There is literally an endless supply of writing prompts at your fingertips at any given moment. All you have to do is be aware. We can choose what we notice. Take an extra minute to focus on the details of that stranger walking by that catches your eye. What's his deal? What's unusual about him?
I’d had a germ of an idea for a story where a woman continuously scraped gum off a busy sidewalk and DNA tested the samples. During the same period of time, in my neighborhood, I kept driving past this older gentleman walking his German Sheppard with a special harness. An Asian neighbor tends a vegetable garden in her front yard daily. I thought what if these two strangers connected in some way. So in my imagination they did and the dog was just as much a character and critical to the plot and somehow the woman morphed into the DNA processing sleuth. These neighbors spun into my story “Heart’s Artillery” in my collection The Strangeness of Men.
Observe your environment, the people and places you see each day. Take the time to notice and to ask “What if?”
Similar to observation, the experiences prompt comes from your immediate environment. Use situations that happen to you personally – funny, sad, or weird. Give them a twist. My poetry tends to come more from this type of generator.
In “Night School Showdown” I write about the first night of a writing class I took where one student had this sort of challenging attitude. I added a Wild West theme. You don’t have to write it exactly how it happened – take creative liberty.
Past experiences are great fodder for this technique. In “Lessons in Remembering” an old friend shows a church directory with a photo of my first serious boyfriend and his wife, jogging a trip down memory lane and the question, What if I had taken that alternate path? Find that universal element in your personal experiences that everybody can relate to.
3. News stories
Whether it’s an odd headline, a traumatic event, or just an obscure tidbit that stays with you, news stories can trigger fictional characters and situations. Years ago I read an article in our local newspaper about a man who had lost his job and decided to go on a mission trip with the time he now had available. He went to a third-world country and helped build a water cistern. It was hardly even newsworthy and yet the idea sat in my brain percolating like a New York Times front-page headliner. A photo of the cistern with red, white, and blue handprints and American names written beneath each accompanied the story. I didn’t connect with the missionary. However, I couldn’t stop thinking about the children growing up in that small village, making that trek to the cistern each day, growing up looking at those handprints and strange sounding foreign names. A small, strong, Zambian boy named Billie emerged from the dust and has stayed with me ever since. Part of his story, “The Long Road,” is in my collection The Strangeness of Men. I love that boy and I know he has a longer story. I hope I’ll be able to tell it one day.
You can also peruse older newspaper clippings for material. At the beginning of “Altavista” the newspaper clip is a slightly reworded actual clip from the 1913 social section of a Virginia newspaper given as a prompt in a writing course. I changed the names and placed it in another state. The story it sparked is purely imagination.
4. Photo prompt
It could be an old postcard, internet image, a family album, or any picture that makes you ponder what is going to happen next. Or, what just happened? If there are people in the photo, then who are they and how did they get in this situation? Usually a mood and setting will formulate from this exercise. It generates writing from a slightly different place, since you are writing in response to a visual instead of creating your own beginning image of what your character or situation looks like. Usually I end up writing about a character I hadn’t previously envisioned, perhaps totally unlike myself.
“How to Cross the Street Without Dying” used a simple photo prompt of stick figures on pavement from 1000words. It’s from a young girl’s point of view whose brother has been shot and killed by the police. Another example, “Last Chance Nightclub,” is based on a photo of soldiers and nurses dancing at the end of WWII. For this piece, I not only used the details of the image, I incorporated the person behind the camera as my main character.
You can find examples of photo prompts and stories on the links below or Pinterest.
In a fiction class I took the teacher had each of the students throw out two sentences as possible first lines. Our homework was to pick one of the sentences on the board and write a story. The line, “Yes, I found Jesus while doing drugs” triggered a memory of a conversation with a man at a bar in Hawaii whose facial hair, I joked later, made him look like Jesus. Most of the drug references I researched through the internet and a documentary on meth drug addiction. I ended up writing “Ain’t Nothing But a Chicken Wing” and getting it accepted in The Pinch Journal.
Don’t be afraid to ease drop on conversations; overheard dialogue on your kid’s bleachers can come in handy. One of my assignments for a class was to sit at the food court at the mall and listen. If a sentence sticks in your head – write it down and go from there. You can find sentences on signage, advertising, etc. Also, Google is your friend for many, many writing prompts of any kind.
writingexercises.co.uk - Random first line generator, also includes random plot, character, etc. – fun to try!