Let’s say you have a dead body. You just randomly stumbled across it in a dark alleyway. (I won’t assume you killed someone. I’m not that cynical.) What can you discover from the crime scene? Someone’s dead. That’s an obvious conclusion. You might be able to assume a cause of death if you see shell casings, bullet holes, knives, or a dragon crouching protectively over its prey. You can guess at the victim’s age. Can you get the whole story though? What about half the story? No. You can’t. Not unless you’re secretly a genius with deductive reasoning, in which case, I must ask why you aren’t working in law enforcement already. While we writers can’t make much of what happened in a crime scene, detectives can.
They take that scene and can usually reconstruct what happened. Blood splatters reveal what angle the bullet entered. Nicks on bone can reveal if the killer was a professional with knives or an amateur. They can also reveal the size of the blade. They know how dragons hunt. Everything in a crime scene is a piece of the puzzle they use to backtrack and, if you will, reverse time to recreate a chain of events for the incident.
It takes baby steps though. They might have nothing to work off of but a strand of hair or an incomplete fingerprint. They might have contradictory eyewitness accounts. Or bad security camera footage. If they’re lucky, they’ll have an identified suspect. If not, they’ll have a suspect that is male, Caucasian, five feet and eleven inches, approximately one-hundred eighty pounds, and of indeterminate age. I just described myself, and included a whole bunch of other people. That makes for a lot of suspects. Investigators have to use every clue, no matter how small, to begin eliminating people from the suspect list. Then they have to find more clues, hitting dead ends and finding red herrings that smell oddly of cabbage at every turn. They just keep at it though, plugging away at the five basic questions.
Who let the dragon loose? Why was it here? What specifically drew the dragon to the victim? At what time did it turn Mr. Jorvaldson, a reputable businessman, into a serving of toasted person? Where did the dragon originate? Then they ask other questions. To whom do these size twenty footprints belong to? Why was Mr. Jorvaldson in a sketchy alley in a sketchy part of town in sketchy clothes when there was no artist sketching? Why on earth would someone use a dragon as a murder weapon? Or was it not murder? Since when did dragons even exist? Why did Mr. Jorvaldson have classified documents in the charred remains of his briefcase? Who took my coffee?
I pity the detectives assigned that case. Or the writer trying to pull that mess of questions into a coherent (or deliberately incoherent) story. Writing is very similar to detective work. The stakes are lower, fortunately, but the stress levels still dwarf the Empire State Building. This is especially true when we get a new idea. Or rather, fragments of a new idea. Then our goal becomes the same as the detectives. Discover the full truth about the conflict and characters of the situation and articulate them clearly to the audience, be they a jury or readers. Interestingly enough, the jury is still out on whether or not the two are really different.
We start our case with as little evidence as many detectives. We might have a snippet of overheard conversation. Maybe a blurry image. We probably don’t have anything complete. We only end up with complete ideas at the inspiration stage once every thousand blue moons. Which, by my blindfolded in a dark room while spinning around on a tipsy office chair calculations, is less than once in a lifetime. Sometimes we have nothing but a feeling to go off of. That’s the worst, in my opinion. It’s starting an investigation with a suspicion that a crime was committed somewhere, but having no idea where it happened. What do we do when we’re trying to construct a castle of a story when all we have is a splinter of tooth-pick?
We take our fedoras from the hat rack, tighten the belts on our trench coats, check our revolvers (for here be dragons), and swagger off into the dark, mist-shrouded alleys of our mind. Somewhere in this maze of dreams, three quarters-forgotten chores, heartaches, grocery lists, out of date passwords, past phone numbers, annoying song lyrics, and imagined conversations, hides our quarry. A Story. Armed, dangerous, and not to be underestimated. We must track it down, following the whispered sound of turning pages, half-cylinder spine prints, and emotional wrecks slumped in the ditch.
Finding these clues actually takes work. We can’t just sit at our desk, glaring at a blank screen while brooding into our tea. That leads to a pink slip for detectives and blank pages for us, which leads to no acceptance letter. Writing is work. Detective work is work. Life is work.
We can’t sit around and wait for the muse to bless us with the Doughnuts of Intuitive Success or the Coffee of Unequalled Prose. No. She’s a witness in the case. Track her down and get her to spill the beans. Or at least, hand over the gift card for the coffee. Writing leads to a lot of late nights. Then get her to spill the beans. Keep asking the hard questions. Don’t let her avoid answering with excuses of the well drying out, the stars not aligning, or any other hocus-pocus. Don’t stop until you have answers.
Be prepared to push hard for this information. Muses are temperamental and are not to be relied upon for a successful career. Learn to get the information you need when you need it rather than waiting for them to remember you. You’ll be waiting a long time, and they make a habit of dumping an idea when you aren’t ready for it. Keep your evidence files on hand in the case they remember something they “conveniently” forgot. Be sure to write down their interrogation responses, so you can cross-reference them at a later date.
What are practical ways of doing this? That one’s still an open case. Asking what-if questions, as described in a post earlier this month, is a marvelous way to consider possibilities. You can follow all sorts of rabbits into different Wonderlands that way. Some will fit your story. Others won’t. Fortunately, you can recycle the unused ideas into a different story. Make sure you keep your tank full as well. Read more often than you probably should. Read everything. Read novels. Read poetry. Read sketchy conspiracy story websites. Skim obituaries and classifieds in the newspaper. Make note of anything that seems like it could be related, but is probably just a coincidence. After all, to quote Commissioner Jim Gordon, “You’re a detective now. You aren’t allowed to believe in coincidence anymore.” Just start digging and making connections between ideas. The wilder they are, the better. After all, it’s easier to tone something crazy down than it is to make some bland more vibrant, while still being believable.
Enough briefing now, detectives. Here’s your badge, notebook, and fedora. Now get out there and solve those cases of yours. The world needs them.
Kaleb Kramer lives in Small Town, Ohio, where he is finishing up his high-school career and beginning his college career, while also trying to figure out to make writing a serious career. He loves backpacking and kayaking, as well as the writer’s normal nocturnal behavior of reading and research. He is currently working on pre-draft development for a series.