We’ve all heard the saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Yet, nothing quite gives meaning to the “you can’t make this shit up” mantra than American Nightmare, a new Netflix documentary. Because if you did make it up—if you wrote it down and made it into a book
—the number one comment your book would get is, “It just wasn’t believable.” The story is so unbelievable that, at several points, it doesn’t feel like it could have possibly happened. And yet, here we are, watching it unfold in all its honest glory (and tragedy) on our TV screens.
Okay, so what does this have to do with writing?
As a fiction writer and writing coach, I am often asked where I get the inspiration for my stories. The first answer I typically give is my anxiety. As a worst-case scenario thinker, my imagination has become very good at generating plenty of story ideas. In this way, writing has become a therapeutic way for me to untangle these intrusive thoughts and put them into a work of fiction, where I have all the control.
My second answer? I look around. I listen to true crime podcasts, like My Favorite Murder. I watch Mr. Ballen on YouTube because he is a master of stories about the strange, dark, and mysterious. I watch Bailey Sarian’s Murder, Mystery, and Makeup because she has a compelling way of covering harrowing stories. As someone who tends to write more on the dark side of things, these are excellent sources of inspiration.
If you are not into writing with a dark edge, that’s okay. There are still plenty of resources for you. A great one is Upworthy. They share tons of positive stories about things going on in the world. If you are a romance writer, consider talking to your friends about their proposals or how they met their current partners. If you’re a historical fiction writer, the news is the best source of current inspiration, as it will all be part of history one day. Alternatively, old newspapers and biographies are great places to source material.
Regardless of your genre, there is no better source of inspiration than what’s happening in the real world. Of course, you should never take a story you see in the news or hear on a podcast and simply write it as fiction. Instead, you should add your own spin to it to make it stand out as your own work. However, being tuned into current events and true stories from around the world will help you develop more believable storylines (unless you are using American Nightmare, then good luck to you).
Here are a few writing prompts I developed based on a few true stories I’ve seen, heard, or read over the past few weeks.
1. For my mystery/thriller/horror writers:
(Based on a true story told by Mr. Ballen) Last winter, your MC’s husband went missing on a ski trip with his friends. The consensus was that he died in a skiing accident and was forever lost on the mountain. This morning, your MC gets a phone call that a man who looks exactly like her husband was spotted in California, more than 2,000 miles from where he was last seen. In a short, 500-word story, what does your MC do next?
2. For my paranormal/sci-fi writers:
(Based on a true story from Unsolved Mysteries) It’s the middle of the night, and you are awoken by a loud noise in your backyard. The neighborhood cat has been digging up your flowerbeds, so you run outside to shoo her away. When you open your door, however, you are greeted by a bright light from the sky. You look up and can make out the metallic bottom of what appears to be a spaceship. In a short 500-word story, what do you do next?
3. For my romance/romcom writers:
(Based on a true story a friend told me) Your MC is visiting Paris from the United States and just met the love of her life: the waiter at the restaurant she went to her first night there. The problem? She’s in Paris to meet her fiancé’s family. In a 500-word story, how does this situation play out?
4. For my fantasy writers:
(Based on a true story a friend told me) Your MC is watching their favorite Survivor show on TV. Their door blows open, and a cold wind whips through their living room. They cover their eyes at the shock of it, but when they open them again, they are in the last scene they were just watching. At their feet is a sword. To their right is a large, white wolf. She speaks, “Come! We’ve been waiting for you!” In a 500-word story, what happens next?
5. For my historical fiction writers:
(Based on the true story of Digna Robert, as mentioned in In Defense of Witches) It’s 1565. Your MC is at home, minding a fire and making a meaty stew. She hears a loud bang on the door. She opens it to find two officers who promptly drag her out of her home, bind her, and throw her into the back of a carriage. Her crime? Three ships were lost to the sea in the past week, and she stands accused of bewitching them. In a 500-word story, how does your MC’s story end?
If you write any stories from these prompts, please share! I'd love to hear them!