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Picturing a World

Steal what?

Kathleen Jennings, The evil thief sighed in the deep dark forest (2020)

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.

Breviary leaf

  • 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.

Blank wall

  • 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.

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