10 Ways to Goose the Muse

Calliope, the muse of epic poetry and story, is a fickle goddess. She drops in depending on her mood, tickles the imagination, and then takes off to party with Aphrodite. Homer famously called on the muse at the beginning of The Illiad and The Odyssey, and she deigned to answer the blind poet. But many another author, cold and alone in his garret, has cursed her for not showing up at all.
So what do you do, scribe? Wait around for a visit? Implore Zeus to flex some muscle and order his daughter to your office or Starbucks?

No! You haven’t got time to waste. You’ve got books to write. So I suggest you take the initiative and set about to prod the capricious nymph out of her scornful lethargy. 

How? Play games. Set aside a regular time (at least one half hour per week) just to play. And the most important rule is: do not censor yourself in any way. Leave your editorial mind out of the loop and record the ideas just as they come. Only later, with some distance, do you go back and assess what you have.  
Here are ten of my favorite muse-goosing games:
1. The “What if” Game
This game can be played at any stage of the writing process, but it is especially useful for finding ideas. Train your mind to think in What if terms about everything you read, watch or happen to see on the street. I’m always doing that when waiting at a stop light and looking at people on the corner. What if she is a hit-woman? What if he is the deposed president of Venezuela?
Read the news asking “What if” about every article. What if Tim Tebow is a robot? What if that Montana newlywed who shoved her husband off a cliff eight days into their marriage is a serial husband-killer? Or a talk show host?

2. Titles
Make up a cool title then think about a book to go with it. Sound wacky? It isn’t. A title can set your imagination zooming, looking for a story.
Titles can come from a variety of sources. Go through a book of quotations, like Bartlett’s, and jot down interesting phrases. Make a list of several words randomly drawn from the dictionary and combine them. 

3. The List
Early in his career, Ray Bradbury made a list of nouns that flew out of his memory and subconscious. These became fodder for his stories, often drawn from his childhood. 
Start your own list.  Let your mind comb through the mental pictures of your past and quickly write one- or two-word reminders. I did this once and my own list of over 100 items includes:
THE DRAPES (a memory about a pet puppy who tore my Mom’s new drapes, so she gave him away the next day. I climbed a tree in protest and refused to come down).
THE HILL (that I once accidentally set fire to).
THE FIREPLACE (in front of which we had many a family gathering).
Each of these is the germ of a possible story or novel. They are what resonate from my past. I can take one of these items and brainstorm a whole host of possibilities that come straight from the heart.
4. See it
Let your imagination play you a movie.  Close your eyes. Sit back and “watch.” What do you see? If something is interesting, don’t try to control it. Give it a nudge if you want to, but try as much as possible to let the pictures do their own thing. Do this for as long as you want.
5. Hear it
Music is a shortcut to the heart. (Calliope has a sister, Euterpe, goddess of music. Put the whole family to work).
Listen to music that moves you. Choose different styles–classical, movie scores, rock, jazz, whatever lights your fuse–and as you listen, close your eyes and record what pictures, scenes or characters appear.
6. Steal it
If Shakespeare could do it, you can too. Steal your plots. Yes, the Bard of Avon rarely came up with an original story. He took old plots and weaved his own particular magic with them.
So did Dean Koontz. He amusingly winks at us in Midnight about combining Invasion of the Body Snatchers with The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Listen: this is not plagiarism! I once had a well-meaning but misinformed correspondent wax indignant about my tongue-in-cheek use of the word steal. There are only about twenty plots (more or less depending on who you talk to) and they are all public domain. You combine, re-work, re-imagine them. You don’t lift exact characters and setting and phrases. That’s not kosher. Reworking old plots is.
In Hollywood, they do this all the time. Die Hard on a boat becomes Under Siege. Die Hard on a mountain becomes Cliffhanger. 
7. Cross a Genre
All genres have conventions. We expect certain beats and movements in genre stories. Why not combine expectations and turn them into fresh plots?
It’s very easy to take a Western tale, for example, and set it in outer space. Star Wars  had many Western themes (remember the bar scene?). The feel of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man  characters transferred into the future in Robert A. Heinlein’s The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. The classic TV series The Wild, Wild West  was simply James Bond in the old West. 
When zombies got hot a few years ago, I pitched my agent the idea of a legal thriller series with a zombie as the lawyer-hero. I figured most people think lawyers and zombies are the same anyway. Kensington bought it and it became the Mallory Caine series under my pen name, K. Bennett.
8. Research
James Michener began “writing” a book four or five years in advance. When he “felt something coming on” he would start reading, as many as 150 to 200 books on a subject. He browsed, read, checked things. He kept it all in his head and then, finally, he began to write. All the material gave him plenty of ideas to draw upon.
Today, the Internet makes research easier than ever. But don’t ignore the classic routes. Books are still here, and you can always find people with specialized knowledge to interview. And if the pocketbook permits, travel to a location and drink it in. Rich veins of material abound.

9. Obsession
By its nature an obsession controls the deepest emotions of a character. It pushes the character, prompts her to action. As such, it is a great springboard for ideas. What sorts of things obsess people?
Create a character. Give her an obsession. Watch where she runs.

10. Opening Lines
Dean Koontz wrote The Voice of the Night  based on an opening line he wrote while just “playing around”–
“You ever killed anything?” Roy asked.
Only after the line was written did Koontz decide Roy would be a boy of fourteen. He then went on to write two pages of dialogue which opened the book. But it all started with one line that reached out and grabbed him by the throat.
Joseph Heller was famous for using first lines to suggest novels. In desperation one day, needing to start a novel but having no ideas, these opening lines came to Heller: In the office in which I work, there are four people of whom I am afraid. Each of these four people is afraid of five people.
These two lines immediately suggested what Heller calls “a whole explosion of possibilities and choices.” The result was his novel, Something Happened.
Well, I could go on, but this post is already too long. If

you’re interested, I have 10 more of these games in my book, Plot & Structure (from which this post is adapted).

The main lesson: don’t let the inconstant Calliope rest on her mythic derriere. She’s a muse, after all. This is what she’s supposed to do. 
So what do you do to get creative? 

26 thoughts on “10 Ways to Goose the Muse

  1. This is a great kick in the–derriere, as you said. Just what I needed on a Saturday night!

    I’ve used a number of the avenues you mentioned, but several really rang my bell tonight. I have a novel waiting for development, muchly inspired by music — the album “Between the Dreaming & The Coming True” by Bebo Norman. Every time I listen to those songs, it unfolds before my mind.

    It is good to have a reminder.

    Thank you, Master Bell.

  2. Great kick-start list, Jim. I keep a list of potential book titles and add to it all the time. It’s a good habit to form. When you’re stuck, pull out the list and let the muse run.

  3. How about them muse goosers?
    Ain’t they recluse?
    Up in they garrets
    Goosin they muse.

    With apologies to Mason Williams who wrote the poem, “Them Moose Goosers.”

  4. Index cards are my obsession. A few months ago I had the brilliant idea to put my list of words and phrases that resonate with me on them. I used a pack of multi-colored index cards and wrote one word or phrase per card.

    Sometimes I shuffle them randomly and lay them down to see what pops up, other times I use it almost like a mind map, where I lay a card down and then intuitively add cards that feel like they belong.

    It’s a great way to unblock a stalled novel, develop an existing idea, or brainstorm for something new.

  5. Coming up with ideas is not a problem for me, at least not so far. Trying to cram all my ideas into one book does seem to be a problem.

    When I read posts like this, I become all anxious. So many ideas, so many good tips. I could do this and that and the other, and then there’s this other idea I have and it all just jumbles into a mini tornado until I feel overwhelmed and decide to read, instead.

    I need discipline. And outlines. And daily, achievable goals. And tea. Sometimes chocolate.

    • I so feel you on this. Remember, small goals. Small goals. Also, every book doesn’t need to be a monument to every idea you’ve ever had.

      Sometimes it’s good just to focus on one REALLY good premise and milk it for all it’s worth in the span of a novel instead of trying for something layered.

      I say this to myself as well, because I’m always trying to shoehorn a ton of stuff into one book. Remember, a book is not an event. You write a book, revise it, and then write the next.

  6. I DO need ideas, at least for fiction. Which is one of the reasons I question my ability to ever become a good fiction writer. (But I’m NOT giving up!) I like to believe that with practice, idea generation will become easier, but I also realize my curse of perfectionism is a stumbling block. Is there a god related to perfectionism? Any chance I’m a victim of some mythical spat between Calliope and this unnamed god?

    Amanda — can I buy some ideas from you? (Just kidding.)

    I have the idea exercises bookmarked in my copy of Plot & Structure, but I don’t remember to visit them regularly. That might explain why Calliope doesn’t visit ME regularly.

    Thanks for the prompts, Mr. Bell!

  7. #1 I definitely use the movie method. I let it play out in my head.

    #2 And creative stealing? Oh yeah . . . I’m working on a steamy short that is basically Romeo and Juliet set along the border of Bleeding Kansas (she is a Jayhawker, he is a Bushwhacker, will this love survive Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence?) and my main WIP is a blatant call out to Jack Reacher.

    The best places for plot lines? Shakespeare, Greek myth, the Bible, and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. More drama per square inch of print than anything ever written before of since (and many of them stole from each other.)

    What I tuck away are bits and pieces heard in court over the years. The best line ever came from an arson (no one was hurt, but the barn, oh my, the barn) came during the guilty plea, “And then your Honor, that is when the defendant lit the moth on fire.”

    Great list and fun reading for a breezy Sunday.


  8. Good stuff on a rainy Sunday, James. Sometimes getting started is the hardest part. I was teaching an adult ed fiction course once and the first day, as we also introduced ourselves (and our WIPs), I realized nearly every student was blocked. Some were so paralyzed by the IDEA of failure they couldn’t write an opening paragraph.

    The next class I showed up with a box of junk I had gathered from my house — a snowglobe, a switchblade, a sock monkey, a black lace bra etc. I gave each student on item then wrote this on the board:

    He/She saw the _____ laying on the _____. They had 15 minutes to write the opening of their chapter using their object. It was amazing what great stuff they came up with!

  9. One more comment and then I’ll shut up.

    I was really stuck on my current WIP because I couldn’t get a grip on my male character Josh. (aka Matt, Alec from my old post).

    Then when I was jogging, Emerson Lake & Palmer’s “Lucky Man” came on the iPod. Boom! Suddenly I “got” Josh and what he wanted in his black little heart.

    If my muse is pretentious 70s rock band, who am I to complain?

  10. Great list, Jim. I’ve tried several of these, but others are new to me. Like newly-agented (and too sexy) Basil, my muse bombards me with loads of ideas that I throw into a file or keep online in notes. I’d love to find a muse to give me more time. Until I can find a sexy vampire to make me immortal, I find inspiration in odd places like the NOVA Science channel or the characteristics of certain animals or eavesdropping on peculiar conversations. My mind is a sponge 24/7/365.

    • Yes! A diner scene in my WIP is based on listening to two cowboys talking over breakfast. One line really stuck with me and is now in there. “All his girlfriends are classy women that are really crazy. This one ain’t all that classy.”

    • Ha! That reminds me of a drilling foreman in a meeting I attended. His boss kept asking him to do tons of things, ignoring his warnings about stuff that could go wrong. The only note I took at that meeting was what the drilling guy said.

      “Everyone wants to get to heaven, but no one wants to die.”

    • The conversation continued. “Oh yeah, I’m sleeping in my truck. Well, I went to the bar on her birthday after she passed out. So about midnight, she pulls up and starts throwing all my stuff on the curb. Damn, I sure miss her.”

  11. I don’t have any problem coming up with ideas. My problem is having the time to write them all into novels. Ideas are everywhere. Incidents that happen to you, people you meet, intriguing articles you read–they can all be fodder for the imagination.

  12. Thank you for this fun and inspiring article.
    You asked: What do I do to get creative?
    –I get a good night’s sleep. And if it’s a really good night I dream and in the morning that dream becomes a story.
    –I go for a long walk. As I walk I engage my seasons–touch, smell, sight, hearing. I return to my writing refreshed and inspired.
    –I attend writing events: groups, conferences, etc. While there I meet other authors who are in love with writing. There energy inspires me to write.

  13. These are very useful ways to generate ideas. Unfortunately, neither Calliope nor Aphrodite nor the Muses themselves are able to help a writer find the diamond scattered among rhinestones.

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