“What is the difference between the truth and what the characters are telling themselves? If I can figure that out, then things really start to crack open,” says Téa Obreht in a profile by Amy Gall in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine about a question she poses to herself during the writing process. Keep this question in mind as you try writing a short story that revolves around a main character whose version of the truth—about another character, herself, or an event that has happened—differs drastically from a more objective reality. How does the storytelling perspective demonstrate this discrepancy to the reader? What is hidden underneath this version of the 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.
“Glamour Shots was once the coolest store in every mall,” writes Mark Dent in the New York Times article “The Last Five Glamour Shots Locations in the United States.” In the mid-nineties, there were more than three hundred and fifty of these stores—part salon, part photography studio—around the world. Customers were treated to makeovers, and camera filters smoothed out any wrinkles or blemishes, a task that smartphones can now easily accomplish. For this week’s prompt, write a story that takes place in a chain store that has outlived its glory days. Who are the regulars that frequent this space and what ties them together?
Earlier this month, Seamus Blackley, a physicist and the cocreator of the Xbox, baked a loaf of sourdough bread using yeast extracted from 4,500-year-old Egyptian ceramic vessels with the help of an Egyptologist and microbiologist at Harvard. This experiment provoked some to jokingly—or not—wonder if this might unleash the wrath of an Egyptian pharaoh’s curse. Write a short story that considers what kind of consequences, mundane or fantastic, could result from bringing back to life organisms from thousands of years ago. Do problems arise when your characters unleash their creation?
Catacombs decorated with bones in Rome, an underground reservoir in Istanbul from the sixth century, a former subterranean city in northern France with hundreds of rooms, chapels, town squares, and a bakery. In a recent National Geographic article, nine different historic sites around Europe that are located underground are rediscovered. Consider what strange activities might be unfolding at any given moment right under your feet. Write a story that takes place in an underground location. Have historical sites been repurposed for an entirely new function, or has something new been built? Is the atmosphere lively and bustling, or cool and foreboding?
Earlier this month, a New York City resident formerly from California posted on social media about his mysterious and shocking discovery of a perfectly intact burger from the West Coast fast food chain In-N-Out Burger lying in the middle of the street in Queens. Write a short story that revolves around a character stumbling upon an inexplicable, mirage-like object on the street, perhaps one that evokes particular nostalgia or poignant longing. Why does it resonate so deeply with your character? Does the discovery result in wild speculation and conjecture when attempting to explain the mystery?
“Among my obsessions I include cows, pencils and all things Greek,” writes Mary Norris in her New York Times essay “Golf Balls! Pencils! Whales! What Makes an Author’s Obsession a Thrill, Not a Bore?” in which she contemplates the pleasure of relating to another’s preoccupations through reading the work of obsessive writers. Write a short story in which one of your own obsessions is transferred to the main character. How does your character handle or respond to this obsession in ways both similar to and different from how you would?
What happens to your sense of time when the sun doesn’t set for sixty-nine days in a row? Residents of the Norwegian island Sommarøy, where the sun stays above the horizon from the middle of May to the end of July, have a “time-free way of living,” doing away with the constraints of tightly scheduled hours and deadlines. This week, write a short story that takes place in a location that has become a time-free zone. Have the residents adjusted smoothly to a flow of life that passes in a timeless blur, or are there unexpected hiccups and misunderstandings?
“We must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful, and we must walk the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.” In Colson Whitehead’s seventh novel, The Nickel Boys (Doubleday, 2019), the protagonist, Elwood Curtis, replays these powerful words by Martin Luther King Jr. from a record album he received as a young boy in the early 1960s, which he considers “the best gift of his life.” Throughout the book Elwood repeatedly refers to King’s words as a source of guidance, inspiration, and morality. Write a short story in which your main character is similarly inspired by an important historical figure’s words—words of wisdom written or spoken by an artist, author, or activist. How did your character first come across these words? Are they comforting or provocative? Does the meaning or significance of the words change over time as the character evolves?
“We think of the walls of a house as defining our domestic space, but in the novel these boundaries start to soften, for inside the house it’s as wild as outside,” says Chia-Chia Lin about her debut novel, The Unpassing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), in an interview with Yaa Gyasi in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. In the novel, an immigrant family lives in a house in Alaska and deals with isolation, grief, and the vulnerability of the house to infiltration. Write a short story in which the stability of a house as a domestic space has been compromised. What happens when what was once thought as safe and interior becomes blurred with what’s presumed to be wild and exterior?
How would you experience everyday life differently if you had eight arms? If you could turn your skin metallic or reflective, or blend into any background and remain unseen, would you use this power to escape from dangerous or awkward situations? In celebration of Cephalopod Week, write a short story in which your main character possesses some type of octopus, squid, or cuttlefish characteristic. Describe the benefits of newfound capabilities, and what might prove unexpectedly difficult with these peculiar attributes.
“This is a novel. All facts are true, but I have imagined feelings, thoughts, and dialogue. I used intuition and deduction rather than actual invention…. When I read about him, something happened. He started to live in my head like a character in a novel,” writes Catherine Cusset in the prologue to her latest book, Life of David Hockney: A Novel (Other Press, 2019), translated from the French by Teresa Fagan, which offers a portrait of the famous painter through a blend of biography and fiction. Think of an artist whose work you admire, whose character or life circumstances resonate with you in a personal way. Research some basic facts about this artist’s life, and then write a short story that focuses on emotional truth, using your intuition to imagine feelings and thoughts.
In “Job Opening: Seeking Historian With Tolerance for Harsh Weather, the Occasional Bear,” MPR News reporter Euan Kerr interviews Lee Radzak about his retirement this spring after thirty-six years as the lighthouse keeper at Split Rock Lighthouse on Lake Superior in Minnesota. Radzak says many of the romantic notions about lighthouses can be attributed to the physical space they inhabit on “the edge—the edge of land and of water,” but that there are also difficult and tedious tasks that accompany his job. This week, write a story about someone who resides and works in a space that is intermittently peopled and completely isolated—a national park, a large estate, or a new planet. How do these extremes affect the life of your character?
“Experiencing gives you a ‘first’ person perspective. You see others while you act. Watching gives you a ‘third’ person perspective. You learn something about how others see you,” says Elizabeth Loftus, a UC Irvine professor who studies memory, in Julia Cho’s New York Times piece on how watching a recording of an event can alter one’s initial memory of the experience. Write a scene in which your character attends or participates in a performance, party, or special occasion. Explore how her initial memory of the experience changes once she watches a video of the event. What stands out from the recording that hadn’t been noticed before? How does this reshape her memory?
What does it mean to be crowned the ugliest in the village? Every year, thousands gather in Piobbico, Italy to attend the Festival of the Ugly and vote for the president of the World Association of Ugly People, known by locals as Club dei Brutti. In the Paris Review, Rebecca Brill writes of the festival and attendees: “Centuries of hard work have destigmatized ugliness to the point that Piobbicans declare their ugliness cavalierly, as if the categorization were no more charged than that of having say, brown hair or blue eyes.” This week, write a story in which characters vie for a prize or title that would be generally considered undesirable. Describe the history of the competition and what this unusual accolade means to your characters.
This spring, a six-ton potato structure, formerly used as a traveling advertisement by the Idaho Potato Commission, will be available for guests to rent through Airbnb. The Big Idaho Potato Hotel includes amenities such as air conditioning and heating, a bathroom, an indoor fireplace, and an antler chandelier. Located on four hundred acres of farmland about twenty-five miles southeast of Boise, the one-bedroom potato can accommodate two people. Write a story that revolves around a character’s stay in the potato. Does the unconventional setting lead to weird, scary, or humorous occurrences?
“Each of us came with a past attached, like a wagon or a bindle or a hump.” In Kathryn Davis’s eighth novel, The Silk Road (Graywolf Press, 2019), the recollection of this inescapable past is a means by which the main characters—eight siblings with names such as the Astronomer, the Botanist, the Cook, and the Geographer—examine their memories of childhood and is integral to how their futures will unfold. Each character’s journey meanders and doubles back onto itself like a labyrinth, sometimes intertwining with another’s, and as the story progresses, the gradual recombining and layering of past memories sheds light on the shifting and ephemeral nature of all trajectories. Write a story that revolves around a small group of characters whose pasts are connected. How does the weight of each person’s past eventually prove to have immense bearing on the present and future of everyone in the group?
“You don’t need to look up the specifics of some detail right that moment. You just don’t. So you get the state wrong when you’re writing the short story that was inspired by that Internet video of the black bear that broke into a house and played the piano in what you think was probably Colorado,” writes Camille T. Dungy in “Say Yes to Yourself: A Poet’s Guide to Living and Writing” in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Write a short story inspired by a strange or humorous Internet video you watched a while ago. Don’t worry about rewatching it to make sure you get the details right. Allow the fallibility of your memory to take the story into a new and bolder direction.
According to a recent study in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, scientists found evidence in a cave in Texas that 1,500 years ago, someone ate a venomous snake whole. The discovery was made through analysis of coprolite, fossilized poop, which revealed a wealth of information about the ancient forager’s life and times. While there is no way to be certain, the archaeologists believe it’s possible that the snake was eaten for ceremonial or ritualistic purposes. Write a short story in which your main character finds a fossil in an unlikely place. How does this discovery steer your character into a mystery?
For decades, phones shaped like Garfield—Jim Davis’s comic strip cat best known for being lazy and loving lasagna—kept washing up on the northwest coast of France seemingly out of the blue. The mystery was finally solved after a French environmental group discovered an abandoned shipping container filled with these feline phones lodged deep inside a nearby cave, according to a recent report in the Washington Post. This week, write a story about an enigmatic object that surfaces near a body of water. Concoct an explanation that is logical, fantastical, or somewhere in between—a statement on wastefulness and global pollution or about the magical interconnectedness of the world. For ideas and photographs of strange artifacts discovered underwater, including an ice cream truck and a giraffe, visit Underwater New York.
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.
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?