Story time exercises

Isn't this picture brilliant? When I saw it this morning on a tumblr I follow (called - ahem - f**kyeahvictorians) I knew I'd share it with you guys. It's The Brighton Swimming Club, 1863. They're wearing hats. I think possibly my favorite character is the man peeking out at the back, from behind the man with the excessively large head gear. Wonderful stuff. They're wearing hats.

The reason I'm sharing it is simple. I wanted to blog a bit today about writing exercises and story inspiration. Specifically, short, instant, real-time props that writers can use to practice style and prose and flex their literary muscle.

Walking along the beach this weekend with a friend, I overheard several snippets of conversation from passers by / people sat in cafes / etc. Single lines, mostly, about situations and people that I'll never see or meet.

'And I knew right then we'd be late.'

'I can't believe you'd want it smaller.'

'It would take two hours, Jean. Two hours! And what about the bags?'

In any public space, you can overhear lives without eavesdropping. And writers have a right to listen to what others say, if they ever want others to listen to what they say.

My sister Sarah once shared a truly astounding argument she'd overheard, which came to a head, it seems, with -  'It's not about the vol-au-vents, Caroline!'

But what if it was? Oh, Caroline. We'll never know.

So here's my suggestion. As an exercise, as practice to hone your imagination and plotting skills, write a series of short stories based solely off the lines you hear when you're about. Of course, by the very nature of this, you still have complete control. You can make the story any genre. You could just take a story you already have and awkwardly force in the line of speech. But why? Why not let a new story, no more than a couple of pages, grow organically from the random, real lines you're fed by life?

Could be fun.

Back to the Victorians. There's got to be a story here. What's the deal with this photograph? You could write one. You could write the story of the photographer, or the hat-maker, or the swimming club owner, or the women who presumably aren't around at the moment 'cause the men don't have all their clothes on. Or are they? There's a story there, too. Writers don't need real life to write, but it'd be dumb to ignore it completely when there's more material out there than in any library.

You could use my brother-in-law's photographs (here and here) as inspiration. You can use any photographs. Or a song. Or a dream, of course. Always a dream.

I'll leave you with another favorite:

That's right. Knife throwers

I hope to share some stories here soon, when I've had a chance to sit and listen and to write what I find.


  1. Great post and great suggestion! I will go away and listen to some random snippets :)

  2. See, this is why I have such a hard time believing in writers block. I believe in writers molasses, but that's not at all the same thing.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with Caleb. Writer's molasses. Excellent.

    That picture is hilarious, and this is a great suggestions for writing practice. We've actually just started a similar exercise over at the Feather and the Rose, in the form of serial blog fiction.

  4. VikLit, enjoy the snippets! It's amazing what people say in public without realising.

    Susan, just went and read your first serial blog fiction. What a really cool idea - I should have added randomly chosen lines from books to my list! My wife is reading Fellowship at the moment. I could get her to feed me lines once a week to build a story myself. Hmm...

  5. I actually did that in college once. A friend and I sat outside of a classroom, waited for someone to say something and then wrote three pages of dialogue based on what they said. Was so much fun and would love to do it again!