The other day I was musing about muses. This was a rather convoluted process that went something like this:
I want to write but I don’t have an idea. I should write, but I’m bummed because I don’t have an idea. I could write if I had a great idea. I need to get one and until I do, I’ll watch TV. There’s a movie on TV called The Muse. I’ll watch The Muse and get inspired.
This is how the musing went after the movie.
The Muse is awful. She’s demanding, self-centered, and doesn’t care about the writer’s work. Still, the he sees something in her. What does he see in her? I want a muse. I just don’t want a muse like that.
I turned off the TV, obsessed with the idea of getting a muse. I just had to figure out where to get one. Since I’d never actually seen a muse, I decided I better find out exactly what I was looking for.
In the dictionary, the first definition of muse is to be thrown into a deep state of dreamy abstraction. The second is a noun, naming any of the nine sister goddesses in Greek mythology that preside over song, poetry, the arts and sciences. The third definition is the one we think of most often, a human source of inspiration or a guiding genius.
With this information in hand, I analyzed my career and realized that a muse has guided me every step of the way. I have often found myself lost in a dream state inspired by another writer. Their work has more often than not sparked an idea for a book of my own or a shown me a new way of laying a story foundation or become a point of reference for an essential building block.
The second definition – the naming of the goddesses – is a matter of inspirational faith. I have always believed that there is ‘something’ hovering over artists that not only encourages the creative soul, but also gives it the courage needed to present its work to a critical public.
That brings us back to the movie and the third definition of muse: the source of inspiration that we can touch and talk to. For some people this is one person, for me it has been many. I don’t call them muses; I call them friends, lovers, family and colleagues. Each step of my career was inspired and moved forward by the muse of the moment, the one person I needed just then.
There was the high school teacher who told me I wrote well, my husband who rescued by early attempts from the trashcan, my children who proudly said their mom was a writer. As the years went on and the books piled up, there were editors who trained me and readers who cheered me on, inspiring me to be better at my craft. All these people were – as definition three would have us believe – guiding geniuses.
It doesn’t matter if they knew the roll they played in my writing. What matters is that I wrote because of them and never in spite of them. The truth is, all you have to do to find a muse is open your eyes, your mind, and your heart. That muse is there – sometimes where you least expect it.
Over the last many months I have been helping my mother prepare to relocate. We have spent hours choosing the furniture she will take and trying to determine how many dishes, glasses, and cookie sheets she’ll really need.
Dusty and dirty after spending the day cleaning the garage, we found ourselves in the dining room at the end of the day. I looked at the huge breakfront overflowing with crystal, silver, and china. I opened the glass door and took out a piece of bisque colored china.
“Do you want to take it with you?” I asked.
“That’s Limoges,” she said. “One of dad’s patients gave it to him after he delivered her baby.”
“And these?” I held up two tall crystal vases. Certainly one would do in a smaller place.
“Keep them both,” she said.
“Because I like them,” she answered.
On we went sorting through soup tureens, more vases, statues of ballerinas, and teacups. It was the teacups that enthralled me and the work slowed as I set them on the dining room table, one after another. Some had fluted edges and others were like little pot-bellied stoves. My favorite cup was sleek and modern with a shallow bowl. It was made of porcelain so white and delicate that I could see through it. The sweep of the golden handle made the cup look like a swan. The cups were miss-matched because that was the style in another elegant era.
My mother and I touched the teacups, nudged their saucers, and ran our fingers over tiny raised paintings of roses and lilies. We looked for the china markings and grouped them: Wedgewood, Meissen, Limoges. There were stories about my grandparents, and of my mother growing up in Germany, and of guests coming for lunch.
When we were done, when she had chosen the teacups to take with her, we went to bed to rest up for the next day’s work. As I drifted off, I realized that in the course of getting ready to close the door on a house we had opened the door to memories that could inspire a hundred novels. I had heard tales of hardship, of gratitude, of uncertainty – even danger – but mostly I had heard tales of graciousness, hard work and above all love.
Someday I will write one of these stories. Until then, I will drink my tea from one of her cups and remind myself that the best stories are those that are rich in flavor and best served with style.
I was in the U.K. during the last two weeks and every second was a celebration of writing. My son graduated with his masters in writing from Oxford (I am in awe), I met an author I had been corresponding with who managed to meet me in London on his way to the Netherlands. I had cocktails with a fan in London and another fan/friend/author in Edinburgh. When all that was done, another new friend drove me around the city.
I saw J.K.Rowling’s house (actually, I saw her security hedge) and Alexander McCall Smith’s haunts. I went to the writers’ museum. There were statues of writers, dishtowels, t-shirts and cement blocks in the squares featuring literary quotes. I raised a glass at The World’s End Pub made famous by Outlander. Even though I have made a living writing for over thirty years, I felt as giddy as a newbie in this amazing city. But when my host drove me to a middle school and parked across the street, I was speechless.
I will pause here to make a confession. I have never read a Harry Potter book. I have never seen a Harry Potter movie. I have never been to Universal Studios and gone on the Harry Potter tour. But the moment I put eyes on the imposing school building – ancient stones black with soot, turrets sliced into pieces by narrow windows, an entrance door so large it would take ten people to open it or at least a magic spell – I knew this was the building that inspired Harry Potter.
Thousands of people drive by that school each day, hundreds of uniformed students walk the halls and parents attended teacher meetings. For them that place was a school; for Rowling it was a universe.
On the other end of town I found Alexander McCall Smith’s stomping grounds. There is no 44 Scotland Street. However, I did see 43 Scotland Street and that was all I needed to understand his work.
Edinburgh is behind me, but I will never forget the moment I recognized the home of Harry Potter or the neighborhood of 44 Scotland Street. The reader in me lives for these moments when an author’s inspiration meets my reality. The author in me dreams that one day a reader will stand in the middle of Hermosa Beach and recognize it as the place Josie Bates was born.
When the phone rang at 4:44 my husband answered. I sat up in bed and waited. Whatever news was to come, it wouldn’t be good. Tucker, my son’s dog, had died.
Ten years ago at Christmas time, against my advice, he got his then girlfriend a dog. The lady in question was not a homebody like my son, and I didn’t think she would like the responsibility of a dog. Still, poor as he was, my son wanted to get her this gift. Somehow he hooked up with a man in an alley who handed him a dog. He in turn proudly handed the pup to his girlfriend.
A few weeks later, the girl was gone and the dog was back. I advised my son to give him away. He couldn’t afford another mouth to feed. What if the dog got sick? What would the little thing do all day in a studio apartment while my son looked for work? Thankfully, my wise counsel fell on deaf ears, and Tucker became part of our family.
That dog grew from a terrified little mutt to a self-confident, joyful, loving pet. It took a year of patience and love for my son to convince Tucker that no one would beat him, no one would abandon him, and everyone would love him.
Tucker was polite. He waited patiently for everything – a walk, a treat, a cuddle – and showed gratitude for small kindnesses in a million little ways. Never a crotch-sniffer he spent weeks attacking mine, befuddling us all with this new behavior. I was diagnosed with uterine cancer a few weeks later and once I was operated on, he never did it again. I think that was a Tucker miracle.
He slept at my feet while I wrote, was underfoot when I cooked, followed me everywhere until my son came into the room. Then it was clear that Tucker’s heart belonged to him. The love between this rescue dog and this young man was glorious, and gentle, and kind, and loving, and caring. They were friends. They had each other’s backs.
If you think about it, all of us who write are striving to tell a Tucker story. In his little life there was drama and character building, joy and pain, courage and excitement, goals to be met, laughter to be shared and tears to be shed. If we as authors could weave a story one tenth as full as this dog’s life, our books would never be forgotten. So tomorrow when I sit down to work, I will remind myself to write a Tucker story even though I might shed a few tears along the way.
As authors, one of the most often asked questions Janet and I hear is, “Where do you get your ideas?”
There are a myriad of answers. Inspiration is everywhere. We never know what may spark an idea for a scene, a section of dialog, a short story, or an entire novel. One of the many methods we employ, but don’t often tell when on stage or at a book signing is, “We eavesdrop.” Let me explain. The eavesdropping is not intentional. We may be out having dinner with friends and a conversation at a table next to us may be loud enough for us to hear.
Standing in the checkout line at a big box store or supermarket is another. Snippets of conversations may drift past us and cause us to think…”That would fit perfectly in my story.” In this age of cell phones and in our daily travels, it is sometimes impossible to avoid overhearing private conversations. Some may think this rude, but if people are going to speak so loudly, it’s fair game.
Janet was at a buffet and overheard the parent say, “Son. If you’re going to take all that food you have to eat everything on your plate. If you don’t eat it all, you’ll have to sit and look at it.”
Even while on vacation, our “writer brains” won’t turn off. Several years ago we were on a trip to China. We overheard one of our tour members ask another while at lunch, “Don’t you think these people would get tired of Chinese food all the time?” The comment was not meant to be insensitive, but it was funny. We love to hear stories from people we meet while traveling. and we’ve used many excerpts from things we’ve heard.
We have heard random bits of conversations people don’t think others can hear. Will was standing in the customer service line at a home improvement store when he overhead to guys complaining about the small size of his imported car’s trunk. The guy said something like, “You couldn’t even stuff a dead guy in there if you had to.” Will used part of that in his book THE FINAL CHECKPOINT. In this mystery a headless corpse was found in the trunk of an abandoned sports car. The head was dumped somewhere else because it wouldn’t fit.
Overhearing conversations is only one way of getting inspiration. People-watching at malls and airports are another way to get inspired. Everyone has something going on in their lives and as fiction writers, we can dream up plots from our imagination. In the course of hearing things the often warm our hearts, sometime they break our hearts and other times they are so funny that we have to bite our lip to keep from laughing out loud. Janet and I often look at each other, shake our heads and think, “You can’t make this stuff up.”
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