Dear Diary

            Journal writing has been popular for many, many years. Young girls were often given a diary in order to record their thoughts. They were encouraged to write every day, even if they had little of interest to report.

            Diaries were often padlocked with a tiny key. The girl would hide both the diary and the key in order to prevent parents and siblings from reading their thoughts.

            Diaries became important as a tool for historical research. By reading such records, historians are able to deduce what life was like during times of peace and war, during turbulent and peaceful times.

            Your task is to imagine the diary entries that your protagonist would write. These do not have to be complete stories, but rather figments of time capturing the emotions that the individual experienced. Later on these thoughts might inspire a story, but for now the task is to simply write what the person most likely worried about, dreamt of, feared and yearned for.

            Have fun with this one.

One Day to Live Again

If given an opportunity, which day in your life would you choose to relive?

Is there a time that you said or did something that you regret? If so, what would you do differently? How would this change the outcome?

We all do things that later cause us grief. It might have been a snide comment in response to being treated poorly by a friend or family member. It might have been an act as simple as not dividing the cake into equal portions and giving someone you were angry with the smallest piece. Granted, this is not a huge event, but it speaks to an underlying tension.

Your task is to write from the heart. Recall a situation that, if given a chance, you would do differently. Begin with the scene. Put us in the moment, whether it is a situation at work or an encounter in a coffee shop.

Choose your character. It can be first person or third. If third, keep the character’s actions as close to what really happened as possible.

Put things in motion. Try to recall the things that were said, the emotions, and the reactions.

Think about how you felt after it was over. For how long were you in remorse? Write about that feeling, wishing that it had never happened.

This will not be a fun activity, but one from which you can learn. Your characters say and do things that they should regret.

Good luck with this one!

A Responsible Person

Many people take care of others. I know of grandparents who watch their grandchildren five days a week while the parents work. I also know of people who have their elderly parents living with them.  In both cases, there is a degree of responsibility that transcends what we consider our responsibility as parents.

For whom is your character responsible? This is an important consideration. Even if your character lives alone, there must be someone in his life that demands attention. Is it a close friend who needs rescue? Is it a parent who cannot manage his finances without supervision? Is it a grown child who is still under the parent’s insurance?

Your task is to create a dependent for a character, then establish the degree of responsibility that the protagonist has for this dependent. Make it substantial in order to bring tension to the story.

Write a scene in which something occurs that tests the relationship. Perhaps someone falls ill, either the caretaker or the dependent. Perhaps someone falls and can no longer live alone. Perhaps someone loses financial independence and cannot afford to stay in her apartment any longer. Perhaps a natural disaster occurs that destroys the person’s home…and both caretaker and dependent have to make other arrangements.

There are many things that can occur that create tension. Your job is to choose one and write about it.

Have fun with this one.

Socioeconomic Status

            How much money someone has affects the things that he does, thinks, and says. It impacts future dreams and the things that she hopes to accomplish.

For example, a person who grows up in a wealthy family has everything that she could ever possibly want. Nice clothes, a comfortable bed, good food and all the electronics that one could possibly want. He may attend a private school with other entitled children so never knows what it’s like to have class disrupted by unruly students or may have never witnessed a lunchtime brawl.

This character grows into an adult with distinct advantages in terms of status, education and outlook. He has experienced nothing but the best and desires to maintain that status.

Then consider the low income child who grows up in a tiny studio apartment with eight family members. Who is often hungry and wears ragged hand-me-down shoes and clothes. Who falls ill frequently or has to accompany non-English speaking relatives to appointments to act as translator and so misses great amounts of school.

Perhaps she moves around a lot, from one shelter to another, and so schools change weekly. Most shelters are in low income neighborhoods so she does not have access to modern technology in terms of computer labs, WiFi and calculators. School lunches are adequate, probably free, but not delicious. She knows of students who come to school high on drugs, who sell their bodies and who are bellicose.

Think about how these differing early lives affect how your character behaves in your story.

Your task is to decide into which socioeconomic group your character belongs. Then make a bullet-point list of the structures in this person’s life, beginning with the home environment. Consider size of the home, family living there, quality of food and clothes, and what possessions the character owns. Include on your list the things the character sees in his daily life, as he walks down the street, rides in a car or bus, goes into a store, eats at a soup kitchen or restaurant.

Once you have completed your list, write a short scene in which these elements come into play.

This is not an easy task.

Have fun with this one.

Catastrophic Illness

We don’t like to think about it, talk about it or write about it, but it happens. People fall ill, break bones and develop life-threatening conditions. It’s a fact of life and it affects people of all ages.

When we create our characters’ profiles, we need to consider whether or not those individuals will fall ill with something more severe than the flu. If you’re going for high drama, then perhaps illness works its way into your story.

Your task is to think of a character that you would like as a protagonist. Picture the individual in your mind, or to make things more concrete, go online and seek images of people who look like the character you have in mind. Save that image and consult it frequently.

Next create a list of five possible conditions that might befall that person. Don’t be gentle. Think huge and potentially life-altering.

Research those conditions and add bullets under each until you’ve created a fairly accurate picture of the illness.

Put together the image you’ve saved and one of the conditions, the one you feel most confident writing about.

Design the setting and a plot point, then write. You must keep in mind how this diagnosis affects the character’s mental and emotional state as well as how the character functions in the world. Your story need not end in death: in fact, it would be better if it did not.

Instead focus on the positives. How does someone with that condition work? Play? Interact socially and in a business manner? What kinds of things is the character able to do for relaxation? What would happen if your character had to travel by car, plane or train?

Tackle several of these issues in your story. Give us a character that we can care about, not a simpering whippet who cowers in a corner. Your readers will want to cheer on your character as he manipulates the world despite his condition.

Have fun with this one.

Family Drama

Family stories are easy to write, whether there is love or hate driving  the relationships.

Think of someone that you care deeply about. What stories could you tell about that relationship? Choose one instance that is more than just giving hugs, something with some depth to it. Using bullet points, create a list of things that happened, things that were said, things that were done, how people felt and reacted. When you are finished, walk away.

After an hour, come back to your list. Using what you’ve got, could you turn the incident into a compelling story? If not, what could you tweak in order to make it more interesting?

Your next task is to choose a relationship that it testy. Pick one that is long-standing, as that will give you more meat with which to work. As before, use bullet points to create your list, the longer, the better. Focus on the triggers, those defining elements that caused an uproar, the juicier the element, the more tantalizing the story will become.

Walk away, as before. When you return and look at your lists, which lead to the more complex story? Which story would be more compelling to a reader?

Your task is to take a character from one of your stories and create lists for that individual. Make sure that you’ve got both positive and negative relationships.

Reread a scene that you’ve written that maybe isn’t working as well as you’d like. Think about your lists. What could you insert into the scene that would add intrigue and depth?

Rewrite adding in just one element.

When you reread this time, has the story been improved? Did the character’s actions and reactions make sense? If not, then edit! Keep working at it until you’ve got the story that holds interest and adds information about your character.

Have fun with this one.

Varied Locations


Generally a story has more than one setting which places the burden on the writer to bring each place alive. One way you can do that is to plan a walkabout with camera or notebook in hand.

You might want to focus on architecture, such as the shapes of buildings, bridges, and archways. Cities generally have a mix of architectural styles since they are developed over periods of time. Downtowns are frequently the oldest part of town. What features do you see there? In San Francisco, you would see a lot of stucco facings and large, carved wooden doors. Around the doors and windows might be whirliques, demons, saints and sinners alike. If you can, walk inside and describe what you see. Marble staircases and floors? Gilded handrails? Wood flashings and trim?

If the buildings have been remodeled or replaced, massive steel and glass structures might have arisen. Step inside, keeping in mind the contrast to the old buildings that used to be there.

Cross over a bridge or two. San Francisco has two important bridges, the Golden Gate and the Bay Bridge. The first is an orange structure that connects SF to the Marin side. It traverses what would be a huge cavern if not for the bay waters far below. When you look at it, think about what stories it tells. There have been many jumpers, almost all of whom died. What would bring someone to jump off that bridge? Think of the car accidents that have taken lives. What were the drivers doing when they crossed over the separating lines.

The Bay Bridge is a modern structure with massive steel cables. It is beautiful, but is shrouded in controversy. The cost to build it went way beyond projections. Think of the story to be told about the negotiations that might have taken place. There are bolts that are rusting, causing some to fear driving over the bridge. Not that we want that to happen, but think of the fictional piece that could tell that story.

As you walk up and down the streets, look at the doors. I’m willing to bet that no two are alike. Note the colors. Do they signify anything or did the owner choose by random? Imagine the story if color meant something. Green for an herbalist, yellow for an apothecary. Red for law. Blue for police. What stories come to mind?

If you don’t have time for a walkabout, go on an imaginary one in the setting of your story. Take notes. Make lists. Come up with potential conflicts and events.

Your task is to write a scene in which the environment is crucial to the story. Don’t spend copious amounts of time describing the scene, but allow the elements to slowly come into play.

Have fun with this one.

Inspiration Sources

Objects hidden in drawers and closets or stuffed on garage shelves can be the inspiration for good stories.

Think about some of the things you have stuffed deep in the back of your closet. Old shoes worn on a hike to the top of Yosemite Falls? A sparkly dress from your high school prom? A pair of pants that you wore when you weighed 100 pounds more than you do now?

The stories these objects would tell are priceless.

Prom night might have been a disaster. Your date showed up late, and instead of wearing a tux, he borrowed a too-big suit from his older cousin. It hangs like a robe and in spots, is shiny from use. He wore his old tennis shoes, scuffed and dirt splotched.  No tie. Wrinkled pink-dyed shirt from when a pair of his sister’s panties went through the white wash.

At the dance, he drank heavily, spiking the punch with a flask he had tucked into his inside pocket. The more he drank, the more uninhibited his unskilled dancing became. He laughed and talked so loudly that everyone in the room heard every word he slurred out.

Or maybe you want to write about that hike. It was a gorgeous spring day with billowing clouds hovering overhead. At first the walk was a gentle climb, but as time passed, the path turned to gravel and the elevation increased. Then you hit a section a switchbacks so sharply pitched that, at each turn, you had to stop to gather breath and strength.

When you finally made it to the top, your view was blocked. A tree/cloud/crowd got in your way. Or maybe you were too afraid of heights to look out. Or maybe you collapsed from exhaustion.

Your task is to go on a search of your house or apartment. Look deep into the darkest corners. Push aside the t-shirts you no longer wear. Find one thing that carries you back into your past.

Hold it. Smell it. Cuddle it. Sit in a chair with it in your lap and feel the fabric. The stiches. The hem. The collar.

If shoes, turn them over and look at the soles. Imagine where they’ve been. The places they’ve carried you to. The troubles they’ve seen.

And then write. Tell the story. If you want, you can stick to the truth, but if you feel inspired, embellish. Add details and dialogue and action, enough to make the story interesting for others to read.

When you finish, reread. Look for areas where you can strengthen the story by subtracting, adding or replacing.

Have fun with this one!


Writing About Someone You Know

Often we are fearful about writing the stories of real people. We’re terrified that if we tell the truth, they will sue us/hate us/avoid us/never speak to us again.

It is correct that we should be concerned. Libel is a crime that could cost you real dollars and possibly damage your reputation as a writer.

So what do you do when Aunt Tilly’s story is too good to be silent? You create a persona who is like your aunt, but different. Your character doesn’t look like Tilly, doesn’t talk like her or walk like her. Her life experiences have not been the same. She hasn’t lived in the same house or attended the same schools.

Even the story is changed somewhat, just enough to protect the identity or your aunt.

Instead of walking on the beach in New Jersey when she found a seashell that reminded her of her late husband, she’s walking through the forests of northern California when she discovers an old journal half-buried under a pile of leaves.

Whereas the shell reminded her of a lovely vacation she shared with family and a few close friends, the journal speaks of love and loss.

Your task is to pull from your memory a person that you knew well. This person had an interesting life in which he traveled the country/world, visited unusual places, saw amazing sights, and experienced an event that changed his perspective/brought joy/introduced new hobbies.

Alter the person so that he is not recognizable, then write. Tell this new character’s story in an interesting way. Make him funny or crass. Place him in the midst of turmoil, either emotional or physical. Give him people to talk to and write the dialogue that ensues.

When you are finished, go back and reread. Find the places where you can add detail that enriches the story. Search for places where telling slows pace, and where the pace can be increased in order to build tension.

Make sure that your character wants something and that there are impediments in his way.

There are the things that make for an interesting story.

Have fun with this one.