To work up a writing exercise, I am herewith stealing from Kathleen Jennings' blog post, Five Things to Steal from a Cafe (hers is for illustrators, too). (1) Find a place where you can take notes on your surroundings—a room of your own, a park bench, a public place (library, grocery store, filling station), a performance space, etc. (2) Write down five things you could "steal": objects, patterns, textures, colors, shapes, sounds, smells, light effects, mood, etc. (3) List three ways you could incorporate each of your five items into a story. (4) Choose a few of those ideas, mull over them a few minutes, then in twenty minutes work them—or something like them!—into an outline or the opening of a story.
I made myself work through the exercise.
I get started:
At my desk right now, for instance, I see a tangle of electrical cables and plugs at an angle, a framed leaf from a medieval breviary, the linen-white wall behind my computer, and a wooden box labelled "Runkel Bro's Vienna Chocolate." From the room next door, I can hear the rhythmic thumping of my husband's work-out on our wooden NordicTrack. Okay, so what besides a writer at work might these things suggest?
- Someone finds a nest of baby dragons that feed on electricity.
- A malfunction in a space station's control room causes a rush to decipher a diagram.
- A shopper picks through box of old cords in a yard sale.
- Lizzy finds a page from a medieval manuscript interleaved in a magazine.
- A medieval scribe adds rubrics to a page he is working on.
- An artist uses calligraphy to design a Christmas card.
- The puzzling curve of slightly rough white is a gigantic egg.
- The oatmeal colored room in a meditation house induces a panic attack.
- A scribe is given the creamiest piece of vellum he has ever seen.
Vienna Chocolate box
- Well, obviously, somebody eats or cooks with chocolate.
- A collector of 19th C packing crates buys one that contains something ghastly.
- Classified papers or the key to a mystery are smuggled out of a castle in a wooden crate.
NordicTrack in the next room
- The thump of an engine reveals that a ship is unexpectedly leaving the dock.
- Dwarfs are pounding on an anvil underground.
- The ticking of a time bomb is frighteningly steady.
The story opens:
Robert had signed up for a weekend retreat at a wellness center and regretted it the minute they put him in a room the size of a wooden packing crate with off-white walls and ceiling, a thick wall-to-wall oatmeal-colored carpet, and nothing else except a round window so high that all he could see was the sky—appropriately enough being crossed this minute by puffy white clouds. He was supposed to maintain a yoga pose for a set time. Tick-tock, tick-tock went something like a metronome in the next room. Of course, he supposed he could always just get up and walk out, but his nerves were a tangle and he couldn't make up his mind to move.
"Chocolate?" said a voice behind him.
He broke his pose in a panic and whirled around. He had not heard anyone come in, but there she was, a thin girl with an ethereal nimbus of golden hair, unwrapping a candy bar encased in paper printed to look like a medieval illumination.
Now it's your turn.