Using Your Travel Hallucinations for Story Ideas

And then I dreamed all the flesh was stripped off my bones, and …

I’ve been back a couple of weeks after a month-long housesit on a tiny island in the Caribbean. This was a vivid place, strikingly beautiful, and we had adventures, thrills and stresses in our time there—and equally so in getting there and coming back. But memory and travel are the oddest things: I was looking at photos yesterday and was struck by how much I’d already forgotten. Not the broad strokes and major events that happened, but the telling details: the shape of the harbor (which we saw almost daily), the color of a restaurant we’d been to (and the flavor of dishes we ate), the curve of a street.

The details are the things that should fix a place in memory, so I’m troubled by their fog. But I want to talk about an ancillary fog that happens after travel. That’s the stunned sense of being back in a familiar place, but having it seem strange or slightly tilted—“off,” but not off enough to pin the quality of oddness down.

Pieces of my mind and body, even given a full week to account for jet lag (and the space/time continuum) were still on the island, and the person who arrived here claiming to be me seemed to have a fake driver’s license.

A Bike Ride Pulls the Brain’s Curtains Back

But let’s get to the details, as noted above. I often ride my bike—with delight—on weekends here, so my first weekend back, I was eager to take one of my local rides, which for stretches take me along the Santa Cruz County coast. When I paused for a breather at an ocean overlook, I saw a breaching whale, fairly close to the shore. Not that of an unusual sight in Santa Cruz, but still, a whale, wow!

I felt energized by that, and hopped back on with spark, but just minutes later, and completely unprompted, I saw in my mind’s eye a jarring scene of my brother’s death. That played out enough so that I was crying a little. (By the way, my brother’s fine.) Just so you know that I’m one happy-go-lucky guy, as I was approaching my house at the end of my ride, I had a fantasy that my cat had been poisoned.

She’s fine too.

Maybe I was tired? Indeed, I was panting like a blacksmith’s bellows as I was riding, because it had been six weeks or so since I’d tackled these hills, but I think it was more that I was feeling dislocated in some way, and my mind was just clicking through a slide wheel of images. But who knows?

Putting Your Writer’s Mind to Work

However, one of the best things about being a writer is to be gifted with story ideas, and to play with them. I probably won’t do anything with these three isolated “incidents” that happened on my ride, but after I got home, I made each of them into a storyline in my mind, where these dustups happen.

The whale sighting I turned into a science-fiction prompt, where sentient whales start to take revenge on all the years of us killing them, and they develop great killing skills themselves, grouping up to take down big shipping vessels, causing damaging coastal waves, taking hostages.

My brother’s death I made into a literary fiction piece, kind of like the great Marilynne Robinson’s Home, which has an estranged brother return to a family. Except in my tale, a brother causes another brother’s death and runs away, and the family is forever changed. And then he returns, and things go from lousy to really lousy. Bestseller, eh?

As for the cat poisoning, a cat being poisoned would be the opening scene for a murder mystery, where before a person is murdered, a lot of animals connected to the deceased’s household, including lizards, guinea pigs and birds, are individually poisoned. Before the poisoner turns to murdering one of his fellow humans. Dastardly!

Anyway, the peculiar gyrations of the mind are kind of like aerobics classes for writers. So there are some benefits to the odd frazzling that happens after traveling—it seeds your mind with stories.

Oh, if you like the story ideas, go for them. Combine all of them in the same novel: murder mystery, sci-fi literary masterpiece. You have my blessing.

Writing Tips, Ticks and Tics

Malibu, tickled that she's tick-free

Malibu, tickled that she’s tick-free

A couple of days ago, my cat came in with a large tick between her shoulder blades. Ticks are things that should never be invited to champagne parties, debutante balls or bar mitzvahs. They are vile things, going from the size of a fairy’s sneeze to a small olive in a few days by gorging mightily on their host’s blood. When I discovered the tick, I immediately did the wrong thing: I Googled “how to remove a tick from a cat.”

Juggling hand grenades would have been safer. Not only did I learn that ticks can give a cat Lyme disease, kitty paralysis and illegible handwriting, but removing them in the wrong way (and all suggested ways were deemed wrong or contradictory in the next link) would leave behind all kinds of tick mouth machinery, plus a toxic squirt of the poisons ticks carry when the tick-removal service (me), in his stress to remove it, inadvertently squeezes the tick.

The Tick (or Tic) of Writing Paralysis

What has this to do with writing? This: Invariably, with writing projects or assignments pending, my brain freezes. “I can’t write about that, I’m not qualified, I don’t know the subject well enough, the editor won’t like it, my keyboard is dirty.” These are the songs in the skull that stop the first word of a story, article or essay. Thus, after thoroughly immersing myself in how to remove a tick, I got to work: for 24 hours, I fretted on the tick’s removal from my skittish cat, which resulted in my tick swelling a third again in size, and tick lobbyists everywhere rejoicing.

Note: this feckless ticking coincided with me not having started two article assignments for which I had the interviews transcribed and the background info recorded. Why hadn’t I started? My keyboard was dirty. Besides, the editors wouldn’t like what I came up with. [Note, I know from years of experience that just starting writing, even if the writing is crackers, gets the story in gear. But why should I listen to writing tips from me?)

When I touched the tick the next morning, its ghastly growth sickened me. I dithered for a bit, then grabbed Malibu (who is quite resistant to more than a moment’s grabbing), got my fingernails under the hairline and twist-yanked him out clean. She took it placidly. Look, 30 hours of shilly-shallying, and with two seconds of work, tick-free!

Or so I thought. I was astonished when I thoroughly ran my hands through Malibu’s fur again, and I found another tick! Much smaller than his engorged ancestor, but head in, and working away. But this time, I didn’t spend any time thinking about the process. Same procedure, same result: Tick in a jar of rubbing alcohol, cat on the floor not acting as though anything out of the ordinary had happened.

Grabbing the Assignment by Its Bloody Neck

Oh, after I removed the ticks, I started (and finished) one of my writing assignments. I started and finished the other today. I KNOW that I have a brain-itching resistance to starting a piece, I know that once I start that the gates of serendipitous writing will open, but yet, I have to dance this same ding-dang dance almost every time. Ticks me off.

Lesson: just start. Start anywhere, start with random words, start with a single sentence. Type and ye shall be free. And you ticks out there—I’m on to you.

Please share your tick-removal tips (no blowtorches) in the comments. Or how you manage to start a writing project without bedeviling yourself. Happy Holidays!

Pencil Me In: Writing Prompt for a Rainy Day

Inject your imagination with pencil possibilities

Inject your imagination with pencil possibilities


Remarkably enough, it’s raining today, which I thought was now illegal in California. So, instead of traipsing outside for any Saturday aerobic exercise, what about hunkering down inside with a writing exercise? Writing prompts are a good way to loosen up the creativity muscles, and they’re more fun than a spin class. (Argue with me all you want—the rain is drowning out your protests.)

I think simple is best for a writing prompt: let’s consider describing an everyday object from several angles, whether metaphorical or metaphysical. Enter the pencil.

Pencils in the Real World
It’s notable how plungingly deep you can go when you start to describe an object, particularly one you’d never bothered to focus attention on. With a prompt, you just let your mind and fingers fly, and don’t get out any red pencil to edit.

Thus, a physical pencil is:

  • A slender wooden wand capped with a metal ferrule topped with a rubber eraser
  • A short cylindrical spear with a soft end and a pointy tip
  • A soft, breakable wooden shaft
  • A balanced, effective, reliable writing instrument
  • A cat toy
  • A vehicle for advertising

 
Pencil as Metaphor

  • An insecure pencil won’t write polysyllabic words for fear of misspelling them
  • A heroic pencil has broad, defined shoulders just below the eraser
  • A husband pencil never takes out the shavings

 
Pencil Sensuality

  • The light but friendly heft of a pencil in your hand
  • The agreeable noise a pencil makes when scribbling words on paper
  • The sweet cedar smells when sharpening a pencil

 
Pencils in Irregular Use

  • Staving off boredom by flinging them up to stick in those soft-tile corporate ceilings when the boss isn’t around
  • Pencil as ear cleaner
  • Pencil as stand-in for conductor’s baton

 
Pencil as Pun
That’ll put lead in your pencil (ahh, my adolescence, it will never truly end)

Pencil as Iconic Object
Often seen behind the ears of old-school reporters, circa The Front Page era

Pencil as Ironic Object
Gigantic pencils occasionally seen in sculpture gardens

Pencil as Shakespearean Character
Think of a pencil separated from its twin, cross-dressing (alternating wearing manly tights with bosom-exposing dresses), caught in heart-pounding court intrigue, strumming a lyre whenever possible, and finally getting married amidst much fanfare, resonant huzzahs and beer.

Well, I won’t burden you with leaden prose any longer. But I think writers have an ability to look at the most common of things, and see a story there. So next time you look at your salt shaker, remember that from a different vantage you might think of it as your pet, your boyfriend, your accountant. Even your muse.

Besides, the rain is letting up—I’m going to take my pencil for a walk.

Caution: This Fiction Contains Pulp

'Gun Smoke Red' photo © 2010, Charles Knowles - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

My last post was about how writing prompts can spread some salsa on your keyboard to get your writing moving. In checking out some of the writing prompt sites, I found this prompt contest, which supplies 10 pages of writing prompts on varying subjects.

I chose one in the Action category, because the prompts made me think about writing a story beginning in a pulp-fiction like style. First prize wins $500, but hurry—contest ends at 11:59 CST Dec. 22. (You only need to write the beginning of a story, at least 500 words.) Below is my effort, which leans heavily on alliterative wordplay. It begins in media res.

Love at First Shot

I’d coated my fright about being caught for the crime—one I didn’t commit—with four bourbons, neat, but the pleasant hum in my head wouldn’t last: there was a knock at the door, and a knock in my knees.

It was Lucy Ligature. Former vamp turned viper—editorially speaking, that is. My colleague, my critic, my counterpart chaser of riveted readers. The editor of the Hearsay Herald, a rival rag run by Lucy, the delicious dish with the tire-squealing curves. Though now she only revved her engines for on-paper scandal scooping. This rendezvous called for the saucy sangfroid only a true cad could corral.

“Uh, well, Ms. Ligature, Lucy my dear. An unexpected pleasure. And I thought our boy Cal only spilled his soul for the pages of Hush-Hush. And now he’s spilled so much more. Shot in the tabloids—or by them, you might say. And now the cops are sure to think the shooter is me. But what’s this I hear about me being next in line for some lead?”

She slowly shaped her ripe-cherry lips into a smile that played leapfrog with a sneer. “Danny boy. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea.” Since she was punctuating these pleasantries by waving a stainless-steel Smith and Wesson, my idea fountain at the time was distinctly dry.

“I’m afraid that any article about this incident is going to have to center on the sealed secret of the smoking gun, trite as that might be,” she said, with a smirk that crossed a gargoyle with a goddess. “I do fear you’ll accuse me of lacking imagination, but, silly as it may sound, it was an accident. An accident that’s never going to have my name attached to it.”

She slid her limber legginess onto what was left of a leather loveseat and let out a sibilant sigh. It was then that I notice the weathered wisp of paper in her other hand’s gunless grasp. She glanced at the lifeless lug, whose innards were swiftly becoming outtards on his reddened rug. “Cool Cat seems to have misplaced his meow,” she said. She settled a steely stare on me and said, “The ninth life is always the nastiest one, I’ve heard.”

“Look Lucy,” I said, “Cal’s never been a choirboy, and there’s many a man who’d like nothing better than to see him skewered. But what’s he ever done to you, besides only offering the Herald his leftovers, rather than any major meat?” I was trying to play it cool, but I was shiftily sliding back, hoping to get my hind to the hinterlands in a doorward dash.

Lucy languidly lounged on the loveseat, and gave me a lissome look. “Hey, I’m going to tell it to you straight, Daniel, if you have ears to hear. The main means of getting secrets is being able to keep them, and I’ve kept more than a couple out of your readers’ sour saliva. One is that I’m engaged to be married in two days. The other is that I stand to inherit two million dollars, but only on the condition that I marry before I turn 50.”

She stirred on the loveseat and waggled that winking weapon. “The last secret, and the one that’s going to be covered up as cleanly as Calhoun’s coffin, is that I’ll be 50 the day after my wedding.” She brandished the birth certificate and laughed. “You see, you pathetic peddler of fishrot, my fickle fiancé thinks I’m barely thirty-five! Cal was blackmailing me, being the only one who knew my real age, and with a copy of my birth certificate to prove it!”

She slapped the gun on the loveseat and my heart did a triple-flip. “Cool Kitty had no pity,” she said. “He knew that my fiancé would skip out as fast as those facts got out. So I came here to cop the cop’s certificate, and he showed up while I was rifling through his house. It’s probably the only wrestling match with a woman he’s ever lost. I didn’t mean to shoot him.”

I was flat-out flabbergasted. For a woman of a certain age, she was sensational—she’d always zinged my heartstrings. I’ve never considered quicker or scampered swifter in my love-lacking life. “Lucy, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” I said. I called my office on my digital phone, telling them that charming Cal had never opened his door to me. We did a swift scrub of Lucy’s paw prints and mine, and then made a beeline for the beach, where a shiny firearm was flung into the maw of mother ocean.

I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to manage to write a story that plucked me from the heart of the crime without implicating the honey that was making my heart melt (or yours tangentially truly), but hey, I’m good at improvising. And Lucy knew how to tango, so a twosome we shall be. As the old saying goes, keep your friends close but your enemies closer.

Action suggestions.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and no dangling participles to all!

The Writing Ideas Are Out There—Bring a Net!

Writer’s block, eh? For me it can sometimes be, “Writer’s Pathetic, Strangled Bleat of Knowing That I’ll Never, Ever Write Anything of Consequence Again, Sob!” (Of course, that presupposes that you’ve already written something of consequence.) I’m a master of dithering when I’m beginning a writing project, searching desperately for nits to pick up off the floor, needing just another cup of coffee to add to the seven previous, accidentally browsing a Tahiti travel site for 45 minutes and on. But something always kicks in when I get that first paragraph done, so in scooping out the first shovelfuls, I wondrously often see the road being built.

Thus one of the first things to do is get your first paragraph written, no matter if it’s for a 500-page novel or a 500-word blog post. A lead paragraph (or perhaps even a paragraph deep within the belly of the beast) can lead to a second, and a giddy third. I have seen repeatedly that a spark can touch off a fire. But there are things that can lead up to that lead, a setting of the writing table, a gesture to welcome the Muse in, a curt gesture to escort the idealess bum in the hammock out.

The external things (besides beating the pets) that seem to help for me are exercising, reading something that’s greatly unlike what I’m trying to write (perhaps sewing pattern books), or doing something that’s mindless but physical, like rearranging my nun puppets. Exercising really is a good one for me: I honestly get full sentences that just jump in my head, particularly when I’m bike riding. But of course, I don’t carry a notebook when I’m bike riding, so the sentences do get bounced around a bit before they get home.

Grab That Fluttering Idea (But Don’t Strangle It)
Following that thought: grab the idea while it flutters, because it will only be loose feathers when you come back to it later. If you get a sentence in your mind without writing tools available, keep writing it in your mind. Not only will the idea be refined, but it will stick long enough to remember it, or at least its essence. This is the method I most often practice on the bike. It’s worth noting that often periods that seem the most frustrating, when you’re PLEADING with your brain to muster up something your character needs to say, and all you get is the stone wall of silence, relax: that wrestling match often results later in the sought-after medal. So often I’ve looked at the mute letters of my keyboard, given up and gone on to make a sandwich, and while spreading the mustard, I hear the “pop” in my head. Ideas need to incubate, to fledge, dear little birds that they are.

This is not a butterfly—this is an IDEA! Capture it!

You could also keep one of those small digital recorders close at hand, if mental notes turn to mist for you. And of course, the old reporter’s notepad is a mainstay—I just used one on a recent travel assignment for the LA Times and though my scrawled notes while hiking up at Pinnacles National Monument were more twisty than the trails, I was still able to salvage some copy out of my cacography. (I do have a digital camera that will record audio notes with every photograph, but I always forget to use it.)

A 90-Proof Shot of Inspiration
But truly, if you can empty the glass right when inspiration pours you a shot, do it. Too often I’ve tossed and turned over an article idea at night, come up with a angel-winged solution there in bed, and then not written it down. Angel wings turned to broken bones overnight—the actual words, which for me are the batteries of the idea, are often lost. I always get up and write ideas now, even if Morpheus is pulling me back down. Let your great ideas get thrown into the pit of dreams, and they will emerge as dead skin and dross.

I’ll leave with the biggest way to chip that monolithic writer’s block: a slice at a time. Particularly for a long-distance swim like a novel, it’s easy to think you’d never get 400 pages down, and thus, it’s easy to quit. But giving yourself a narrow, easily achievable goal—writing 15 minutes a day—and that Atlantic swim becomes a few breast strokes through the pool. You might have so much fun in your 15 minutes, you could even go for 20. Oceans are crossed by the steady swimmers.