We’re always being told to write what we know but doesn’t that sound the teensiest bit boring?
Still, unless you have a lot of time for research, mining your own experiences can be useful…if you go about it in the right way.
Write a list of things you know about. Pick one. Give that knowledge to a character.
Dig deep as you make your list. Consider all the arcana of your brain’s storehouses. Don’t discount very, very specific things like “growing up one street across from an elite military academy’s live-fire training grounds, in the 1970s” or “spending vacations in an apartment over my uncle’s store”.
Pick something from the middle of your list. The first will be too obvious and everyday (therefore the story will not excite you) and the last one will be too weird, because you were clutching at straws. That one would require too much research and then your short story would never be written (or would demand to become a novel).
Consider what kind of character you can give this experience to. Will the wnjoy it? Hate it? Grow up to try to hide it only to have it become important (remember Clarice in “The Silence Of The Lambs” trading secrets about her backwoods upbringing to buy Hannibal Lector’s assistance?)
Consider giving your character a sidekick to impress/show off for/frighten/lie to.
What does your character want? How can this specialist knowledge help/hinder in their quest. What would they do/never do? What do they need? Where are they at the start and the end of your story (metaphorically and physically).
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The Prompt: Write A List Of Song Titles You’d Actually Be Interested In Listening To. Write The Story Behind The Song, for one of them.
After you reach a certain age — or stage — of life, it seems like no one writers songs for you any more. You’ve learned a lot of the lessons pop singers seem to be struggling with. Maybe you’re (gasp!) happily married. Maybe the things you struggle with are things other than love and boys and where to go on a Saturday night.
Write A List Of Song Titles You’d Actually Be Interested In Listening To.
Write The Story Of The Character In That Song.
Country music is probably a slightly better role model here than pop. I know there are lots of songs about a more mature kind of love, or about the kind of lifestyle people wish they were living. You could write a wishlist of how your life would look (similar to the country music odes to God, Guns, Mama, Girls and Trucks)
Inspiration for this prompt came from the very wonderful How To Be A Writer by Barbara Baig, which I’ve only just started reading, but which echoes what I’ve been saying here for years (so naturally, I think she’s a genius!)
Not everything you write should be written with a view to showing it to anyone else.
Just as you would practice the piano in private for months or years before hoping to be able to bring any pleasure to a listener, writers must practice their craft too…sometimes in private.
Write A Story That Is You Will Never Show To Anyone
Don’t cheat and tell yourself that something magical is bound to happen and that you’ll end up writing a story so good that you’ll feel compelled to show it to people. Promise you will not show it to anyone and stick to that.
If you’re having trouble coming up with something to write about, dive into your stash of Story Sparks (you have been collecting them, haven’t you?)
If you haven’t been collecting Story Sparks out in the real world, take ten minutes right now and look deep inside yourself. What news story annoyed you this week? Which political candidate do you despise the most? Why? What did you see that was beautiful, recently? What is your strongest memory of your mother? Why? What did summer smell like when you were growing up? Who do you miss? What’s your favorite swear word? What frightened you when you were a child? What frightens you now?
Make a quick list of 30 Story Sparks. (If you don’t know what I mean by story sparks read this article)
I’m not big on regrets. Everything experience contributes to the person we become, so there’s not much point in wishing to change the past.
But everyone has regrets.
And what good is a character in a story without a few regrets?
Write A Story Centering On A Character Wrestling With A Big Regret
Think of a character (do this exercise: adjective noun; e.g. nervous housewife; tired teacher; suicidal businessman; carefree duke)
Give that character one thing in their past that they regret.
Think about how this thing has affected where they are today.
Ask yourself what would this character do if given a chance to act on the regret (to confront the person it concerned, to change the decision they made, to make amends, to take revenge).
Think about the different options open to your character. How does each of them work with the person the character has become in the intervening years? (A rich young man with no responsibilities might swear revenge on the woman who broke his heart. When he meets her again, as an older man who has inherited his wealth and title, does he still want revenge? What will it mean for him if he takes revenge? Is it worth it?)
Decide which course of action your character will take (or not take).
Set them on the road to taking that course of action.
Now start the story. Don’t start with the backstory. Start with them on the road, in the room, in the middle of the fight, in the midst of the heist. You can weave the backstory into the conversations they have during the story.
Are you even moved by an injustice in the world? A news story? A historic event that you feel has stories in it that haven’t been told?
It can be hard to figure out how to write a story that is of the moment, but doesn’t become irrelevant when the news cycle moves on.
Yesterday’s Reading Room post was all about a story just like that and it pointed one way forward: set your story in the moment (in that story’s case, it was during the Occupy Wall St movement), but make the story about more universal issues. The protagonist of “We Was Twins” was not part of the the Occupy movement, but got caught up in it anyway. He was struggling with issues of poverty, life after military service, grief, estrangement…issues that are universal and timeless.
This week I encourage you to try something similar.
Write a story set in a specific time/place in history, but tell the story of specific individuals dealing with issues that are both specific to them, and part of the human condition.
You might write a story about an idealistic twenty-something who goes to help at a refugee camp in Europe only to find that she still gets picked on by people because she can’t stand up for herself.
You might write about someone working on Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign, but with an intriguing complications in their personal life.
What if your main character got caught in Winter Storm Jonas on their way to do something life-changing?
You could combine this idea with ‘evergreen’ occasions, like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, the first day of spring. Write a story like this and you can republish it every year, or sell it to a publication that’s looking for holiday stories. Make sure your protagonist has an interesting story to tell, that you can highlight/echo/make poignant with the holiday you choose.
Write a story with two characters: one manipulative and one manipulated
Think about what characteristics you associate with a manipulative person. Are they bossy? Aggressive? Passive Aggressive?
Use the contrast between the two characters to highlight the ‘truth’ of the each character- in their own minds, in each others’ minds, in the reader’s mind.
Have some fun with reader expectations here: allow the reader to think that the brash, bossy character is the manipulator when really it turns out that the seemingly submissive character is the one who gets their own way. Or vice versa.
Consider using an unusual setting for a very domestic dispute (an argument about housework during a car chase) or a domestic setting for an unusual conversation (two people making the bed, discussing the evidence for the the theory of multiverses).
Write a short story with an atmospheric feel set in any of the wintery types of weather that present opportunities to give that additional ingredient of mystery and suspense.
Sat here on a dark, cold, wet morning I thought what a wonderful time of year for a story prompt! Winter offers so many more options to add tension and drama to a scene.
Think of Victorian London, thick, swirling sulphurous fog and the menace of Jack the Ripper.
A cold frosty morning, crunchy grass underfoot. The sound of someone following you, dare you look behind.
Where do the crazy footprints in the deep, crisp snow lead?
A howling gale, is that a ghost I can hear moaning behind the tombstones?
A misty morning on the heather clad moors, Cathy frantically searching for Heathcliffe.
Winter tales don’t have to focus on Christmas or New Year (or any other religious festival), there are so many varied forms of winter weather that you can use to give your story that extra buzz of originality and authenticity.
An atmospheric opening paragraph to a story can give a wonderful sense of foreboding. But don’t forget your character; he, she or it needs to be introduced early and be placed in the middle of the dramatic scene.
And don’t ignore your character’s motivation that is driving them to pursue their dream or chase that thief. Then the reader asks ‘why is he there in the middle of nowhere?’ or ‘what is she doing wearing only a bikini in the middle of a snowstorm?’
Malcolm Richardson has been writing creatively for the last ten years. After a slow start focussing on a novel, which is still only half completed he has concentrated on short stories over the last few years. His recent focus has been entering short stories in competitions. Freshly renewed over the last couple of months, he is now getting grips with his novel with the aim of completing a full first draft early next year. Malcolm is a latecomer to blogging, but his September Story a Day stories can be found here.
If you haven’t written a story for the the Nov/Dec holiday-of-your-choice, now’s the time.
Write a Christmas/Other Religiously-Affiliated Seasonal Story, a Thanksgiving Story, or a New Year Story To Include With Your Seasonal Greetings Cards.
Write a short piece that you could include with your holiday cards instead of the dreaded ‘family update’ letter.
Think about a few of your friends and what kind of story they’d appreciate (make it your most fun/twisted/dearest friends)
Keep the story to about 500 words, so it fits on one side of a printed page.
You don’t have to actually send the story, just imagine delighting these particular people, as you write.
Feel free to send it to them, with a note saying you were thinking of them.
You could do a parody of a traditional seasonal story, or a parody of the family update letter.
You could write a sweet, sentimental seasonal story, or a dark piece especially for the friend who you know hates the holidays (especially useful as cathartic therapy when you’ve been out trying to shop in the holiday crowds!)
You can post it as your holiday greeting on Facebook or your blog.
How often do our travels – or our lives, for that matter – go exactly as planned? The detours often lead to conflict, and conflict drives drama. Conflict provides the impetus for action and the catalyst for your characters to change. Conflict keeps things interesting – if it doesn’t get everyone killed! Don’t leave your reader wondering, “Are we there, yet? When are we gonna get there?” Road trips are meant to be fun, interesting, enlightening experiences for the whole family. All too often, we get lulled into complacency, boredom, and “white line fever.” Roadside attractions provide opportunities to stray from the planned path – and opportunities for it all to go terribly, shockingly, or hilariously wrong.
Your character is taking a road trip cross country with two people who are not family or close friends. Something goes horribly wrong at the World’s Largest Cockroach and Frozen Custard Stand (or other odd or humorously cheesy roadside attraction) located in the middle of nowhere.
Ideas to Explore:
Who are these characters and why are they traveling across the country together? Was it by choice? Will they be closer by the end of the trip – friends for life, perhaps – or will one or more of them (barely) live to regret it?
Now’s your chance to camp it up – you can use an actual roadside attraction (the more ridiculous, the better!) or invent one. Don’t just describe it, though – make us feel like we’re there.
What could possibly go wrong? Here’s your opportunity to add over-the-top drama, nail-biting action, or hilarious comic relief. Can you work in all three?
Create 5-10 brief character sketches on scraps of paper. Fold them up, drop them into a Mason jar, and pull out three of them. Throw them into the car together and see where it leads.
Build your own roadside attraction. Make us feel like we’re there. If it really existed, would we want to visit it – or would we pray we didn’t have a flat tire within 30 miles of it?
Use descriptive language that appeals to all five of the reader’s senses.
Add additional characters who are not in the car with your main characters. Throw in an animal, maybe a pet. Maybe it’s part of the attraction.
How do your characters solve their problems? What does that reveal about them that we didn’t know before?
Have fun! Be sure to come back and share your story links in the comments.
Today’s prompt, should you choose to use it, involves the creation of an imaginary cargo cult.
A cargo cult is a religious movement usually emerging in tribal or isolated societies after they have had an encounter with an external and technologically advanced society. Usually cargo cults focus on magical thinking and a variety of intricate rituals designed to obtain the material wealth of the advanced culture they encountered.
The term “cargo cult” has caught the imagination of the public and is now used to describe a wide variety of phenomena that involve imitating external properties without the substance. In commerce, for example, successful products often result in “copycat” products that imitate the form but are usually of inferior quality.
Cargo cults exemplify the third law of Arthur C. Clarke: that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
See http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Cargo_cult for more info. Your cargo cult can be set anywhere you like – how did it first come into being? Who are its adherents? How has it affected their lifestyles?
Ideas to Explore:
World building – while cargo cults are typically associated with the South Pacific, you can set yours anywhere. It doesn’t even have to be on this planet.
What might the central cargo or technology be? How does it shape the cult’s thinking and behavior? What myths spring up surrounding it? Is it useful, harmful, or merely…decorative?
What sort of conflicts might arise in such a society – between its members or between its members and the outside world?
Think about setting, character motivation, props, and conflict.
Have fun! Be sure to come back and share your story links in the comments.
This week’s prompt is inspired by this article on lost American slang. There is such richness and yet a foreign feel to the language in the quotes, that I couldn’t stop thinking about using this as a way to spice up my own writing.
(The examples in the piece remind me of both Harold Hill — The Music Man’s pop-culture references were meticulously researched — and Mr Burns from The Simpsons! It also made me wonder if Disney intended Bambi’s “Thumper” to have a double-meaning for older viewers.)
Write a story in which your characters have their own slang, dialect, similes and metaphors tied in to their time/place/culture.
Feel free to make up the slang. No need for historical accuracy here. Just be consistent within your world.
Think about how your characters see life. Are they agricultural? Sports-obsessed? (When I moved to the US I was bamboozled by political articles in newspapers that relied heavily on sports analogies that meant absolutely nothing to me). Are they engineers? Are they space-based?
Play with current expressions and change them to fit your characters. In a space opera “How on earth?” becomes “How in the twelve orbiting satellites of Juno?”; the fable of the grasshopper and the ant is transformed into a fable about worker droids and love-bots; etc. In my speculative-fiction novel-in-progress, my atheist-mechanics use expletives like “Great Gears!” where we might use profanity.
You can use slang to distance one generation from another (my husband and I are constantly having to explain our bon mots to our children, who are growing up on a different continent as well as a different millennium!)