 35 languages. The sixth installment, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, sold 6.9 million copies in the United States in its first 24 hours, the biggest opening in publishing history. Prior to its July 2007 release, the seventh and final installment in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was the largest ever pre-ordered book at chain stores Barnes & Noble and Borders, and at

In 1998, Warner Bros. bought the film rights and since then extremely popular movies have been made of the books. From the books, the films, and the merchandise bearing Harry Potter images, Rowling has become one of the richest people in the world. Now Britain's 13th wealthiest woman—wealthier than even the Queen—she does not plan to write any more books in the series, but has not entirely ruled out the possibility.

Compiled from excerpts of the following sources:
The J.K. Rowling story, from, June 16, 2003
J.K. Rowling Biography, from, 2011.
J.K. Rowling from, retrieved July 2011.


b. Alice in Wonderland - One of the most beloved tales of all time was a story a guy made up off the top of his head to please a 10-year-old girl.

Author Lewis Carroll was home-schooled until adolescence, spoke with a stutter, was tall and awkward, never married and counted mathematics and logic among his hobbies. These are not necessarily the traits of a creative genius.

While on a riverboat trip with a friend’s family, however, Carroll was asked by 10-year-old Alice Liddell to tell her a story. Seeing that the girl was bored to tears, Carroll began a story about a girl in a fantastical land, making the entire thing up as he went along. It wasn’t until Liddell begged him later that he wrote the story down.

The result of one little girl’s boredom was one of the most celebrated works of children’s literature in history. It's been translated into 125 languages and has been adapted to film dozens of times; most notably by the Walt Disney Company. It's responsible for contemporary movies like “The Matrix,” and even a graphic novel by Alan Moore. “Alice” also inspired music from the 1960s.

Source: The Alice Behind Wonderland, by Simon Winchester. Oxford University Press, 2011.


c. Frankenstein - The summer of 1816 was an extremely chilly one, due to a series of volcanic eruptions in Indonesia setting off a worldwide temperature drop. At the time, a 19-year-old Mary Shelley and her then-boyfriend and soon-to-be-husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, were visiting Don Juan author Lord Byron at his estate in Switzerland.

Forced inside by the weather, the discussion eventually turned to the subject of Erasmus Darwin's experiments with electrically re-animated frog parts. At this point Byron suggested a scary story contest. In a matter of minutes, Mary came up with Frankenstein and his monster.

In what can only be considered a literal stroke of genius, two of the most iconic characters in literature were conceived by a teenager forced indoors because of poor weather.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein tells the tragic tale of Victor Frankenstein, a humble scientist whose only sin was his desire to create life from death. It was met with immediate popular success upon its publication and, like all good novels, was immediately adapted for the stage. Like Alice, Shelley’s story increased in popularity with a film adaptation. While the iconic Universal Pictures “Frankenstein” of 1931 is a controversial adpatation of Shelley's work--turning her well-spoken, tortured creature into a bumbling green mutant--it remains as the model for the creature and countless Halloween masks.

Additionally, Byron’s entry into the contest was a vampire story, which was the first ever to portray the villain as an aristocrat who targeted the well-to-do. This essentially recast the mold and set the standard for nearly every vampire story written since.

Source: Preface and intro to the 1831 electronic edition of Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley.


Introducing discussion to students:

We’re going to talk about some famous and very successful works of fiction to examine how the authors came up with their story ideas. Often hearing about someone else’s inspiration helps to inspire us as writers. We’re going to see what we can learn from these authors, and try applying some of their creative techniques to our own fiction writing.


Options for student discussion questions:

Comparing oral stories and written stories

  1. Do people today still tell oral stories? How are oral stories different from written stories? (Reference Rafe Martin’s “Storytelling and Writing”.)
  2. Who do you consider a good oral storyteller? What is it about this person that makes him/her a good storyteller?
  3. Who do you consider a good author? What is it about this person that makes him/her a good author?
  4. Can you think of any examples of contemporary works of fiction that began as oral stories?
  5. How is being a good oral storyteller different from being a good story writer? (Reference Rafe Martin’s “Storytelling and Writing”.)

Exploring inspiration

  1. What is similar or different about the context in which Rowling, Shelley and Carroll came up with the ideas for their stories? Do you think it’s true that difficulties, tragedy or rejections that occur in a person’s life can often prompt creativity? What do you make of the fact that all three authors were involved in trips/travel or transition at the time of their inspiration?
  2. Mary Shelley used the news of the day (the Darwin frog experiment) to develop her story. How would Frankenstein’s story have turned out differently if he weren’t using electricity to re-animate the monster?
  3. Have you ever told scary stories (around a campfire or at a sleepover)? How difficult would it be to put these stories down in writing?
  4. Is there a book, movie or song you read/saw/heard that made you want to write a story of your own?
  5. Have life challenges or current events ever inspired you to begin writing? (Reference Rowling, Shelley and Carroll’s sources of inspiration.)
  6. What have you wished for, dreamed about or imagined that could be expressed through characters in a story? (Reference Rafe Martin’s “Pep Talk for National Novel Writing Month: Advice for Young Writers”.)

Beginning our own writing process

  1. Can an oral story easily translate into a written one? What are some ways to begin this “translation” process?
  2. What’s easy about writing fiction? What’s difficult? What are some tips or techniques that can help us with the difficult parts?
  3. Have you ever thought about writing a work of fiction? If so, what kind of story would you write? How would you begin the process?
  4. How do we “connect the dots” from inspiration/idea to a written story? What are the steps? (Reference Rafe Martin’s “Pep Talk for National Novel Writing Month: Advice for Young Writers”.)
  5. What are some ways to pay attention to the world around us that will help us begin writing? Ideas include: (1) “eavesdropping” on others’ conversations and using them to jump-start writing of characters’ dialogue; (2) viewing an ordinary object with heightened senses and then writing a richly descriptive paragraph; (3) tuning into your thoughts and feelings and trying to put them down on paper; and (4) watching other people and trying to imagine what they are thinking and feeling, as well as what underlies what they actually say and do.

    More ideas for creative writing exercises are available at:

    The Best Creative Writing Activities for Kids
    Classroom Writing Activities for Children
    Children’s Writing Exercises

    Article by Jason Tomaszewski, EducationWorld Associate Editor
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