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?
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.
“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?
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s classic 1953 dystopian novel about a future in which books are outlawed and burned by firemen, has recently been adapted into a feature film. The book, which was written during the McCarthy era, has often been interpreted as a warning against state-based censorship and the dangers of illiteracy and conformity in a society where people are obsessed with technology and mass media. Write a short story in which a totalitarian government has enforced a ban on some aspect or invention of society that has long been considered integral for human expression. How does the government justify its stance and exercise control? Are the people both victims of suppression and somehow complicit in its enforcement? What type of characters might reside in the liminal gray area between hero and villain?
Lightning never strikes the same place twice, is how the saying goes, but for some it strikes more than twice. Over the course of three years, twenty-year-old outdoorsman Dylan McWilliams beat 893 quadrillion-to-one odds to experience being bitten by a shark, being attacked by a bear, and then being bitten by a rattlesnake. Write a story in which a character endures a slew of bad luck in the form of several unfortunate incidents within a short span of time. Though the events may seem unrelated, are there larger forces at work? How does your character’s response to this streak of bad luck reveal her personality or foreshadow future consequences within the narrative?
In Denis Johnson’s classic short story collection Jesus’ Son (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992), the protagonist is morally compromised: he does bad things, ranging from little lies to large acts of theft and violence. Part of what makes the book compelling is the way Johnson handles the protagonist’s inner life and his reactions to his own misdeeds. This week, try writing a short story from the perspective of a character who does something bad and gets away with it. How is this character affected? Is there rationalization, shame, fear? The plot could be as innocuous as a child stealing a candy bar, or something more sinister.
Rubber ducks were first patented as floating rubber toys in the mid-twentieth century by sculptor Peter Ganine, thereafter becoming an iconic children’s bath toy and inspiring Ernie’s signature song on Sesame Street. Write a short story that revolves around the re-emergence of a long-lost childhood toy. What does this discovery bring to the surface for your character, perhaps something hidden or repressed? In addition to possible feelings of comfort and familiarity, are there other unexpected emotions that are dredged up?
The British television series Black Mirror depicts versions of the future in which technological advances have unexpected (and often dark) consequences. Episodes have tackled topics such as mind uploading, dating apps, and social rating systems. These stories, surreal yet connected to real-life issues, reflect and comment on the world we live in. This week, try writing your own story based on a technological change. If a routine process like texting, online shopping, or posting on social media is disrupted, how would this affect your character’s ability to comfortably function? How does this shift alter your character’s interactions with others, and what reflections on society will you include as commentary?
Authors such as Karen Russell, Kelly Link, and Carmen Maria Machado have drawn inspiration for their stories from well-known fairy tale tropes and styles, and other writers have adapted classic fairy tales for their own usage, like Anne Sexton’s Transformations (Houghton Mifflin, 1971) and Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird (Riverhead Books, 2014). My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me (Penguin Books, 2010), an anthology of fairy tale–inspired writing edited by Kate Bernheimer, includes stories such as Joy Williams’s “Baba Iaga and the Pelican Child” and Kevin Brockmeier’s “A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin.” Write your own interpretation of a fairy tale, imagining well-known characters in the present or future, and incorporating relevant issues of contemporary society revolving around class, poverty, crime, race, war, or gender. How might you incorporate new technology, politics, or communication habits while maintaining the emotions, relationships, mood, and themes at the core of the tale’s plot?
Earlier this month, a man in southeast Georgia photographed what appeared to be the remains of a mysterious sea creature on the shore of a wildlife refuge beach. The photographs were sent to several media outlets and analyzed by marine scientists who were unable to verify the identity of the animal. Some surmised that it might be a hoax, possibly created to perpetuate the local legend of the Altamaha-ha, a hissing, serpentlike river monster. Write a short story featuring a legendary creature of your own making, perhaps one that is enshrouded in regional folklore. What happens when a character discovers evidence of its existence and tries to prove that it’s real? What do your characters’ attitudes and responses to the sighting reveal about their personalities?
“For me, what makes a novel is the unfolding of a question that haunts me, that I have to explore—and that I hope, in digging deep, will answer that question for myself and for my readers,” writes Caroline Leavitt in “The Novel I Buried Three Times” in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. This week, use Leavitt’s concept of the unfolding of a question for a short story. Consider two questions she has explored for her novels: “Must we let go of the things we cannot fix?” and “How do you love without destroying someone else’s love?” Write a short story that in some way attempts to answer one of these questions or an open-ended question of your own. Does the question change or evolve as the story proceeds?
Julius Caesar’s assassination on March 15, 44 BCE, is indelibly linked to the phrase “Beware the ides of March,” the warning given by the soothsayer in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. In Roman times, the Ides of March, and the other mid-month-marking ides, were known as deadlines for settling debts. This week, write a short story in which a soothsayer or fortune-teller foresees a momentous event occurring during the middle of March. Is it a positive premonition or an ominous omen? How does your main character prepare for, or divert from, this prophecy? What does this behavior reveal about the optimism or pessimism of your character?
In an article published in Variety last week, Barbra Streisand revealed that two of her dogs are clones of her late dog Samantha, who died in 2017. Since the cloning of Dolly the Sheep in 1996, researchers have cloned about two dozen other mammal species, and currently there are private companies that reportedly charge fifty thousand dollars to one hundred thousand dollars to clone beloved pets like cats and dogs. Write a short story in which a main character has made the decision to clone a pet. Why is it so important for the character to possess a near identical version of this pet? Do others agree or disagree with the decision and the process in general?