Pursuing the Muse
When I was a nipper, I had the advantage of being from a family that always made sure there was enough money for books. I had the added advantage of being the younger of two children. So not only did I have all of my books to choose from, I had my elder brother’s bookshelf to raid, too. It was among those titles that I discovered the author I consider to be one of the greatest literary geniuses of all time–Roald Dahl. The man had an eye for the macabre and the bizarre, and wrapped it all up in an engaging story enjoyable by children and adults alike. Forget my later interest in Stephen King, Clive Barker, or Dean Koontz–it was Roald Dahl that first inspired me to write within the myriad genres that are not considered “realism”.
Our school was also visited by traveling book fairs, and it was on their shelves that I discovered the genius non-fiction series penned by Terry Deary–the Horrible History series. Here is a series of books dedicated to telling youngsters the gory, fantastical and downright gross parts of history that their dry school syllabus skims over. I’ve been fascinated by history all my life, but here is a set of books that not only indulges that fascination, it also tells me disgusting facts about days gone by. I certainly don’t remember any teacher describing the mummification process of the Ancient Egyptians with quite such glee! With an educational grounding such as this, it’s hardly surprising I’d go on to develop an interest in historical fiction.
It’s often while reading such non-fiction books or visiting museums that I’ll read an anecdote, see an object, or find a photograph that will make me think “What is the story behind this?” Sometimes the anecdote is enough, I just have to find a hook, populate it with characters, and give history a voice. Other times, I need to mull over the image of object and ask questions of it. “Who are these people?”, “What is it for?”, “What’s going on here?” or “How many people have encountered this before me? What were they like? What was their interest in it?” are typical questions. Once I have an idea I can sum up in a single sentence, then I’ll write the story out in either a single paragraph, or a handful of lines. I flesh out this bare skeleton with the requisite details and dialogue and hey presto, a first draft. It has taken me over ten years of practice to get this down to a fine art, but it is practice will worth doing.
Inspiration is not a particularly courteous or thoughtful phenomenon. The muse will not wait for you to be ready, nor will she strike when you want her to. Inspiration has a habit of depositing ideas into your cranium at the most inopportune moment. Therefore my primary advice is to always be ready. Always make sure you have something on your person on which you can write these ideas – and something with which to write them. The humble pen and notebook are perennial favourites, but the advances of technology mean most mobiles or smart phones have note-taking facilities, which can be invaluable for jotting down a sentence or two if you’re stuck in a queue or simply walking down the street. (NB: If you’re crossing the road when inspiration strikes, please make sure you’re on the pavement before you start jotting down ideas or you may be struck by more than inspiration!)
My secondary advice is to always be open to new ideas. Switch TV soaps or dramas for documentaries. Visit galleries and museums. Read non-fiction. Visit your local library and check out their notice boards. Click on random articles on Wikipedia. Talk to people with interesting jobs. Trace your family tree. Eavesdrop on public transport. Wherever you find people, you will find conflict and events, and wherever you find those, you will find stories that want to be told.