Within some cultures in Africa, Australia, and India, there exist strict rules which regulate the type of language permissible to use with one’s in-laws—for example, married women in Ethiopia who speak the Kambaata language and follow the ballishsha rule are forbidden to use any word that starts with the same syllables as the names of their parents-in-law. Often the solution is to use synonyms, euphemisms, or more generic terms. Write a scene in which two characters must have a conversation while abiding by a law that restricts particular words. Why is this law in place, and how do your characters deal with it? What power dynamics are involved? Are there hidden messages within the dialogue that cause a misunderstanding?
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.
Wraps, bubble tea, pork belly, kale, elaborate hamburgers, macarons. Different years are prone to different food trends, with the popular items appearing everywhere from fine-dining establishments, to fast food joints and snack trucks, to packaged goods and home cooking. Incorporate a trending food item from a certain time period into a short story. How does the insertion contribute a specific sense of time and place into your piece? What does it tell the reader about your characters’ lifestyles?
Last year the Atlantic reported that researchers using computer systems to analyze the emotional trajectories of protagonists in nearly two thousand works of English-language fiction found that there are just six basic storytelling arcs: “1. Rags to Riches (rise), 2. Riches to Rags (fall), 3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise), 4. Icarus (rise then fall), 5. Cinderella (rise then fall then rise), 6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall).” Think of a story that you often tell in your own life, perhaps a childhood memory that involves schools friends or a family occasion, or an adventurous incident that happened on a trip or vacation. Does it seem to align with one of these basic plotlines? Write a short fiction piece that maps the major elements of your story onto a different, unexpected arc.
The holidays are a time full of festive cuisine with strange or unknown origins. The New York Times suggested in an 1890 article that the name “eggnog” may have originated with the way the drink is made, in that it is “necessary to ’knock’ the eggs with a spoon in beating up, and that on the thoroughness of this depends the quality of the ‘good cheer.’” Write a short story that includes a scene where the improper preparation of a holiday drink or dish escalates a conflict. How does this action become the catalyst for a confrontation?
“Creative people are drawn to each other, as notorious for falling in love as they are for driving each other insane,” writes Catherine Lacey in her new book, The Art of the Affair: An Illustrated History of Love, Sex, and Artistic Influence (Bloomsbury USA, 2017). The book, which is featured in “The Written Image” in the January/February 2017 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, presents creative, romantic, and platonic connections between writers and artists such as Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick, and Billie Holiday and Orson Welles. Write a short story inspired by the sort of romantic entanglements and creative collaborations that Lacey presents in the book. How does involvement with the arts influence the scope and trajectory of the relationship between your characters?
Write a short story that takes place inside a bookstore, or incorporate a bookstore scene into a story already in progress. What kind of encounter between characters seems most tonally or atmospherically natural for a bookstore? Or conversely, what type of interaction seems deliciously inappropriate or unexpected? Does the search for a particular title play an integral part in the story? Consider whether the bookstore is modern and expansive or small and cozy, and how that might affect the scene. Browse through these videos and photos of a selection of impressive bookstores around the world for inspiration.
Browse through the winning photographs of this year’s National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest, and select the one that most readily captures your imagination. Write a one-thousand-word piece of flash fiction inspired by this photo, and by the ways in which it both presents the natural world and offers insight, comparison, and reflection of humanity’s place within it. To go a step further, try writing more than one flash fiction story focused on a different perspective of the same photo.
Earlier this month, actress Emma Watson hid books with handwritten messages in the London Underground and New York City subway stations as part of the community project Books on the Underground. Write a short story that begins with a character hiding a book in an unlikely place, like a bus stop or a graveyard or the hollow of a tree. What book would be hidden and why? Is anyone supposed to find it, and if so, what happens after? Is the discovery the beginning of a mystery?
“During the day, as I worked, I clarified daydreams, rehearsed thoughts. Phrases rose up, and as I shoveled compost, mulched garlic, or turned over the soil, the phrases turned too…. The world’s margins shrank but also grew luminous. After working outside in my body all day long, my mind felt brightly lit.” In “Turning the Soil” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Tess Taylor writes about her revelatory experience volunteering at a farm while at a writing residency in southwestern Massachusetts. Try to carve out a few hours this week to spend engaged in an activity that is very different from—and outside of—your usual working environment. Get your hands dirty in a garden or park, sit quietly in a library, or people-watch at an airport or train station. Allow your mind to roam over unexpectedly fresh images and phrases that surface, and then write a series of flash fiction pieces inspired by your time spent “outside.”
What do we mean when we call a story Dickensian? Often it is a lengthy work incorporating one or more of these elements: a dramatic and convenient twist of events, social-justice themes, a sentimental tone, a bustling city setting, a large cast of characters with vivid personality traits. Choose a memorable character from a Dickens story, such as Tiny Tim, Ebenezer Scrooge, Oliver Twist, the Artful Dodger, Miss Havisham, or Abel Magwitch. Write a short story in which this character has been inserted into un-Dickensian circumstances—perhaps a solitary exploration of the wilderness, a contemporary technology-filled existence, or a supernatural landscape. How do you maintain a Dickensian feel while ensuring that this piece reflects your unique creative voice?
The Saharan silver ant is able to survive in the extreme temperatures of the Sahara Desert, which often reaches almost 120 degrees Fahrenheit, with the help of physiological adaptations including highly reflective hairs that deflect the sun’s rays and longer legs, keeping them further above the hot sand. Write a short story that explores how a human character adapts when placed in a geographical location with extreme atmospheric conditions. Is your character alone or part of a pack? You may choose to write a story based in reality, or one that incorporates elements of the fantastic.
As pollution levels worsen in many cities around the world, some enterprising companies have found a market for selling packages of bottled air from Wales (with a "morning dew feel"), as well as from Australian beaches and Canadian mountains. Write a short story that takes place in a world that has perfected the ability to conveniently bottle not just air, but other highly sought-after items, both tangible and intangible. What happens when emotional states and feelings, like happiness or love, can be bottled, sold, and bought?
In Julio Cortazar’s short story, “Graffiti,” two graffiti artists develop a relationship admiring each other’s work and create a dialogue through their art like love letters. This week, think of a recent encounter you had with someone you admire. Then, write a short story where you reimagine that experience from the perspective of the other person. What might be noticed about the interaction that is different from what you interpreted? Will the feelings expressed be mutual?
Fanny Longfellow, wife of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, tragically perished in 1861 when her dress caught on fire. The combination of long dresses, flammable materials, oil lamps and the open flames of fireplaces and candles—in addition to the chemicals and toxic materials used in the manufacturing of many types of clothing—increased the frequency of fashion-related ailments and accidents in the nineteenth century. Write a spooky short story in which a character’s downfall is brought about by her wardrobe choices. Read about lead makeup, toxic socks, hatters poisoned by mercury, and arsenic dyes in this National Geographic piece on “Killer Clothing” for further inspiration.
For the first time in the United States, bees—seven species that are native to Hawaii—have been placed under protection on the endangered-species list. Write a short story in which a seemingly commonplace animal species suddenly becomes endangered or extinct. Do your storytelling instincts take you to environmental activism, a futuristic sci-fi universe, or an adventure in the wilderness? Or perhaps, to an apartment scene in which this news seems, for the time being, to have no bearing on the characters?
Last week, after a swarm of almost one hundred small earthquakes in the Salton Sea region, California’s Office of Emergency Services issued an earthquake advisory to Southern California residents warning of the potential of a larger earthquake occurring on the San Andreas fault. Write a short story in which the main plotline’s background includes the looming threat of a major earthquake. How does this create tension in the atmosphere and bring out different personality traits in each character?
This week, write a scene in which the main character is watching the presidential debates on television with another character and a confrontation arises over a disagreement of opinions. Have these characters just met, or are they old friends? Do their differing politics come as a surprise to the reader, or to each other, or are they expected? Politics aside, what does the disagreement reveal about the characters’ respective personalities, emotional states, and motives in relation to the narrative? Consider incorporating this scene for a short story you’ve written in the past or are currently working on in order to deepen a relationship.
In Washington Irving’s story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Ichabod Crane attends an autumnal harvest feast, where he listens to local townspeople recounting ghost stories. Later that night, on his fateful ride home, he encounters the Headless Horseman. The ending of the story is left open to interpretation: Is the Headless Horseman a ghoulish spirit, or is it actually Crane’s rival in love, dressed in disguise and further exaggerated by Crane’s haunted, overactive imagination? Write a ghost story in which you play with this ambiguity between the mundane and the supernatural, perhaps manipulating the observations and emotions of your main character, the stability of the story’s setting, or the sequence of events that unfolds. How does blurring the lines between human folly and otherworld menace imbue your storytelling with a sense of dread or horror?
In mid-July, a young man caught an alligator gar—an extremely unusual, sharp-toothed, prehistoric-looking fish—while fishing from a lake in Schenectady, New York. He took a photo of the megafish to post on social media, and then let it go, in accordance with his catch-and-release policy. His mother subsequently shared the post, and her colleague then contacted the U.S. Geological Survey, which in turn contacted the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, whose agents confirmed that it was an invasive species. This led to the mayor of Schenectady offering a one hundred dollar award to anyone who managed to catch the fish. Write a short story that unfolds in a similar fashion, beginning with the small action of one individual, which then puts into effect a chain of events involving a whole town.
Americans spend more money per year on lottery tickets than on sports tickets, movie tickets, books, video games, and recorded music, with lottery players split between those who play for money or for fun. Write a short story with the focal point on a character buying a lottery ticket. How would she spend the prize money if she won? What does the lottery reveal about your character’s perspectives on luck and money? Whether your character plays often or rarely, whether she wins or loses, what makes this specific lottery purchase remarkable in the context of your story?
“I remember very vividly where I was when I saw my very first big Surrealist exhibition...It was sort of a Tarzan-and-the-giant-spider moment. I absolutely see it as a hinge. There’s a pre-that-picture me and a post-that-picture me. And I’m very glad to be the post-that-picture me,” China Miéville says about the Max Ernst painting “Europe After the Rain” in a New Yorker article. Write a short story in which a character encounters a work of art that changes his life in a similarly noteworthy way. What resonates with the character to have such a lasting impression? How does his life change post-that-picture?
In “Return and Repeat, Culminate and Continue: On Crafting the End in Fiction” in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Jennifer De Leon draws a connection between the sestina poetry form—in which six words are repeated throughout—and John Gardner’s “return and repeat” method of ending a fictional piece by returning to key elements of the story. Find a short story you’ve written in the past and select six important aspects of the story, such as characters, words, and images. Write a new, alternate ending by reiterating or revisiting these motifs on the last page.
Last week, a young man from Virginia used suction cups to climb up the exterior of the sixty-eight-story Trump Tower building in midtown Manhattan, drawing the attention of eyewitnesses as well as millions more who watched live streaming videos on social media. Write a short story in which a character pulls off a risky and unusual stunt in an effort to communicate an important message to someone. Is the outsized gesture effective? What does his choice of action reveal about his personality? Are there unintended consequences involving the spectators?
Setting up a lemonade stand in the neighborhood has long been a popular way for kids to have fun in the summertime, and learn some basic skills about operating a business. Write a short story in which a lemonade stand plays a pivotal role. Is your main character one of the kids, or one of the customers, or perhaps just a passerby for whom the sight of the stand catalyzes another inciting action?
This week, find a short story you wrote in the past and reread it, making note of new observations about the characters and their actions, as well as pacing and style. Then, write a sequel to the story that either takes place immediately after the ending of the original or far off into the future. Use the experiences and wisdom you yourself have gained in the window of time since writing the original story to imbue your characters with newfound maturity, insight, and energy as they face fresh challenges.