22 March 2013

Theory on the Origin of the Muse

(or: Character/Idea Generation Eccentricities Pt. II) 
Terpsichore (a muse), marble, John Walsh 1771 


About five weeks ago, Louis Willis posted an article concerning character development and the impact it has on a writer’s sanity. In the Comments section of that post, I cited earlier comments made by Fran, Elizabeth and R.T., and explained that my system of character creation/development was sort of a “rough hybrid” of certain ideas they had espoused.

Inspired by Louis’ post, I wrote my own post (2 weeks ago), in which I explained how I sometimes incorporate daydreaming and play into my methodology for character development. This post partially clarified what I meant in my own comments on Louis’ post. And, I mentioned something Fran had written, in her comments about Louis’s post, to hopefully help facilitate my explanation.

Today, I will expand that explanation by noting how some comments made by Elizabeth illustrate ideas that sometimes figure into the “primordial stew” of my character development. Additionally, I’d like to touch on the importance of “non-daydream dreaming” -- as I believe it factors into the equation.

(I’d like to take a moment to make it clear, here, that: Though I might quote Fran, Elizabeth or RT in order to use their quotes as springboards for my own ideas, they are just (and ONLY) that -- Springboards. You should not think I am speaking for them. I can only speak for myself, in this realm, and would not want anyone to think I’m trying to convey what Fran, Elizabeth or RT may actually believe concerning the subject at hand. Such clarification, I would leave up to them.

Further: This series of essays concerns the manner in which I have sometimes created characters and/or plot in my own successful writing. The reader, however, should not construe this as meaning that I believe the methods outlined are the “right ones” or the “only methods” that a writer may use. Instead, my objective is merely to share methods I have used in the past -- for those who may have an interest in such techniques – and to possibly theorize about the psychological origins of these methods, as well as their possible link to the origin of the Greek term “Muse.”)

That Being Said . . .

Elizabeth wrote, in her comment on Louis’s article about character creation: "...the character starts talking in my head. I simply write down what he or she says..."

This sometimes happens to me, too. And, I always think I’m really lucky when it does. Because, a character who starts talking in my head usually has a humdinger of a story to tell, and s/he tells it very forcefully.

In my opinion, such “character force” really adds punch to writing -- even in the first draft. A character like that is often angry, hurt and bursting with story. You cut ‘em, man, and they just spill their guts all over the place. It spews out hot and strong; they’re not shy. And, what they say will cut a reader to the emotional quick. Very powerful stuff.

What is this voice?

Well, the voice is my imagination, of course. But, in a very important way, it’s more than that, because -- while each voice is inarguably a part of me, generated by my own imagination -- it also stands apart from me, extremely alien to the thoughts that had, moments ago, been dominating my conscious mind.

This sort of voice is what I often think the ancient poets were speaking of, when they coined the term “muse,” perhaps because it seemed as if the gods must have injected the thought -- wholly unexpected by the thinker -- straight into the thinker’s mind.

My belief, however, is that these voices in my head are generated by my subconscious. I suspect that the reason I’m often startled by them, and surprised when they speak out in my mind, is because they’re created when a subconscious thought bubbles up into my conscious mind.

"Three Sphinxes of Bikini"  Salvador Dali
Vast areas of the human brain and intellect remain uncharted. In many cases, we currently don’t even have an inkling of what questions we should be asking -- concerning thought, the mind, or the brain -- in order to get the answers we would need, if we are to increase our knowledge in this realm.

One thing I believe most researchers agree on, however, is: Among other tasks, our “subconscious” is that portion of our thinking which generates dreams. And, our dreams (mine, at least -- and I assume yours also) are populated by people and creatures that are not silent. They speak to us. In some cases, even when they don’t use words, their body language and facial expressions leave us feeling that they desperately desire to communicate some intangible idea to us. This can sometimes be an idea we (our dreaming selves) intuit as having great importance of some kind.

I often find that the “voice” comes when I’m looking at something that ignites my interest. A few seconds or minutes later, as I’m concentrating on that visual “igniter” (or catalyst), a voice suddenly, and surprisingly speaks out in my head. Conversely, on rarer instances, when I’m listening intently to some auditory catalyst, an unexpected image (or “vision”) will suddenly explode across my mind’s eye.

I believe the intersect between the conscious mind and the subconscious is one of those largely-uncharted areas I discussed a few paragraphs earlier. And, the theory I would postulate (I know of absolutely no scientific evidence to support this theory, I might warn you!) is that, when the subconscious tries to communicate with our conscious brain, it does so through it’s dream-generation mechanism.

When I’m looking at a visual catalyst, my eyes and the visual centers of my brain are already fully engaged, so I hear a voice -- the auditory portion of a dream (according to my theory) that’s generated by my subconscious, and communicated to my conscious mind through that portion it can access: a sort of “bridge to conscious thought,” if you will. Likewise, when my auditory senses are already engaged by a catalyst, I receive the visual portion of a waking dream, because my visual senses are not engaged, leaving that pathway open to my subconscious’ intrusion on my thoughts.

In other words, I believe these “voices” and “visions” are the result of my subconscious using dream-mechanism-stimulation to communicate with my waking mind, along pathways that are not (at that moment) tied-up in the reception of catalytic stimulus.

This is why I say that the voice I sometimes hear is created “when a subconscious thought bubbles up into my conscious mind.” Additionally: I believe, this is why -- while the thought obviously comes from my own mind -- it also seems alien, and apart from me. Who has never encountered a disturbingly alien landscape in a dream? When the audio or visual portion of a dream suddenly intrudes on one’s waking mind, that can be just as disturbingly alien in nature.

What can act as a catalyst for these voices?

For me, at least, that varies greatly.

The protagonist’s voice in my short story “Dancing in Mozambique” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, July 2010), for instance, first spoke to me when I sat looking at a “Mysterious Photograph” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

For those unaware: AHMM runs that Mysterious Photograph page as a contest, asking for short-shorts around 250 words, and they publish the winning entry a few months later. The photo in that month’s issue showed a staircase in what seemed, to me at least, to be a haunted house, or a spooky old tumble-down hotel.
Not the AHMM photo, but you get my drift.

I looked at the photo, and suddenly heard a gravelly voiced man in my mind say: “When a pineapple came bouncing down the steps of that spook house staircase, I knew we’d found Jai. He’d seen us coming.” The voice had a rough, haunting and “hunted” edge to it that spoke of exhaustion after long foot-slogging and prolonged bombardment of adrenalin. It wasn’t a voice I’d ever heard before, but I instantly knew the man behind it.

I knew him, because I’d known a lot of men like that. I’d met them while I was in the army. At times, in fact, I’d been that man. My subconscious knew him inside and out, which (I believe) is why -- though I didn’t recognize the voice, itself -- I KNEW that man! And, knew him WELL.

As I am wont to do, I let the voice continue its tale as I typed the words into my computer. This is similar to what’s often called “stream of consciousness” writing, though, in a case like this one, based on the theory I postulated earlier, I would tend to deem it a “stream of subconscious.”

First, the man told me what happened immediately after that grenade (“pineapple”) had been tossed down a dilapidated staircase at him.

Later, I listened as he told me what had happened to him previously, how he had come to find himself in this dark place.

I knew, when I met his voice, that the man was a soldier. But, I didn’t know what kind of soldier. Over time, as he told me his story, I realized that he’d spent many years working as a mercenary in Africa.

At that point, I remembered an old adage I’d once learned. This adage, a sort of short limerick, or “mantra,” is a mnemonic device designed to explain (and help people remember) how to ensure that a person who is shot does not survive the wounds. It is a method named, I believe, for the place where the technique was born: “The Mozambique*.” And, I knew then that I’d discovered the axle around which my story’s helix could be entwined, as well as the name of the tumble-down hotel in which the action took place.

After the voice in my head finished speaking, I went back through what I’d written -- cognizant of the Mozambique axle I wanted running through the center of the story -- and put down the lines that fit into 250 words, yet still strongly told the man’s story.

The 250-word version of the story was probably not terribly good. I don’t love it, because, to my way of thinking, it is a skeleton. And, though there is suspense, there is little mystery -- particularly at this length. It certainly didn’t win the Mysterious Photo contest, either. But, I wrote it more as an exercise in teaching myself to write shorter, than as an attempt to win a contest. [As readers of my posts on SS may know, I’m not somebody who has been successful with short-shorts. In fact, the shortest story I’ve written, that sold, was submitted at 1,500 words (to a magazine that wanted 1,000 to 1,500 word fiction), but later -- after I cut it further, at the editor’s request -- finally ran just under 1,000 words.  And, serendipitously, that story "Buffalo Smoke" came out in this month's (April 2013) issue of Boy's Life.]

The initial (250-word) version of “Dancing in Mozambique” is posted below, so you can see the results of the above process. As I wrote earlier: I don’t love it. The voice in my head is still there, however, for you to “hear” as you read it.

Readers who wish to do so, and who have access to the July 2010 issue of EQMM, may read the final product for comparison and contrast -- which may prove interesting, particularly in light of my next post.

                                                      Dancing in Mozambique 
                                                           (250-word version)

The Hotel Mozambique, Chicago. Aptly named, I thought.

When a pineapple came bouncing down the steps of that spook house staircase, I knew we’d found Jai. He’d seen us coming.

Jai was a tricky bastard—learned that the day I met him. We fought as mercs in Africa. His last trick was stealing our pay, leaving us to die.

But Claw and I survived.

Now the pineapple. We dove right and left; as effective as hiding behind a sheet of paper. The grenade hit bottom, but didn’t go off.

Claw shouted, “Dud!” scrambled up the stairs, feet pounding on the hollow, rotted wood. I saw the pin still in the grenade; Jai always was a tricky bastard.

I started to shout. My warning died stillborn, executed by a heavy-caliber double-tap from above. The slugs kicked Claw’s body half-way down the stairs.

Blue smoke curled down the staircase. A step groaned.

I side stepped, saw a jeans-covered hip between rail and ceiling. I fired; blood geysered and Jai fell, weapon bumping down the steps. I vaulted Claw’s body and rounded the landing, pumped a round into Jai’s torso—center mass—as he struggled to pull his backup piece. My third shot drilled his head.

I walked away, recalling that long-ago training mantra learned in Africa, when I still called him friend, before he betrayed us: “Twice in the body, once in the head; that’s the way you know he’s dead—when you dance in Mozambique.”

I shut the door behind me.

In two weeks, I will explain how R.T.’s comments on Louis Willis’ post (the one that set all this in motion) illustrate the manner in which characters organically changed, in order to add depth and life to the piece, fleshing-out the 250-word skeleton into the final story of nearly 8,000 words, which sold to EQMM. This explanation, however, will necessarily evolve from a discussion of “character creation” into a discussion of how character action and interaction sometimes blossom naturally into organic plot. Which is why I’ll save it for next time.

See you in two weeks! --Dix

*Please note: Though I learned of the “Mozambique” during my tenure in the army, neither the Mozambique technique, nor the limerick that accompanies it, are taught in any US Army schools, nor is the technique considered acceptable practice.


  1. I'll be out and about in the morning, running my dad to doctors' offices, but should be back for brief stints prior to noon. In between my returns to home base, I'll monitor your comments on my cell phone. When I get a chance to use my computer, I'll respond to comments.

    Then it's off to more docs in the afternoon, but I should have a little greater availability for response.


  2. Dixon, it is an honor to be quoted by you anytime, anyplace, so you don't have to qualify that you don't speaking. There are lots of times when I'd be better off if someone did speak for me.

    While I understand everything you wrote in this blog, I want to caution you about sharing this info with the general public. My characters frequently begin talking to each other in my mind. It's actually a rehearsal of some conversation coming up in the next scene I'll be writing when I get home from the grocery store, but I've noticed other shoppers look at me strangely I turn into Jeff Dunham and my characters hold conversations out loud.

    Give my best wishes to your dad.

  3. Dixon, like you, I'm busy off to doc's offices this AM and in my hurry, I didn't read over the above comment before sending it.

    First line should read: Dixon, it is an honor to be quoted by you anytime, anyplace, so you don't have to qualify that you don't speak for me.

    Also, insert "when" between strangely and I in last sentence.

    Thank heaven for editors!

  4. Good post, Dix, and I'm glad to be quoted. I agree with you that that voice from within is exactly what writers in previous ages have meant when they talked about "the muse" or "inspiration." I also agree that it comes from that fertile ground, the unconscious. Look at how inventive we are in our dreams! When we respond to that voice, we're tapping a little of that vast potential. Mine tends to start up not when I'm focusing on a catalyst but when my mind is floating free--when I'm running, in the shower, behind the wheel, or awake but not ready to get up in the morning.

  5. Next month I will be writing here about a story that began with a single word popping insistently into my head. But i also remember leaving work one winter day and hearing the words in my head. "it was the coldest day of the year and he had forgotten his gloves.". That became the opening sentence of my second sold story.

  6. Great post.

    The subconscious of writers must be a fertile place not just for creating character but for plotting and doing all those other mental exercises that go into putting together a good story while the conscious mind is reasoning and dealing with the mundane activities of the world.

  7. Well, Fran, what can I say? Everybody’s thought I was crazy since the day I put that green beanie on my head, back in the army. Nobody who goes through what it takes to earn one could possibly be sane. LOL My suggestion for the grocery store is to buy a fake earpiece, that way when you’re talking to yourself everyone will assume you’re on the phone – one of the positive aspects of our current cell phone revolution. lol And, thanks for the comment on such a busy day. Hope all came out in your favor at the doc’s office.

    Janice, you’re right to add that “when my mind is floating free” concept. I should have thought of it, but it skipped my mind somehow. Driving, in particular, does it for me. Thanks for the good catch!

    Rob, I’m looking forward to that future post. And, that quote seemed familiar to me; I think I read that story. Seems to me it was a good one, too.

    Well, Louis, I think the conscious mind gets in on the creative act, also. In fact, my next post (in two weeks) will explain how it helps mold the “primordial ooze” generated by my subconscious into the structure of a saleable story.


  8. I read this off and on during the day as I had time and it was well worth it. Thanks for the insight.

  9. Dix: Never apologize for helping out with your Dad. We did that for a number of years with mine. He passed away January, under hospice care. Found a retirement apartment for him. Nice culture there, with many helpful people including the manager. They all came to a memorial for him in the facility's conference room. He had dementia, and at the end didn't even know this was his home. He crossed over peacefully. Sorry. Got off track. Your post was very insightful. But,since you're the author and I'm not, may I bring up something totally out of left brain. All this talk about conscious and subconscious is probably true. Is it possible that the far regions of our brains contain something else that, for lack of a better expression,could be called the para-conscious? I still remember stuff from when I was three or four years old. And beyond. Many people don't have that ability. And can't even imagine why it's so interesting. I believe most writers possess this "strange" ability. Yours truly, Toe.

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  11. Anon, I’m glad and honored to learn that – in the midst of such a busy day (and I think I know who you are, and what you’ve been working so hard on) – you took time to visit our blog.

    Toe: My condolences on the loss of your dad. And, I understand just what you mean about how great hospice can be; my own mother passed two years ago after spending the last 10 or 11 months in hospice care at my parents’ home. Part of the reason it’s taking my father so long to recover from mom’s death (his wife of 60 years), is that – at his insistence – Dad was her primary care-giver during all but one of those long months. She was a little “in and out of it” on occasions during that time, and my heart really goes out to you, dealing with your father’s dementia toward the end.

    As to “para-conscious” you got me. The mind is a mysterious instrument. And, I’d be interested to learn what you remember from such an early age. Earliest I can recall is probably from when I was around four – snatches of friends I played with, walking down the street we lived on, and activities/conversations around the kitchen table.


  12. Dix: Thank you for your kind thoughts. Your Dad is obviously a caring and and courageous man. My best to both of you. One of the reasons I love your website is that SS has a cadre of wonderful, thoughtful people, including you, Leigh, and Fran. Maybe the general reader doesn't know this, but writers are not unapproachable introverts. I mean, who else except the writer would have the nerve to put themselves out there on the line,possibly revealing a little of themselves each time they publish. Or not, when they are flat-out rejected. Plus, I have learned in my short time visiting various sites, that writers are among the most friendly and encouraging group of people I have ever encountered. As far as the "paraconscious" mind stuff goes. That was me being stupid. I promise to control myself in the future. And you have every right to challenge my so-called memory. The more I think about it, the more I realize that my rememberances are realistically within the same age range as yours. Yours truly, Toe.

  13. Toe, I wasn’t trying to challenge your memory. Believe me, buddy, if I tried to challenge anybody’s memory my wife would have a field day, because – with my memory – if I were in a criminal gang, it would be called “The Absent-Minded Bunch.” LOL

    I thought, from what you wrote, that you could perhaps remember from a much earlier age than four or so. And, that got me thinking: Wouldn’t it be cool to have a character who had memories of when he was in the crib? I mean, what would the impact of such memories have on an adult male of the 21st Century? Imagine a detective who could remember seeing his mother’s face, as it looked when she bent down into his crib. But, also, imagine the strange feelings it might engender in an adult male, if he could remember breast feeding, and things like that. What a strange conglomeration of positive, or uncomfortable, and possibly even negative remembrances … What would this do to a person’s psyche? How would it influence his behavior?

    Your comment got me thinking, and that’s why I asked what you remembered, and how far back. Far from trying to call you out on anything, I was hoping to get a better idea of some memories that I might consider vis-à-vis their impact on that character.


  14. Dix: hope I'm not bothering you too much. But now you got me thinking about your premise. Which I'll get to in a moment. When I use a word like challenge, I don't mean to imply I feel affronted. Au contraire. To me it means analyze what was just said and clarify. I was a teacher--remember?--and we have nerves of titanium steel. Now, back from our commercial break. What if through some strange fate of fantasy, a newborn remembers his/her true mother's image at birth? After which the baby is whisked away, kidnapped, to be raised by someone else. Perhaps a bigtime hospital donor. The baby's true mother was told her child was stillborn. She is distraught, eventually committing suicide. But this amazing newborn has indelible images in his/her subconscious, of everyone else who could possibly be involved in the scheme. These images would likely haunt the child all the way into adulthood until... Yours truly, Toe.

  15. Dix,enjoyed the article. Been at the Left Coast Crime Conference for the last several days, so just now got around to back-reading all the posts.
    Actually, the same process as the Mozambique Technique is taught by our range officers, although it is not called that. The theory being if you have to shoot, then doubletap to the body, then immediately shoot one to the head, so they go down and don't kill you. We learned in Kansas City that one to the chest, even through the lung, doesn't stop a guy from running through the parking lot shooting at you until he runs out of ammo. At times like that, only one of you is going home for the night. And NO, the head shot is immediate, not a subsequent coup de grace, if anyone is wondering.
    Off to South dakota for another week to tidy up old business, so e-mail coverage may be sparse for that time. Later.

  16. R.T. I didn’t know that. But, it makes sense. At SOT School (where I learned surgical shooting), we were taught to double-tap, but not to follow up with a head shot. Though, we did practice making head shots for other reasons.

    Have fun in South Dakota, though the phrase “to tidy up old business” sounds rather ominous. LOL

    Toe, I’m glad to hear I hadn’t offended you. And, I think you could run fast and far with that plot line. Give it a shot and see what happens.



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