Peter Brown shares how a bulldog in a coffee shop inspired his quirky character, Chowder, and a new outlook on using your imagination.
I was sitting in a coffee shop one warm summer day, doodling
in my sketchbook and struggling to think up an idea for my next children’s
book. I had lots of ideas, but they were all remarkably horrible. I was
actually beginning to worry that I’d never have another decent idea for a story
ever again in my entire life. It was not a pleasant feeling.
After several hours of thinking up horrible ideas, I decided
to head home in defeat. And then a bulldog trotted into the coffee shop and sat
right in front of the counter. He just sat there, panting and looking up at a
tray of muffins. He wasn’t on a leash. He wasn’t with a person. He was by
himself, and he wanted a muffin.
Of course, I had to wait and see what would happen next.
Would he order a banana walnut muffin, or maybe a lemon poppy seed? Did the girl
behind the counter know this bulldog already, and would she hand him a bag with
his usual order, ready to go? Would the bulldog take a muffin back to his cozy
apartment and enjoy it while reading the newspaper and listening to smooth
jazz? Did he live alone? Was his home nicer than mine?! I had lots of
As it turned out, the bulldog belonged to the shop owner,
and spent most of his time hanging out by those muffins. But I had really
enjoyed thinking about an odd bulldog character who did all kinds of people
things. I couldn’t stop imagining his home, his hobbies, his daily routine. And
so that funny little moment in the coffee shop led me to make two picture books
about a quirky bulldog.
I learned a very important lesson that day. You see, I had
always admired authors and illustrators who invented unique stories and worlds
and characters. I just assumed their ideas came from freakishly large
imaginations. Since I didn’t have one of those, I spent most of my time racking
my brain, desperately hoping that if I thought hard enough, a good idea would pop
into my mind. But that tactic never worked, and I didn’t know how to come up with
And then I found myself in that coffee shop, watching a
bulldog as it stared at muffins, and happily scribbling ideas into my sketchbook.
I realized that good ideas could come from observing everyday life, and that living
a more interesting life would probably lead to more interesting story ideas.
I no longer put much pressure on my imagination. Instead, I
travel. I have meaningful conversations. I try new foods. I watch films, read
books, and listen to music. I notice what makes me laugh, or cry, and I jot it
down. I notice the sights that make me pause, and I doodle them in my sketchbook.
I live life fully, I pay attention, and the story ideas flow. And this
lifestyle of mine began while I was working on a children’s book called Chowder.