Exploring the hidden parts of your neighborhood.

This is writing prompt is taking inspiration for PS Books newest title, “Forgotten Philadelphia”.


You want to look around your neighborhood and start researching it. Is there a building you’ve walked by a million times but have no idea what its former purpose was before it became a backdrop for graffiti?

That’s the kind of thing you want to look for. Try using the library to find out the history of the building. See if you can interview someone who was around when the building was bubbling with activity.

Then, you want to write the history of the building as if the building were a person. What has that building be a witness to? What secrets does it hold?

Today’s writing prompt involves some technology. You might want to grab some headphones and Google your favorite free internet radio.


In order to play around with tone, I want you to Google music you are not familiar with. You want the clip of music to be fairly long. Look for music that runs about 10 minutes and has no words (so a strict instrumental piece).

Your job is to listen to the music for the first three minutes. Don’t write; don’t think. Listen.

After the three minute mark, you want to start a mind dump. Write about how you are feeling, what emotions are invoked by the music, and maybe even think about where someone would listen to this music?

Once the music is done and you have your mind dump, you want to start drafting for about 15 minutes. Take two characters and put them in a situation. Maybe they are running late for a movie or dinner reservations. One of your characters should be in the mood which comes up the most in your mind dump.

Let the scene with the two characters play out.

After reading this article on the National Writing Project website called “Episodic Fiction: Another Way to Tell a Story” (http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/202), I thought it would be interesting to explore this way to write.

The basic idea in episodic fiction is the writer composes brief little snippets of a story with one object appearing in every one of the episodes.

These rules are in the article mentioned above and I feel they help explain this more:

1.The work involves a dynamic character, one who changes in fits and starts throughout the course of the story.

2.Episodes vary in length.

3.Episodes are roughly chronological, but not specifically so.

4.A single unifying device runs throughout the story, appearing in each episode.

5.Episodes are not related directly by cause and effect; instead, all are related to a central theme.

6.If a traditional short story is a movie, moving in a linear fashion from beginning to end, an episodic story is more like a slide show or a music video.

7.And finally, to borrow a rule from George Orwell, “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”


Today’s prompt asks you to take a single object and weave it into different moments in time. Maybe you want to take a pair of scissors (They are sitting next to me. Which makes you wonder why I have scissors next to me, but that’s another story). In one scene, the scissors are being used to cut thread so the character in the story can start making a baby blanket. In the next scene, the scissors are being packed in a box by the character because he or she is moving. Basically the object is the catalyst for the story and the character grows as the object continues remains the same.

A friend of mine once said every person resembles an animal. Ever since she said those words, I started seeing animals in people.

Today’s writing prompt is inspired by a chapter in Ted Hughes’ book, Poetry in the Making called “Writing About People.” Hughes discusses how people are generally nosy by nature and when writers first describe someone, they tend to describe people in generic specifics (i.e. she had blues eyes and wore brown on Mondays).

In my opinion, poetry is the genre in which a writer can really play with words and images.

For the exercise, take a person in your life (could even be a famous person you admire) and write down all their physical details. What color are their eyes? What kind of mouth do they have? What’s their body type?

Now, just like in last week’s prompt, I want you to cross out the things everyone has in common (i.e. the eye color). Take only those details of the person which are unique to him or her. Start looking for an animal who shares those same kinds of details.

Lastly, start crafting a poem in which you compare the person to the animal.

One of the biggest challenges people face when starting out in creative non-fiction is trying to find the true story in the tragedy. Everyone has felt the pain of a lost love; everyone has someone very important and special who died suddenly (or died of cancer).

Since we all have those stories in our life, they aren’t the ones you want to write because you want to give your reader an answer to the questions, “why this story?” and “why this point in the story?”

Also, from my personal experience writing about my life, I can never get the story on paper (or computer screen). The prompt I propose for today gives a person a way to walk around the tragic event.

Today’s exercise asks you to make a timeline of the event. Once you have the timeline done, start crossing off events everyone has in common. What you are left with are the events specific to you and in those events is your true story.


(Inspired by Kyle Minor’s Chapter, “The Question of Where We Begin” in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction http://http://www.rosemetalpress.com/Catalog/FGWFNF.html)

There is so much talk about gender in writing. Many claim women shouldn’t or even can’t write believable male characters. Furthermore, women shouldn’t even attempt to write a narration from a male’s point of view. The converse is true for males and women characters.

This theory was challenged last year with the PS Books publication of Stripped: An Anthology of Anonymous Flash edited by Nicole Monaghan.

Now authors are being “stripped” of the anonymous status and on February 9th some of the authors from the collection will be reading their own stories.

I wanted to talk with Nicole Monaghan to discuss what impact this book had on her and those who partook in the challenge of identifying the authors. Below is our interview.


Wittle:  You do a lot of work in flash fiction. You even have a literary journal devoted to the 25 word short story. What appeals to you about this genre?

Monaghan: I love that we get deeply into the characters’ desires and motivations within a short space of time by exploring their tiny but significant experiences.


Wittle:  When you thought of the idea of a collection of flash pieces with the author’s identity and gender “stripped” away, what was the key that unlocked this idea?

Monaghan: I was blogging about how amazed I was at how well flash fiction writers were writing from the perspective of the opposite gender and how it would be a cool thing if we didn’t know who wrote what for a year.  Marc Schuster, then-Acquisitions Editor for PS Books, suggested I put together an anthology.


Wittle:  Now that the authors are putting their clothes on and claiming their stories, what do you think is the most important thing you have learned from this experiment?

Monaghan:  I’ve learned that we really are all the same.  We all want to matter.  That’s why we, as writers, can create characters of the opposite sex.  And that’s why readers have trouble figuring out if the author is a man or a woman.


Wittle: What reactions have you gotten from readers? Has anyone been very vocal about knowing which author wrote what?

Monaghan: Most people who have told me how they fared in their guessing have said they didn’t guess much better than random guessing would yield:  about 50% correct.


Wittle:  The first time I ever heard of the playwright Tracy Letts, I thought Tracy was a woman. When I found out Tracy is a man, it changed only the inner voice of his plays and not the plays or material itself. How much of a role do you think gender plays into how a reader interacts with the material?

Monaghan: I think it’s impossible for a reader not to feel the author lurking.  I think when we read anything, there are an infinite number of factors affecting our experience of the read:  our mood, what we had for lunch that we did or didn’t enjoy, what we’re anticipating that evening, whether the character reminds us of our favorite aunt, the fact that the character has an identical emotional wound to our own, and on and on.  My point is that I believe we bring quite a lot to our reading, and we impose ourselves onto it, naturally.  This includes what we perceive the author to have “meant” and those assumptions are extensions of how we imagine them.  Is it a man or a woman?  Are they in their twenties, forties, sixties?  Do they have a family or are they an independent traveler?  Are they also athletic, interested in politics, or do they have a bent for all things scientific?  I think we cannot help but let these things bleed into our reading and interpretation of the work, unless the author is anonymous.


Wittle: I once got criticized for writing a male character. I was told I needed to have my male friends read the story because no guy would do what my character did in the story. Do you think the gender of the writer means he or she cannot write from the opposite sex point of view?

Monaghan: Nope!  See my answer to number 3.


Wittle: How has creating this book, stripping away the gender and identity of the authors, played into your own writing?

Monaghan: It was liberating to work really hard on a story, draft for longer than I normally do, and then not tell anyone (except my best friend, after months, when I just had to tell someone), which story was mine.  It made me feel excited to fully step into a male character, figure out who he was and say exactly what I thought he’d say, and do exactly what I thought he’d do.  Perhaps with other work I’ve written from a male perspective, I wasn’t as brave.

Last week, your character wrote down his or her New Year’s Resolution. This week I have some bad news. Your character already slipped up and broke his or her resolution.

Today’s writing prompt is asking you to get into the mind of your character from the perceptive of this broken resolution and find out what happened and what will happen now.

First, how did the character get off track?

Second, will the character throw up his or her hands and chalk up the resolution? Or will the character dust himself or herself off and start again?

Let this prompt carry you where it does and enjoy exploring this with your character.


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