Vacations as Writing Prompts

Here’s another prompt to help us look at our lives and find inspiration for our writing. I’m a huge advocate of writing about things we have directly experienced. With that in mind, how can a vacation serve as a writing prompt?

I’ve only flown three time in my life, so most of my vacations aren’t too far from the Buckeye State.

Because I write mysteries, I look at these places through that lens. My family and I visited Pensacola in winter when there aren’t many tourists. Maybe I could create a mystery about a retired couple, who notice something strange going on in the supposedly empty beach house next door.

In St. Louis, I visited the fantastic St. Louis Art Museum. A break-in to steal a valuable painting on loan would kick off the action nicely. The place is huge, so maybe the security guards would have to play hide-and-seek with the crooks, who have knocked out the surveillance cameras.

For more on writing about vacations, click here. How can you use your vacations as writing prompts?

I’m So Excited!

The reason I’m so excited is that I am a finalist in the Anthology category for the Selah Awards! Blue Ridge Christian Writers gives these awards at their conference in May. I hadn’t realized they announced finalists, so I wasn’t expecting to hear any news until the awards ceremony.

I entered my YA mystery short story, “A Rose from the Ashes” from Christmas fiction off the beaten path. A huge thank-you to the publishers of Mt. Zion Ridge Press, Tamera Lynn Kraft and Michelle Levigne for accepting my story and being so enthusiastic about it. Another huge thank-you to editor Jenna Kraft for giving me so much good advice.

It may be a cliche to say that it’s a thrill to be nominated, but I am very happy with fulfilling that cliche!

Boredom as Writing Inspiration

I stared at my sheet of notebook paper, completely dry of inspiration. March had defeated me. I needed an idea for how to use the month as writing inspiration, and I came up empty. March is such a boring month. I’d already written about Lent, St. Patrick’s Day, and March Madness. I could think of nothing else, so I hit on boredom as writing inspiration.

That sounds like an oxymoron. Writers don’t want to bore readers. But boredom can serve storytelling as a comic element and character motivation. I just have to write it in an entertaintng way so that while my characters experience boredom, my readers do not.

Comic Possibilities

Author Patrick F. McManus wrote several short stories focusing on boredom. He exploits the problem as a way to propel his characters into comic situations.

Mr. McManus shared my loathing of March. He uses the boredom of the month for his humorous short story, “Brimstone” from the book How I Got This Way. As a teenager and outdoorsman in rural Idaho, he laments how he can’t hunt, fish, or camp during the miserable muddy weather of March. His sole hobby is staring vacantly out a window. When a deputy sheriff arrives at his house looking for someone in his family to guide him to a neighbor’s shack, the teenager’s mother forces him to go with the deputy. The rest of the story relates how March and its mud can thwart even the long arm of the law.

In “Another Boring Day” from the same book, eight-year-old Pat and his best friend Crazy Eddie can’t find anything to do on a summer day. They’ve already built their own scuba equipment, constructed an airplane, and dug a pit for wild animals. When they tell their mothers about their boredom, both women grow alarmed. If the boys find a solution to their boredom, their parents will become unbored very quickly, too.

Character Motivation. Part 1

If I need a character to make a radical change in her life, boredom is a perfect engine to steer my character onto a new road. In many books, tragedy forces characters to change. While we all face our share of tragedies in this life, most of us won’t lose a spouse to a drunk driver, have a fiancee dump us for our best friend, or have a child murdered.

But all of us have faced boredom. This universal problem should make a character wrestling with it instantly relatable to readers. When I worked at a public library, I found myself trapped in a meeting with two supervisors who were locked in opposing views like the Zax in the Prairie of Prax. My boredom grew to such a level that my only hope of escaping with my sanity was to broker a peace treaty. My director complimented me on finding a solution. But I had acted out of self-pervation. I didn’t want to go mad at twenty-seven.

I can use a meeting like that to instigate a character to quit his job and try a new career. A bored, stay-at-home mom volunteers at an animal shelter, meets new people, and finds a new passion. A teenager stuck babysitting younger siblings all summer makes friends with an elderly neighbor. Boredom is a plausible reason for all these characters to try something they normally would not.

Character Motivation, Part 2

Although amateur detectives are an old tradition in the mystery genre, getting them involved in a case in a believable way is difficult. A character’s boredom is a perfect excuse to start them snooping.

The classic example of this is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window from 1954. A photographer is laid up with a badly broken leg in his small apartment during a hot summer in New York City. Out of extreme boredom, Jeff begins watching his neighbors who live in the apartment building across the courtyard. He notices the unhappy marriage of one couple. When the wife disappears, he’s convinced the husband has killed her. After the police refuse to investigate, Jeff enlists the help of his girlfriend and his part-time nurse.

I can turn any of the suggestions from the previous section into a mystery. The stay-at-home mom meets another volunteer, who seems troubled, at the animal shelter. That volunteer later turns up a dead. The teen and elderly neighbor are suspicious of a family who has just moved onto their street.

How would you use boredom as writing inspiration?

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?

29 Unique Settings to Spark Your Imagination

As we round up this month of setting tips and inspiration, I wanted to leave you with a list of settings you may not have considered before. My kids and I brainstormed and compiled these 29 unique settings to spark your imagination.

  • Inside a termite mound in Africa
  • A strip mine
  • A sinkhole
  • A sledding hill
  • Marching band practice
  • A 4-H meeting
  • A demolition derby
  • A space station
  • Jupiter’s smallest moon
  • A flooded cave
  • A fire tower
  • A sewer
  • An orthodontist office
  • Antarctic research station
  • A blimp
  • The top of a dam to a lake in a state park
  • A church during vacation Bible school
  • A car stuck on a road that is closed due to a snowstorm
  • An alpaca farm
  • A small, older home next to a new development with huge, new homes
  • A fishing tournament
  • A science fair
  • A prairie dog town
  • A rest stop along a highway
  • An electric company’s substation
  • A catamaran
  • An abandoned railroad line
  • An outdoor art festival
  • An open mausoleum — This one needs a word of explanation. My oldest and I took a history walk with a librarian at a local cemetery. Her research had uncovered records of three mausoleums built into the hill below the cemetery. The one closest to the road had fallen into such disrepair that the doors had opened. The county had bulldozed a mound of earth in front of it to keep out vandals. The other two mausoleums were lost in the woods that had overgrown the hill. Being curious, I returned to the cemetery and found the other two among the weeds and trees. They were both open, doors having come loose and hanging crooked. But I didn’t get too close. It seemed disrespectful to do so. But I really want to use this scenario in a mystery.

For more inspiration, visit my post “How to Thicken Your Plot, Part II” about how to examine settings to generate ideas for plot. All my posts under the category “Writing in Time” are listed here.

And last but not least, this post on “Almost an Author” recommends changing the setting in which you write to give you a fresh perspective as well as ideas.

What other unique settings can you think of? If any setting from our list inspires you, let me know!

Setting Sets the Mood

Setting sets the mood in a story just as efficiently and vividly as character. If I combine the two components, not only do I set the mood, I am well on my way to hooking readers’ attention and immersing them in my story.

Below are three examples of how descriptions of setting in the opening paragraphs establish mood and the personality of the main character.

“The Cloak” by Robert Bloch

The author sets the mood right away for this Halloween story. “The sun was dying, and its blood spattered the sky as it crept into a sepulchre behind the hills.” These are the thoughts of Henderson, who is looking for a costume shop in 1930’s New York City. He scolds himself for his flight of fancy and then describes the sunset as just “dingy red”.

Henderson likes the idea of all the ancient terror Halloween evokes but still wants to be a rational, twentieth century American. The short story combines and clashes the age-old legends of vampires with a high society costume party. In four short paragraphs, Mr. Bloch has established the setting, the mood of the story and the character, and a great amount of tension.

“The Crime Wave at Blandings” by P.G. Wodehouse

“The day on which lawlessness reared its ugly head at Blandings Castle was one of singular beauty”. In the first paragraph, Mr. Wodehouse goes on to describe a fine summer day in England. The second paragraph completely changes course by discussing how fans of thrillers don’t want pretty descriptions. They want the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the crime, and the author had better get on with it.

Mr. Wodehouse has created not just the image of a tranquil summer day but the breezey tone for a comic story about members of an earl’s household taking potshots at an annoying guest with an air gun. The description lets readers know exactly what kind of story they’ve settled down to read, and the author doesn’t disappoint.

“A Rose from the Ashes” by JPC Allen

I wanted my first scene to establish a lonely, eerie mood for my YA Christmas mystery. My main character Rae is a amateur photographer. This influences how she sees the world. When describing the sunset on a December evening, she thinks about how “gashes of blood-red light seeped through the clotted clouds, creating an ominous background for the gray, stone building that was rumored to be the scene of a murder.”

To emphasize the loneliness of the place, as well as the Rae’s loneliness, I use “a few caws from crows and sighs as the wind sailed through empty window frames.” I’m making my setting work hard, providing a background for the action, developing my main character’s personality, and creating symbols to represent my character’s feelings.

At the end of the story, I wanted to let readers know something unusual is going to happen. Rae is back at the “gray, stone building,” which is an abandoned children’s home, on Christmas Eve. The moon is almost full on a frigid, clear night and brings “an otherworldly silver sheen, like the home and all the land outside was bathed in a fairy spell.” Rae is hoping she will find her father, and he will accept her. The otherworldly light represents the main character’s hope and foreshadows the plot twists.

A Word About Symbolism

In Description and Setting by Ron Rozelle, he recommends not consciously working in symbolism. If you do, the symbolism will seem obvious and heavy-handed to readers. So how do you include symbolism if you can’t do it consciously? Mr. Rozelle says to write your story the best you can, and then when you review it, you may find that settings or characters or objects have naturally become symbols.

That happened in my story, but I didn’t realize until I was helping my oldest child with an extremely tough question for a language arts assignment. He had to find passages in a story that showed a change in a character through a change in how he or she viewed a setting. We were both stumped. Then I remembered my short story, which had just been published. How Rae views the abandoned children’s home reflects her feelings at the time, at first lonely, then hopeful.

I was surprised I’d included symbolism in my story. And happy that I helped my oldest complete his homework.

What stories have you read in which the setting sets the mood particularly well?

Who Will You Create for This Setting?

For this month’s last prompt about setting, I chose a picture with no characters in it. I’d like you to let it spark your creativity and people it with characters you like.

So who will you create for this setting? Maybe you need to select a genre first. The setting could work with just about any of them. Newly engaged woman in 1880’s New York City is waiting for her fiancé. A father who runs a bed-and-breakfast in an old Victorian house receives devastating news. The domed flower arrangement is actually a powerful weapon, and a curious child enters the room.

I usually start with characters. My first thought was an old woman. The home has been in her family for over one hundred years, and she decorates it in antiques. She is the wealthiest person in her small town.

Since I love mysteries, I’ve decided that the old woman is sitting in this room when the chief of police and another officer stop by. They’ve been investigating a series of murders, and the chief believes the old woman knows more than she’s telling. Fully aware that this interview may cost him his job, the chief walks into the room.

Who will you create for this setting? I’d love to hear your ideas!

Setting Fuels Character, Character Fuels Setting

Writers often offer advice on plot, setting, and character as if they were distinct story devices that barely had any association with each other until a writer pulls them into a story. But those three components are all interwoven. Since my theme this month is setting, this post will focus on how setting fuels characters and character fuels setting. If some plot creeps into the article, I can’t help it. Plot, setting, and character are a tight knit family, and I never know when one will come barging in to hang out with the other two.

In real life, environments shape the people who live in them. I’ve lived in a rural county in Ohio for the past fourteen years. I see the world differently from my sisters, although we all grew up in the same small town. They have spent the past several years living in suburbs that are less than an hour’s drive from me. Our homes, and the events that have occurred in them, influence who we are

Pick a setting, any setting

Let’s say I want to write a mystery set on the coast of North Carolina, near Emerald Isle. If my characters have lived by the sea all their lives, that environment will fuel their development. If a man is a fisherman, he can realistically be hard-working and stoic because he learned he must work with the sea when it turns nasty on him. Or he could be hard-working and laid back, having learned he can’t control the ocean but must roll with the punches it metes out.

Emerald Isle is a huge vacation destination. I can believably add characters who are not from that area. Fish-out-of-water stories are a lot of fun as characters clash in a setting familiar to some and alien to others.

In my North Carolina mystery, the fisherman takes several city dudes on a chartered fishing trip. One of the dudes is very snobbish. Another is very competitive. Maybe a powerful entrepreneur or rising politician. A third is new to fishing and very excited about his first ocean fishing trip. One of the vacationers dies on the boat under mysterious circumstances.

When the police suspect the fisherman, he and several other charter boat captains play amateur detectives because they don’t want an unsolved murder to adversely affect their businesses. So careful thought about my setting has let the setting fuel character and characters fuel setting.

In my Work-In-Progress (WIP), my main character Rae is trying to fit into a rural county in Ohio as she gets to know her father and his family for the first time. She grew up in the South, moving many times with her mother before she died. Rae is used to small town living but has never had a chance to put down roots.

Rae is an introvert and shy. She would like to make friends but feels she isn’t good at it because she could never make lasting friends anywhere she and her mother lived. The frequent changes in her environment fuel her personality.

What stories do you know in which setting fuels character and character fuels setting?

Immerse Readers in the Setting

If a story can snag my attention with a unique voice for a character, I’m hooked. But a unique description that draws me into a setting does the same thing. I want to be able to do that, to immerse readers in the setting so completely that when they finish my story, they will feel like they have taken a trip to that setting.

Below are two examples of stories in which the authors describe the settings so well, I visit them again and again.

“Summer Job” by Amanda Witt from Life is Short and Then You Die

This crime short story is set in rural West Texas. I have never been to rural West Texas, but after reading this story, I feel like I have.

Ms Witt begins by giving a description of a house that burned to the slab. She uses words like “broken back of the roof” and “half-melted hull of the stove” and moves on to describe the chimney that still stands tall against the sky like a tombstone. Although the first paragraph doesn’t mention a single character, I was already hooked, wondering about the burned house and the loneliness of the West Texas countryside would play into the plot.

In the second paragraph, the author introduces Pete, a high school boy, hired by the late owner’s son to clear away the burnt debris and salvage whatever he can. Throughout the story, Ms. Witt emphasizes the heat of the Texas summer, the destruction of the fire, and Pete’s isolation as he works. Those three factors anchored me in a setting suitable for a crime story. I experienced the scorching temperatures, the filthy, hard work, and increasing concern over Pete’s safety as he pieces together who killed Mrs. Dean, the homeowner and his former babysitter.

“The Sign of the Broken Sword” by G.K. Chesterton from The Innocence of Father Brown

This is another mystery short story in which the author waits to introduce the main characters. Mr. Chesterton sets the stage by describing a very cold night in England. “The thousand arms of the forest were grey, and its million fingers silver. In a sky of dark green-blue-like slate the stars were bleak and brilliant like splintered ice.” The first paragraph goes on in this vein, underlining the cold and the dark, a perfect setting for two friends to uncover the truth behind a national hero’s death.

The author brings the frigid night to such vivid life that at the end of the story, when Father Brown and his friend Flambeau find a tavern, I was relieved to get inside. Mr. Chesterton uses words like “cozy”, “luxurious”, and “comfortable”, to emphasize the change in setting and contrast it to the stark, winter weather outside.

In both stories, written over a hundred years apart, the authors use precise language to immerse readers in the setting. Ms. Witt doesn’t write that the roof is damaged but has a “broke back”. In the Father Brown story, the sky isn’t black but a specific shade of slate. These authors wordsmithed their stories, so that every word contributed to the desired effect of making the settings seem real.

Another author would have chosen different words if he used the burned house in West Texas as a coming-of-age story. In that case, the author would emphasize different aspects of the setting to set a different tone, maybe the beauty of the surrounding land. If he wanted to focus on the isolation of the home, he might use it as a way to show the main character’s maturity.

For more advice on settings, go to my post on how to maximize your settings.

What stories have you read that immersed you in the setting?

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