Finding Your Muse

Authors are creatives, artists, daydreamers, ponderers, wanderers, observers. We muse over our ideas and stories. And we have muses that inspire us. But where do those inspirations come from? Every writer is different, and I find I have no shortage of ideas (knock on wood; perhaps that time will come? Better get 'em down now!). Rather, I tend to have a shortage of time to get them all written down. Regardless, what are my primary muses?

  1. Travel - Be it a local trail or new country, mountain or meadow or lake, the beauty of the world inspires me most!

  2. Personal Life - The old adage is write what you know. Be it subconsciously or purposely, my life experiences inspire my stories. (I lost my mother to cancer 15 years ago when I was 25, so the lost/ill/deceased mother element seeps into a lot of my characters in one way or another because I know how it can affect a person). 

  3. Personal Triumphs or Tribulations - That struggle I had when I was 25 and in graduate school might come in handy sometime. Same goes for that successful endeavor I took on, or a feat accomplished, or heartache experienced. Using some of our ups and downs can lead to inspiration...or character backbones.

  4. Areas of interest - by this I mean passions, hobbies, interests. I LOVE flowers. And coffee. And gardening, hiking, baking, science and nature. And my sons and husband. Well guess what? Hmm, my characters may have similar interests. But not only that, perhaps a hike up a mountain or a visit to the local post office while mailing a care package to a loved one might just stir up a story idea (ahem, both have; stories in work).

So many things can serve as muses:

Current events, music, art, history, biographies, friends, famous people, everyday people, travel, scenery, personal life experiences, heartaches, triumphs, passions, hobbies, objects, family...

Struggling with finding a fresh idea? Where can we go? Well... 

Many gather inspiration in public places: at the gym, on the street, in airport/bus terminals, on the subway, at the mall or grocery store or library or coffee shop (or [insert any building that houses people or things], in the country or city, with family or without family, mountains, meadows, beach, or desert...the list goes on and on. Don't forget your own backyard, too.

It comes down to the fact that not one tangible thing inspires writers...

The world around us and the people within it are our muses.

I asked the Twitter world (most of my followers are in the writing/outdoors biz in one way or another) and this is what they had to say. As more people responded, and at the time of posting this blog article, the answers are spread, but Everyday life experiences is just inching out Travel/places:

Getting specific, what inspired some of my stories?

For A Hundred Kisses, Scotland and the love of happy ever afters were my inspiration. I have always loved Scotland even before I visited. My first visit was in Diana Gabaldon's books. I was "in Scotland" for over 15 years...that is, I was perfecting my Scotland-based stories (and after three "practice" novels, the fourth, A Hundred Kisses, was the one to land a publisher). I also have a thing for historical romances, especially medieval ones, so that served as guiding muse. And to my surprise, I threw in some supernatural elements. So, to wrap up, my muses for this one: Scotland, love of romance, other books, history.

For its prequel (in the editing process), history, specifically the Vikings, was my muse. Of course Scotland, too. I also embed, without trying, some of my own personal hurdles into books, as I mentioned above. Death, loss, upbringing, personal hardships: they all sneak into my work, including this one.

For the sequel, similar muses arose. I'm currently writing that one now.

For another project, a women's fiction, I jumped out of my historical romance comfort zone and wrote what I knew: parenting, autism, loss, death, science.

In a different vein, my magazine article-writing was spearheaded by the idea that I wanted to write not only about traveling, but traveling with kids, and with my autistic son who adores nature almost as much as his mom and dad (maybe more?). Since that article, I've been fortunate to write several more, and I keep filling my portfolio, as I enjoy writing about the outdoors and my kids. Look out for one soon on our most recent family adventure!

Not to give away all my future/in work projects, but other muses for my current projects include: more travels to some amazing locales (New Zealand, the mountains of New England, Guatemala, Yellowstone National Park, to name a few) personal life experiences, parenting ups and downs and special moments, my son's fascinations with volcanoes and weather, a sweet (true?) story my aunt told me about my grandmother, and more amazing locales (see the trend here?), just to name a few.

So there you have it. What's your muse? I'd love to hear from you!

Best, always, and keep writing wherever your muse takes you,

Jean

Meet Author Ralph Walker

It’s March, there’s still a foot of hardened icy snow on the ground in New England, and it’s time to shake up my blog! Today I am chatting with Ralph Walker, fellow author, parent, and early morning coffee drinker. The writing community prides itself on perseverance, patience, and pal-making…we love to support each other in our endeavors. So today I’m highlighting one of my talented friends.

Thanks for visiting, Ralph.

Thanks so much for inviting me to be a part of your blog. For readers who don’t know me, I’m Ralph Walker. I am an architect in New Jersey and I write speculative fiction, particularly near future science fiction.

Let’s start out with a hard question. Oxford comma yes or no?

Hard hitting out of the gate! I don’t want to lose readers over the controversy, so I am going to defer to my editor for political statements on punctuation. 

Fair enough. (“Go Oxford!” I say, waving a flag with commas on it). Ahem, tell us about what you write.

I’m really interested in stories about people doing extraordinary things because the world has changed in unexpected ways. Accelerating technologies and climate change both feature heavily in my work, but at their heart all my stories are about relationships and the lengths people go to save their loved ones.

Most of my stories are near future science fiction. I try to peek around the corner to see what might be coming. I’ve always loved techno-thrillers, cyberpunk, and solarpunk. I try to write with optimism and hope even when I explore my character’s darkest hours.

When did your writing journey begin? What drew you to writing?

I am a late bloomer when it comes to writing. I wrote some nonfiction and journaled over the years, but focused on my primary profession, architecture. I started writing more seriously after my daughter was born. I was traveling a lot then and was stuck in hotel rooms by myself. Being away from my family was incredibly stressful and I used storytelling as a way to escape. Early morning writing sessions quickly became a hobby, and now six years later, it is my habit.

That explains #5amwritersclub on Twitter.

What was your inspiration for the Rising Waters series, specifically Grief Protocols?

I see the world changing under our feet, both with technology and nature. Climate change, population growth, the rise of social technology, an evolving utility grid, even the legal constructs of land ownership are all influencing individual wealth, power, and happiness. I am interested in finding the sharp edges of those issues and understanding how they might impact an individual or a family.

One of my first stories, Gators In Kansas, was an exploration about underwater farming through the eyes of a migrant farmer. While that story is part of the UnCommon Lands anthology it set a tone for the stories I have written for Rising Waters.

I also love the anthology form. I am really interested in painting a picture of what the world might become through a series of stories and characters who live in the same world, but may or may not be connected. Grief Protocols, Gators In Kansas, Stealing Air and other stories are all in the same world in my mind.

Grief Protocols is a sibling bond story. I was exploring the distance a family might get stretched and how elastic those relationships may or may not be. That story is more tech-focused, but again, lives in a time and place that is easily within reach today. 

Was any of the story for Grief Protocols inspired by real life events?

Happily no, but the relationships are personal and familiar. I have a younger sister whom I am very close with and we definitely have a “country mouse – city mouse” type relationship. She has always been a rock for me and was an inspiration as I explored characters.

Elaborate upon the theme of your short story series.

Rising waters is a speculative series about what could happen. I love to mess with the question What If? What if invasive crocodiles moved into the great plains? What if we embedded social media into our vision? What if we added growth hormones to the air? There are so many wonderful what if questions that grab my attention and the stories grow out of them.

I’m a fan of Black Mirror, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Ex Machina and so many other great science fiction stories that take an extreme look at how our world is changing under our feet. Rising Waters aims to accomplish that.

Since I am a hiker / traveler, tell me about your favorite place to visit.

I am obsessed with the shoreline. I love to visit the ocean. Every summer I take my family down to the Jersey shore for at least a week at a time. When I lived in Los Angeles I would go to the ocean as often as I could. There is something really special about the edges where water meets land. There is this constant pushing and pulling, the violence of waves, the movement of sand or rock. It is constantly changing. I get lost in it.

Tell us about your next project – Stealing Air

Stealing Air is, as you might imagine, a heist story. It follows a band of thieves as they attempt to covertly steal a very expensive drug that makes it easier to breath. Nora, our heroine, needs the drug not only to make money, but also for her ailing husband. In this adventure she is taken from the woods of Appalachia to a craft air manufacturer in the sky where she discovers a real treasure.

This is a story about unintended consequences of messing with nature. It was inspired by the debate about putting fluoride in drinking water and more recent events in Flint, Michigan. 

I hope you’ll check it out, and if you like it share it with your friends.

 Ralph's latest work, available on  Amazon .

Ralph's latest work, available on Amazon.

Describe a perfect writing day:

I’m not sure that there is one. A good writing day for me is when I have the time and space to get lost in a story. Since I work full-time as an architect and am a parent and husband those days never really happen. I am lucky to grab a few hours in the morning and work on something fun and creative. Maybe someday in the future I can achieve a ‘perfect’ writing day.

What does your desk look like?

I work at a converted dining room table that is piled high with books and files. I keep a set of notecards and Post-it notes close by and often scrawl out a few words as reminders for one project or another. It is really a bit of a mess, but those scraps of paper are bits of inspiration.

I also have a litter of mementos scattered on my desk. There is a steel bolt from the first building I designed, shells from my visits to the beach, a bit of petrified wood another writer gave me, and a variety of colored drawings from my kids. Sometimes when I get stuck on a passage I’ll pick one of those objects and turn it over in my hands. They help ground me.

Last tough question: vanilla or chocolate?

Doesn’t matter to me if it’s ice cream or cake. I’ll take vanilla with coffee or chocolate with wine.

Words of advice for fellow writers in the trenches:

A writer friend of mine likes to say, “I’m years deep into my process of becoming an overnight success.” Don’t give up on your dream. Keep writing.

Where can we find you or your work?

You can find my stories at Amazon.com.

Or if you are in New Jersey you can pick up the UnCommon Lands Anthology at Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, NJ.

I am very active on Twitter. Come say hi at @RW_Igloo.

My website is www.ralphwalkerauthor.com.

Looking Beyond the Red

When you are in the throes of querying or submission, rejection can play mind games with you, so I figured why not write a post about rejection this month?

Let’s talk about rejection.

It comes at many levels. 

  • Querying/Submitting manuscripts (short stories, novels/novellas, chapter/picture books, etc.), at agent or editor level,

  • Entering contests (many Twitter-related),

  • Applying for grants/fellowships/writing opportunities,

  • Providing your manuscript to a beta reader or critique partner and they annihilate it,

  • Submitting to jobs related to writing.

  • And many more!

Per Merriam-Webster (one of my favorite websites), the definition of REJECTION is: 

a.    an immune response in which foreign tissue (as of a skin graft or transplanted organ) is attacked by immune system components of the recipient organism

Okay, okay. As a trained immunologist, I was compelled to keep that definition above. But the one I sought is below.

b.   The action of rejecting : the state of being rejected, or something rejected

Digging deeper: reject = to refuse to accept, consider, submit to, take for some purpose, or use. Unwillingness to accept something asked for. And Merriam-Webster even lists the example: “To reject a manuscript.” Ah, there we are.

I do love a good thesaurus, be it a writer's help guide or the regular old kind. Let's check out some synonyms for "rejection." Ouch. How about we toss those words down into that bubbly hot spring, shall we? Even if that beauty is called Morning Glory Pool (Yellowstone National Park) and is an exquisite sight.

 Let's toss those synonyms into the depths of Morning Glory hot spring!   Photo by Jean M. Grant

Let's toss those synonyms into the depths of Morning Glory hot spring!

Photo by Jean M. Grant

Moving on to antonyms. Those are a bit more uplifting so instead of letting them sizzle inside a geothermal hot bath, we’ll let them rise on the warm muddy surface of Grand Prismatic Spring (Yellowstone National Park).

 Bring on those happier words! And the muddy surface of Grand Prismatic Springs, Yellowstone National Park.   Photo by Jean M. Grant

Bring on those happier words! And the muddy surface of Grand Prismatic Springs, Yellowstone National Park.

Photo by Jean M. Grant

There are some enlightening words in that antonym box. Validation. Acceptance. Approval. Isn't that what we seek as authors? Don't we wish for that magic seal of approval stamped on our shining manuscript after we send it off to an agent or editor/press? Yes, we love our work. Our best friends love our work. Yes, we do write for ourselves. But, we do also write to get published, and we write the reader's enjoyment, too.

Like those hot springs, the surface to publication success is delicate. One wrong step, and down into the hot bubbly abyss you go. But if you can hover on the top, the heat is turned up...and you're okay.

How do we pull ourselves out of the heat and rise up for a warm bath instead? How do we keep our cool?

The road to publication is paved with rejection. Some authors  print all their rejections and line their entire floor’s square footage with it. Stephen King used to tack his rejections to the wall. What do I do? I made a spreadsheet! I even color-coded it:

Yellow: pending response (due to volume of submissions, many agents provide a timeline [sometimes] and say a “no response equals a no”). So when I first query, that entry gets highlighted yellow.

Green: positive response! The agent or editor asked for a partial or full. (insert dances and nervous checking of gmail five times a day!)

Red: where most of the queries end up. Rejection.

 A bit blurry, but you get the point. Agent names have been deleted. But here is one of my many spreadsheets I created for each project and the querying status. Agent name, their specifications, turn around/info, date of submission, and response (if any). 

A bit blurry, but you get the point. Agent names have been deleted. But here is one of my many spreadsheets I created for each project and the querying status. Agent name, their specifications, turn around/info, date of submission, and response (if any). 

 

40 rejections. 1 yes. It only took one.

With A Hundred Kisses, I began writing in 2012-2013. After 6 months of writing, 6 months of initial beta feedback and revision, I began the querying process. During this time, I added a lot of red to that spreadsheet. In addition to thickening my skin , I also revised, again and again. I met with agents at conferences. I focused on the feedback that came with some of those rejections. I re-sent to betas. Finally, it was more ready. But instead of sending to agents, I took a leap and submitted to two small romance presses. One said yes. And there is my happy-ever-after, folks! Granted, it was not the traditional agent-editor/publisher path, but I am very happy with it. From start (writing, 2012) to finish (contract, 2016), the process for that book took 4 years. Disclaimer: A Hundred Kisses was my fourth book written. The other 3 hang out in a closet somewhere and are learning experiences in writing and querying.

The red sometimes gets to be too much when you see rows of it glaring at you on the screen. So with my current work I'm querying, I changed it to a pretty lavender instead. That's a bit more soothing. My current work is women's fiction and I'm going the red route again - agent to editor. Given my happy experience with The Wild Rose Press, I'm also about ready to send my editor the prequel to A Hundred Kisses after a bit more revision and beta-reading. And if all goes well (and she says yes!), then I plan to work on a third book to turn those romance books into a trilogy.

So what do I do when rejection gets me down?

  1. Realize rejection is part of the journey

  2. Maybe take a day or two to be sad, eat more ice cream or binge watch The Price is Right or The Walking Dead (those characters can definitely make you feel better about your situation)

  3. If given feedback, glean from it. What did the agent/editor say about my story that is in my control to change? 

  4. Revise more

  5. Query more

  6. Take a break

  7. Write something else

  8. Keep at it

  9. Rinse and repeat the above steps

I'd love to hear from you. How do you organize and deal with rejection? 

Looking past the red,

Jean

Fording Rivers

Last week Facebook nicely reminded me of a fond memory, that ironically, I’d already been thinking about that very week. Spooky ESP aside, the image was an exclamation point on a road sign in Mt. Aspiring National Park, in the Wanaka area of New Zealand. I’ll start with a disclaimer: we traveled to this jewel of a country (Middle Earth if you’d like to call it that) for our honeymoon over a dozen years ago and it is hands down my favorite place on earth (sorry, Scotland, you’re second place). But I digress. What’s interesting about this sign is that it’s an exclamation point! First, you laugh at the image and think what the what? Then you see the sheep photobomb (and laugh more).

Why the exclamation point?

 Doesn't look intimidating at all, right?

Doesn't look intimidating at all, right?

Let’s start with how we got there. The drive to the Rob Roy Track was long, gravely, and a shakin’, window-nearly-breakin’ nauseating ride. There was no way to drive “just right”: fast, slow, in the tire ruts, or dodging holes…our car rumbled and roared on the 19-mile (30km) gravel road. The second challenge was alluded to by those lovely yellow signs. Fords in the road.

Yes, with our small rental car we needed to ford washed out parts of the road. Another disclaimer: we had asked a park ranger if the tiny rental car could handle the fords and she advised that it could. These were not little trickles of water. They were a foot deep, twenty feet in width, filled with rocks of all sizes, like your typical river. And we had to ford it over and over. I lost count. We probably crossed eight passes. Each time, I held onto the car for dear life while my husband drove us down, through the rocky, deep bottom, and back up the other side.

 Looks easy?  Tell our car that. Just you wait and see what's coming for  you in a few more miles...(Okay, I just personified the road, but hey, it was mean!)

Looks easy?  Tell our car that. Just you wait and see what's coming for  you in a few more miles...(Okay, I just personified the road, but hey, it was mean!)

We were so busy crossing the river that I didn’t snag a photo of the fords!

How often in life are we living in the moment, crossing fords, and hurrying to the finish line (or to the next adventure)? We are so hyper-focused on the task that we don’t take a moment to enjoy the journey. Or at least to appreciate it. Certainly, we reminisce in happy fondness later.

But what do we do during those times?

Sometimes we survive. We wake up, do the daily grind (whatever it may be: careers, parenting, caregiving for a loved one, going to school…the list is infinite). Some nights, we crawl into bed, achy and beaten by the day.

Sometimes we live. We cherish those moments like enjoying a great cup of coffee at sunrise, strengthening muscle while paddling a lake, listening to the laughter of our kids building Lego structures, conversing with a good friend or partner, or writing a new scene in a manuscript with sweet abandon!

And sometimes we doubt. On our trek in New Zealand, we questioned that road, those fords, even the track itself: can we make it? Should we keep going?

While on that bumpy-ford-crossing-will-we-ever-get-there road, my husband and I took in the magnificent glacial valley scenery: slender trees lined up like lollipops, cows and a million sheep nibbling on grass, tall cascading waterfalls, blue sky, puffy clouds, and sweeping mountainsides.

When we reached the trail head, we were exhilarated to have made it through the cumbersome, scary, nerve-wracking, beautiful, amazing journey there. But the journey wasn’t finished yet. First a rain shower hit, and we took cover (it was spring after all). Then we donned our packs and huffed up the mountain trail to even greater views of the valley. “Oh, look, swing bridges!” my husband exclaimed. My stomach didn’t match his excitement. But I made it across. The reward at the end of the trail: the Rob Roy Glacier.

But truly, the real reward was the journey it took to get there.

Would we do it again?

Of course!

p.s. There will likely be more travel adventure posts coming from me because this gal loves to travel, photograph, and write all about it! And you betcha’ I have many misadventures to share, too!

Counting Down the Clock

Tick-tock goes the clock.

We are surrounded by time in all its various forms, a gentle reminder that we're on a life-clock...and hopefully we'll get many days while we hang out on this third rock from the sun. 

 Oh, so many clocks...they surround us on appliances, technology, phones, Darth Vader alarm clocks, and old-fashioned wall clocks (my son learned to tell time via Roman Numerals at the ripe age of 4...he has a thing for clocks and schedules). Time is everywhere.

Oh, so many clocks...they surround us on appliances, technology, phones, Darth Vader alarm clocks, and old-fashioned wall clocks (my son learned to tell time via Roman Numerals at the ripe age of 4...he has a thing for clocks and schedules). Time is everywhere.

Another 365 days have now come to a close as we usher in a new year. Another 31 million seconds (or 525,000 minutes or 8,760 hours) have come...and gone. So what did we do with all of that precious time? Some minutes or hours were lost into an abyss of nothingness. And that's okay. Some were spent on heartache or struggles. That's also okay. Some were invested into careers/parenting. Also good. Some were spent on joyous occasions, travels, or special moments. And that rocks.

What's amazing about each brand new year is that we choose how to spend our time (more or less...). Time is a gift. Time is not infinite.

With the end of the year, we may have our regrets...our wishlist that didn't get completed, goals that seemed to be swept aside by life's unexpected events. All the could's, should's, would's. Yeah, they're there, too. It's okay to have some regrets, so long as we don't dwell on them, right?

We were all given the same 31 million seconds this year. So what did I do besides breathe, eat, and sleep?

My Adventurous Endeavors and Memorable Moments of 2017:

  1. Joined Twitter -- lookout, world!

  2. Countless hugs and love-you's from my children and husband...along with their own special milestones this year.

  3. Published my first book, A Hundred Kisses, (this secretly should be #1)!! [insert happy dance].

  4. Visited Lake Placid and Door County, Wisconsin for writing assignments.

  5. Left a fruitful, demanding job to follow my full-time writing dream (A little more about that).

  6. Ventured through Nova Scotia with my husband.

  7. Celebrated my website's 1-year-anniversary.

  8. Connected with other writers via social media and friends.

  9. Finished my second book in the "Hundred" trilogy (currently my writer buddy is reading the first draft), while I outline the third book...btw, this latest manuscript is my 6th manuscript completed...3 are hidden in a drawer somewhere as a learning experience. Yes, 6th!

  10. Conquered my fear of heights in a fun tree-canopy-ropes course with my family (who am I kidding? I'm still scared.).

  11. Enjoyed so many cherished moments with friends and family.

  12. Appreciated the support and patience of a few close friends while dealing with my own struggles.

My Speed Bumps (Let's call them "Moments to Reflect and Grow") of 2017:

  1. Left a fruitful, demanding job to follow my full-time writing dream (A little more about that) -- yes, it's the same as #5 on my memorable moments, too. A milestone life moment can be both gratifying and terrifying.

  2. Saw the resurgence of a life-long battle with anxiety/depression this fall (and I'm busy digging myself out -- there is light at the end of the tunnel!).

  3. 43 rejections on my newest work (Women's Fiction - a genre jump for this romance author and the 5th novel I've written). 55 if you count the dozen "no responses" I'm waiting on.

  4. The throes of parenthood ('nuff said?).

  5. Losing a few friendships.

Admittedly, I was surprised, given the dark waters I waded through this fall, that I had trouble compiling that speed bump list. No deaths or serious illnesses or huge events plagued our household this year. I am grateful because certainly the bumps list was far longer during other years in my lifelong journey.  

I've spent this year learning, crafting, venturing, taking great leaps of faith, growing...and treasuring the seconds, minutes, and hours. I'm sure I will make a goal/resolution list next week, as I am a goal-driven person. I will check off things as they happen, and there will definitely be some goals not achieved. To be honest, I don't even know what all my goals were for this year! Some lists are fluid and shape shift. Some goals remain on that list for a very long time (it took me 19 years, on and off, to get my first novel published). Some may never reach fruition. And that's all okay.

Life is a journey. Highs and lows. Memorable moments and speed bumps. As you say goodbye to 2017 and hello to 2018 I encourage you to also compile your lists and you may be surprised that the good outweighed the bad if you dig deep enough.

Cheers, and have a safe and happy New Year! I'd also like to thank all my readers, followers, and support team (= friends and family and critique partners = cheerleaders!). You are blessings in my personal and professional life. Thank you!

Jean

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