A Safe Place to Live

We’ve heard the stories of refugees from war-torn countries who search for a peaceful place to live. They yearn for jobs, food, and relief from fear. They pack what belongings they can carry and walk mile after mile, experiencing countless hardships along the way.

Our hearts go out to them, even when there is little we can do to offer comfort.

What about the refugees living nearby? For example, there are shopping-cart people who push up their baskets and down streets, hoping to find someplace that offers some degree of privacy. Or the homeless man who sleeps leaning against a shopkeeper’s wall in downtown San Francisco. If he’s lucky, he has pieces of cardboard on which to lie and a blanket as cover. He is dirty, ragged and hungry. And often smells so bad that passers-by wrinkle their noses in disgust.

It is easy to write stories in which the characters are comfortable in fancy homes, in tree-lined neighborhoods, with two working parents and new cars in the drive. It is much more challenging to speak for the speechless, to tell their stories with compassion and understanding.

Your task is to choose a refugee and place her in a scene. Give her a voice. Listen to her heart. Interact with her, in some way, either in first person or as an omniscient narrator. Wake up with her in the morning, walk about with her in the day, sleep with her at night. Eat meals with her. Follow her as she searches for a bathroom in which to wash up. Be with her, not as a sympathetic ear, but as an equal. Walk in her shoes, even if just for one day.

Have fun with this one.

The Reluctant Hero

Sometimes we are called to acts of bravery. We save an injured dog lying by the side of the road, pull a motorist from a damaged car, or take a test which will advance us in our career. We do these things not because we are born heroes, but because they are the right things to do.

We have all known someone who was a little crazy as a youth. Jumped off the garage roof. Rode a skateboard down a steep hill that ended at a major intersection. Approached a strange woman, dressed in rags, and asked her name. But are these acts of heroism?

Once we take on the mantra of adulthood, we settle down into the routine of life. We get up and go to work. We come home and play with the kids. We go shopping and mow the lawn. Day in and day out.

But what about those of us who become police officers, fire fighters or join the military? Are those individuals heroes? In today’s world they are often called to acts of bravery and then are heavily criticized for how they behaved under stress. Because of technology, they are constantly supervised. They have no rights of privacy and must understand that everything they do will be analyzed and reanalyzed from different points of view. Yet they still run into burning buildings, pull motorists from badly damaged cars, walk into hostage situations, parachute into enemy territory.

It would be easy to argue that these are the true heroes.

In the movie Bridge of Spies, an insurance lawyer, Jim Donovan, is asked by the government to negotiate a prisoner exchange despite him not being an actual representative of the United States. He is not the hero type. He is intelligent, patient, insightful and thoughtful. He is a husband and father who is providing a good life for his family. He is faithful to those he cares about.

Jim Donovan is the true reluctant hero. He steps up when asked. Does what he set out to do. Expects no fanfare.

Your task is to right a scenario in which your main character is a reluctant hero. She can be an average person, going about her day, when something happens that challenges her.

In order to do this, first you must give her a life. Establish her routines. Create family and her relationship to her family. Suddenly a situation arises that pulls her out of her comfort zone. She has to choose what to do. Allow her to take risks.

Have fun with this one.

Health Issues

            Have you noticed that when people of a certain age come together that the bulk of the conversation has something to do with health? High cholesterol, diabetes, vision and hearing, aches and pains and limited mobility. They compare medications and what doctors have said about the various issues.

            Often the condition of teeth pops up, with some bragging about a lack of cavities while others bemoan having another tooth removed.

            They discuss what types of foods are now prohibited and that they miss or share recipes for low caloric foods.

            On and on they go, often circling back to original topics because they forgot what’s been hashed over.

            Your characters, when they reach that age, would do the same. Begin by establishing what health issues your characters have. It would be beneficial, for conversations sake, if they didn’t share the same ones. They could have the same doctor, but perhaps it might add complexity if they did not. The same would be true for the medications that they are taken.

            Picture what would happen if one character believes his issues are worse, or more important. He trivializes hers, minimizes the severity of her ailments and maybe even contradicts her doctor’s recommendations.

            Interesting, tense-filled conversations arise that could lead to the dissolution of the relationship.

            Have fun with this one.

The Dishonest Salesperson

            Did you ever have an encounter with a salesperson who you believed was less than honest? What did he/she do or say that led you to that opinion? Was it a tilt of the head, a glance over the shoulder, or a smirk? Perhaps it was the tone of voice or words said. Maybe even the way paperwork was handled.

            How did he/she make you feel and what did you do in response?

            Some people accept the situation because they needed whatever the person was selling. For example, there’s a car that fits in your price range, a make and model that you’ve been interested in. You desperately need a car, today. You feel that there’s something shady going on, but you don’t have the time to shop around some more. The person knows this, and so has the upper hand.

            There are many other situations in which something similar could take place.

            Your task is to write a scene in which your character encounters the dishonest salesperson, or, your character could be the salesperson.

            Establish the setting so that your readers will feel at home in the scene. Give enough of a description of the salesperson so that readers will create the first impression that you want them to have. Set things in motion through dialogue and narrative.

            Tensions will develop. It’s up to you to decide how far the reactions will go. There could be words, there could be fisticuffs, there could be a shooting.

            Have fun with this one.

Most Deserving of Forgiveness

            So many things happen as we grow up. If we’re lucky, we had kind and thoughtful parents/guardians. But maybe we didn’t. We grew up hating them as people and for the things they said and did.

            In school we might have been blessed with wonderful friends, but we also might have been victimized by bullies whom we hated with all our might. The same might have happened on the job or with people we met in conferences, workshops and around the neighborhood.

            We might have retaliated verbally or, when young, by physical acts of aggression.

            Now we regret the things we’ve done, but also want to forgive the people who hurt us as a way of moving on.

            Who on your list is most deserving of forgiveness?

            Your task is to write either a personal essay in which you discuss the topic or create a story in which your protagonist is facing the same dilemma. Readers will need background, but not presented all at once. Find a way to weave it into the scene, either through dialogue or scene.

            Build in tension so that readers understand how the aggressors made you or your character feel.

            Have fun with this one.

The Best Place You Ever Lived

Some people live in the same town, in the same house, their entire lives, while most move at least once over the course of their lifetime. Taking into consideration all the places you have lived, which one was your favorite? Why?

Perhaps it was because of the neighbors. They were friendly, open, and welcoming and your best friend lived right next door. Maybe it was that the location offered plenty of things to do, like roller-skating, hiking, swimming or exploring.

Whatever the reason, that place offered you something that no other has.

Your characters will have a favorite place as well. Begin by creating backstory for each of your main characters. Give them each a place and at least one reason. Those places might not appear in your story, but they continue to appear in the memories that your characters carry forward. They may even influence the things your characters say and do.

Your task is to write a story in which a favorite place appears in some way. It could play a prominent role or it could come up in discussion. In this story setting is important, but so are the memories.

Remember that not everyone in a family shares the same opinion about a given place. This could lead to some interesting discussions that create a sense of tension.

Have fun with this one.

Drive-by Religion

            During times of stress, we might look for reassurance from our faith. But what happens when entering a church building is not possible? What do you do?

            Recently many faiths offered parking lot services, including blessings, confessions and communions. Drivers got in line, and when they neared the minister, expressed their need, received whatever they asked for, then drove away. It was an innovative way to reach people in times of extreme need.

            Your task is to write a scene in which someone enters the drive-by line and something untoward happens. It doesn’t have to affect your protagonist, but instead a person in line in front of him. Think of stories you’ve heard about someone paying the toll for drivers following along behind. Is it possible to ask for blessings for the next three cars in line? Might the driver reach out and touch the minister, pulling her inside the car? When the minister cries out, what does your character do?

            Think of all the possibilities of things that might happen. Choose the one that makes for the most interesting story.

            Have fun with this one.

Masquerade

            People seem to love dressing up in costume and going to parties. If the mask is good enough, even the best of friends can’t identify the wearer. This allows freedoms to say and do things that perhaps the participant would never do.

            Some masquerades are quite elaborate. They take place at huge houses or McMansions. There are spiraling staircases, gilded trimmings, caterers about and even an orchestra playing dance tunes. Decorum is maintained according to caste expectations.

            During Halloween there are also parties, but they might feature salads made up to look like human insides, games designed to gross out participants, and freaky music echoing off the walls.

            Your task is to write a scene in which a masquerade plays a major role. Make things interesting by having something unexpected and untoward happen. Think murder or grand theft. Perhaps an unwanted sexual encounter. Stumbling drunks and flirtatious behavior.

            The setting is crucial. Readers want to be drawn in by opulence or the fright-factor. Descriptions of what participants are wearing is also important. When the story gets going, dialogue will make things come alive.

            Have fun with this one.

The Old, the Young and the Vulnerable

            Imagine a culture in which the old are venerated, then think of one in which they are thrown away. These are very different scenarios. In the first, seniors might live with family where they are cared for, loved and treated with respect and dignity. In the second, seniors are ignored, abandoned and left by the wayside, despite an inability to care for themselves.

            Now consider how the very young and the disabled are treated. Are babies nurtured even if they have obvious issues? Are toddlers who are deaf or blind left on a rock in the middle of the forest or is there some system in place to care for them?

            What happens when someone is injured and is then permanently disabled? Does the family provide food, shelter and love or leave them behind when they migrate?

            Your task is to write a scene in which one of these populations takes on an important role. Don’t tackle all three, however. Choose the one that you feel the most comfortable writing about, perhaps one that you know intimately.

            Begin by making a list of possible reactions, both positive and negative. Where will the story start? Choose a point of action designed to establish society’s POV. This might be a tense scene or one of love. It might show someone being abandoned or someone being nurtured.

            Dialogue is important so that readers hear how the community thinks. There need not be total agreement between members. For example, someone might want to keep a disabled child, but the cultural rules forbid that to happen. Conflict ensues.

            Have fun with this one.

Starting Over

            Who doesn’t like a fresh start? Well, many people might resent being told to scrap work and begin again. Imagine putting in hours designing what you thought was a winning presentation, only to find that it wasn’t what the boss had in mind. You’d be frustrated, angry and hurt.

            To many, however, having a chance to start over might bring a sigh of relief. Picture a student who received a poor grade on an important test. The grade is so low that it will pull down her grade point average, possibly endangering her scholarship. The professor, after learning that she has a previously undisclosed disability, agrees to give her more time. She redoes the test in the learning center. And…her grade is substantially higher!

            Both cases involve scratching the first attempt. Both have different feelings attached.

            Your task is to write a scene in which the protagonist has to start over. It can be in a relationship, at work or school, on a project for the house, or even writing a book. Emotional reactions will vary depending upon the situation that you set up.

            The first step is to establish character. An angry character will just get angrier while a passive one might just shrug it off. Someone prone to tears reacts differently from a stoic.

            Next come up with a challenge that has stakes attached. It could be a promotion, purchasing a house, or repairing a car.

            Have fun with this one.