How Much Control Do We Have Over The Muse?

An award-winning novelist, Judy Alter has written fiction for adults and young adults, primarily about women in the nineteenth-century American West. Now she has turned her attention to contemporary cozy mysteries. Trouble in a Big Box, the third Kelly O’Connell mystery, follows Skeleton in a Dead Space and No Neighborhood for Old Women, which received good reviews and popular enthusiasm. Follow Judy at or her two blogs at or

A year and a half ago I had the opportunity I’d been waiting at least half a lifetime for—a trip to Scotland, with my oldest son and daughter. It was a glorious week as we drove around the Highlands, visiting whatever we wanted to see—Culloden battlefield, the MacBain Clan Memorial Park (I’m a MacBain), countless castles, and wonderful pubs in small villages. I came away with my mind filled with Scottish history—the raw bloody part and the amazing intellectual achievements of the 18th and 19th centuries, the possibilities for dark imagination and strange happenings in the Highlands. I was filled with dreams of writing mysteries set in Scotland.

But that’s not what happened at all. I was then under contract for my first Kelly O’Connell Mystery, set in inner Fort Worth, Texas. Since then I’ve written two and a half more Kelly O’Connell books (the half is the one I’m struggling with right now) and one stand-alone mystery set in a small East Texas town.

I’m not sure what happened to Scotland, but apparently Texas is always on my mind. Almost without my planning it, I found myself writing those cozies, thoughts of the legend-filled highlands, irresistible in kilts, and, yes, even haggis, just a pleasant memory.

I think our muse takes over more often than we expect. Late in life, Dorothy Johnson, author of A Man Called Horse and The Hanging Tree among other memorable works, was writing a novel about New York City, where she had lived during WWII. She called it The Unbombed because New York lived on alert for a bombing attack that never came. One day she wrote me that she’d had a horrible shock: she’d just learned that the man she thought was going to be the hero was instead going to be killed in the war. Her muse had spoken, and there wasn’t much Dorothy could do but follow along.

Right now, my muse is silent or else speaking to me in tongues. I’m not getting the messages, and at 50,000 words, I’m stalled on the manuscript I have been working and worrying with. I know traditional wisdom says to write through your block, and I greatly admire writers who can do that. Some sit at their desks, come TV, hunger, or writer’s block, and diligently add the words to the page. I had gotten to the point that I felt every word I added was compounding the muddle, as I tried for quantity of words rather than quality. My muse wasn’t talking, and so I’m taking a vacation. And I find I’m sleeping better, feeling better, and generally in a much happier frame of mind. In other words, I was beating myself up over that silent muse.

I do have a confession: I have a beta reader, mentor (though he says he never thought of himself that way), or critic—whatever you want to call him—who will read the manuscript later this week and make suggestions. And, yes, by then I’ll probably go back and re-read it myself. Maybe such outside help will stimulate my muse.

Anybody else feel that time away sometimes freshens your approach to a manuscript?