Musing on the Muses

A question frequently asked of writers is “Where do you get your ideas from?” Sometimes the question asked is “Where do you get your inspiration from?” My stock reply is “All sorts of places”. Though they may seem to ask the same thing, these questions address two subtly different points.

Ideas are ten-a-penny, relatively speaking, and range across lines of dialogue, interesting themes, plot concepts, visualisation and fully-formed scenes. Ideas can be stolen (or “borrowed” to be more politic), adapted or externally generated. For example, I find Seventh Sanctum an interesting and amusing site. Most of it is tongue-in-cheek, but there is an accepted form of story generation based upon pulling together random elements, whether it is through an online database, the more traditional ‘plot cards’ or a ‘plot finder’ as discussed here. One can also hone the ability to do this mentally, simply sitting down with a pen and paper and jotting down a few random ideas and then creating conceptual and thematic links between them. In this last case, such things are not really that random at all, since it’s the human brain that is generating the words. Often it is as simple as transposing an established idea into a new arena, or combining disparate characters and places together.

Anyway, it is relatively simple to generate ideas if one has the correct thought processes:

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in space.

A Rabbi and a Immam trapped in an elevator together.

A schoolgirl somehow elected to be president.

The property developer that can hear ghosts.

A cowboy transported through time to ancient Egypt.

And so on… These ideas are not much use in themselves, one-line pitches that are the start of a process not the end. Which brings me to the second question – which of these ideas inspires a story? And, during the writing itself, what inspires new ideas that can be added to the story?

Inspiration comes from an idea that generates further ideas, setting off a chain-reaction in the creative process. Sometimes you have to go through a lot of ideas before you come across one that inspires. It is a fallacy to believe that you can write a story about anything. In theory it is possible to generate a plot and narrative about pretty much any subject – we all do so on a daily basis without being aware of it – but as individual writers the ideas that get the juices flowing are particular to each.

Sometimes one needs inspiration at the very outset, dealing with the broadest terms of the possible story. At other times – either whilst writing the piece or creating the synopsis – one needs inspiration to solve a particular issue that has arisen, or to add something extra to a part of a story that seems a little flat. Now and then inspiration comes unlooked-for, in the middle of scene, or whilst writing a piece of dialogue. The synapses flare, a particular word or phrase conjures images and possibilities. Those moments can turn a good scene into a great scene, a decent plot or sub-plot into a fantastic plot or sub-plot. Those are the moments when it is great to be a writer!

I’ve been asked to propose a story for an audiobook based within the Black Library’s Horus Heresy series. I’ve not had time to follow the series with the dedication of many fans, so I ran into some real problems trying to generate the right inspiration. I had plenty of ideas, but wasn’t sure whether they were appropriate, delivered what the readers (well, listeners) would be expecting and yet give that something extra that the Horus Heresy fans want from the stories. This was different from the usual blank-sheet-of-paper that all writers must face; I was looking for a very specific inspiration. I suppose one might think of it as needing to be inspired-to-brief.

My first port of call was fellow author and good pal Graham McNeill. As a writer who has been heavily involved in the Horus Heresy development, he was a natural lodestone of ideas, themes and style. Sometimes it is not enough to sit with your plot cards or your coloured pens and paper; sometimes you need to vocalise ideas in order to help visualise them. In doing so, idea becomes inspiration.

Good things came out of that lunch. Although I didn’t quite have the specific ‘thing’ that I wanted to write about, the ball park was a lot smaller and my thought processes moving along more productive lines. I let it lie for another couple of days, scribbling ideas on the pad, making links between different concepts and characters and established events.

I narrowed down my possible arenas, focussed on some characters or character types I was interested in, and even came up with a rough plotline. All that was missing was the mystical ‘thing’ that would propel a functioning story into one that came alive in my head.

I found it reading an internet discussion. I can’t say what it is (as it would not only be a spoiler but also the idea hasn’t yet been approved and may never see the light of day). It was one of those bolt from the blue moments though, that the ancients used to attribute to the mythical Muses.

Sometimes we all need the intervention of the Muses to jog us along, but I find that with experience, they visit a lot more… It’s a bit like the phrase “The more I practice, the luckier I get”. Inspiration isn’t a divine, external force embodied by nine goddesses, it’s the culmination of a thought process and the ability to observe and integrate the influences around us. It may well be a subconscious mechanism, but the fertile ground for inspiration is created by a much more conscious process. It is not enough to simply sit around and wait for the bolt, one has to pave the way to allow inspiration to emerge.

Don’t take the Muses for granted. Make them welcome, have a chat and a cup of tea and listen to what they have to say, and they’ll be all the more likely to visit again in the future!

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Some very handy hints at a time when it’s needed most! Final essays and working ideas for Short Story submissions at the moment so this was a very thought provoking and useful entry!

    Looking forwards to what comes about from your musings and weavings in regards to the audio book (a most under-rated medium)! I remember the days of listening to ‘Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds’ as a child and it scaring the bejesus out of me, so encountering an audio book all these years along, especially one dealing with 40K is all sorts of win!

    I also now know that my setting of traps and locking Muses up in cages swinging from my roof (the better the idea the better they get fed) is not the best way and chat and cup of tea will suffice.


  2. I’m not a great Muse person myself. But I can tell you that for everything I’ve written to completion, when I got the idea, it was singled out for me from other, lesser ideas by the fact that I could see it in 3-D, as it were. “Here’s an idea…and here’s what I can do with it.” In other words, ramifications immediately stretched off and I saw the whole thing like you might see Earth from outer space. When this happens I know that it’s something that needs to be written down immediately.


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