“Think of a memory in a beautiful landscape—maybe from a family vacation, or your favorite childhood destination. Now think of a scene from a story, novel, or movie that describes a landscape, and that has stuck with you. What makes these moments special? So many of the memories and stories we share are connected to place—to the landscapes of the Earth and the landscapes of our own imaginations.” – “Carving Stories from Trees” in Poets & Writers
Poets & Writers Magazine has a daily online writing prompt or “Craft Capsule.” I enjoy reading these even if I don’t follow up and write something based on the prompt.
For those who grew up in a wonderful place and enjoyed day trips, or went on yearly summer vacations, or traveled after graduating from high school or college, the landscapes we saw in the past are a gold mine of writing prompts and potential short story or novel location settings.
Our family traveled every summer. This meant many long days in a car, most before air conditioning. We saw sites from Fort Ticonderoga and Niagara Falls to Key West, Mammoth Cave and the Smoky Mountains. Even though I didn’t keep a diary, my memories–incomplete as they may be–make a wonderful starting point when I’m thinking up a new story.
Since I’ve been to these places, it’s less difficult to find a book, magazine or a website to help me fill in the details. I came away from those vacations with a strong sense of each place. And, that’s almost more valuable than a guidebook.
Perhaps you have memories of long-ago trips that might serve as writing prompts and short story locales.
I like history and folklore and frequently mention them in my books as part of what makes up the place where my story is set. Since history and folklore are tied to real people and what those people believe, the interesting tidbits we use need to be treated with respect.
I’m currently reading Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse, a folkloric study of Jamaica and Haiti based on her trip there in the 1930s. Early on, she talks to a man whom she refers to as Brother Levi. What Brother Levi has to say about the meaning of the word “Christmas”might sound sacrilegious to some people. That’s fine, because if an author were to mention this story in a book, s/he would be doing so not as gospel or a religious tract, but to establish a strong ambiance for the location.
The writer doesn’t necessarily paraphrase a story like this. S/he has a character mention it or mention the days when Brother Levi was a strong influence on local culture and beliefs, or perhaps includes it in a narrative overview of the country’s beliefs that newcomers are unaware of and might come across over time.
Brother Levi: “We hold a candle march after Joseph. Joseph came from the cave where Christ was born in the manger with a candle. He was walking before Mary and her baby. You know Christ was not born in the manger. Mary and Joseph were too afraid for that. He was born in a cave and He never came out until He was six months old. The three wise men see the star but they can’t find him because He is hid in the cave. When they can’t find him after six months, they make a magic ceremony and the angel come tell Joseph the men wanted to see him. That day was called ‘Christ must day’ because it means ‘Christ must find today,’ so we have Christ-mas day, but the majority of people are ignorant. They think him born that day.”
I have no plans to write about Voodoo in Jamaica. But if I were setting a novel there, I would find this snippet a delightful way of setting the stage, of showing an alternative point of view. I love reading folklore for what it is, but I take note of things that might one day become part of the depth of place I’m always trying to establish when I write.