Today’s post comes to us from gifted memoirist Jane Paffenbarger Butler. You can read more about Jane, below, but in the meantime, enjoy mining your memories for Story Sparks! – Julie
When I was a child, my mother and sisters and I spent hours making our clothes at home. The memory of those long quiet days together is etched in my mind because we did it over and over. That makes it a perfect resource for my writing because it is etched in my mind. But even one-time events can be seared onto our brains and serve equally as sources of inspiration.
Because we have kept a memory, stored it for some reason, it holds a significance that may be useful. When I try, I can remember many details and images about that repeating scene of sewing. Recording a memory, in writing, however disjointed or unclear or insufficient, means we capture whatever clarity there is to be observed. The overriding feeling of the sewing room was one of having to focus on the details, such as being sure of our measurements, even in our pinning, and whether the machine was threaded correctly and if we were following every direction. There was little conversation and there was little sound besides that of our movements.
However fuzzy, our memories are infused with feelings that give them an emotional power that can make our writng richer.
I may want to write specifically about sewing, the memories of the creaking old house, the stale state of the space we shared, the silence so thick I heard the buzz of a fly trapped at the window pane trying to escape. But I may prefer to let this description inform whatever other writing I do. These recalled images and ideas are newly acquired and because of their source resonate with authenticity.
Our theme here at StoryADay this month is “Openings & Endings” so here’s a prompt to help you with the first of those.
Your opening line is: The chairs, the tables, the pictures on the walls, everything was right where it ought be, but something wasn’t quite right.
This prompt seems like it could be leading you to write a contemporary, realistic, narrative story, but don’t let that hold you back. If you want to write an absurdist, stream-of-consciousness piece with four different perspectives, you go right ahead!
Think about who might care about things being right (or wrong) and why?
What has happened up to this point in your character’s life to make them so suspicious…or paranoid?
Is your character like Columbo or Monk, a person with an obsessive eye for detail? Or is this a room that they know well because they spend a good portion of their day in it?
What kind of room has chairs, tables and pictures on the walls?
I’ve reached the age where people have started to make TV shows about my childhood and teen years (and yes, I know I should be watching Stranger Things; I just haven’t got to it yet…)
It got me thinking about how we capture not just a place but a time as well.
Do an image search for the place you grew up in a year from your childhood. Write a story set in that town/street.
I didn’t search for the place I grew up but for the part of town my grandparents lived in. (Govan, 1976, when I was really too young to remember it, to ensure it would look as foreign to me as possible).
Part of me thought I might find the exact street I used to walk along with my Gran to get bread rolls for the obligatory after-church bacon rolls. We’d get them from the newsagent’s — the only shop open on a Sunday morning in Glasgow. I didn’t find that street, but I found one nearby, that felt familiar enough.
Really look at the picture. What do you remember? What didn’t survive in your memory?
Does it look idyllic or more run-down than it is in your memory?
What do you see in the picture that a stranger wouldn’t notice? What kinds of stories does it suggest?
In my picture I see the Tennant’s Lager sign outside the Rob Roy bar, and the fact that the doorway on the corner is marked ‘public bar’, but I know that what that really means is ‘men only’. (There’s a good chance my own grandfather is in there, now that I think about it, and what a thought that is. My lovely Granda, alive and well, and chewing on his pipe behind the yellow facade in this picture? There’s some emotion I can use in a story!)
Look at the shop-fronts, the road signs, the aged cars, whatever is in your picture that speaks of the era.
Maybe your picture has a fresh new housing development with saplings in the front yards and a single car in each driveway. What does that neighborhood look like now? What would today’s stranger never know about life on that street when you lived there?
Pick a moment and allow two characters to interact. It doesn’t have to be anything earth-shattering, because the third character in this story is going to be your setting. Do everything you can to capture the sounds, sights, smells and tastes of life in that moment.
Did everyone still smoke? Was the air quieter because nobody was running an air-conditioner? Did everyone barbecue on a Saturday afternoon? Were the buses more noxious? Was there more litter? Less? Why do the windows look different?
Allow your two characters to interact for a moment, perhaps foreshadow the changes coming to the neighborhood, perhaps grousing about a change that they’ve already seen.
Short stories revolve around a single moment. Go to town with that today—literally! Your town. Paint me a picture of a moment in the life of your childhood home.
This week someone accused me of doing something decadent. It was meant as a joke, but it got under my skin, and It got me thinking about all the things we have to do as writers that might seem decadent to ‘normal’ people.
Today’s prompt is all about a misunderstanding, and comes to us from the writer Wayne Anthony Conaway.
Write A Story In Which One Character Misunderstands Another, With Far-Reaching Consequences
Today’s prompt focuses on misapprehension – that is, interpreting something incorrectly. Too often, in fiction, every character communicates perfectly. That’s not the way it happens in real life.
Example: award-winning author Harlan Ellison once misheard a conversation at a party. He overheard a woman say, “”Jeffy is fine. He’s always fine.”” What Ellison actually heard was “”He’s always FIVE.”” That inspired the story “”Jefty Is Five,”” about a boy who never grows up.
Alternately, the misapprehension could be visual.
True story: when I graduated college, I moved to a southern town – one of those places where anti-intellectualism seemed to be the prevailing attitude. I met lots of girls there, but I was looking for an intellectual girlfriend. One day, while sitting in dingy waiting room, I saw a pretty girl outside. To my amazement, she wore a tee-shirt with the letters “”SPQR”” on it. SPQR stood for – in Latin – “”The Senate and the People of Rome.”” What kind of woman wore a tee-shirt that referenced Ancient Rome? I had to meet her! I rushed outside, saw the girl…and discovered that her shirt didn’t say “”SPQR.”” It said “”SPORT.”” The final letter was hadn’t been visible from where I sat! (I was so disappointed, I didn’t even speak to her.)
So that’s your prompt: misapprehension, either verbal or visual.
About Wayne Anthony Conaway
Born in Philadelphia, PA, Tony Conaway has written and ghostwritten everything from blogs to books. He has cowritten non-fiction books published by McGraw-Hill, Macmillan and Prentice Hall. His fiction has been published in eight anthologies and numerous publications, including Blue Lake Review, Danse Macabre, Rind Literary Magazine, qarrtsiluni, The Rusty Nail and Typehouse Literary Magazine.
Last night my local writing group held a Reading Night. It was a wonderful thing.
For one thing the participants got to read their stories to an appreciative audience who simply wanted to have fun (as opposed to sending their story to an editor or a critique partner who is looking for things to reject).
And for another, there were some experienced performers in the group, who gave feedback and tips on the actual performance part of the reading. Invaluable stuff.
Reading your work is something you’ll be called upon to do as published author, so practice the skill (very different from writing!) as often as you can!
Last night’s reading prompted this, er prompt, because so many of the characters came alive when they had a distinctive voice, a distinctive patois. One story featured a rising politician, who used all the kinds of phrases you might expect of a rising sleazebag politician.
Another story featured a 1968 California Happening dude, who talked just like you would expect (expertly performed by a man who looked the right age to have been there.)
These stories, more than all the others, stuck with me because of the authenticity of the character’s voice. And that’s what I want you to practice this week.
Give Your Character A Distinctive Voice
Make your character have a job or a background with a specific set of jargon (for example: a stock broker would sound very different from a tuned-in, turned-on dude from 1968 Haight-Ashbury)
Get them into conversation with another character as soon as possible and see if you can keep their voices so distinct that you rarely have to write ‘he said’.
Concentrate on the rhythms of speech and the special phrases or jargon your character might use.
How would your character deliver their lines? Tentatively? With lots of preamble? Stridently? Rather than using these adverbs, let your characters use words that capture the content of their character
If you need more inspiration watch a supercut of Robin Williams as the genie in Aladdin and try to capture that kind of vigor in the words you put in the characters’ mouths! (But set a timer, so you don’t end up disappearing down a YouTube rabbit hole…)