Monday, November 4, 2013

What If?

By Deborah Sharp

When I started on my path from non-fiction to mystery writing, I took some classes designed to make me think like a  fiction writer. I needed some tools to exercise my making-it-up muscles. Writing prompts were a big part of that.  Pictures. A line of prose. A headline from a newspaper or magazine. Any of these can be used to spark the creative process. To "prompt'' a writer to ask the question What If? Ask the question enough times -- What if this happened? Then, what if this happened next? -- ultimately even the least cunning writer will have the bare bones of a story.

I know it works, because my entire Mace Bauer Mystery series was begun with one prompt. Paging through the Miami Herald, I saw a full color ad for seniors' health insurance. It showed an older woman driving a turquoise convertible, her mouth open in a life-loving laugh. What if that woman was a Southern belle known as ''Mama?''  What if she found a body in the trunk of that convertible? Then, what if the police thought she was the killer? 

The answers to those questions led me to write my first short story, which became my first book: Mama Does Time, published by Midnight Ink in 2008. Here's a picture of what became the cover:

The other day, a post by a friend on Facebook reminded me of how much fun I used to have with prompts. Romance writer Kathleen Pickering snapped a photo of a pair of gold sandals, deserted in the middle of an empty street. She asked her writer pals -- and others -- to start a story based on the golden shoes. She got more than 30 responses. Mine was one of them. Here's Kathy's photo, if you'd like to take a crack:

Back when I decided to leave journalism to try to write mysteries, my confidence was definitely misplaced. It would be easy, I though. After all, I'd been a professional writer for more than 20 years. I'd loved mysteries ever since I was a girl. How hard could it be?

Pretty hard, it turned out. For 20 years, editors of newspapers and magazines had made it abundantly clear that I was to stick to the facts. Making things up, rewriting events, was a firing offense. And now, all of a sudden, I'm SUPPOSED to make things up? That required a major attitude shift. Prompts gave me the permission to do that. To tell a story, instead of to report what happened.  What freedom!

Have you used prompts in the past? Do you still use them? 


Beth Groundwater said...

I've been to writing brainstorming sessions in the past, where the workshop leader would toss out a writing prompt, and we'd all work frantically to produce something from it. It's a great way to break out of your current WiP and try something new and refreshing to get those creative juices flowing again.

Deborah Sharp said...

I agree, Beth. It's nice to give yourself the freedom to just ''riff'' off a prompt.