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?

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?

Monday Sparks: Dive into this Setting

Last Friday, I had the chance to put into practice the writing lesson I mentioned in last week’s prompt and dive into the setting in which my family and I found ourselves in when we visited a local park for an owl hunt with a naturalist.

As we walked through the woods, and the naturalist called to the owls, I tried to immerse myself in the setting, using all of my senses. I couldn’t take notes at the time, but here are my impressions.

  • Stars glitter in the black sky
  • Almost full moon throws moon shadows
  • Boots squeak on the thin layer of snow.
  • No smells
  • Moon ignites ice-encased tree branches, making them sparkle
  • Trees not directly in moonlight twinkle, like stars caught here and there on their branches, or the branches sparsely decorated with Christmas lights.
  • Moonlight can look sinister, like a bad imitation of sunlight

Another sense to add to the customary five is the feeling a setting gives me. Walking through those glittering trees, I didn’t want to miss one beautiful aspect. I kept looking and looking. I was overcome with a sense of wonder, reveling in the beauty of God’s nature, in awe of how He didn’t have to make nature so breath-taking.

Because of the feelings this setting evoked, I will probably use it in a scene where my main character feels the same. I did have one observation that didn’t fit with my sense of awe, how the moonlight can look sinister. If I want to exploit that aspect of it for a different scene, I’ll need to either revisit the experience in my head or head out on another night hike. I like that latter idea better.

Have you hiked in snowy woods at night? How would you dive into this setting?

Monday Sparks — What’s the Setting?

For February, the theme is setting. I am in the middle of reading an extremely helpful book on the subject, Description & Setting by Ron Rozelle. One piece of advice found in the book is to always carry a journal with you so that if you find an interesting setting or person, you can jot down all your impressions, then refer back to these impressions if you want to use that setting or person in a story.

For today’s prompt, I’m going to imagine that I’m sitting in this crowded room. What impression does it make on me? Here are my notes.

  • Crowded, knees cramped under table
  • Smell a very strong perfume, choking me
  • Lots of rustling papers, creaking seats
  • Smell something spicy. Lunch? Cologne?
  • Speaker’s voice — very flat, uninteresting
  • Heat from so many crammed in one room
  • Take off jacket
  • Warmth makes me want to find freedom
  • Doodling. Several other people are too.

If I need a scene with a crowded meeting or classroom, and my main character is bored, I can draw on my notes from this setting. Here’s a possibility.

If the exalted bosses of CJ&M actually want us to get something out of this meeting, couldn’t they find a presenter who speaks in more than one tone?

Scooting back my seat to stretch my cramped legs, I bumped the table behind me. Murmuring an apology over my shoulder, I caught again the choking odor of lilacs. Who had decided that twenty dabs of perfume wasn’t enough? I coughed and peeled off my jacket, the back of my shirt damp.

What notes would you make about the setting?

Monday Sparks — Writing Prompts: How Would You Begin?

With five people in this photo, there are many ways for you to use this photo for an opening scene. How would you being a story? Here’s mine:

“I told you not to let that dog off her leash.” I pulled the collar of my red coast higher.

“But she hasn’t run off for week,” my younger sister said, wiping flakes out of her eyes.

“Why don’t you leave Trixie at home for our morning walks?” A plaid scarf muffled my older sister’s voice. “Have Eric walk her in the evenings.”

My younger sister walked ahead. “She can’t have gone far.”

The trail in the park dipped down, and we followed it into a clearing. We weren’t alone. Two figures, fuzzy in the swirling snow, stood about fifty feet apart, staring at each other. They hadn’t turned as we entered the clearing.

We stopped. The strangers, a man and a woman, held their attention on each other. Why hadn’t they noticed us?

My older sister gripped my arm. “Let’s go back.”

The man moved, reaching under his coat.

 

Monday Sparks — Writing Prompts: How Would You Begin?

This photo has two obvious ways to start a story: from the animal’s POV or the person’s. How would you begin a story with either one?

Daisy’s wrong. This creature isn’t hiding food. I’ve sniffed it all over. She tricked me again. And if Mom catches me by this weird thing, she’ll probably kick me out of the nest. But it’s all Daisy’s —

It’s moving! And making terrible noises! Mom!

Monday Sparks — Writing Prompts: How Would You Begin?

Since this month is all about beginnings, my prompts will be pictures that could start a story. How would you begin?

I hugged my cousin Jared as I walked into the huge reception hall.

“Glad you could make it,” he said.

“I figured I had to come. Your mom wouldn’t speak to me at Thanksgiving if I missed your parents’ anniversary soiree. Where’s Maddie?”

Jared threw up his hands. “Who knows? My parents invited so many people I don’t know that I feel like a party crasher.”

As Jared greeted another relative, I scanned the surging crowd. At a table on the far side of the room, my cousin Maddie sat with a women I didn’t know. Maddie looked as sunny as she always did although I knew she couldn’t enjoy chitchatting with strangers.

Keeping an eye on them, I worked my way through the crowd.

The woman leaned over and whispered something. Maddie’s jaw swung loose, her eyes flew open, and she went as still as stone.

The woman, with her back toward me, left the table.

I hurried over as fast as I could. “Maddie, what happened?”

 

Monday Sparks — Writing Prompts: Favorite Opening Lines

My theme this month is beginnings, all kinds of beginnings related to writers, readers, and books. So I’m sharing some of my favorite opening lines and why I like them.

“Ghosts? Mercy, yes–I can tell you a thing or three about ghosts. As sure as my name’s Josh McBroom a haunt came lurking about our wonderful once-acre farm.”

McBroom’s Ghost by Sid Fleischman

This is the first McBroom book I read as a child, and I loved the voice of the narrator. I didn’t know it then, but unique character voices are what pull me into a story.

“Walking up and down the platform alongside the train in the Pennsylvania Station, having wiped the sweat from my brow, I lit a cigarette with the feeling that after it had calmed my nerves a little I would be prepared to submit bids for a contract to move the Pyramid of Cheops from Egypt to the top of the Empire Stat Building with my bare hands, in a swimming-suit; after what I had just gone through.”

Too Many Cooks by Rex Stout

This novel introduced me to the genius detective Nero Wolfe and his extremely engaging assistant and bodyguard Archie Goodwin. Archie narrates the stories. Many of the mysteries, usually the novellas, are great whodunits, but I keep coming back because it’s so much fun to sit with Archie and let him spin his tale.

“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.”

“A Scandal In Bohemia” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

With that sentence, Sir Arthur created a tale that most Sherlock fans can’t get enough of. Because Irene Adler only appeared in this single story, her fascinating character, and Holmes’s reaction to her, has inspired writers for years.

“The sun was dying, and its blood spattered the sky as it crept into a sepulcher behind the hills. The keening winds sent the dry, fallen leaves scurrying towards the west, as though hastening them to the funeral of the sun.”

“The Cloak” by Robert Bloch

One of the best openings of any short story I’ve read and perfect for a tale of Halloween.

“It is along toward four o’clock in the morning, and I am sitting in Mindy’s restaurant on Broadway with Ambrose Hammer, the newspaper scribe, enjoying a sturgeon sandwich, which is wonderful brain food, and listening to Ambrose tell me what is wrong with the world, and I am somewhat discouraged by what he tells me for Ambrose is such a guy as is always very pessimistic about everything.”

“Broadway Complex” by Damon Runyon

I discovered the short stories of Damon Runyon when I was seventeen. Again, it was the voice that caught my attention. The nameless narrator and all the other characters speak in a style invented by Mr. Runyon to sound like the way New Yorkers talked in the 1920’s and ’30’s. The characters use present tense, without contractions, and slang like “Roscoe” for gun, “gendarmes” for police, and “more than somewhat” for an excessive amount. Also the gangsters, showgirls, gamblers, and crooks go by  their nicknames, like Dave the Dude, Regret, Nicely-Nicely, and Asleep.

What are some of your favorite opening lines?

Monday Sparks — Writing Prompts: What’s the Christmas Story?

romancew-596094_1280Although Christmas is over, I have one more prompt for the holiday. Romance is the one genre I find the most difficult to get interested in. So if you are inspired by this photo to write a scene for a Christmas romance, especially if you are a seasoned Hallmark Christmas movie fan, please share below.

I can stand romance better if it’s part of another genre, like mystery or scifi. Or how about all three?

The woman in the photo is an alien disguised as a human to conduct Earth research for her doctoral thesis. She’s fallen in love with the man, who has recently discovered during the holiday season that his girlfriend is literally out of this world.

The woman’s professor comes to Earth to oversee her research and is found dead. The aliens send detectives to solve the case, and the woman is the prime suspect.

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