Friday, August 9, 2013

Travel Quest - Museum Short Story

Wes McBride sketching at the Getty Villa in Malibu, CA

Every Saturday morning, Wes and I pick a location and go out to sketch and write. Last Saturday we went to the Getty Villa and while Wes sketched, I created the coolest museum game for writers!

I ran around the museum gardens and took random pictures of whatever caught my eye and a few other indoor pictures. I didn't photograph any paintings as that's typically a No-No at museums. Here's a collage of my pictures.

Random photos from the Getty Villa used to inspire a story
As Wes sketched, I sat next to him and toggled through the photos on my camera. As each photo popped up, I incorporated it into the story. 

This can be done at any museum around the world!

So here's the story, with a play-by-play of which picture inspired which section:


By Sara McBride

In the days of splendor, in a place long remembered, where day turned to night and endless ash fell, there once lived a man whose trade was to sell. A merchant of fine wools, he stood draped in his wares. His strong face and sharp eyes sat framed by graying curls, a reminder of his struggled youth, long passed. Now wealthy, a man of habitual income, but lost in search of new purpose. When his hair was dark in color and his skin smooth with bloom, he struggled from day to day, simply to eat, to live. Now life existed as a blur of days, a smear across the heavens, all needs being met and no needs being satisfied. He asked the gods, “What is my purpose?” The gods did not answer, or so he thought.
Everyday he passed the Stream of Muses on his way to market. A long set of colonnaded corridors leading out to the sea, the Bay of Naples, contained crowds of buyers and sellers, hawkers and shoppers. Until one day, as he walked along the shady Stream of Muses, a muse stepped into his path. Her hair was braided and set high, in a royal fashion.
Her scent danced with flowers and mint. She was all summer freshness, but for her eyes. Her eyes, the window to her heart, her desire, her source of inspiration to others, her eyes held sadness.  The wool merchant knew she had lost the most precious holding of a muse, her gift to inspire. Unsure how to help such a pitiful creature he dressed her in his draperies and took her toward the market.

   They came across a young boy bartering wine for other useful objects. The muse smelled the wine, observed its silky texture and gained a smile to her face. The merchant, upon seeing the muse so altered, offered the boy a cloak of moderate wool for a jug of his grape elixir. The deal was done. The merchant drank from the jug and patted his belly with pleasure as a demonstration
to the muse. She hesitantly took the jug and drank the smallest of sips. The merchant encouraged her to drink more, certain it would make her happy. In her effort to appease, she did drink more, but her face filled with a tortured gaze increased by each swallow. The merchant, seeing her displeasure, halted her and begged her to drink no more.

Farther down the road, they came upon a group of actors rehearsing a play. The merchant and the muse stopped to watch. The play developed up to the Deus Ex Machina, but the cloth used to conceal the machine of the Gods was threadbare and torn. The actors bemoaned their sad fate. At that moment, the muse stood and began to detach her body’s drapings, the drapings that the merchant had dressed her in. The merchant caught her before such unseemly revealings could occur, his eyes crinkling with laughter at her innocence. He pulled from his wares an enormous bolt of solid cloth and draped it around the God’s machinery. The actors cheered. A masked man revealed his whiskered face, ink long dried in his beard, and thanked the merchant with a gift of blank scrolls to be writ upon. They continued the play to the end, and the muse smiled joyfully at the hero triumphant. But when the play ended, sadness once again consumed her.

   The merchant sighed, but pushed on toward the market. They found themselves admiring the stroll of a peacock, whose neck was fastened round with a gold chain held by a portly young man. The peacock and the portly youth followed a mature, lean man of the military, holding a helmet under one arm. The helmet was ingeniously carved with wings that mechanically flapped with a strong wind and an eagle’s head perched above the brow. This identified the military man as a watcher from the mountain rims of Vesuvius.
Before the merchant could make an introduction, the muse approached the portly youth and pointed at his elegantly feathered bird. The youth being kind, and enjoying her attentions, bent down and plucked a long tail feather from his pet. The squawk surprised all. The military man turned to behold the scene. He struck his chest with his hand. He gasped. He declared the muse to be an angel and that she embodied the good omen he sought. He now knew that he must return to his family and no longer patrol the mountain rims. He handed his helmet to the merchant who inquired how long a journey he must partake? Upon hearing the great distance, the merchant gave the man a thick cloak to assist him on his travels. The muse smiled at the merchant’s unsolicited generosity.

   The merchant and the muse entered the market, but the muse would not let him stop. She continued to the waters edge and further down the road. She walked and walked, leading the merchant, their roles now reversed. Finally, after the wind had rubbed his face raw and his cart of wares felt numb in his hands, she stopped at the cross roads of Vesuvius and Naples. Then, unexpectedly, she reached into the cart, pulled out the helmet and placed it on the merchant’s head. She touched all the objects in the cart: the jug of wine, the blank scrolls, the peacock feather with a fine point for a quill, his last four cloaks, and the helmet upon his head. She smiled. She smiled so brightly her eyes filled with stars and night fell instantly. She vanished. The last remnants of daylight returned, Apollo ending his ride across the sky. But she was gone. The merchant looked in all directions, but she was not to be found.
The Iris made me think of Ink.
The sun glinted on something in the cart. The merchant reached for the object and discovered it to be a small glass bottle of solid black ink. It was the ink of a moonless night. He opened the bottle and out danced the scents of summer freshness, of flowers and mint. He corked the bottle and kissed it.
Wearing his eagle’s helmet, he turned away from the road home and journeyed forth onto new soil, up the path to the rim of Vesuvius. There he found a small encampment of Roman Eagle soldiers, four men. He offered them wine. He gave them each a new, much welcomed cloak of fine wool, and they embraced him into their simple ways. The merchant soon forgot he was ever a merchant. His new purpose consumed him.

The Stream of Muses continued to babble on. But one muse, the Muse of History, is not always there. Often she is visiting her old merchant friend atop Vesuvius as he records the histories told to him by the many soldiers who pass their military time at the rim. Now she is never without a smile, as the merchant has discovered perspective in his own life and by helping others do the same, he finds purpose.


So now I've written this fun little story. What do I do with it? I'm going to put it in my Jane Austen - Ireland book. The book stars two sisters who are competitive with each other. One evening, they are both trying to impress the same gentleman by telling stories, a fabulous Irish fireside tradition. The serious sister who loves history will tell this tale. On our next museum trip, I'll figure out the story told by the whimsical sister. 

Get thee to a museum - Inspiration awaits!


  1. "In the days of splendor, in a place long remembered, where day turned to night and endless ash fell, there once lived a man whose trade was to sell."

    That's one of the coolest opening sentences EVER!

    Love this idea in itself, and the actual story you wrote is a blast! I think you should publish it in its own right, AND within the novel :)

    Side note: As I'm a total Villa dei Papiri obsessor, the Getty Villa is one of my favorite places. I will be playing your game the next time I go to a museum.

  2. Btw I'm jealous of your Saturday morning ritual. I'm doing laundry and cleaning dog poop.

  3. LOL at doing laundry and cleaning poop. Today we went to the Huntington Library and next week we're going to Natural History Museum. We've got memberships and we're using them! Now if only I can get Wes to scan in his sketches. They're gorgeous!

    Glad you like the story - it was fun to write. That was pretty much off the cuff with very few changes. It was nice to have the details in the faces instantly inspire fun characters. Did you catch my "endless ash fell" as a reference to your book. :)

  4. Yeah, I assumed that your first sentence was setting the scene in Herculaneum :)

    Sounds like awesome weekends!