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Story Starters: Some Prompts

Often ideas for stories can come from things we overhear people say, things that make us curious. For example, I once heard a woman say, “I’m just a drunk girl in stilettos.” Okay, I confess the woman who said it would one day be my wife. The actual facts of the story don’t matter, What matters is the instant I heard her say that, I thought, hmm. . . “Drunk Girl in Stilettos.” Now there’s an interesting title for a story. I set out to write one that would be completely different from the kind of story you’d expect from [...]

By |2019-12-09T07:20:04-05:00December 9th, 2019|Blog|0 Comments

Black Friday: What If?

Cathy and I were in Home Depot on Black Friday, looking at items for our front porch Christmas display, when an elderly woman with an empty shopping cart said to me, “I used to play Santa Claus.” It was a dreary night, cold and damp, but there in Home Depot surrounded by the artificial trees with their bright white lights and the animated Santa that delighted children when it moved its head and spoke to them, and the good cheer beginning the holiday season, it was almost cozy. Cathy and I were frustrated, though, because we’d spent the day decorating, [...]

By |2019-12-02T07:38:51-05:00December 2nd, 2019|Blog|0 Comments

Trouble Resonates: How to Use It in Fiction

Please don’t tell the folks who sign my checks at The Ohio State University, but my wife Cathy has always been a fan of the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team. She’s always wanted to see them in person rather than on television, and today, thanks to a game here at OSU, this was the day. So we went to the game, and we had good seats, and it was a close game until the fourth quarter and then UConn was able to pull away at the end. After the game, Cathy and I stopped at one of our favorite [...]

By |2019-11-25T03:24:55-05:00November 25th, 2019|Blog|2 Comments

August, 1974

I was eighteen years old the summer Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. I was between my freshman and sophomore years of college, and I worked as a sales clerk at Sherman’s Department Store in Olney, Illinois. Each afternoon around three o’clock, my manager sent me to the drug store across the street to buy him a pack of cigarettes (Kent Deluxe 100s) and an afternoon newspaper. I brought the cigarettes and the paper and his change back to him, and then I went on about the business of straightening stacks of sport shirts and trousers, whisking a feather duster over [...]

By |2019-11-18T07:24:33-05:00November 18th, 2019|Blog|10 Comments

Urgent Motivation: Putting Your Characters into Motion

Elizabeth Strout’s new novel, Olive, Again, begins like this: In the early afternoon on a Saturday in June, Jack Kennison put on his sunglasses, got into his sports car with the top down, strapped the seatbelt over his shoulder and across his large stomach, and drove to Portland—almost an hour away—to buy a gallon of whiskey rather than bump into Olive Kitteridge at the grocery store here in Crosby, Maine. Or even that other woman he had seen twice in the store as he stood holding his whiskey while she talked about the weather. The weather. That woman—he could not [...]

By |2019-11-11T07:49:34-05:00November 11th, 2019|Blog|0 Comments

One Fine Morning: Rededicating Ourselves to the Craft

I hope by now you’ve turned back your clocks an hour and enjoyed your extra sleep. Here in central Ohio, it’s a beautiful sunny day—a little on the cool side, but, hey, it’s November. Let’s enjoy the sun and not think about the fact that it’ll set at 5:27 pm. Yes, we’re making our final turn toward the cold and dark of winter, but instead of despairing, let’s give thanks for the reminder it gives us that time is short and pages don’t write themselves. Let’s use this time change to rededicate ourselves to time spent on improving our craft. [...]

By |2019-11-04T07:46:50-05:00November 4th, 2019|Blog|4 Comments

Leaps, Associations, and Connections

It starts, as so many stories do, with a bottle of bourbon. The brand is Angels Envy, and our friend Deni says it should be the title of a poem. We know, by the end of the night, our other friend Roy will write it. For the time, though, as we sit around a table in Roy and Gloria’s kitchen with Sherry, and Deni and her husband Mark, and my wife Cathy, we tell stories. It’s a rainy autumn afternoon, a perfect day for bourbon and stories and the talk talked between old friends. Roy tells a story of youthful [...]

By |2019-10-28T09:26:36-04:00October 28th, 2019|Blog|2 Comments

Giving a Memoir Resonance

Facts alone do not a memoir make. First this happened, then this happened, then this happened. A sequence of memories is easy enough for anyone to recall from a particular period of time in his or her life. It may even be easy to see the causal links between the events on a timeline. Because this happened, this next thing happened, and on and on. Sometimes, though, events in a life can be random. This is one difference between the narrative of a memoir and that of a novel. In a novel, events usually connect. In life, the oddest things [...]

By |2019-10-21T08:36:47-04:00October 21st, 2019|Blog|3 Comments

A Day in the Life of a Writer Who Also Teaches

For those of us who write novels, at least from my perspective, it’s important to live in the world of the novel with some degree of consistency while the writing is underway. Leaving the writing for stretches of time makes it hard to sustain the momentum that writing long form narratives requires. When you teach, as I do, and when you relish the challenge of teaching young writers how to improve their craft, and when you get addicted to the verve and energy the writing workshop creates, it can become a delicate negotiation between the time spent on the two [...]

By |2019-10-07T07:24:11-04:00October 7th, 2019|Blog, Uncategorized|2 Comments

Two Stories at Once: Finding the Resonant Truths

Technique? I can teach that in a writing workshop. What’s tougher to teach—really, I can only extend an invitation—is the ability to think and to feel in terms of opposites, to know, as Thomas Mann said, “A great truth is a truth whose opposite is also a truth.” If you’re paying attention, life will teach you that. My father was a gruff man, a man of temper. During my rebellious teenage years, we clashed. We said vile things. Sometimes we shoved at each other. My kind and timid mother endured it all. She didn’t deserve the ugliness we brought into [...]

By |2019-09-30T07:27:10-04:00September 30th, 2019|Blog|6 Comments