Don’t cheat your muse

“Cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal.” – William S. Burroughs

In Casablanca, Ilsa says, “Kiss me. Kiss me as if it were the last time.”

I wonder if we should write like that, as though the story or novel in progress is going to be the last thing we do before we retire to Hawaii or the asylum or bee keeping. If we wrote like that, we’d make everything matter, the best we could do, like kissing a lover for the last time.

Burroughs says you can;t fake a good meal. Sure, we can throw something together in the kitchen or nuke a TV dinner or stop by a fast food place on the way home. It saves us a lot of trouble. I see a lot of advice on the Internet that urges us to write like that: write a novel in a month, turn out multiple books in a year, getting from nothing to a bestseller in 30 days. You can even get plot generators at some place called McNovels (or whatever it is).

What’s the hurry?

Myth: The sooner the book gets on Amazon, the sooner you’ll be famous. The money and the five-star reviews will come rolling in. A big publisher will send you $250,000 for your next book. Agents will actually call you.

Writing in a hurry as though that myth is true might be one way to cheat your muse. Or, possibly, cheat on your muse by sleeping with scam artists who make more money selling books and webinars that promise you ways of writing faster and faster and becoming famous before the ink dries.

It’s tempting, I know. A program or a method or a recipe usually promises us the world. It even comes with a lot of testimonials from writers that–guess what–you’ve never heard of. Nonetheless, when somebody says, “Last year I was digging graves in the rain at minimum wage, but then I saw Joe Smith’s miracle writing plan and I put down my shovel and followed his advice and became richer than J. K. Rowling.”

If you haven’t heard of the former grave digger’s books, Joe Smith is selling broken shovels.

The Muses Clio, Euterpe, and Thalia, by Eustache Le Sueur – Wikipedia

The alternative is listening to the inspiration we have, that we know we have, and writing that story word by word by word the way we know we can do it even though the first draft might take months or years, and then the second draft might take more months or years. And even though we’re not on Amazon yet, we know the stuff we write when we write like that is good because we’ve read through it late at night and felt a chill run through us as we wondered where it came from and how we pulled it all together.  When we re-read it just to make sure we’re not dreaming, it reminds us of the last kiss we gave somebody that we cared about who–for reasons unknown–disappeared from our lives as soon as we stepped away from each other.

Our muses get stronger when we try to write pages than send those chills through us or make us laugh harder than we did the last time we saw a Robin Williams comedy bit or make us shed more tears than we did when Ilsa got on that plane and left Rick standing there in the airport in “Casablanca.”

If Joe Smith reads this post, he’ll probably say, “Don’t you believe that goody-two-shoes stuff.” (Does anyone say “goody-two-shoes” any more?) Well, Mr. Smith, it doesn’t take much to see that the opinions of all the get rich quick gurus don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday we’ll understand that and write everything we write as though it’s the last time.





Why do writers write what they write?

We’re told to write what we know. That doesn’t stop us from doing research and ending up knowing more. Perhaps what we know and what we want to learn about play into the list of things we care about.

I’m not talking about caring about mom and apple pie or caring about getting rid of war, poverty and prejudice, though those things are good to care about. What writers care about is often a mix of locations, themes, character types, story types and the related issues that attract their attention.

My earliest passions–other than having a slice of apple pie with a healthy slab of sharp cheddar cheese–were nature and psychic phenomena. Family vacations and Boy Scout camping trips introduced me to a lot of wild places and what it took to live in the woods. Books introduced me to intuition, transcendent experiences, improving one’s natural hunches and the kinds of things that might go bump in the night.

Perhaps this is why I write fantasy and magical realism with a strong sense of the natural world that surrounds my stories and characters.

A belief in unseen worlds and inner transformation turned me into the kind of person who detests conformity, authoritarian and/or patriarchal control of individuals, and brute-force lawless action whether it manifests in the KKK and Jim Crow, the Armenian genocide, Hitler or ISIS.

I grew up in Florida, a state that made its living and fame off of orange groves and tourist attractions. At the same time, the state was in the “top five” when it came to lynchings, Klan activity and corrupted government officials. Florida, to my mind, equals nature that has been compromised by development and a very ugly past that nobody likes to talk about.

I have a fondness for longleaf pines, blackwater rivers, Gulf Coast estuaries and beaches. I have an inherent dislike of the Klan because they were the devil I knew and feared as a child even though I am white.

All of these things led me to write my upcoming novella Conjure Woman’s Cat, a book about the natural world, folk magic, 1950s-era discrimination and the Klan.

The ever-popular question where do you get your ideas is one I detest because most people who ask it are doing so in an interview, or perhaps in an elevator, and expect a short answer such as “in the newspaper” or “from people watching” or “from my grandfather’s stories.”

The real answer is so much more complex that I don’t know how to put it into a 25-word answer that satisfies anybody. Ideas come from years of feeling strongly about one thing and another until somehow a story idea springs out of “nowhere” and I start writing.

This doesn’t add up to any recipe advice for people who want to write. Recipe advice tends to do more harm than good anyway. The real advice is to nurture oneself, follow one’s intuition and harvest all of that into a mix that accentuates one’s favorite (good or bad) areas of interest. And then, no matter what you believe, try not to preach, allowing the story to speak for itself.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the fantasy novels “The Seeker,” “The Sailor,” and “The Betrayed” and the paranormal short stories “Moonlight and Ghosts,” “Cora’s Crossing,” and “Emily’s Stories.”

On location: your childhood growing up place

“Everywhere that July in 1963 there were the pines, their long needles shimmering in a faint wind under the hot subtropical sun. In the country there were empty dirt roads, rutted by mule carts. In the towns, sprawled unpainted shacks without windows. Ancient Negro women sat fanning themselves with palm leaves as they stared drowsily from rickety porches at their zinnias and coral vines and heavy-scented honeysuckle bushes. Moss-draped oaks and lacy chinaberry trees shaded sandy dooryards. Scrawny dogs, the flies buzzing at their noses, slept among ragged-feathered chickens poking for scratch feed. Locusts whine from tall magnolias and the steady pitch of power saws. But mostly it was those pines and the tang of their resiny branches and the dark straightness of their trunks. All of it looked like the south of the novelists and the poets, heavy with antiquity, romance and misery.” – Gloria Johoda in “The Other Florida.”

longleafforestI was in college in 1963 when my friend Gloria Jahoda wrote those words. Like me, she wasn’t born in Florida, but in her now-classic book about the state’s panhandle she observed and wrote about what many long-time residents no longer noticed or took for granted. “The Other Florida” was other because it wasn’t filled with tourist attractions, widely known beaches and movie stars.

Other than a few childhood poems, I wouldn’t write about the other Florida until recently. My family moved there from Oregon just in time for me to enter the first grade. Out of the culture shock of the move, I also saw the place I would live for 18 years through the eyes of an outsider.

Yes, my family went to St. Augustine, Tampa, Daytona Beach and Key West, stopping at many gaudy tourist attractions in between. But all that was crowded and nearly fake with an overlay of commercial glitz and I was always happy to be home even though much of the panhandle was considered backward and impoverished in spite of having the state capital in the middle of it.

The place is abandoned now, but this was my favorite place to eat down at the coast

The Oaks is abandoned now, but this was my favorite place to eat down at the coast

I haven’t been back to north Florida since the mid-1980s when my parents died and my brothers and I closed up and sold the house the family had lived (by then) for some 35 years.

In my childhood days, I learned the territory like most kids did…swimming in clear, cold sinkholes, camping with the Boy Scout Troop in the piney woods, hanging out with friends at our pristine and uncommercialized beaches, exploring the Florida Caverns at Marianna, deep sea fishing in boats that went out from St. Marks, learning the voices of Snake Birds and Limpkins at Wakulla Springs, delivering newspapers throughout my neighborhood, marching in parades downtown with the high school band. . .

We lived in Tallahassee in a day when mule wagons were still on the streets and many homes were built on unpaved, red clay roads.

We lived in Tallahassee in a day when mule wagons were still on the streets and many homes were built on unpaved, red clay roads.

I saw what Jahoda saw, partly because I was new, partly because the outdoors was our playground in days before the Internet, and partly because my folks arranged day trips to may special places within the confines of this map. In the days before high gasoline prices, my best thinking place was my 1954 Chevy on a dark country road at night. I don’t know what I solved anything, but I saw a lot on the hundreds of miles of roads I saw every week.

Looking Back

There were 40 pine trees in our yard. Plenty of pine straw to take.

There were 40 pine trees in our yard. Plenty of pine straw to take.

If you’re a writer, I urge you to look back to your childhood places and ponder what it was like, what there was to do, what the people were like, and what kinds of stories and legends you heard. Whether you were happy, sad, or borderline average during those days, the memories are potentially very potent.

In looking back, I’ve written (or am in the process of writing) stories on that map set in Carrabelle and nearby Tate’s Hell Swamp, Marianna and the nearby Bellamy Bridge and Chipola River, Tallahassee, St. Marks, Wakulla County, and the barrier islands. My novella in progress is set at a fictional town not too far from Weewahitchka. You can probably find a similar handful of towns near your childhood home. Each has its unusual traditions, the stories people hope everyone has forgotten, legends, ghostly tales, and plenty of Mother Nature.

Florida seems strange to those who did not live there. The same can be said for other places I’ve lived, worked or visited: Northern Illinois, Minnesota, San Francisco, Montana, North Carolina, and North Eastern Georgia. For a writer, a lot of the appeal of going home (literally or figuratively) for stories is the differentness of the place. That adds a lot of appeal to a story. Take a Florida tradition, add in the weather and the pines, toss in a ghost story, and pretty soon you are telling something fresh and knew and page-turning.

You can ramp up your stories with old memories, smiling again with the the joys, possibly even finding closure for the sorrows; your issues, your cares, your friends, your slings and arrows, your memories can be puzzled and camouflaged into your story. They bring strength and depth because you lived them and know what they were all about.

I’ve about wrapped up my Weewahitchka-area story. It gets a potent childhood issue off my plate of memories. More about that later if the publisher likes the story. I think I’ve written some of my best stuff about the places where I grew up because there is so much “material” there I can turn into fiction. That’s why I often urge other writers to look at the towns where they grew up with fresh eyes and see if they can find some stories there.


$1.99 on Kindle

$1.99 on Kindle

My stories with Florida settings include “The Seeker” (Tallahassee, Carrabelle, Tate’s Hell), “Emily’s Stories” (Tallahassee and St. Marks), “Cora’s Crossing” (Marianna), “The Land Between the Rivers” (Tate’s Hell) and “Moonlight and Ghosts” (Tallahassee).




Turning (selected and well-disguised) Secrets into Fiction

While growing up in Florida, my secret story often sounded like old Florida adventure novels.

“A secret story should be yours alone: about who you are, who you want to be. Who you believe yourself to be, under all the social conventions and expectations. Are you secretly a sorceress? A priestess? A charmer of animals or teller of fortunes? Are the trees your friends? There is something wonderful about having a secret identity, something that no one knows about you.” – Theodora Goss in her post “Your Secret Story”

Along with “Where do you get your ideas?” the question people ask me the most is, “How much of each story is true?”

Some of the actual events merged into a short story or novel come from an author’s experiences. For example, my Kindle short story “Moonlight and Ghosts” draws slightly on my experience as a unit manager years ago in a center for the developmentally disabled. Other events in an author’s work come from what author Theodora Goss describes as one’s secret story.

A secret story, often begun in childhood, is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, a lifelong imagination-run-wild romp of the things we fantasize about doing or being. In childhood, many of us imagine being wizards or Knights of the Round Table or Superman.

As we grow older, perhaps we change our story to make it more plausible. These stories can be, but usually aren’t, the same as our dreams and goals. Perhaps they come to mind as an all-in-good fun episode we imagine while we’re falling asleep or mowing the yard. Perhaps they have a deeper impact and become our personal myth.

What ever they are, we seldom tell them to each other. Yet, to a writer, they are so much a part of his/her imagination, selected fragments of them wind up in stories or, in some cases, serve as the catalysts for stories.

I wonder if we become truly happy and/or in a state of bliss when our secret story and our daily life become one. Before that happens, these stories are a great source of ideas for the next novel or short story.

You May Also Like:

  • I have brought back my “Book Bits” writing links posts twice a week on my Sun Singer’s Travels blog. Each post includes 8-10 links for recent book news, reviews, how-to articles and features.
  • The Real Magic of the Unlimited Self tells the story behind the story for my “Moonlight and Ghosts” Kindle short story. (Sometimes the magic is real.)
  • Or, see my website for my latest news.


Contemporary fantasy for your Kindle.