Earlier this month, a woman in Taiwan who was clearing weeds from a gravestone as part of the Chinese Qingming Festival—a day for sweeping, tidying, and paying respects at ancestral tombs—felt a sudden pain in her left eye. Upon seeking medical attention, the source of the swollenness turned out to be four bees that had flown into her eye and were feeding on her tear ducts. Write a short horror story that starts with a seemingly innocuous irritation that turns out to be something more unsavory. Begin your story with a presumably everyday nuisance—sand in your eye, a pebble in your shoe, a paper cut on your finger—and then let the horror unfold bit by bit.
The Time Is Now
The Time Is Now offers a weekly writing prompt (we’ll post a poetry prompt on Tuesdays, a fiction prompt on Wednesdays, and a creative nonfiction prompt on Thursdays) to help you stay committed to your writing practice throughout the year. We also offer a selection of books on writing—both the newly published and the classics—that we recommend you check out for inspiration, plus advice and insight on the writing process from the authors profiled in Poets & Writers Magazine. And don’t miss Writers Recommend, which includes books, art, music, writing prompts, films—anything and everything—that has inspired other authors in their writing.
In a study published last week in Scientific Reports journal, psychologists reported findings that cats are able to recognize and respond to their names. Dogs, however, have a definite advantage, having been domesticated twenty thousand years before cats by humans who intentionally bred them to be obedient. Write a story that has a temperamental cat in it, sometimes responsive and other times quite aloof. What purpose does the cat serve in the story? How can you depict the cat as more than just stereotypically mercurial?
Chindogu, a Japanese term that literally translated means “weird tool,” was coined by Kenji Kawakami, former editor of a monthly magazine called Mail Order Life. As a prank, Kawakami published prototypes for his own bizarre inventions, that were intentionally useless and could not actually be purchased, in the magazine and later in a book titled 101 Unuseless Japanese Inventions: The Art of Chindogu (Norton, 1995). Some of his popular inventions include the Eye Drop Funnel Glasses, the Dumbbell Telephone, and Duster Slippers for Cats. For this week’s fiction prompt, write a short story that envisions the backstory for one of these good-natured but impractical contraptions, or invent one yourself following one of the tenets of Chindogu: “You have to be able to hold it in your hand and think, ‘I can actually imagine someone using this. Almost.’”
“A gingerbread addict once told Harriet that eating her gingerbread is like eating revenge…. After this gingerbread you might sweat, swell, and suffer, shed limbs.” In Helen Oyeyemi’s sixth novel, Gingerbread, published in March by Riverhead Books, a mysteriously powerful homemade gingerbread wends its way like a spell through multiple generations of friendships and familial relationships. At times it plays an integral role in the alienating forces that drive characters painfully apart, and at other times it proves to be a tie that reinvigorates the complex bonds between mothers and daughters, as well as between friends. Taking inspiration from an ingredient, dish, or recipe that has meaning for your own family, write a short story that revolves around food and how the sharing of it can be both nurturing and disruptive. You might do some research into the larger cultural or geographical history of the food, or integrate elements of folklore or mythology.
Does common sense go out the window when you go grocery shopping on an empty stomach? Last fall scientists published findings in Science Advances that even snails start making questionable food choices when they’ve gone too long without eating. Extreme hunger alters the brain’s perception of stimuli in a way that makes otherwise unappealing nourishment seem worthy of the risk, which explains why you might find yourself walking out of a grocery store with bizarre food combinations. Write a short story in which your main character makes an unusual choice while in the throes of hunger. Does it turn out to be merely a comic interlude or are there irreversible consequences?
Ancient Greek and Egyptian texts dating back two thousand years have recorded the use of leeches to treat everything from headaches to ear infections to hemorrhoids. More recently, magnetic therapy has been marketed in the form of magnetic jewelry, belts, and blankets to help alleviate pain, depression, and even boost energy. Write a short story in which a character makes the decision to seek out an unusual or unorthodox form of treatment. Is it an unexpected choice or does it seem to align with personality, circumstances, and setting? What has led your character to this unconventional option and how do loved ones react to this decision?
“Children force parents to go out looking for...the right way of telling the story, knowing that stories don’t fix anything or save anyone but maybe make the world both more complex and more tolerable,” writes Valeria Luiselli in her fourth novel, Lost Children Archive (Knopf, 2019), which she speaks about in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Write a short story in which a parent or guardian character must figure out “the right way” to tell a child some difficult news, perhaps in a moment of particular uncertainty, danger, or crisis. Describe the conflicts in deciding what to tell and not tell in an effort to make the world feel more tolerable. How does the child react to what’s been told?
In “Color Blind Pal,” Zoe Dubno’s New York Times Magazine Letter of Recommendation essay, she writes about a life-changing experience at a family fondue dinner when she was twelve and upset her brother by grabbing his green fork repeatedly instead of her orange one. Only half of one percent of women have red-green color blindness (compared with eight percent of men), so it often goes unrecognized—unless a significant social faux pas brings it into focus. Write a story in which one of your characters is unable to see, feel, smell, or hear something specific (i.e. bird calls, plant thorns, burnt toast), but does not realize it until an encounter involving a mix-up occurs. Does this alter the way your character experiences the world? Is it a life-changing moment?
Scientists at NASA announced earlier this month that 2018 was officially the fourth warmest year since 1880, the earliest year that records of the Earth’s global surface temperature are available. In fact, the past five years have been the warmest in the record, marking a trend of steadily increasing temperatures. Write a short story that takes place somewhere that is always hot, and with temperatures that continue to rise. Do your characters remember and reminisce about days of cold? In what ways does this world function and look different from the one we live in today?
Last month’s total lunar eclipse during a “super blood wolf moon” was watched by millions of people around the world. Already a rare cosmic occurrence, what was particularly unusual was that many cameras caught a tiny flash during the eclipse, which one astronomer quickly deemed was a speeding meteoroid crashing into the moon. While lunar impacts happen all the time, the visibility and recording of one was unique since the flash of light could only be seen from Earth because of the shadow caused by the eclipse. Write a short story in which something unexpected is caught on camera during a shared celestial experience that has never been filmed before. Is it cause for concern, terror, wonder, or humor?
Last week, news surfaced that a glitch in Apple’s FaceTime group-chatting feature was allowing someone placing a video call to eavesdrop on another person through their phone’s microphone even if the call went unanswered. Write a short story that begins with your main character inadvertently catching something not meant for her eyes or ears through a video call. Does she pretend it didn’t happen, force a confrontation, or figure out a way to turn it to her advantage?
Marie Kondo has been making recent headlines for her Netflix series Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, which follows the organizing consultant as she helps families clean up and declutter their homes. The show has sparked a wave of donations to used bookstores and thrift stores as well as social media posts of celebrities and noncelebrities following Kondo’s tips and KonMari method. For this week’s prompt, brainstorm a list of the strangest items you might find in a donation bin or out on the curb. Write a series of flash fiction stories about a few of these objects. Describe each piece in careful detail—involving as many of the senses as you can—and imagine why it was discarded and what it may have meant to the original owner.
“I am glad it cannot happen twice, the fever of first love. For it is a fever, and a burden, too, whatever the poets may say,” writes Daphne du Maurier in her 1938 Gothic novel, Rebecca. First love between characters who meet and bond at a young age has often been depicted in literature as feverish obsession sustained over the course of many years. Consider the monstrously toxic romance between Catherine and Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and the fifty-plus-year separation of lovers in Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Write a story that revolves around a character’s experience of first love. Explore your character’s perceptions of love and how they evolve over time.
“The stories that we tell ourselves and the stories we learn from others are a matter of life and death. Literature has the ability to literally change our minds—to change how we act, how we grow, what we believe, how we vote, how and when we speak,” says Morgan Parker in “Portraits of Inspiration” in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Write a short story that revolves around a subject, topic, issue, or idea that feels intensely important, urgent, or vital to you. How can you create a character that becomes a source of empathy for what matters to you?
In E. L. Konigsburg’s 1967 classic children’s book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, two young runaways hole up in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for some adventure, but what would happen if it were a museum of food instead of art? Browse through National Geographic’s roundup of food museums and food factory tours—including ones for bread, Coca-Cola, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, chocolate, and ramen—and write a short story in which your protagonist has a memorable experience in one of these gastronomically focused places. Does the experience leave nothing—or everything—to be desired?
“There is no market, school, doctor, or shop, and from late-autumn until mid-spring the village is inaccessible by car and uninhabited,” Alex Crevar writes in National Geographic about Lukomir, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s highest village and home to just seventeen families. Write a story set in such a place (real or imagined) that is similarly caught between modernity and the social and technological isolation of its landscape. What does living in this world do to alter the interactions and daily concerns of its inhabitants? Is there a generational shift or a longing for change?
In “How to Write a Family Newsletter Your Friends Will Actually Read,” New York Times writer Anna Goldfarb offers suggestions for the dos and don’ts of penning a family holiday newsletter. Perhaps you receive these missives annually from a friend or relative with a curated list of their accomplishments that year, or you participate voluntarily or involuntarily in one. For this week’s exercise, write a fictionalized holiday dispatch—maybe from someone with mischievous and beloved pets, parents that detail each of their children’s achievements, or that pays tribute to a departed relative. For tone, take in consideration Goldfarb’s advice: “Figure out whether you want this piece of writing to be preserved for future generations—a keepsake—or if you want this to be a throwaway piece of mail—scan, chuckle and toss.”
Holiday window displays have long been a tradition for stores to show off their best gift-giving ideas, window dressers to demonstrate their creativity with tableaux of festive decorations and scenes of wintry activities, and for shoppers and strollers to look for inspiration and cheer. Write a short story in which your main character catches sight of something in a holiday window display that serves as a catalyst for a surprising course of action. Does something depicted in a window unravel a forgotten memory? Is there a gift that would be perfect for a long-lost friend?
Studies in the past several decades have repeatedly demonstrated that the placebo effect is quite real and, though unpredictable, has the potential to alleviate symptoms even when people know they’re taking a placebo. It’s been theorized that this efficacy is connected to an individual’s expectations for positive results. Write a short story in which your main character recovers from an ailment and then discovers it is due to a placebo effect. Who was responsible for prescribing the placebo? Does this discovery lead to a darker truth?
Coauthoring a book with another human being might have its challenges, but what about coauthoring a book with a robot? Robin Sloane is currently at work on his third novel set in a near-future California, and with an artificial intelligence computer as one of its main characters. To help write this character’s lines, the author enters snippets of texts he composes into a computer program he designed that draws from a database of texts, such as old science fiction magazines, a range of California-related novels and poetry, wildlife bulletins, and oral histories. Write a short story in which your character decides to embark on a new project with the help of artificial intelligence. Does the machine stay under control and remain useful, or does something go unexpectedly wrong?
Have you ever, out of impatience or curiosity, turned to the last page of a novel you were in the middle of reading in order to relieve your anxiety about the ending? This week, if you are staring at a blank page or screen unsure of where to begin, soothe yourself by fast-forwarding to the final page of the story. Write a stand-alone conclusion without halting to examine plausibility or the actions that could have gotten your characters to this place. Perhaps this exercise will lead you to write an origin for the story and flesh out your characters and the setting.
“I would still like to know things. Never mind facts. Never mind theories, either,” the narrator states in Alice Munro’s short story “The Turkey Season.” The comment refers to a mysteriously heated altercation between coworkers that occurred decades ago, when the narrator was fourteen and spent the holiday season working as a turkey gutter. Although the details of the dramatic fight remain unknown and continue to haunt her, the bulk of the story rests on descriptions of mundane recollections: learning how to clean turkeys; coworkers’ personal lives and habits; issues surrounding labor and class as well as gender and sexual dynamics; and the expression of each person in a photograph of the work crew. Take inspiration from Munro’s story and write a short story with an ambiguity at its core and a narrator who looks back on a period of time during a holiday season. Use this larger theme of puzzling over something unresolved to explore the nuances of an uncertain time in adolescence when personal value systems are tentatively being formed.
“Graffiti Palace was the amazing confluence of three worlds that crashed together: The Odyssey, graffiti, and the Watts riots,” writes A. G. Lombardo in “5 Over 50” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Lombardo describes the circumstances in his life, such as his job as a high school English teacher, that combined to form “this strange brew of ideas” around which his debut novel revolves. Write a short story that combines several elements of your life, perhaps including hobbies or passions, political events of national importance, and favorite works of art or entertainment. How can you crash these disparate interests together to form a cohesive narrative arc?
This week, create your own cinematic adaptation. Select a movie or an episode from a television series in a language you are unfamiliar with, but do not turn on any subtitles. Instead, pay close attention to the body language, vocal intonations, and facial expressions of the characters in order to uncover, and invent, your own narrative. Don’t be concerned with accuracy; allow uncertainty to make way for creativity. Then, write a short story based on your interpretation of the events. How will you choose to describe the body language and atmosphere in a scene? What dialogue will you create for the characters?
In her New York Times essay “The Ghost Story Persists in American Literature. Why?,” Parul Sehgal writes about how ghost stories throughout American literature have functioned as social critique, manifestations of protest and redress that reveal “cultural fears and fantasies,” and which understand “how strenuously we run from the past, but always expect it to catch up with us.” Write a story that uses a dark or troubling part of history as the impetus for an appearance of a ghostly presence. How does the ghost serve “as a vessel for collective terror and guilt, for the unspeakable” in your story?