The Reluctant Muse

by Al Philipson

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”  -Mark Twain

Okay, your muse is on strike and your editor is begging you for another great story like the last one. What do you need to do to feed the stubborn creature?

For me, one of the things I do is just look around. Story ideas are everywhere in “real” life. The news is full of them, if you can stand to pay attention to the twaddle that passes for “news” these days. People around you have personal experiences that might make the germ of a story. Your own experiences might give you an idea.cover

For instance: I owned a small ranch in NE Washington state for a while (my ex-wife got it in the settlement). I “moved” that ranch closer to Spokane, prettied it up, and used it for the setting in a post-apocalyptic novel. The actual story line came from my own imagination, but just having the setting helped my muse’s creative juices to flow.

A year or so ago, I participated in a short story exercise where one person wrote a few lines and we had to expand that into a story. That little germ was enough to nurse my muse into flight and I produced a nice little yarn. Other members of the group asked when I was going to write the rest of the story (my ending had an opening in it) and after a year, I revisited the short and started converting it to a full-length novel. Well, the novel is set in the far future and some of the people who were proofing my work (in other words, “savaging it”) began to ask how things got the way they were. Soooo, I realized I needed a prequel. So, when both are done, I’ll have a “series” of two stories set around a thousand or so years apart. That, in turn, will leave a lot of room for other stories in between them.

Other things in the news are sometimes valuable (feel free to use any of these ideas). The current squabbles going on in U.S. politics are rife with story ideas about misuse of power, secret plans to take over the country, repression of ideas and speech, propagandizing children in the public schools, repression of Christianity, illegal torture of enemy combatants, terrorists, and on and on. You don’t have to believe any of these things, but you can dress them up and use them for a story of your own in another setting.  Then focus on the hero who fights to redress the eeeeevil people who are doing bad things.  For a twist, you can have the hero find “the truth” (whatever you decide that is) in the end and switch sides.

Do or do not believe in Global Warming? Doesn’t matter. Is the Swine Flu a real or hyped up problem? Doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the public will eat this sort of thing up and if you write a story with a similar “disaster in the making”, you might sell a lot of books or TV scripts. If you write fiction, whatever you dream up doesn’t have to be true as long as it sounds “realistic”. If you write non-fiction, try something else because these two subjects have been beaten to death.

Did your parents abuse you as a child (or did you think you were abused)? You have the empathy to write a story about it.

Now, a caution here. Writing about your own experiences can produce a deadly boring story unless you are very talented. However, creating a fictional character with similar problems might be the ticket to a good yarn (and a chance to get the problem cathartically out of your head).

Your story can revolve around a person/problem related to your profession or a past profession. Yes, I was a real cowboy and I can write about ranch and farming life authentically. What can you write about? A storm disaster story revolving around a power company lineman, a power struggle inside a big corporation, a new discovery in a laboratory, two ditch diggers who find something valuable or are the only ones who can dig someone out of a landfall, dockworker who discovers a smuggling operation? If you’ve done something well enough to be an authority, you can write believable stories around that experience.

I compiled a bunch of Science Fiction short stories for an anthology (now out of print). One exciting story, by Bruce Davis (author of That Which is Human, the Profit Logbook series, and Blanktown) is about a trauma surgeon who uses new gee-whiz stuff to cure an accident victim. It’s very fast-paced and intense.  The story reeks of authenticity because Bruce is a trauma surgeon in “real life”.

You may associate with people who have interesting lives. Ask them about their world the next time you “hang” with them instead of telling them about yourself. Then listen. You might get several story ideas. And you might develop a resource or two who can give you the “straight scoop” on their areas of expertise to help your story be realistic.

The more you pay attention to what’s going on around you and what you’ve done/seen/heard, the more creative power you give to your muse.

What feeds your muse? Where do you get your ideas?

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