Thursday, February 15, 2018

Eliot Ness and the Origin of Ideas

Successful authors advise novice writers to read EVERYTHING. They maintain that good ideas may percolate from our subconscious and consuming diverse inputs creates more interesting percolations. Sort of how a better coffee bean creates a more robust, complex cup of coffee. This week, I experienced the wisdom of this sage advice.

Since National Novel Writing Month in November, I've been working on a novella set in Cleveland. I copped the working title, Build Break, Rebuild, from the Carl Sandburg poem Chicago. I wasn't happy and expected a better title would suggest itself, but three months later I was still stuck with Sandburg.

That changed on Sunday. Here’s how.

While editing, I noticed that dead crime fighter Eliot Ness's image played an outsized role.

Eliot Ness? Why?

Because Eliot Ness ran for mayor of Cleveland in 1947 after retiring from the FBI. Despite being the hero who captured the notorious gangster Al Capone, he got shellacked.

Like it would most Clevelanders, this factoid surprised me. I didn’t learn this in history, Instead, our urban studies class stumbled upon a faded Ness campaign mural in 1985. The discovery delighted me because Ness was a cultural icon, the intrepid G-Man memorialized in film and TV. But I wondered why a famous crime-fighter wanted anything to do with Cleveland.

So I researched, reading up on Cleveland's history.

Turns out I was a product of 1980’s newscasts which cast Cleveland as sad sacks: the Cuyahoga River catching fire, massive plant closures sending the once thriving industrial mecca into free fall and bankruptcy, etc. I did not realize that in 1938, only New York and Chicago were wealthier and more powerful than Cleveland. This impressed me. So I included two fictional Ness murals in the book.

This explains how Eliot Ness murals crept into a novella.. And that observation led to a new, catchier title: Eliot Ness for Mayor. This is an object lesson on creativity. Sure, some of it may be natural, but nurturing your creative side is as important, especially as you get older. And though I’m loath to admit it, I am now middle age.

Which leads to my final observation: it pays to heed the advice of successful people you want to emulate. They may not always be right, but odds are listening to Stephen King’s advice will net you greater results than heeding your own muse.

Unless your name is Stephen King.

For More On Eliot Ness in Cleveland, read the article Eliot Ness and his Role in Cleveland History
from the Cleveland Police Museum.

Image Source: 1938 CAMPAIGN SIGN ON BUILDING AT 36TH STREET AND CEDAR AVENUE by Frank J. Aleksandrowicz. Available on Wikipedia:

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