Choose a specific place and a time in the past: the North Shore of Staten Island before the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was built; the Back Bay area of Boston in the 1850s; Phoenix before air conditioning was invented; Seattle in the 1970s. Research this location, gathering as much information as you can about how it once was and how it has changed. Review public records, read newspaper articles, and peruse archival images. Local chamber of commerce sites and the Library of Congress's website are good places to start. Write a story set in the past in your chosen location, using the details you've uncovered to make it as authentic to that time as possible.
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.
Write a story based on the following line: "I have bad news for you. You've been kidnapped." Be sure to incorporate the line into the dialogue of the story.
My guiding philosophy of writing, maybe even of life, is that the path to the truth runs through shame. So dig through your memory banks and write about the most shameful episode you can remember. The challenge here is to provide the reader the basic dramatic context, then to slow down and move moment-to-moment during the worst of it. This need not be for general consumption. It's more an exercise in radical disclosure.
Today's fiction prompt comes from fiction writer Steve Almond, whose most recent book God Bless America: Stories was published this week by Lookout Books.
Pick a short story by another writer and use its ending as the beginning for a new story of your own.
Imagine a character whose job—such as a banker, thrift store cashier, babysitter, college president—typically implies certain traits about this person and a certain lifestyle. Write a story in which this character's life outside of his or her work is drastically different from what is typical. Explore in your writing why this is so, using it to inform the plot and to create tension in the story.
Write a scene for a story with two characters involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Use news stories about the movement in order to gather details to create a realistic setting.
A major catastrophy has occurred that has changed the way we live and the environment in which we live. Write a story that conveys this post-apocalyptic environment without describing what has happened, using the setting and characters to suggest it instead.
Read Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” and Wells Towers’s story “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.” Both stories integrate the ancient and the contemporary in surprising and disturbing ways. (For another example read Matthew Sharpe’s novel Jamestown [Soft Skull Press, 2007]). Draft a story that does the same thing, blending the past and the present into the fictional elements of plot, setting, dialogue, and character.
There is someone inside a house at night who is startled by a knock at the door. Outside the door are two people. Complete this scene by considering the following questions: Who is the person inside the house? What is he (or she) doing when he hears the knock? Does he know why the pair are at the door? Who are the pair? What do they want? After completing the opening scene, write the story of what happens next.
Using one of your own stories or one by another author, rewrite the story from the perspective of one of the minor characters.
In honor of the birthday (August 30, 1797) this week of Mary Shelley, author of the classic Frankenstein, a novel she based on a dream, write a horror story, using material from your most memorable nightmares, should you need it.
Your assignment is to go wild. Let the sacred and profane language spill from you without censor. Find the wildest part of your personality and give it full vent for five pages. Forget about obedience of language, of character, of form. Forget about what is proper. Write the feral sentences you've been afraid to say in public. Have no shame for a spell. Free yourself from the confines of a well-behaved syntax, of expected word choice. Here's my hell-bent, uninhibited narrator from Busy Monsters, Charlie Homar, after making a rather asinine decision involving a firearm: "My mission shat upon by the Miocene logic and cruel outcomes afflicting all those with pluck but no punctilio, with hearts that run on gasoline: okay, I overreacted, I admit it." Never rely on the available jargon. For five nonstop pages, surprise yourself with the ecstatic language you know is in you.
This week's fiction prompt comes from William Giraldi, author of the novel Busy Monsters, published by W. W. Norton in August.
A man and a woman in a room. This is Salina, Kansas. He wears cufflinks on his white shirt sleeves, a silk tie. She seems preoccupied. She holds a glass in her hand. Write their story in three hundred words. Use the word "salvation" and the word "light." Make one of the pair the central character and construct the story from his or her point of view.
This week's fiction prompt comes from novelist John Dufresne, author, most recently, of the book Is Life Like This? A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months (Norton, 2010).
Go to a thrift store, explore an attic, or exchange with a friend three unfamiliar items: a piece of clothing, an object you can do something with—such as a coffee cup, a screw driver, or a letter opener, and a photograph or postcard. Wear the piece of clothing, use the object, and place the image in your work space where you can see it. Then write a scene about a character who is wearing the piece of clothing, while using the object, and has a memory filled with conflict conjured by the photograph or postcard.
Go for a walk, paying careful attention to your surroundings, until you find something that doesn't belong. It could be a piece of garbage on the street, a coin, an animal, a car battery in the woods, anything out of place. Tell the story of how it got there.
In a radio interview this week on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, fiction writer Donald Ray Pollock, whose most recent novel, The Devil All the Time, was published this month, talked about how he learned to write by typing out a story by an established author once a week. Use Pollock’s strategy this week, typing a story by an author whose writing you admire. After typing it out, print out a copy and carry it with you, reading and rereading it, making notes along the way. Let the process reveal the story’s gifts to you. Then begin a story of your own.
Create a main character assigning basic characteristics, such as gender, age, and physical attributes. Imagine this character having dinner with three other people. At the end of this dinner, the character will have lost something significant—a job, a partner, a home. Write this scene at dinner, and then use it as a turning point for a larger story
Choose a unique historical moment, the first that comes to mind: the Crimean War, the first lunar landing, the invention of the wheel, or something seemingly less dramatic, such as the building of the first traffic light. Then spend some time researching the moment you chose—dig into a few sources, make a page of notes. Create a character who lives on the periphery of the event—a witness or minor player, yet someone living at the intersection of history. The character can be swept up by the event or remotely affected, battle against it or be its biggest cheerleader. Write his or her story.
Think about an incident from your life—something especially monumental, unexpected, or traumatic that altered the way you see the world. Write a story or essay about it, but from someone else’s perspective. You can appear as a character in the story, but explore it from outside of yourself, as an event that happened, but not one that happened to you.
Open your medicine cabinet and choose something from it that one character will use to kill another in a story.
Track down what's referred to as "the Flitcraft parable" or "the Falling Beams story" in Dashiell Hammett's novel The Maltese Falcon. Read it first as a period piece, but then try to bring it closer to your world. Focus on that devastating final line of the story, "He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling." Read that sentence over and over again, and allow yourself to feel the promise and the terror contained within the sentence—the promise of change, the terror of sameness. Now begin a story using that sentence and see where it leads you.
This week's fiction prompt comes from Siddhartha Deb, author of the novels The Point of Return (HarperCollins, 2002) andAn Outline of the Republic (Ecco, 2005). His book of nonfiction, The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India, will be published in August by Faber and Faber.
Write a story using the following as the first sentence: There are three things she told me never to do.
Make a list of your daily routine during any given week: wake up, shower, drink coffee, walk the dog, drive to work, go to lunch, have dinner with friends, etc. Choose an event from that list and use it as the starting point for a scene, but transform the mundane into the complicated by introducing something unexpected. If, for example, you choose driving to work as your starting point, disrupt the ride with a phone call, an accident, a radio broadcast—something that changes what would normally happen. Write a story from there.
Take a character from a story you've written or choose a character that you'd like to write about. Create an object that you imagine the character owns--a purse, for example, filling it with a wallet, lipstick, a notepad, a flashlight, keys, etc.; or a desk drawer or a check register. Write about each of the items contained within the object. What color is the lipstick? Is it the character's favorite color? Why? What's in the wallet? If there are receipts, where are they from? Explore your character through the object you've created.
Think about the times in your life when you've been the most frightened. Choose one of these times, and write a scene or story about what happened using third-person narration.