Silver Birch press just published my short essay "World Traveler," which I wrote in response to their prompt "Me, in a Hat." The prompt asked writers to think of a time they wore a hat and write about it. They asked that writers contribute pictures of themselves in the hat, or failing that, pictures of a similar hat. This picture and this hat immediately came to mind.
This essay is a rare piece of mine that was sparked by a prompt. The press put out their call for submissions, and I immediately knew what I would write and how I would write it. For me, prompts usually work that way: either I get something right away, or I get nothing.
I have a few pieces in my portfolio that also came from prompts. For example, I wrote "They Call Me Lucky" in answer to prompt asking for submissions about your name or nickname ("Hello, my name is..."). The prompt came from a reading series, so I read that piece in a gallery in San Francisco.
However, some other pieces could easily have come from standard prompts that I and other writing teachers give. My essay "No Choice" fits the prompt to write about a favorite article of clothing. My essay "Valuables" is an outgrowth of the prompt to write about a prized possession. That essay describes the experience of having a prized possession, my wedding ring, stolen. By the way, if you look closely at the picture above, you can see the wedding ring that the thieves took.
Publishers and writings teachers give out prompts because they work. But in my experience, you have to have the right prompt to inspire you. If I'm stuck and want a prompt, I go through a list of them until I find just the right prompt that fits me like the perfect hat.
A local community press, Tolosa Press, partners with a local writer's club, the SLO Nightwriters, to publish member fiction in their free papers. Recently they published one of my stories, "Cuba Libre."
Some of my flash fiction can be rather odd (told from a parrot's point of view, written in small vignettes, involving a talking cat). However, I felt that a lighter, more traditional story would be a good match for a community newspaper. Part of what I enjoyed writing in "Cuba Libre" was its setting--a bar where the bartender chooses the patrons' drinks based on their personalities and moods. That setting came from reading about a bar where the bartender would refuse to make certain drinks he didn't approve of. I thought about taking that idiosyncrasy one step farther.
I've never been published in a free newspaper before, but I really like the idea. I went to a cafe to get a couple of copies. While I was enjoying a cookie at the cafe, a man picked up a copy of the paper on his way out the door. It was fun to think he might read my story.
Atticus Review recently published my flash fiction "The Fire."
Inspiration for fiction comes in a variety of ways: objects, places, odd things I notice, something someone told me. "The Fire" was inspired by a photograph taken by writer/photographer Mark Coggins. In addition to writing mystery novels and essays, Mark is an award-winning photographer.
While teaching one day, I went to Mark's Flickr account and asked my student to choose a photo and write something inspired by it. As we were flipping through photos, I noticed one of a fireman cleaning a fire truck:
Photo by Mark Coggins
I started to wonder about this fireman and what his story was.
My student wrote a story inspired by a different photo. But I wrote a story inspired by this one.
Ann Hillesland writes fiction and essays. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, including Fourth Genre, Bayou, The Laurel Review, and Sou’wester.
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