Does Your Writing Cut The Mustard?

The first restaurant I worked in was an American-style family restaurant – pretty exotic for the southwest coast of Scotland in the 80s, a place festooned with fish’n’chip shops, where ‘chicken tenders’ sounded like a new language.

One of my jobs was to set out bowls of condiments before the customers came in…and not just salt, pepper, vinegar, and the two sauces known to us (red and brown), but things like ‘hamburger relish (it was green! Who had ever heard of such a thing?!) and three types of mustard: one classic yellow, one fancy ‘Dijon’, and one totally alien grainy concoction that I fell in love with.

Tonight, I opened a jar of that grainy mustard and its tangy smell transported me back 38 years, to the service corridor between the kitchen and dining room of my first job, when mustard was an exotic new experience.

It reminded me of a truth in writing: we spend so much time in our own heads that we take for granted the way we think, the way we talk, and the way we write.

Sometimes, when we show our work to someone else they are thrilled by a throwaway phrase or a description that took no effort at all…because it’s normal to you.

Sometimes we need other writers to push us to try the mustard, when we’re accustomed to always reaching for the salt and vinegar. 

And yes, this is my fancy way of letting you know that Critique Week is coming up, and that if you would like to get some fresh eyes on your writing you should consider joining us.

But more than that, it’s my way of encouraging you not to take your own writing for granted. It might be the new flavor someone else is looking for!

Keep writing,


P. S. I’ll be opening up registration for this round of Critique week, soon. Get on the waitlist here.

May 11 – Memories

Just because something happened in real life, doesn’t make it a good story. At a writers’ conference I heard agents sigh every time someone said they were writing a memoir. “Why not turn it into a fictional story?” one said, brightly, with barely disguised overtones of desperation.

Today we’re going to try to do that. Instead of trying to capture something exactly as you remember it happening, we’re going to give your experience to a character and mine the universal truths (or funnies, or horror) from it.

The Prompt

Write a story inspired by a memory from your own life


  • How many different homes have you lived in? What little things do you remember about each? Could they be the spark for a story (think of the connected attics in The Magician’s Nephew or the bricked-up adjoining door in Coraline’s house-turned-apartment-building. Was there anything quirky about a house you lived in? Could it spark a story?
  • Who was your crazy neighbor? What do you remember about that lady on your street who always shouted at you when your ball went into her front garden? What stories did you tell about her as kids?
  • What was that big trauma that happened in your town when you young? An unexpected death? A fire? You know, the thing you reminisced about for years afterwards (“Remember when we were 10 and there was that huge blackout?”). Think of the movie Stand By Me for the ways you could turn a big event in the lives of a group of kids, into a real story that has implications for your characters.
  • What do you remember from when you were five or younger? From 5-10 years old. 10-15? 16-20? 20-30? 30-40? What was life like for someone that age, at that time? What was important to you? Is there a moment when you realized things had changed? When you did something for the first time? The last time?
  • Who were the influential people in your life at each age? What were their stories? Were they they people you imagined? (You know how we were all freaked out the first time we saw a teacher outside school? Everyone is more than the sum of our interactions with them. Revisit someone from your past and give them a more rounded story than just your memories of them.)


Post a comment at the blog to let us know you’ve written today, or join the community and post in the Victory Dance Group.

May 2 – Other People’s Memories

Day 2 – Other People’s Memories

Every family is full of stories. Some are told (and retold). Some are secret. Some are a surprise that is only revealed years after you ‘should’ have known about them.

Your friends have stories they tell and retell.

Your colleague and strangers on the bus have stories.

Everyone is telling stories all the time.

Today we pilfer their experiences.

The Prompt

Write a story inspired by family folklore (or a story someone has told you that ‘happened’)


  • My grandparents have a remarkable and romantic courtship story. One day I might write that story. Or I might take their story and transport it to a futuristic setting where the characters may face similar obstacles. What stories exist in your family that could inspire a tale or two?
  • Be wary of  realistic retellings of stories that don’t belong to you, especially if the people are still alive. But feel free to use anyone’s story as inspiration, a jumping-off point. Change details, explore other possibilities. Treat your sources with gratitude and respect.
  • Start with a family story that is often told and ask ‘what if’? What if Grandad had been in a modern war, not Vietnam? What if Dad’s first interview had gone better? What if Uncle Sal had never got on the boat?


Post a comment at the blog to let us know you’ve written today, or join the community and post in the Victory Dance Group.