Stalking the Wild Muse: Writer Rituals & Habits – Cities

MusemedA series exploring the props, habits, and drugs that fuel the writer’s productivity. Past, present and future! Look for BVC writers, plus other authors we know and love.

by Madeleine Robins

All sorts of people write movingly about nature.  And nature is a perfectly wonderful thing.  I am not above being moved by the quilted green of an autumn hillside, or the lushness of a forest, or…well any of the natural phenomena of which writers write so enthusiastically.  The silence, the sounds of nature, the beasts, the clarity of the air…all lovely.  In small doses.

But I’m a city kid: for inspiration and the feeding of my writer’s soul and sensibility, give me cities every time.  Preferably a densely-packed city with some history.  Recent history, ancient history, a jumbling of the two.  And people. Lots of people. There is nothing more nourishing to my imagination and energy than to stand on a corner in a busy neighborhood, watching my fellow humans go by.  Cities are all about humanity and, curiously, so is storytelling (to me, anyway.  Your mileage may vary).  You want to look at people and their worlds? Go to a city.  Go to several.

There are the people themselves, who are always wonderful and fearful to watch.  Like the panhandler on the lower East side of Manhattan twenty years ago who proudly carried a sign that said “Spare $42 million dollars for a 747?”  I gave him a buck, for originality.  Or the young man selling bullwhips on a street corner just before Christmas: “Whips, take one home to your wife or girlfriend, Whips, the perfect stocking stuffer…”  If I wrote that in a story I’d be told it was too weird.  The conductor on the 1 IRT line in Manhattan who used the PA to make the train into his own personal stand-up theatre. The bum who hung around the playground where my grade school had “gym”, who got to know many of us by name.  Or the apparent Wiseguy I saw chewing out his son for minor vandalism in Bensonhurst (“You moron! How many times I gotta tell you. You don’t shit where you eat.  You wanna do shit like this, you go to Bay Ridge!”).  If you keep your eyes open you can see everybody, doing everything.

And cities are palimpsests.  No matter what you build over, there will be remnants of what was there before.  Every now and then when a building is torn down you can see the faded remains of old advertising art on the brick face of the building next door.  Look at the hardware that’s set in the concrete: manholes and plugs, sometimes with legends of public agencies gone by. Playgrounds give you a sense of the aesthetic of their age–oh, the climbing structures of my youth, all moderne faces with portholes to grab! There are subway stations in New York that, abandoned, are like secret, graffiti-clad caves, glinting, as a train races through, with reflective silver paint and subway lights.  A city can tell you what was important to denizens a hundred years ago, two hundred years ago.  London (my second favorite city in the world) has street signs in places where no street now exists–my favorite, Hanging Sword Alley, is a hole in the wall between two modern buildings, but 200 years ago it was a place where many of the fencing salles in the city were located).  Cities build on top of themselves, achieving what Dorothy Sayers called “a high degree of onionisation.”  Sometimes you peel back a layer and find worlds.

Cities are pressure cookers.  And they’ve got size. A character, or a whole sub-culture, can get lost in the interstices of a city. Characters can hide in plain sight. And despite their reputation for being impersonal, city-dwellers can reveal a degree of intimacy and involvement that always takes me by surprise.  Cities take energy and give it, like a vast perpetual motion machine.  And what cities set in motion is the stuff of fiction.

Okay.  This may not be your cup of tea.  But for me, there’s nothing moving among my fellow citizens on  crowded streets to get the creative juices going.  To supply inspiration. To cheer me up and onward.

Excuse me.  I think I’ll take a walk.



About Brenda Clough

Brenda W. Clough spent much of her childhood overseas, courtesy of the U.S. government. Her first fantasy novel, The Crystal Crown, was published by DAW in 1984. She has also written The Dragon of Mishbil (1985), The Realm Beneath (1986), and The Name of the Sun (1988). Her children’s novel, An Impossumble Summer (1992), is set in her own house in Virginia, where she lives in a cottage at the edge of a forest. Her novel How Like a God, available from BVC, was published by Tor Books in 1997, and a sequel, Doors of Death and Life, was published in May 2000. Her latest novels from Book View Cafe include Revise the World (2009) and Speak to Our Desires. Her novel A Most Dangerous Woman is being serialized by Serial Box. Her novel The River Twice is newly available from BVC.


Stalking the Wild Muse: Writer Rituals & Habits – Cities — 8 Comments

  1. I like this. I’m always inspired by looking around cities. I love comparative architecture. I remember feeling surprised by the openness in San Francisco the first time I flew there from DC. The contrast of the houses and other buildings in the two cities was so dramatically different seen back to back. For years every time I got into NYC on the train from DC my heart would leap when the conductor announced “Penn Station.” I spent a week in York and went around taking pictures of walls and ancient buildings, probably because I come from a place where 100 years old is ancient. And I’m constantly fascinated here in Austin by the juxtaposition of mechanics, car washes, clothing stores, and tony restaurants. (And we actually have zoning, unlike Houston.) You don’t see that on the East Coast, not the same way.

    Of course, then there are all the shopping malls and strip centers that look exactly the same in every US city. Those aren’t inspiring.

    • I made the protagonist in The Stone War (a book about New York City, of course) an architect, because it gave me an excuse to dwell on the buildings and infrastructure of the city. I’ve got it bad… On the other hand, I miss the Old Times Square, as squalid and scary as it was, because it didn’t look like an open-space Mall of America. Sigh.

      • The beginning of Changeling describes a city that isn’t NYC, but is based on how I used to feel every time I went there. And a lot of the story deals with the difference between that other-dimension city and the real-world city of Wichita Falls, Texas, in which the protagonist lives. What my favorite singer Butch Hancock says of Lubbock applies equally well to Wichita Falls: “Everything there is out of context.”

    • Brenda, I grew up in a small town that became a Houston suburb, but ever since I left home — with only a couple of very short-term exceptions — I have lived in cities. I like small towns, but I know their limitations far too well. And having seen our small town lose its charm as it became a suburb, I avoided those like the plague.

  2. I love that quote, Nancy Jane. It may have to be a book title.

    Mad, I adore cities, but I am a deep introvert, something acquaintances don’t always know because I like people and can talk with the best of them. My exterior shell says “Cities! Whee!”

    And then I go collapse from exhaustion somewhere. I loved NYC, but I could not even sleep there because of the swirl of energy. San Francisco was better, perhaps because there is the overwhelming sweep of water lapping at the fringes. Manhattan rises like a monolith from the sea, and only a hurricane can disturb it.

    I love visiting cities. They constantly give me ideas for stories. I just can’t figure out how to live in them.

    • Butch Hancock’s lyrics are also full of great lines, some of which are suitable for book or story titles, not to mention ideas. I’ve been using him for inspiration for years.