28 July 2020

Writing Squirrels


In the movie Up, Dug is often distracted by squirrels while in the midst of conversations with Carl and Russell in much the same way writers are often distracted by new ideas while in the midst of writing something unrelated.

Writing squirrels are now delivered to the
Bracken household by the barrowful.
I certainly deal with my share of writing squirrels. This, in fact, is one of them. I was writing a scene about a woman in a convenience store when she looked out the window and—Squirrel!—I thought this might make for an interesting SleuthSayer post. I jumped over here, wrote the opening two paragraphs and then—Squirrel!—jumped into another file and noted the title and premise for a humorous horror story I might never actually write and then—Squirrel!—thought of a way to respond to a difficult question in an email, but even before I opened Outlook—Squirrel!—I imagined an opening scene for yet another story, quickly opened a new file, and made some notes.

By then I was exhausted, so I gave up chasing squirrels and wandered off to watch another episode of Foyle’s War.

I still haven’t returned to the scene about a woman in a convenience store looking out the window.


Writing squirrels are random ideas that hover at the edge of our subconscious, just waiting for a moment when we are deeply engrossed in writing to skitter across our consciousness and divert our attention from the project in front of us. They’re exciting and new—not the drudgery we’re slogging through—so we look away. We make notes, we write snippets of dialog, we draft scenes, and then the writing squirrel disappears. The idea abandons us mid-thought, or it truly is a good idea and we begin work in earnest, turning the writing squirrel into a project that requires our attention. We become deeply engrossed in our new project, certain this is the story that—Squirrel!—and then we’re off chasing another idea.

I think writing squirrels breed in our subconscious, sneaking meals from the mental bird feeder we fill with the random assortment of facts, images, turns of phrase, smells, tastes, news reports, snippets of conversation, dreams, and other detritus. When the squirrels have feasted sufficiently—when they have consumed and digested this smell and that news report and that overheard bit of conversation and that turn of phrase—they dart across our consciousness, letting us know that they have brought us an exciting, new idea.

Writing squirrels are our best friends and our worst enemies. While they often distract us from the task at hand, they often bring us our best ideas. We can neither tame them nor avoid them, we can only—Squirrel!

In addition to The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods (Down & Out Books, 2019) receiving an Anthony Award nomination, several stories from the anthology have also received recognition: “Lucy’s Tree” by Sandra Murphy received a Derringer Award; “See Humble and Die” by Richard Helms was nominated for a Derringer Award and was selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2020; “West Texas Barbecue” by Michael Chandos was nominated for a Macavity Award; and “Weathering the Storm” by Michael Pool was nominated for a Shamus Award. Even though there are four other excellent anthologies nominated for an Anthony Award this year, I’m partial to this one.


  1. Never thought of them as squirrels, Michael. But that's a good term. And they do come and interrupt what we're doing, demanding attention. And congratulations on the award noms!

  2. Best of luck with the anthology- you certainly picked a bumper crop of stories. I finally caught up with "The Show Must Go On" In BCMM #5 and thought it very well done, too.

  3. Brilliant, Michael! I have a new term! Those squirrels are the reason why - even after 16 novels - I can't stop writing short stories. I call it the 'lure of the virgin short story' - maybe I'll write that post someday. Thanks for my morning smile.

  4. Good thoughts, Michael! Glad to hear I'm not the only one who hops around from project to project, as the ideas pop up. We have plenty of squirrels, real and imagined, around our place.

    Congrats on all the accolades for The Eyes of Texas. Well deserved! My story in that anthology was great fun to write, and I loved reading the others!

  5. This is great, Michael.

    Like you and several other writers here, I usually have more than one project going on at any given time. Sometimes I just need a break on one to gain more perspective, and sometimes...oh, wait a minute, what if... Where were we?

    I often work on a short story--it used to be another novel--when I had several early drafts in my files, and it was best if they involved different characters. I'm not working on any novels right now, but I've already done something with three or four different partial stories in the last few days...along with an early draft of next week's post for this site.

  6. Michael, you are definitely going for the GOLD with The Eyes of Texas. Congrats.

    When I talk about those squirrels skittering in my attic, people think I must have bats in my belfry.

  7. Good stuff. What gets me is I will spend weeks or months trying to figure out how to turn some Cool Idea into a usable plot and then some squirrel will drag a different full story into my office in five seconds flat.

  8. Squirrels are fun, in real life and in my head. (BTW, I just got a poem published about squirrels, called "Folk Art" - can read it here for free: https://issuu.com/sdsuoakwood/docs/oakwood_2020)
    I jot notes all the time, and now I'll call them squirrel notes.

  9. Your description of distracted thoughts, Michael--writing and life itself--is a constant problem for me. It's great that I now have a diagnosis for it. Each time it happens, I will scream SQUIRREL! SQUIRREL! Who knows, maybe I'll even write a crime story involving a squirrel. Maybe that will rid me of the problem.

  10. Congrats on the anthology! Just don't get too squirrelly!

  11. Michael, great post! I love the idea of these random ideas as squirrels, and I've definitely done a lot of squirrel chasing in my time. On the one hand, I find it such a pleasure to really sink into a project, and on the other hand, there goes another squirrel!

  12. Wrtitng squirrels scurry past me a lot, mostly when my wife's in the middle of one of her long dissertations about – wait, my mind drifted. It's not funny. Sometimes I have to get up and write something down which doesn't go over well with her.

    Good blog, Michael.

  13. I've managed to keep the writing squirrels at bay most of the day, mostly because I've been juggling three projects at once and they've unable to catch my attention.

    Thanks for all your comments. It's nice to know I'm not the only writer who deals with writing squirrels.

    And Janice, thanks for your kind comments about "The Show Must Go On" in BCMM #5. That story was originally written for a themed anthology that failed to publish, and I'm glad it found a good home. (I think John Floyd wrote a story for the same anthology. I wonder where his story landed...)

  14. You've been peeking, Michael! Never mind that on CriminalBrief.com James Lincoln Warren named me the ADD Detective.

    On the theory that he'd be less distracting, Valentine, my Goffin cockatoo, spends a lot of time in the screened-in patio. The problem is his visitors. SQUIRRELS, for starters and the most common. Valentine thinks it riotous to drop pellets and seed into the tray for SQUIRRELS to harvest. And opossums visit. And raccoons. And the neighbor's cat. And a hawk. And SQUIRRELS!

  15. Love the humor this blog.It reminds me not to take life too seriously. lol-Lynn

  16. Hmm...maybe this is the reason I only write Flash Fiction :-)


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