What would your character write in his or her journal in response to these prompts?
a) What annoyed me today.
b) What made me laugh today.
c) The news story/Facebook post that made me smile.
d) How I feel about thunderstorms.
e) Music that brings back memories.
f) If I could live at any time in human history, it would be ________ because ….
Have some fun with these questions designed to dig a little deeper into your character and to give you some thoughtful journal topics to explore.
What masks do your characters wear to hide their feelings in certain situations? Whom do they trust to see behind their masks?
What costumes did your characters want to wear on Hallowe’en when they were children? Did they want to be superheroes or bunnies or witches or pirates or ….? What was your favourite Hallowe’en costume? Why was it your favourite?
What do you need to have the best start to your day? Eight hours sleep? Two cups of coffee? Skipping morning altogether? Music? All news radio? What happens when your favorite morning routine goes wrong? Now answer these questions for your character.
In Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peters mysteries, Toby has recurring nightmares that feature Bozo the clown. Write about your recurring dream or create one for your character.
If your characters live in the present, what photos or images do your characters have on their desktops or cell phone screens? Why is this image important? If your characters live in another time, what photos would they keep in a wallet or on a bedside table, or what poster would they have on their bedroom walls? Explain why certain photos or images are special to you?
What does your character consider a luxury? A day at the spa? Box tickets for a game? Feeling safe? A snow day home from school? One more day? What obstacles keep your character from enjoying this luxury? Describe what you would consider a luxury. If it is something that you can treat yourself to once in a while, how does it make you feel? If it is something that is out of reach, how important is it that you eventually get to enjoy it?
What makes your character impatient or angry? How does he or she deal with anger? Does your character keep it bottled up to explode later over something insignificant? Let it all out right at the moment and then move on? Never really get angry? Count to 10? React with fists or words? What does it take to get a strong reaction from your character? Think about how you handle anger. How does it affect you and your relationships?
Do holiday festivals make you happy, or do they bring back sad memories, or do they do both? How do you deal with your holiday feelings? How do holidays affect your character?
Think about makes you laugh. Do you have a favorite comedian or TV show or movie? What makes the person or program so funny? What kind of humor appeals to you? Witty repartee? Slapstick? Farce? What makes your character laugh? One of the key rules of humor is, “Pain is funny.” Do you think it’s true? Why or why not?
How would you complete the following sentences? How would your characters complete the sentences? If I could be a kid again, I would … ; If I could go back to one day in my life, I would …; If I could have one good-bye over again, I would ….
What brings you comfort? A hug, the low vibration of a purring cat, fuzzy slippers and a favorite housecoat, ice cream, money in the bank, Jack Daniels? Explain why certain things make you feel comforted. Now answer the same question for your character.Have you ever wanted to get in your car or on a bus or train and just keep going? What is pulling you from where you are? What do you want to leave behind, if only for a while? What do you hope is ahead of you? What does your character think and do when he or she feels this way?
What makes your character stop and savor the moment? The peaty aroma of an Islay malt? A baby’s smile? What special memory or feeling is evoked? How can this change of pace enhance your story and let the reader know your character better?
What has your character wasted in the past—money, time, a relationship, someone’s trust? How does that event color what your character is doing today and how does it influence your character’s choices? Answer the same question for yourself.
Ask your character the ten Bernard Pivot questions that James Lipton asks his guests on the Actor’s Studio. For fun, ask yourself, too!
What is your favorite word?
What is your least favorite word?
What turns you on?
What turns you off?
What is your favorite curse word?
What sound or noise do you love?
What sound or noise do you hate?
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
What profession would you not like to do?
If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
What is your character’s greatest fear? If your character doesn’t have one, create one and make sure that he or she has to face that fear at a critical time in your story. Think Indiana Jones and the snakes.
What is the one ‘good-bye’ that you said to a living person that you regret saying? Answer the same question for your character.
Does your character prefer to be alone or with a lot of people? What benefits does your character derive from being in his favorite situation? How does he cope when he must experience the opposite? Think of placing your character in his least favorite setting and add another level of conflict to whatever else is happening in the scene.
What food do you hate? Consider serving your character her most despised meal in a situation where she feels she actually has to eat it.
What place have you always wanted to visit? What attracts you to this place? What do you wish you could experience there? Answer these questions for your character.
Many mystery novelists hook readers with their expertise in a certain skill: gourmet cooking, knitting, quilting, showing dogs. Do you have or know about a special skill that could add an extra dimension to your character?
If your main character could choose to play a character in a play or movie, which character would he or she choose? Which character would you choose?
Write an opening paragraph in which your character comes into physical contact with someone or something.
Think about secrets. Make sure your character has some and imagine the kind of person he or she would trust with those secrets. How could that other person gain that trust? Why might that person betray that trust and tell the secret to someone else?
Send your characters on an adventure to a “land far, far away.” Look through some old issues of National Geographic and imagine how your character would cope in a yurt, or in a market in Marrakesh or in a tent on the side of a mountain.
Begin your story with your character in motion—driving, running, flying, riding. What is your character running from? What is your character running to?
Your character loses a backpack/ purse/briefcase containing one thing that his or her future depends upon. What hapens next?
Think of the skills you have: putting up a tent, downhill skiing, solving crosswords, cooking. Add these skills and interests to your characters or make learning them essential for your main character’s survival.
Elmore Leonard said, “I once named a character Frank Matisse, but he acted older than his age; and for some reason he wouldn’t talk as much as I wanted him to. I changed his name to Jack Delany and couldn’t shut him up.” Try renaming one of your characters and see what happens.
How does your main character accept a compliment? What is your main character a little (a lot) vain about?
What does your character value the most? Is it an object like a ring or a photograph? Or is it a reputation for honesty or an influential position or the chance to find true love? How can you put what your character values most at serious risk in your story? What do you value most?
How concerned is your character about global warming and conservation? Does he or she recycle or have a garden or compost or drive a hybrid? How does this concern or lack of it affect day-to-day decisions and choices that your character makes?
If you could take back any words that you said, what would they be? Why would you want to take them back? What words would you character choose? Why?
Is your character a planner or is your character spontaneous? Is he or she happy when someone just drops by or only happy when visits are planned and prepared for?
How many times a day do you check your watch or phone for the time? Are you checking to see how much time has passed or how much is left? Do you manage time well or do things just get done when they get done? How do your story’s characters feel about the passage of time?
Have you ever felt that you have ‘burned your bridges’ with a friend, family member, or employer? What happened? Has this happened to your character? What happened to him or her? How can this cause a complication in the story you are writing
How do you communicate with those you love? Do you call, or Skype, or text? Is it important to hear their voices or see their faces? Are words enough? How do your characters keep in touch? Is there anything they miss as they keep in touch?
When did you last see your best friend? Describe what you did and what you talked about. Why is this person so special to you? Answer the same questions for your character.
How have you felt when you faced a “significant” birthday? What thoughts when through your mind? What resolutions did you make for the next year, the next decade? Is age just a number for you? How does your character feel about his or her age or upcoming birthday?
When is the last time you cried? Describe what happened. Describe what happened the last time your character cried
What do you do/feel when you find out that you’ve been lied to? How does your character reactHow do you cope when you get a cold? Head for bed or work through it or …? How does your character deal with being sick?
What represents stability to you? Do you value stability in your life or do you prefer to live with a lot of uncertainty? Why do you think you feel this way? Answer these questions for your character?
Do you prefer silence or noise when you work? Why? Answer the same questions for your character.
If your story were going to be filmed, who would star? Why would they be the best match for your characters?
Who is your favorite superhero or folk hero? Why is this person so compelling? Which super/folk hero is your character’s favorite? Why?
What topic does someone have to introduce into a conversation for you to shut down? What topic do you never want to talk about? What topic causes this reaction in your character? Why?
What would be your favorite place to go for a walk? What would your five senses experience there? How does being in this place make you feel? Answer these questions for your character.
How do you feel when you are doing something that you don’t want to do, or are spending time with people you don’t like? How do you cope? How does your character feel in these situations?
If you could instantly fix anything in your life right now, what would it be? Would you change anything or have trouble picking just one thing? What would your character want to fix—nor not?
What strategies do you use to comfort a friend who is going through a bad time? What advice do you give or what do you say to help this person feel better? Is this something your character is good at, or does he or she try to avoid these moments as much as possible?
Describe in detail what is in your character’s pockets or purse or backpack. Why does your character carry these things with him or her all the time?
What kind of driver are you? How do you feel about your car? Is it just a simple necessity or does it say a lot about who you are? Answer these questions for your character.
What’s your favorite board or card game? Why do you enjoy it? Who are your favorite gaming partners? How competitive are you? Do you enjoy the game whether you win or lose? Answer these questions for your character.
What would you do with a large inheritance? What would your character do if he or she inherited a large sum of money?
If someone asked you to describe one happy moment from your childhood, what would it be? Would you have trouble choosing only one? Or would you have difficulty finding any to choose from? How would your character answer this question?
What would you do if you won the lottery? What would your character do?
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? Did you finally choose that career or are you still secretly wishing for that childhood dream to be real? Why or why nor? Answer the same questions for your characters.
What was your favourite piece of clothing when you were a child? A special sweater make by grandma, a t-shirt with a favourite TV or movie character, a shirt from you favourite team? Describe the garment and how you felt wearing it. Do the same for your characters.
How does your character react to frustration? (I’m writing this during my second consecutive hour of online assistance in an effort to get Photoshop to download and work on my computer. I admire the perseverance of the client services person, but I sooooo have other things I’d rather be doing right now!) I got out my NEO and finished writing my blog post. What does your character do when he or she has to wait for much longer than he or she thinks is appropriate, or when something small becomes a road block to a larger project that your character considers urgent?
What do sunsets make your character think about?
What makes your character laugh out loud?
What kinds of souvenirs do you bring home from your vacations or trips away from home: Programs? Ticket stubs? Collectible spoons? Maps? Brochures? Books? Where do you keep your souvenirs? How often do you look at them after you return? Is it important to have these keepsakes from your trips? Answer these questions for your characters, too
In what point of view have you written your story? Take a couple of paragraphs and use a voice different to the one you originally chose. Was it easy or difficult to find the words for the rewrite? Did you learn something about the characters or events in the scene that you didn’t know before? Are you in the right POV for your story?
Think of a memory that involves a piece of music: a popular song that you always sang along to, a lullaby, a TV show or movie theme, a melody that you or someone you knew played on an instrument, a song you sang on the way to camp, or in church. Describe the events, people, or emotions that you associate with that piece of music. Do the same exercise for the main character in your story.
What’s your favorite natural sound? Wind shaking poplar leaves? Ocean surf? Thunderstorms? One bird’s song? Describe the place that the sound reminds you of. What other senses do you recall? Do you remember a special smell, taste, touch or sight associated with this place?
Get away from the keyboard and write with pencil/pen and paper. This is the way you first started to create. The connections are still there. If you already write in longhand, change your paper, use colored pens, or change your location.
See what happens when you explore one of the following: My life as an aunt/uncle; The worst mess I ever had to clean up; Why I love … ; If you want to annoy me, just ….
Think of all the meanings and expressions that relate to the word “light.” Here are some examples: light as a feather, light bulb, light on her feet, light-headed, neon, incandescent, bright, burnt out, light the way. Play with these until one of them leads you to a story or poem.
Think of a sound that isn’t around anymore: the click of typewriter keys, the tone that played during the test pattern on 1950’s TVs, the sound of the dial turning on a telephone, the theme of an old TV or radio program, the sound of a former pet’s paws on hardwood floor, the sound of the doorbell of a house you used to live in. What memories do those sounds conjure up? What rooms or people do you see?
What if–The antique bracelet found by your character was engraved with map coordinates and a date in the near future; a garden shed was really a time travel portal; a picnic basket held a wonderful romantic meal—and a gun.
Write about a “body of water.” Consider the following: a bubble bath, a puddle, a storm-blown lake, a calm green sea, a child’s wading pool.
Write about an incident involving a dog, a window, and a green hat from three points of view.
Think about the meanings and expressions related to the word “glass.” Here are some examples: glassy-eyed, glass half empty, glass of water/wine/…, eye glasses, smooth as glass, clear as glass, hourglass, magnifying glass, glass slippers … Play with these until one of them leads you to a story or poem.
Freewrite around the word “lonely.” To what or whom do you turn when you are lonely? To what or whom does your character turn?
Think of things white. Choose one word to freewrite around and fill your white page with words: snow, teeth, clouds, wedding gowns, peonies and magnolias, paper, smoke, grubs ….
If you only had one window to look out of for the next six months, what would you want to see on the other side? Describe the view. How would it change? Why did you choose this particular view? Do the same exercise for your character? What did you learn?
Are you a lark? Describe your perfect morning. Are you an owl? Describe your perfect night?
Describe the best kiss you ever gave or received–or both.
Have you ever felt that you should have been born in a different decade? What draws you to this time? Write about what you would do on a typical day in your other decade.
Choose one sentence from the opening paragraph of the novel you are currently reading and use it to begin your story. Here’s mine from The Tribune’s Curse by John Maddox Roberts: “If you are extremely happy, the gods have it in for you.”
What’s your favorite film? What special quality does this film have that sets it apart from the rest? How can you add that special quality to your current writing project?
Think of veins. Think of them flowing with healthy blood, tracing delicate patterns in leaves, leaving cruel blue patterns on an old woman’s legs, holding a rich deposit of gold, mutilated by drug use, taking in life-saving medication. Choose one vein of thought and write what you imagine.
Scour magazines and newspapers for interesting faces. Give them new names, professions and histories and see if they want to come and play in your story.
Write a story for children. Start with “once upon a time” or “long ago in a land far away.” Enjoy a magic place where anything can happen.
Several works share the title, “A Stitch in Time” derived from the saying: A stitch in time saves nine. What titles and stories can you create from other proverbs or sayings? Try one of these: What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Once bitten, twice shy. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Jack of all trades, master of none.
If you have an antique or flea market nearby, look for old postcards and read the messages on the back. Here’s one I found. What story can you imagine lies behind this message? “I suppose you are still in Plaster Rock. Heard that Frank 1st has left you. I guess he must be a wanderer.”
April showers bring May flowers. What flowers could you name your characters after? What kind of people do you associate with names such as Peony, Rose, Thorn, Lily? Here are some characters from stories you might know that are named after flowers: Molly Bloom, Flora Poste, Violet Beaudelaire, Scarlet Pimpernel, Fleur Forsyth, Fleur Delacour, Daisy Buchanan, Lily Owens, Violetta Valéry, Zinnia Larkin, and don’t forget Scarlet O’Hara’s original name was Pansy!
You’re walking home with a friend after dark. When you look at her, her eyes reflect light like a cat’s. What happens next?
Look at your favourite CD cover. Hide everything but one square inch. Describe what you see?
Play with the word “needle.” How many different needles can you visualize? Put one or two of them in your character’s hands or just out of reach and see what happens. Here are some prompts: someone away from home for the first time sewing on a button, fearing a dentist’s needle, needles clacking in Paris while heads roll… Or have your character be needled by someone or needle someone else.
Write an opening sentence in which something or someone falls. What happens when they get up–or don’t!
Turn off everything and try writing in silence or change your background sounds. Try jazz, blues, Benedictine monks, Mozart
Brainstorm around the word dry. Here are a few ideas to get you started–bone dry, dry out, dry as a desert, parched, dry dock
Find a place where you can do some serious people-watching. Pick three strangers and, one by one, imagine them saying good-bye. Decide what they are saying good-bye to–their homeland, their family, a lover, a job, a threat. What has happened to bring them to this moment? What lies ahead of them? Is the good-bye the beginning of their story or the end?
Start with the sound of sirens. How does that sound affect you? What do you imagine has happened? Where has it happened? Who is affected?
June 21st marks the official beginning of summer. Use some of these summery titles and excerpts to frame a story, personal memory, or poem: A Summer Place, Summer in the City, Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows, The Summer Breeze, The Summer of ’42, Summer Wine, Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?, The Longest Day, Summer Holiday, Summer of ‘69.
Head to your local bookstore or library with a friend and your writing journal. Take two envelopes and lots of small pieces of paper. For five minutes wander the shelves and write random novel titles on the small pieces of paper and put them in your envelopes. At the end of five minutes, exchange envelopes. Dip in and pull out a title and brainstorm a story that would go with those words. Maybe you could use the words as a line of dialogue to begin your story or in the opening sentence. Keep playing until one story starts to claim your full attention. Start writing.
Draw a map. It could be of a country, a city, an island, a kingdom, a space station. Add lots of details and place names. Now send your characters on a journey through the imaginary world you have just created, making sure that they get into lots of trouble along the way.
Think of the places that you know well: a neighbourhood, a city, a school, a cruise ship, a gym, a museum, a summer camp. Now imagine them as places where your characters can fall in love or be shocked or frightened. They can be places where a murder takes place or where people reveal secrets.
I wish I may I wish I might have the wish I wish tonight. What wish would your character wish for upon a star or ask a genie to grant? What would be the consequences of that dream coming true? What would you wish for? Why? How would your life change if your wish came true?
Flowers don’t just inspire people’s names, but they inspire place names, too. What stories could you create in towns like these: Flower’s Cove, Newfoundland; Strawberry, Arkansas; Weedpatch, California; Beanblossom, Indiana; Rosebud, Alberta; Carrot River, Saskatchewan; Olive Branch, Michigan; Fallen Leaf, California; Lady Slipper, Prince Edward Island; Tiger Lily, Saskatchewan
Use some of these April-inspired song titles to inspire a story or poem: Crying in the Rain, I’ll Remember April, Early Morning Rain, April in Paris, April Come She Will, Rainy Days and Mondays
Have your character find or receive something small enough to be held in two hands. Now create a story around that small thing that turns your character’s life upside down. Think of Bilbo and a ring, Arthur and a sword, Snow White and an apple.
March 21st marks the vernal equinox when day and night hours are perfectly balanced. Do you strive for balance in your life? How do you achieve it? How do you cope when the dark overwhelms the light in your life? How would your character answer these questions?
Consider words/ideas associated with the words ‘lion’ and ‘lamb’ and see what stories are hiding in them: Lamb Chop, soft, woolly, Mary and the lamb, lamb to the slaughter, MGM’s lion, roaring, fierce, Androcles and the Lion, Africa, Serengeti, pride, hunter, Lion King.
March has two astrological signs: Pisces the fish and Aries the ram. What characteristics are suggested by those two animals? Do they apply to anyone you know? Think about what animals your characters could be. When Laurence Olivier created his role of Richard III, he saw him as a spider.
Put an obstacle in your main character’s way by changing the weather. Introduce some high winds into the story. Stop an escape with a fallen tree. Blow sand into his eyes. Have the rain make so much noise she can’t sleep. Signal a weather change and send him down with a migraine.
Think about the different forms of power: personal, financial, political, power of nature, power of the weak, superpower, electrical, etc. What power is in the hands of the antagonist or your main character’s family, friends, lover that make your main character’s task even harder? What power does your main character exert on others?
Think of the most bizarre item that could be delivered by courier. Write about the recipient. Write about the sender.
Write a letter to yourself to be opened ten/twenty years from now. What do you want that person in the future to know or remember about you now? What do you want that person to have accomplished? Try the same exercise for your character.
Write a poem/story from the point of view of: an alarm clock, a road map, a baseball cap.
You’re the family photographer in a large department store. Imagine a family that has come to have their photograph taken for a holiday card. What do you see that the family doesn’t see or that the family doesn’t want you to see?
You’re on a bus and you don’t know anyone. 1) You people watch. What do you see? OR 2) Not knowing anyone suddenly scares you. What happens next?
Write about pain. It can be physical or emotional or both.
Think of a time when you made a difficult choice. Remember how it felt and how you carried on afterwards. Think about the motives behind your decision. Now imagine that you are the kind of person who would have chosen to do the very opposite. Write from this person’s point of view describing his or her motivations, feelings, and how the consequences were dealt with.
Take a risk—at least in imagination. Take the bungee jump, extreme ski, sing in front of thousands, and then write about it. Make sure that you use all your senses to describe your adventure.
Use the word “house” to search for images on the internet. Choose a house that appeals to you and imagine a family that lives there and what their story might be. What do they see when they look out their windows? What’s in the basement? Or the attic?
Write about an incident involving a door, a stain, and a sigh from three points of view.
Free write around the word “empty.” A few prompts: An empty nest can be a lonely place or a new freedom. An empty journal can be an opportunity to create. An empty bottle …
Describe a moment when you were surprised. Did the surprise make you happy or sad or frightened? Describe a similar moment for your character.
Have some fun with words relating to time. Here are few to get you started: Big Ben, stopwatch, time passes, time limit, running out of time, race against time, Time Lord, timeless.
What would be your perfect vacation destination? Who would be your ideal travel companions? What would you do there? How would you feel if you never had to come home? Answer these questions for your story’s main character, too.
See what happens when you brainstorm around the word “sand.” Here are a few suggestions to get you started—hour glass, sand trap, sand between your toes, dunes.
Look at your favorite magazine. Look carefully at the faces and people in the magazine until you find one that connects with you. Create a history for that person. Tell his or her story.
Try the word “seat” as a starting place for some freewriting. Here are a few suggestions: throne, kitchen chair, chaise lounge, subway, lawn chair.
How much do you know about your family? Does anyone ever compare you to one of your relatives? How do you feel about the comparison? Do you speculate that other family members that you don’t know might be like you? How do your characters relate to their relatives?
Use the word “fly” to spark your imagination. Here are a few ideas: dragonfly, no fly zone, jet, insect, soar, “Come Fly With Me.”
Try the word “step” to create a scene or a story. Here are a few connections to start: step-ladder, step aside, step to the back, watch your step, out of step, step-mother.
Who is your favorite author in the genre you write in? Have you researched his or her life? What is your favorite book? What writing lessons can you take away from your favorites?
What’s your favorite cartoon strip in the newspapers? Why does it appeal to you? Which comic strip is a must-read for your character? Why?
Think of what you can create using with the word “snap.” Here are a few places you can start: card game, twig, snapdragon, snap of the fingers, turtle.
See where the word “ball” can take your imagination: Here are a few prompts: Cinderella, basket, bearing, beach, ball and chain.
Play with the word “black” and see what story or poem ideas turn up. Here are a few ideas to get you started: licorice, cat, magic, widow, knight.
Think about fences. What do they keep in? What do they keep out? What happens when the fence breaks?