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?
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.
Have you ever found yourself peering over a nearby stranger’s shoulder to see what’s on the phone’s screen? In a recent study, researchers at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich analyzed findings from a survey and found that “shoulder surfing was mostly casual and opportunistic” and was “most common among strangers, in public transport, during commuting times, and involved a smartphone in almost all cases.” Write a short story in which your protagonist peeks over the shoulder of a bystander and catches a glimpse of something unexpected on the person’s phone. Is it something vaguely suspicious that captures your main character’s imagination or is it something downright implicating?
Ligaya Mishan’s essay “In Literature, Who Decides When Homage Becomes Theft?” in the New York Times Style Magazine examines instances in which the authors of historical and contemporary literature have been accused of plagiarism or cultural appropriation, and questions the imbalance in response and criticism. Explore your thoughts on the boundaries of theft and homage with your own project. Write a short story that pays tribute to one of your favorite authors and offers a new perspective, such as how Kamel Daoud’s novel, The Meursault Investigation (Other Press, 2015), reimagines Albert Camus’s The Stranger or Preti Taneja’s novel, We That Are Young (Knopf, 2018), sets King Lear in contemporary India.
In an interview with Louisiana Channel, Zadie Smith talks about her interest in the way many young authors portray emotional distress or anger in their novels. The characters, often women, will “pinch a bit of their skin until it bleeds” or “hold their jaw” or perform some other quiet act of defiance, rather than letting their feelings surface. “The idea of verbalizing an emotion is quite distant. And the body is treated like this strange thing you have to drag around after you’ve finished your text messages and e-mails and your virtual life,” says Smith. Write a scene in which your protagonist is faced with an immediate conflict involving a partner, family member, friend, boss, or stranger. Instead of silently raging, find a way to describe these emotions that allows your character to engage fully and vocally in the moment.
The song “Emmenez-moi” by French Armenian singer Charles Aznavour, who died this week at the age of ninety-four, is played repeatedly in the soundtrack to the 2005 French Canadian coming-of-age film C.R.A.Z.Y. directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Throughout the film, Aznavour’s songs are sung by the protagonist’s father, who is a big fan of the singer. Write a short story in which a song of your choosing appears over and over. What is the significance behind the musician or the song’s lyrics to the themes or plot of your story?
The first authorized prequel to the novel Dracula, written by Bram Stoker’s great-grandnephew Dacre Stoker and coauthor J. D. Barker, will be published in October by G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Titled Dracul, the book is based on an earlier, unedited draft of the Dracula manuscript, as well as on family legends and Bram Stoker’s journals, and focuses on events in the author’s youth that may have led him to write Dracula. Choose a classic horror story and write a short story that acts as a prequel to the main events in the original work. You may consider an element of structure or style to carry over, such as the use of the epistolary form in the prequel Dracul that is also prevalent in the original Dracula. Aside from setting the action of your story earlier than that of the original, how else might you create a sense of anticipation or homage?
Earlier this month, a pair of ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz was recovered by the FBI. The iconic shoes had been missing from the Judy Garland Museum since 2005 and details about the theft and suspects remain mysterious. Write a short story that revolves around the recovery, after many years, of stolen items that have great value to your main character. What speculative theories arise about the theft, and how do they match up with what actually occurred? Ultimately, does your main character learn exactly who took these items, or do mysterious elements and unanswered questions linger?
The technique of thematic threading, which can “provide a backdrop or a second story of resonance that runs parallel to the main story,” is a powerful tool for guiding readers through challenging stories as Tracy Strauss notes in “#MeToo: Crafting Our Most Difficult True Stories” in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. By intertwining multiple themes, an author can imbue a story with additional nuance and allow for a narrative with more emotional balance. Write a short story that braids two story lines together, perhaps using one thread to explore an extended sequence of flashbacks or to focus more on sensory details.
What kind of story would you write for someone reading it one hundred years from now? For Scottish artist Katie Paterson’s Future Library project, which started in 2014, she has commissioned Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Elif Shafak, Sjón, and Han Kang to write manuscripts that will remain unread in storage in an Oslo library until 2114. The texts will then be printed on paper made from one thousand trees planted in a Norwegian forest when the project began. Write a short story with the notion that it won’t be read for one hundred years. While imagining a future generation of readers, explore themes involving time, eternity, and mortality.
Imagine a town with no Wi-Fi, no cell phones or cordless phones, where microwaves are kept in metal cages, and only 1950s and diesel engine cars are allowed on the road. All of these are real restrictions in Green Bank, a tiny West Virginia town situated inside a designated National Radio Quiet Zone, where data collection by astronomers at the observatory can be disrupted by the presence of electronic interference. Write a short story in which your main character resides in a town with similar restrictions. Is living off the grid a choice? How do the daily tasks and communication of your character differ without the convenience of the tools and technology we often take for granted?
How did your neighborhood get its name? Was it christened by long-ago settlers or spread slowly by local gossipers or journalists? Or might it have been cartographers at Google Maps, which often lists neighborhood names with seemingly no recognizable origin or historical basis, such as East Cut in San Francisco, Fishkorn in Detroit (a typographical error from what was formerly known as Fiskhorn), Midtown South Central in New York City, or Silver Lake Heights in Los Angeles. Invent a descriptive name for a fictional town. Then, write a short story based around the origin of this name. Does the geography or a consequential event play a part in the name and story?
“When I dream of afterlife in heaven, the action always takes place in the Paris Ritz,” Ernest Hemingway once wrote of the hotel he often frequented with F. Scott Fitzgerald. The hotel is used in his novel The Sun Also Rises, and is also the setting of his story “A Room on the Garden Side,” written in 1956 and published for the first time in this summer’s issue of the Strand magazine. Think of a short story you’ve written in which the setting plays a significant role, and write a new story that uses the same locale. How do different characters’ perceptions of the same setting add new dimension to the space?
In the mid-twentieth century, American publishing house Dell issued “Mapback” editions of paperback books, whose back covers were printed with detailed illustrations and diagrams of maps showing where story events took place. Oftentimes these books were mystery or crime novels, and the back covers displayed cross-sections, floor plans, or bird’s-eye view maps. Sketch out your own map for a short mystery or crime story that takes place in several rooms or floors of a building, or among several landmarks scattered around a specific locale. Allow the map to guide the narrative for your story. Do these visual cues help you plot out the action and your characters’ motives?
Does weakness have a smell? In a study published in June in Scientific Reports, scientists found that injured ring-tailed lemurs lose 10 percent of their body odor, thereby signaling via scent their weakened state to potential rivals. This week, write a scene in a short story where your main character is exposed and displays a moment of weakness. Who is there to witness this vulnerability and does this person take advantage of it or show sympathy?
In Nikolai Gogol’s classic short story “The Nose,” the protagonist wakes up one morning and notices that his nose has disappeared. This week, try writing a short story in which something unassuming and unexpected goes missing. How does this absence impact your protagonist? Is there an anxious search for the missing object? In Gogol’s story, the missing nose takes on a life of its own, walking around St. Petersburg, pretending to be a human being. Perhaps your story will include this type of surreal, absurd twist.
Library books carry with them stories beyond their pages. “Each one shares the stories not only written on the pages, but through pen markings, coffee splatters, filled-in checkout cards, or yellowed tape stretching the book’s life out before its demise,” says artist Kerry Mansfield about her collection of old library books in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Write a short story that revolves around a library book and the readers who have checked the book out over a period of time. What significance does this particular book have to your main character, and is this shared or contrasted with other readers? How are the readers connected and do they end up meeting each other?
Ash, beech, dandelion, fern, ivy, lark, nectar, pasture, and other nature-related terms have been removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary in the past decade or so, replaced by words related to social media and technology, such as blog, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, and voicemail. Write a short story that takes place in a society in which language is experiencing a transition of values from nature to technology, a change reflected in its use or regulation of words. What happens when references to nature are superseded by an emphasis on technology? How do your characters resist or rally in support of these social changes? Consider how this change in language might infiltrate other elements of daily life in your story, such as politics, food, family, housing, or arts and entertainment.
Octopuses have unusual characteristics and intellectual abilities that might just be from out of this world. Earlier this year, a group of international scientists published research in the journal Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology asserting the possibility that octopuses may have their origins in outer space. Write a short story that makes use of a character who seems bafflingly odd or otherworldly. What sort of behaviors can be pointed out as unusual? What theories do the other characters have about the reasons for this strangeness, and what do these judgments and justifications reveal of the characters making them?
This past spring, the Bairui Plaza shopping mall in Xi’an, China unveiled different colored pathways outside the mall designated specifically for pedestrians with their eyes glued to their cell phones. They have been given a nickname in Chinese roughly translating to “heads-down tribe.” The lanes are intended as a safety measure and relay messages urging walkers to look up and pay attention, including the message: “Please don’t look down for the rest of your life.” Write a short story that involves two characters who are constantly on their cell phones while walking. What happens when they collide on a sidewalk?
After Mexico’s victory over Germany in last Sunday’s World Cup match, the Institute of Geologic and Atmospheric Investigations in Mexico City reported a small artificial earthquake possibly caused by the mass jumping of tens of thousands of celebrants. Write a short story in which the concurrent actions of a large population of people causes some sort of noticeable geological event. What is the cause of the hoopla, and does it end up causing a ripple effect of far-reaching consequences? Perhaps your story will have a sci-fi slant with a futuristic setting or incorporate humor commenting on current environmental concerns.
We’ve all experienced feeling awkward: maybe you forget someone’s name and have to hope that they don’t notice; maybe you say goodbye to someone but then you both end up walking in the same direction; or someone says, “See you tomorrow” and you enthusiastically reply with, “You, too!” The possibilities are endless. And yet, in the world of fiction, awkwardness tends to take a backseat to the more classical conditions of passion, sorrow, fear, love, and longing. This week, try writing a short story that centers on an awkward encounter between two characters. Explore the contours and sources of feeling unsure, anxious, embarrassed, and perhaps even amused. In other words, let the awkwardness serve as an entryway into the psychology of your characters.
Lexie Smith and Gideon Jacobs are currently writers-in-residence for a short story project at New York City’s LaGuardia Airport. Travelers who stop at the Landing Pages kiosk through the rest of this month can submit their flight number and Smith or Jacobs will write a custom story over the length of their flight and send the finished story to their phone upon landing. This week, write a series of short stories that take place in an airport or on a plane. Give yourself different amounts of time to complete each story, perhaps starting with fifteen minutes and building up to an hour. What conventional expectations of a story’s beginning, middle, and end are in place when thinking about air travel, and how might you subvert them?
How true is your fiction? In his novel 10:04 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), which is about a writer writing a novel, Ben Lerner blurs the boundary between fiction and nonfiction, or as he explains it in the book, his writing occurs on “the very edge of fiction.” This week, conduct your own experiment with this genre boundary. Write a short story in which you, or somebody who closely resembles you, are the main character. Incorporate autobiographical details into your narrative, and cross the line into fiction through acts of imagination that differ from your lived experience.
False memory implants may seem the stuff of Philip K. Dick, but earlier this month, scientists published a report in the journal eNeuro that they successfully transferred a memory from one animal to another. In the experiment, RNA from the nervous system of trained snails was injected into untrained snails, which then behaved as if trained, seemingly accessing memories that had been implanted. Write a short story in which a character has a memory implant. Does she voluntarily sign up for the procedure in order to restore a lost memory that would be beneficial to her physically or emotionally, or are there more sinister forces at work? Does the false memory eventually cause unforeseen consequences?
“It wasn’t the twists and turns that kept me reading, although there are some of those. It was the language of daily life,” writes Leesa Cross-Smith in “Some Room to Breathe: In Praise of Quiet Books” in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. In the essay, Cross-Smith describes her favorite reading experiences with books that offer up calmness, quietude, and stillness. Write a short story that lowers the stakes, in volume, pace, and drama. What is the value in allowing your characters the time and space to slowly observe and reflect upon their surroundings, to dwell on sensorial details? How does your writing change when you focus on the smaller and deeper explorations of truth?