Friday, October 22nd, 2010

Writing Prompt: At the Pumpkin Farm

Pumpkins - Photo by Kelly A. HarmonI was at the local pumpkin farm last weekend. Took a hay ride, played in some shucked corn, had my photo taken behind several of those funny painted signs.

It was one of those days with a bright blue sky and the wind blowing so fiercely that tears run down your face. Nonetheless, I found it perfect.

I love picking my own pumpkins. I do it every year, like an annual pilgrimage. It brings back fond memories…

Like the year I went in elementary school. It was cloudy. It was damp. The ride felt longer than it should have been. We got to the farm and it had nearly been picked clean by other school trips. Frost had hit the fields at least once already, because the vines had dropped, revealing all the mud and a dearth of lovely orange globes. The barrenness was evident before we’d even parked.

We spent a good hour, maybe longer, walking around acres of fields, kicking rotting pumpkins and looking at the remains of some unidentifiable animal left behind in the field by another.

Finally, I found a pumpkin I liked. So did everyone else. Each pumpkin had character. Each of us liked a particular one for a particular reason. Each of us thought, “Mine is the best. I wouldn’t trade this pumpkin for anything.”

Then, we were herded onto the bus and rushed back to the school in time for dismissal. The bus driver hurried along, and we were doing great until the light turned red…and she slammed on the brakes. Hard.

All those beautiful pumpkins? Rolled and tumbled forward to the front of the bus, banging and clanging along until they careened into each other in a big heap, some of them falling into the little well of a staircase by the door.

All that time choosing a pumpkin? Wasted. As we were each handed a pumpkin willy-nilly from the stack by the driver on our way off the bus.


So, that’s my pumpkin farm story… and your prompt.

Write about your best (or worst) day getting a pumpkin. You don’t have to tell a “farm” story. Perhaps you bought yours at the corner store — the biggest you could find — and didn’t realize then that pumpkins get heavier the longer you carry them. Did you have to carry it up a six-floor walk up? Did you drop it? Did you buy a pumpkin and keep it until the day before Halloween, and when you cut it open to make a jack-o-lantern you’d found it was rotten? Did you ever win a carving contest?

Friday, October 15th, 2010

Writing Prompt: Comfort Food

This post is twofold:

First: Imagine sitting in front of the TV, unstaring. You don’t know what’s on, and you won’t remember what you were watching later. You’re mind is too occupied with what’s happened.

Second: You’re chowing down on your favorite comfort food.

Is it mac-and-cheese? Ice cream? Some ethnic dish from your childhood?

For me, it’s golden-yellow chicken soup, lightly salted and served with thick, chewy kluski noodles…just like my grandmother used to make. She served them separately: steaming soup in flat, white bowls at each place setting and a tremendous glass bowl piled high with noodles in the center of the table.

We were allowed to spoon as many noodles into the broth as wanted, slurp them up, and then add more noodles.

I want some right now.

Here’s Your Prompt: What happened? Why are you in such a funk? Did your dog get run over by your best friend? Have you lost your best friend? Is it something you did? Is it something that was done to you? And what’s that you’re eating? Did you make it yourself, or did someone bring it over? Do you keep it on hand for exactly this kind of need? Is it making you feel any better? Why or why not? What happens now?

Friday, October 8th, 2010

Writing Prompt – Make a List

I’ve been teaching a writing/critiquing class at the local college and one of the first things we discussed is where ideas come from. We came up with a brilliant list of ideas (many of which I’ll probably save for another post) but one of the things we didn’t mention was list-making.

As I prepared for class last week, I found an essay by Ray Bradbury entitled “Run Fast, Stand Still, or, The Thing at the Top of the Stairs, or, New Ghosts from Old Minds” which makes a convincing case for list making as an idea resource.

Bradbury wrote, “It was only when I began to discover the tricks and treats that came with word association that I began to find some true way through the minefields of imitation. I finally discovered that if you’re going to step on a live mine, make it your own. Be blown up, as it were, by your own delights and despairs.”

And how did he find his own delights and despairs?

“I began to make lists of titles, to put down long lines of nouns. These lists were the provocations, finally, that caused my better stuff to surface. I was feeling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trap door on the top of my skull.”

Here’s an example of one of Bradbury’s lists: the lake, the night, the crickets, the ravine, the attic, the basement, the trap door, the baby, the crowd, the night train, the fog horn, the scythe, the carnival, the carousel, the dwarf, the mirror maze, the skeleton.

(Those familiar with Bradbury will see at least three of his stories alluded to there…)

While making these lists, Bradbury saw patterns, which eventually turned into the stories he wrote. His method was to pick some item from the list and write a long, prosy poem about it…which usually turned into a story on the second page, he says.

“It began to be ovbious that I was learning from my list of nouns, and that I was further learning that my characters would do my work for me, if I let them alone, if I gave them their heads…”


Here’s Your Prompt: Make a list of nouns. It’s October. In honor of the season, my upcoming favorite holiday (Halloween!) and Ray Bradbury… make it a list of things that frighten you. Don’t fall into the trap of listing things which are generically frightening or “commonly known” to be frightening. Instead, list the things which genuinely scare you or cause you terror. It could be the monster in the closet, if you’re truly afraid of that, but it could also be the fact that you’re out of work, haven’t paid the mortgage, and are being evicted tomorrow with nowhere to go.

Once you’ve made a list, consider it for patterns. Choose an item, and begin a long prosy poem and see if that leads you to something more.

Friday, October 1st, 2010

Writing Prompt: Irritation

Close view of a single bloodshot eye.

Not my eye.

Last night my left eye was really bugging me.

I wear contacts.

In the past, I put them in at 5 a.m. and took them out about 11 p.m. each night to let my eyes breath. But a few months ago, my eye doctor suggested I try a particular brand which I could keep in for 30 days and then discard.

I wasn’t anxious to do so. I liked the idea of removing my contacts nightly and “resting” my eyes.

But I gave it a shot, and loved it. When I put the first contact in my eye it melted away like cotton candy. I didn’t even know it was there, other than the fact that I could see about a hundred times better.

My only (very tiny) quibble is that sometimes by the end of thirty days, the contacts get a teensy bit dry – unlike my former brand which dried up like shingles in my eyes by before bedtime.

So, when my left eye was still bugging me at the end of the day yesterday, I didn’t worry overmuch. I knew I had a new set of contacts on tap for this morning.

But when I got up and put the left one in, I felt not the bliss of cotton candy melting away, but the awful scratch of whatever.

Annoyed, but running late, I left them in and went to work, hoping that furious blinking would remove whatever offensive irritant was causing the problem.

No such luck, and here I sit with a (singular) painfully bloodshot eye, wearing my ultra cool red spectacles from at least three prescriptions ago. Could be worse, I might add.

Here’s Your Prompt: Write about an irritation. Something that bothered you (or your character!) incessantly, perhaps for hours or days at a time. Maybe its even something you (or your character) brought upon yourself. (Ahem.) This doesn’t have to be an injury of any sort. It could be a pesky little brother, a whining little sister, an office-mate who rattles her spoon around her mug while she stirs her already well-stirred java. Maybe there’s a stone in the toe of your shoe, or, the tag on the back of your shirt is slicing your neck. Write about something that persistently nags, and about how the frustration is handled. Do you tattle on the sibling? Rip out the tag? Smash your co-workers mug, still full off frothy joe?

Friday, September 24th, 2010

Friday Writing Prompt – Make a Law

U.S. Supreme CourtThe Judiciary Act of 1789 established the Supreme Court when it was enacted on September 24.

A “High Court” was hotly debated during discussions during the ratification of the Constitution.

According to Wikipedia:

Indeed, of the ten amendments that eventually became the Bill of Rights, five (the fourth through the eighth) dealt primarily with judicial proceedings. Even after ratification, some opponents of a strong judiciary urged that the federal court system be limited to a Supreme Court and perhaps local admiralty judges. The Congress, however, decided to establish a system of federal trial courts with broader jurisdiction, thereby creating an arm for enforcement of national laws within each state.

Here’s Your Prompt:    In honor of the High Court’s “birthday,” make your own law. Do you ever say, “If I ran the world…” or “If I were king…” Well, here’s your chance. Make a law that only pertains to you, or your family, or your friends. Be serious or whimsical. Be long-winded or succinct. If you want to enact a law “for the good of all people,” make certain you outline the reasons why. Do you need to change some other laws to enact it? Go ahead. Provide the rationalization. If your law benefits only you (or your family, your friends, your friends, etc.)…well, you must be living in a tyranny. Explain how you came to be in power. How was the overthrow accomplished? In what way were the commoners brought to heel? Are they now for you, or against you? How does your new law affect them? Do you expect them to abide by it? If not, how do plan to control them?

Friday, September 17th, 2010

Friday Writing Prompt – Have a Conversation with a Stranger

Woman Picking at Acne - Image Courtesy of spent some time at the dermatologist’s office today.

While I waited for my turn, I read my latest acquired book about writing and scribbled some notes.

After a while, a woman came out of the doctor’s office wearing a Dallas Cowboys football jersey, and hoots erupted around the waiting room.

This is Raven’s country, though there was a single Redskin’s fan and one lone “L.A. Rams” holdout – an older gentleman – in the waiting room, who stated that he was born and raised in L.A. County, but had been transplanted to Maryland some time ago.

There was a round of forgiveness once the woman spoke in a soft, Texas accent, about rooting for her home team.

After she left, the hum in the waiting room quieted, and I returned to my book. But a few moments later, a gentleman seated two seats away, turned to me and said, “You’re sure giving that book what for.”

I demurred, and explained that I was just taking a few notes. I showed him the book at his request, and then he’d asked me if I’d ever written anything. (That’s when I pulled out my handy-dandy bookmark listing some of the stuff I’ve published and handed it to him.) He told me he’d written a book, but just as quickly told me it had never been published. When I asked him why, he said:

“The war got in the way.”

And that’s when the conversation got really interesting.

He told me that when he was asked what kind of job he could do, he told his commanding officer that he drove trucks. So his CO made him a truck driver…of ammo trucks. That didn’t suit him at all, he said. (So, matter of fact, this far removed from the war!) And he’d tried to get away from doing it as fast as he could. His lucky break came when the chaplain’s assistant died (got blown up stepping on a landmine while hunting for deer) and he got to be the chaplain’s assistant.

What an awesome story! If I hadn’t needed to get to work, I would have stayed and talked after my appointment. What a life. I hope he’s written this down for his grandchildren.

Here’s Your Prompt:    Strike up a conversation with a stranger in a public place. (Repeating: in a public place.) Make it a good public place… not the post office (unless there are huge lines) or some other location where you’ll only meet people in passing. Choose somewhere where you’ll have time to pass a few moments. Ask a leading (polite) question, or compliment someone…anything to start the conversation. And then…listen.

If you’re lucky, you’ll meet as great a person as I did. (If not, you can always try again.)

Once you’ve chatted, take that conversation home and write about it. Fictionalize it, journal it, or write a biographical sketch.

Friday, September 10th, 2010

Friday Writing Prompt: Idea Swap

Kelly A. Harmon's 1st Annual Idea SwapSeptember 10 is “National Swap Idea Day.”

I’ve had some difficulties locating any truth in that statement…there’s nothing “national” about it, apparently. Yet all sources — even Hallmark– consider it “national” and grant it “holiday” status.

All sources agree that it’s more than just a day to swap ideas, it’s a day during which everyone should share ideas for helping each other out, making each others’ lives better, and helping out fellow man.

This source also encourages the use of a creative imagination.

I’m all for helping fellow man, and, from a writing point of view, I can see the advantages of sharing ideas with each other. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Everyone has an idea…the problem, sometimes, is in the execution of it.

The idea I have, I may not be able to satisfactorily complete.

Or, there are times when I want to write, and I’ve got a zillion ideas on my idea list, but none appeals.

So why not share with someone else?

Here’s Your Prompt:   Swap writing ideas with another writer. Give away the seeds of a story or novel that has been moldering in your journal (or your mind!), fruitless. Choose several of your most intriguing ideas, the ones which you really like, but for whatever reason, have been unable to devote the time to write them. Cast them away, like dead weights.

Now, accept the ideas of another writer. Read them. Write them in your own journal — or type them into your files — put them in the place you collect your own ideas. Give it a few hours, a few days, a week at most to percolate. With luck, you’ll be inspired sooner, rather than later. Now, write your story.

I wouldn’t be joining into the spirit of the day if I didn’t share some of my own ideas. Here are a few:

  • An author is haunted by the ghosts of characters he’s killed off.
  • A sudden sun shower, a field of dead trees, a human skeleton, a small whirlwind of dust, wild horses and sun-bleached papers
  • Worry not. Pray not. Don’t have one, don’t need the other.
  • A man on a bus, carrying his lunch–two slices of pizza–in a disposable grocery sack.

Good luck! Please share your stories.

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

Friday Writing Prompt – You’re Late!

Alice in Wonderland's White Rabbit - Running Late!

I overslept this morning.

(Well, in truth, it’s hard to oversleep on your day off. )

This was a planned day off – having worked 45 hours last week and 35 this week in order to get a “free” day.

But, in this case, a “free” day only means that I don’t have to report to my day job. I’ve packed it with other stuff that absolutely needs to get done, like:

•  Drive to the college in the next county over to fill out paperwork so that I can teach a class beginning next week;
•  Get to the library and pick up the CDs I have on hold before they put them back in the general collection;
•  Get my hair cut, since I’m beginning to look like Cousin Itt.
•  And 27 other items on my to-do list, most of them writing related.

See? There’s nothing “off” about it.

But I digress.

I got up early, made a pot of coffee, drank the entire pot of coffee, made some breakfast, checked my email…

…and before I knew it, I was later than I wanted to be. Now, I’ll be racing through the day like a mad-woman trying to get all these things done. (Who wants to be burdened with a ‘to-do’ list over the weekend… I plan to have fun!)

Here’s Your Prompt: Look at your current work in progress (or start a new one) and put your main character in a situation which makes him or her late. (If your story’s been plodding along, this should add some tension. Bonus!) How does the lateness affect the story? What goes wrong? How does your character deal with it? Is she cool under pressure? Pragmatic? Does he turn into a basket case? How is the situation resolved?

If you journal, think of a time when you were really late for something. What did you do to try to alleviate the problem…drive 90 miles an hour on the interstate? Call ahead and try to gain more time? What happened? How did you feel? How many folks did you tick off? How was the problem resolved?

Friday, August 20th, 2010

Writing Prompt – Invent Something

August is National Inventor’s Month.

I wish I’d heard about that sooner. Just thinking about inventions makes my mind spark with ideas.

Here’s a photo of the insides of a robot built in 1960. Note the gun in his right hand. This robot’s sole purpose was to draw that gun and fire more quickly than a human. I like the fact that in 1960, the inventor took the time to pretty the thing up.

Pistol-Toting Robot

Interesting that the robot was a cowboy, but (I believe) cowboy TV shows were popular in the US in the 1960s. I’m assuming the inventor was American. There’s always been a certain level of coolness associated with cowboys, yet I think it’s incredibly stupid (irresponsible? dangerous?) to invent a robot for dueling. I’d much rather have a rifle-toting guard-robot walking the perimeter of my house. Or standing sentry at the front door.

This robot was popular enough that it made the cover of Life Magazine. I can’t find any data on whether or not it could  outshoot a human opponent, but the photo looks pretty convincing that it at least did what was intended: fire a pistol.

Pistol-Toting Robot

Ideas seldom change, but the execution often does. In 1960, the robot’s inventor took pains to make it look human. Attractive, but not really necessary. More than four decades later, inventors used the same idea, but gave over form to function. Check out these gun-toting “soldiers” from 2005. There’s nothing human about them, nothing attractive, nothing soft and warm:

Gun Toting Robots in 2005


Here’s Your Prompt: Invent something. Since we’re only doing this on paper, it doesn’t matter if you think the invention will work or not. We don’t care about the science – we’re only interested in the idea. Be outlandish. Be creative. Design something you’ve always wanted. Be certain to describe how it looks as well as what it does (are you building a 1960 model or a 2005 model?). How much does it cost to build? How long does it take? Does anyone help or is this a solitary invention?

Have you told anyone about your invention? Do they consider the idea crazy? Do they think you’re mad for even attempting such a thing?

You could write a newspaper story about this new invention (“just the facts”) or a feature article about the inventor: why did they create this new thing? How was it conceived? What did it take to build it? If you like to sketch, skip the narrative and draw a sales poster: a large picture of the invention with all the reasons why someone should buy: it will make your life easier by doing what?   It will make what job more efficient? It will save a person time or money (or aggravation, etc.) by doing … what?

Friday, August 13th, 2010

Writing Prompt – A New Place

A New Place Art Exhibit PosterLast night I left the house to get some writing done.

That’s not my usual M.O.

I have a nice roomy office with a ceiling fan, a comfortable chair and wi-fi. Not only that, I’m only a trip down the staircase to the refrigerator, coffee pot or microwave. On really good days, the Husband of Awesome™ will skim silently up the steps into my room and deposit a martini by my right elbow.

What’s not to love?

I can think of three things right away:

  1. Physical Distractions – It doesn’t matter how often I straighten up the desk, there’s always a hundred things on it to take me away from the task at hand: my prized paper clip collection, photos, desk toys, a new pen, etc. I’ll take a moment to think about something in the manuscript and all of a sudden I’m carried away by something shiny in the vicinity. (Or by a new pen.)
  2. Baggage – I’m at home, right? It won’t take but a moment to put in a load of laundry, inventory the refrigerator for my next grocery trip, sew a button on a shirt, empty the dishwasher. Being at home means being bombarded with the message of a hundred things that “need doing right now.” It’s tough to produce against that kind of pressure. (And hard to ignore it.)
  3. People/Pets – This only counts if you have someone living with you, of course. Even if they’re not invading your space while you’re writing, it may be difficult to block them from your mind. If your house is small enough, you may not be able to dismiss their physical presence. For me, it’s usually the mental clutter that gets to me. I start that inner dialogue with myself: Have I ignored my spouse for too long? Have I fed the dog?

So yesterday’s trip out to do some writing was ideal.

I found a coffee shop I’d never patronized before and set to work. My space was limited, as were the desk toys, and after a few moments, the homogenous decor of the establishment proved easily ignorable. I got a lot of work done. So much so, that I think I’ll be getting out a couple times a month for writing.

Here’s your prompt: This week’s prompt is two-fold. Pick and choose, or do both. Either way, begin by visiting a place you’ve never been to. If you can, go somewhere you’ve heard very little (or nothing!) about. (The reason for this will become clear in a moment.) One more thing: although I chose a coffee shop, you could you choose any kind of location which offers an opportunity to write: a mountain vista, a park bench, a national monument, a graveyard.

  1. Now that you’re here, write. Write about whatever you want. See if you can be more productive here than in your usual haunt. If you are, examine what’s working for you. Can you take that home with you? If you’re not, find out what’s not working. Could that — or something related — be affecting you at home, too? Create a list of changes you can incorporate at home to make the atmosphere more conducive to writing.
  2. For those of you thinking, “that’s not a prompt,” this one’s for you: take in these new surroundings. You should have no preconceived notions of the area: after all, you’ve never been here before, and I hope you’ve not heard many specific details about it. Do you love it or hate it? What resonates with you? What rubs you wrong? Write a story using this location and incorporate the details of what you’ve examined.

*Today’s photo comes from the Kemistry Gallery Web site, the Anthony Burrill “In a New Place” exhibit.