Monday, June 10, 2013

Memoir, Mystery, and the Muse

by Sheila Webster Boneham

I recently taught a six-week "Write Your Memoir" class through the Cameron Art Museum here in Wilmington, NC. I love teaching through the Museum School - we get terrific students. Writing is rather new to the Museum School's offerings and we are still building up that portion of the catalog, but things are looking up as people find out about the writing classes. 

Now that "Memoir" is finished, I'm back to focusing on the third book in my Animals in Focus Mystery series, tentatively titled Catwalk, and I've been thinking about some of the links between memoirs, mysteries, and that slippery character, the writer's Muse. Creativity, after all, works in similar ways regardless of the genre -- or even the medium -- in which we work.  

One of the tools I shared with my memoir students was a series of questions to ask of old photographs. We've all heard that a picture is worth a thousand words, but a photo (or other visual image) may also help inspire and expand ideas. It's no surprise that photos can be used to bring up memories of places we've been, or people and animals we've known, or events we've experienced. 

What may not be so obvious is that  photos can be useful creative tools for  writers in other genres, including mystery. Images of settings, people, animals, or objects can serve to inspire short stories or scenes in longer works, especially when the narrator or a character answers the questions I pose below. An image might even provide the kernel for a longer piece of writing. For instance, one of my inspirations for The Money Bird, which will be out in September, was a photo of an escaped pet parrot in a tree in the Midwest. 

So if you're looking for a way to go deeper, or wider, or to find new ideas, try "interrogating" a photo or painting. Better yet, have one of your characters do it. Start with these questions:
  • Where is this?
  • When?
  • Why are you there?
  • Who else is there?
  • Have you been there before?
  • What is happening, or not happening?
  • Is some object in the photo significant to you?
  • Is a person or animal in the picture significant to you?

Now dig deeper:
  • What do you hear?
  • What do you smell?
  • What did you eat or drink?
  • What does it taste like?
  • What’s the weather like?
  • What time of day is it?
  • What are you wearing?
  • Who else is there?
  • What do you feel with your hands, your feet, your skin….
  • What emotions do you feel?
And so on....

Give it a try. Let me know how it goes. Send a picture! You can find me at or on my Write Here, Write Now! blog. 


Beth Groundwater said...

Hi Sheila,
Being a mystery reader/writer, that photograph of the woman with the shovel made me think she'd just buried something -- a body, or a body part, or evidence, or ...

Unknown said...

That's why I picked it, Beth! Ha!

Deborah Sharp said...

Dig deep, huh? A friend who teaches memoir writing tried to encourage me to take her class. I asked her, ''Are you going to make me cry?'' (digging up old memories)
''Yep, probably,'' she answered.
Haven't been brave enough yet to go, though I love reading other people's memoirs.

Unknown said...

Aww, Deborah, that is a potential result. OTOH, we sometimes learn wonderful things that fill our hearts and help us understand ourselves, our friends, our world better!