Facets of a Muse

Examining the guiding genius of writers everywhere

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Ah, it’s the week before All Hallow’s Eve. Bats, ghosts, goblins, and everything else we like to associate with October 31st are plastered everywhere we look. Enthusiastic individuals even practice for Christmas decorating by hanging Halloween lights and planting inflatable pumpkins and skeletons on their front lawns.

Halloween is a great muse for a lot of people. The occasion inspires everything from horror stories to costumes to haunted houses or yards. Some people spend months designing that year’s Halloween display or party menu. Of all the holidays we celebrate (or observe, at the very least), Halloween seems to be the most inspiring muse, with Christmas a close(?) second. No, really. Think about it. There’s even multiple movie franchises based on Halloween, or Halloween characters, or Halloween nightmares.

The characters commonly associated with Halloween have invaded more than just the October 31 festivities. The number of books and movies and television series highlighting vampires is mind-boggling. And zombies. I cannot believe how many people are zombie connoisseurs. Just look at success of The Walking Dead. There was even a zombie pub crawl in Minneapolis this year toted as the largest of its kind. I met with a group of writers last week, and of the four of us, two were serious zombie fans. My husband is a member of that fan club as well; we’ve been binge-watching the Walking Dead on DVD (since we don’t get cable), plus he recently discovered a DVD with 15 zombie movies on it. Let the eye-rolling commence.

Zombies, vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein’s monster, mummies (hey, sounds like a Lon Chaney, Jr. and Boris Karloff reunion), ghosts, goblins. Witches. Evil clowns, dolls, cars, leprechauns, dogs. Halloween is traditionally a holiday that emphasizes the things we are afraid of, though we try to make things far more fun for kids (no parent wants to be woken by a kid who has nightmares). But originally the day was a celebration of the harvest and the eve of Winter.

Halloween for kids from about 15 to 115 tends to be on the scary side. Terrifying even. If a haunted house doesn’t make you scream, or a movie doesn’t give you goosebumps or make you turn on all the lights in the house, it isn’t scary enough for Halloween. Maybe it’s cute enough for Halloween, though, like the Great Pumpkin. Or Shrek.

So here’s a challenge for you and your muse. Write a short story or a couple of scenes where October 31 is a fun, bright, happy day everyone looks forward to. Think of it as the bunny/duckie side of autumn (as opposed to spring). It’s still autumn, and on the cusp of winter (in the Northern Hemisphere). Call it Halloween, or Samhain, or Winter’s Eve. Use the muse of Halloween to reveal the other face of the holiday, the one not dark and spooky and scary. But no zombies. I am beyond tired of zombies. Make that no zombies, vampires, werewolves, mummies, or Franken-whatevers.

Can you do it? Can you make Halloween fuzzy and cuddly and fun? Share your answer if you like.


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Write What You Know–Or Should You?

We’ve all heard it, from just about every resource on writing we’ve come across. Every time I think of that, my muse has two things to say. First, he asks why the heck I’m not writing “what I know”. Then, he tells me to dig deeper into things I don’t know as much about, because he likes the research as much as I do.

There are many writers who follow the advice. John Grisham, Kathy Reichs, Patricia Cornwell (okay, so she wasn’t a forensic investigator, but she did work in the medical examiner’s office), even Ian Fleming. Lawyer, forensic anthropologist, intelligence officer. They all sound like cool jobs. I mean, who doesn’t want to know what Ian Fleming the intelligence officer did for his job? Granted, many not-so-exciting jobs have been glorified by the entertainment industry. Rick Castle seems to do very little writing and not much editing, or book signings (I can remember one), or negotiating contracts, or meeting with his editor, or writing. How does he write anything when he seems to spend all his time at murder scenes and shadowing his “muse”? I’d be curious to learn just how much time Patricia Cornwell spends writing every day. I’ll bet it’s way more than Castle does.

If you’re supposed to write what you know, then you should write about waiting tables, doing accounting, running a machine to cut precision parts, or dumping ingredients into a huge vat to make processed cheese, right? What about butchering chickens on an assembly line or driving a combine through thousands of acres of soybeans? Question is, would anyone want to read about how you drive from Minneapolis to Atlanta, unload the dozen truck-sized bales of hay you hauled down there, and bring a return load of whatever all the way back to Minneapolis? That’s what, three or four days of driving, sleeping, driving, sleeping, etc. Or about milking a hundred head of dairy cattle twice a day, plus time spent cleaning the barn, feeding the cows, mowing the hay, baling the hay, or knowing you can’t leave for more than a day because the cows absolutely have to be milked morning and evening.

Naw, it’s way more fun to write about stuff we may not know much if anything about. Generally, we like to write about things we’d like to know more about. I’ve never seen a stone circle in Ireland–heck, I’ve never been to Ireland–but I wrote about one. The research was fun! I’ve been to San Francisco once, but I’ve done more research since for my mystery series. My writing teacher has been enjoying her research in Door County, Wisconsin, not only for the setting, but for tips about making fudge. Granted, she also lives in Wisconsin, so it isn’t like she has to fly from the Midwest to Oregon or Hawaii for her research, but she can head up to Door County whenever she needs to for more research. Wouldn’t it be a blast to research the Ghiardelli factory in SF? Wait, how about researching the chocolate confectioner in Austria that makes the good Mozart chocolates (not the ones they sell everywhere–and if you’ve ever been to Salzburg, you know the difference)?

That said, I’ve also written a mystery that takes place in rural Minnesota, a place I’ve lived my entire life and for which I need to do little or no research, which allows me to do two things: use the time I would have spent on research to write, and really focus on making my familiar setting memorable to people who are unfamiliar with it.

My muse is poking me (back off, I’m getting to that). Now, if you’ve had experience doing something unique, non-traditional, or just plain interesting, try to use it in your writing. Take advantage of what you do know. Have you ever been skydiving? Swam with dolphins (or manatees, or sharks, or rays)? What about a grape stomp? Renaissance fair? Add your knowledge to your writing–time you don’t have to spend researching you can spend writing, and it’s easier to describe the actual experience to your readers. For me, it’s my experience as an aircraft mechanic. It’s just a matter of how to incorporate that knowledge into a book. That’s on the slate for next year’s NaNoWriMo.

Speaking of NaNo, I’m all up for being anyone’s writing buddy. Let me know in the comments if you are interested, and I’ll let you know what my NaNo user name is so we can connect on the nanowrimo.org site. The more, the merrier!

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Blood Moon, Beer, and a Traveling Muse

If you had the opportunity to see the world-famous “blood moon” a couple mornings ago, I hope you were able to imprint the gorgeous image on your mental canvas. Talk about creativity-inspiring! Yesterday morning on the way to work I noted how brilliant the full moon was, and made mental notes to remember the moonlight and how it illuminated the before-sunrise darkness so I can include it in my writing. Last night I saw the moon rise, a huge, orange-tinted orb that brought to mind the phrase “harvest moon”. Not only is this time of year host to temperate weather, but the changing leaves, glorious moon, and lack of mosquitoes seems to beg for attention in the form of writing bits and scraps of visual description, sensory imagery, and ideas for my NaNo (National Novel Writer’s Month) novel.

Ah, my muse is enjoying autumn! Or, rather, autumn is a muse I enjoy despite the flurry of activity needed to get the garden, yard, vehicles, house, etc. in order for the coming winter. The blood moon, full moon, and changing leaves are just perks, little bits for us to enjoy before we need to hunker down. I can almost hear the readers in the warm climates snicker. And the ones Down Under. Yes, well, as much as we Minnesotans like to complain about the weather, I like the seasonal changes. Not that summer in January south of the equator is a bad thing; that’s about the time we start wondering if we should beat the rush to warmer climes!

October is the month of harvest, hence the “harvest moon”. October is also the month of Oktoberfest. Since a high percentage of Minnesotans can claim some German blood, many of us can use that excuse to justify attending one of the “fests” in the state (not that we ever really need an excuse to sing drinking songs, which feels really odd without a full bierstien in hand). New Ulm has claimed the title of “Best Oktoberfest in Minnesota”. I haven’t been there for Oktoberfest for a while, but with the Schell Brewery on the edge of town, an abundance of German-inspired landmarks, and polka bands straight from the Old World, the only things missing (thankfully) from the beer, brats, pork, sauerkraut, and lederhosen are the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, stormtrooper police, and falling-down drunks I remember from Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany (but I can say I’ve been there!).

If you ever get a chance to visit New Ulm, even if it isn’t for Oktoberfest, take it. It’s a quaint, darling town that just feels, well, comfortable, with a lot of history and natural beauty. I’ve got my Muse on task to come up with a way to incorporate New Ulm into one of my books so I’ll have more excuses to head down there for research. No, really, spending a couple hours under a canopy with a polka band and a bottomless bierstein is research for my book. Really!

Have you ever traveled to a location that became an unrelenting muse for you? A place or setting that demanded you write about it until you actually gave it a role in your story? Something like this happened to me when I visited New Ulm last fall (no, not for Oktoberfest). I’ve been trying to come up with a story to place there ever since; I’ve still got my Muse working on it.

Do you travel for the sole purpose of doing research for a book or story? Or do you come up with a story to fit the location you’re at? Do you decide to set your story in a particular place, and then travel there to absorb the atmosphere? My writing teacher used this methodology when she proposed her cozy mystery series set in Door County, WI. She travels there on a regular basis to continue her research.

I think I should set a book in Hawaii. Or Tahiti. Or Australia. Definitely need to do research!

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October, Autumn, and Looking Ahead to November

Happy Friday! TGIF and all that!

After our summer respite last weekend (80’s in MN at the end of September!), we are now looking fully into the face of Autumn. The trees are displaying gorgeous colors, from brilliant pink to bright gold to bold scarlet. Every year I try to imprint the mosaic in my mind. Each year the colors are brighter or duller, depending on the weather. This year looks like a banner year. The sugar maples are frosted with glowing magenta blending to yellow against a background of green. Wow.

On the dark side, though, it’s back to cold and gray and blustery. I suspect my tomatoes won’t finish ripening before the trees lose all their leaves and a hard frost has the final word on this year’s bounty. Sigh. There’s nothing like fresh tomatoes from the garden, especially when the nights get cool. The tomatoes get nice and sweet!

October ushers in the prelude to Winter. The leaves change, the pumpkins show up on roadside stands, and the Halloween commercials appear on TV. Now’s the time to finish the yard work and make sure everything is ready for snow (yes, I said it). There’s something about the brooding steel skies, the almost-sweet smell of fallen leaves, and the chill in the air that inspires me to write. At least until I need sunshine again in about a week. Then the inspiration gives way to SAD and reluctant baking in preparation for the upcoming holidays.

On the bright side, October also signals my prep time for National Novel Writer’s Month (NaNoWriMo, or simply, NaNo). I’ve been taking the challenge every year for almost a decade, and have passed the 50,000-word mark in all but my first year of participation. Come to think of it, this will be my tenth NaNo. Now’s the time I spend tasking my Muse with the question of what to write this year. Do I write the next book in my detective series, or rewrite (again) one of my romantic mysteries? Or, do I write something fresh that I haven’t pieced together in my head yet?

The fun part is mulling over what to write. I’ve learned that outlining, at least roughly, helps me put the story together. I use Karen Wiesner’s “First Draft in 30 Days” methodology to lay things out. Every writer does things differently, and I never used outlines until I prepped for my first NaNo. It worked so well for that book that I’ve used that method every year since.

I’ve got a month to figure it out, then I’ll jump into November with a 2,000 word per day goal. That’s it, just 2,000 words per day will get you to 60,000 words in 30 days (gotta give yourself a cushion for the November holidays). Join the fun this year! No, there’s no prizes except bragging rights. But, hey, bragging rights are good! You can say to all those friends who ask if your book is finished yet that yep, it’s done.

The key to NaNo is remembering that what you write is a first draft. Not perfect, not final, and not necessarily neat. The first step to any writing project is getting something on paper, whether electronic or wood-based. NaNo is an opportunity to do just that. And remember to kick the inner editor into a closet and lock the door. Let your muse hide the key. If nothing else, it’ll get you into the habit of writing every day, and we know that is an important habit for a writer to have.

Sign up now:  nanowrimo.org