Family Stories as Writing Prompts

The theme for my blog this month is nonfiction. Since my speciality is fiction, I’ll have several guest bloggers write about their experiences writing nonfiction and how it influences their fiction. The prompts this month will be about examining our nonfiction lives for inspiration for our stories, both fiction and nonfiction.

Turning to family stories as writing prompts can produce one-of-a-kind stories, stories only a few people know now, stories maybe only you can write.

For example, in just the last few years, I learned about the youngest brother of my great-grandmother Irene. Harry would have been born before or around 1900. He had Down’s syndrome. I know many children born with disabilities or challenges at that time were given away to be maintained at state institutions. But not Harry.

He lived with his parents. When they died, he moved in with one of his brothers. As a child, my dad remembers his Great-Uncle Harry stopping by his house and asking my grandma for “smokes”.

This story kicks off so many questions. My grandmother and all her siblings have passed away, so I can’t ask them. Was it a hard decision for my great-great-grandparents to keep Harry at home? Was their pressure from their extended family or community to give him up? Did the neighbors treat them differently because of Harry? How was Harry treated? At that time, I’m sure a man with Down’s syndrome was an unusual person to see in small-town America.

This leads me to another piece of advice about using family stories as writing prompts. If you are interested in those stories, interview the elderly members of your family. When I was in college, I conducted interviews that I tape-recorded of my mom’s parents. I learned all kinds of fascinating details of what it was like to grow up in rural West Virginia in the 1910’s and 20’s. I loved getting to know my grandparents better.

What family stories can you use as writing prompts to build a story?

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