Unblocker #19: News to Your Mother!

Sometimes we see a news story that causes the fiction writer in us to jump with anticipation. You know, a quirky story, buried somewhere near the back of the paper (if you still read the paper) or in the “Strangely Enough” section of some online portal.

The fiction writer in us says, “That might make an interesting tidbit for a story.” We don’t want to just write a fictional account of the news story, really. We are looking for something much, much bigger.

This is the sort of thing that is often, for me, what Richard Hugo calls a “Triggering Town”; it’s an image that sticks with me, has an immediate (yet, mysterious) meaning, and begs to become something more. In poetry, Kathy Smith Bowers calls this the “abiding image”. No matter what you call it, this sort of specific vision of a person in a place in a specific situation is the white-hot center of my short stories.

Here are a few abiding images that I’ve turned into short stories:

  • A pastor’s wife, kneeling in a pick-your-own strawberry patch, being asked by an over-eager evangelical, “Have been born again?”
  • A midget whose job has been to be hurled down an oil-soaked mat toward over-sized, styrofoam bowling pins finding out from the bar owner that he’s being replaced by goldfish racing.
  • A young woman, in a coffee shop with her much older fiancée, realizing that all of the wedding preparations that are stressing her are old hat to him, because he’s done it all before.
  • An insurance salesman who is being persecuted by someone leaving voodoo dolls in various places.
Can you tell which of these four initial images came from a news story? The midget and the voodoo dolls. (The two most-whacky, right?)
The midget story started when I heard a radio news report about a bar in Tampa that was closing down its goldfish racing amusement. The owner of the bar was interviewed and said, basically, “We weren’t hurting the gold fish. They were feeder fish that we rescued from a piranha. Not sure what the animal rights people are so upset over.” This got me to thinking, what happened BEFORE this, and I saw this little person, happily employed, but in the eyes of angry protesters, the victim of exploitation. So, much like the gold fish who were actually better off before the social-changers got involved, this man has his situation changed by outside forces claiming to be on his side.
The Voodoo doll story came from a report I read about how people who were told they were being Voodoo-ed (word?) were something like 40% more likely to suffer a serious accident or injury, and that it was the mindset they took on because of the voodoo that caused them to be more vulnerable. That triggered this image of a typical insurance salesman, dead in the parking lot of his office, not because Voodoo actually works, but because he’s allowed himself to believe that it does.

Unblocker #19

All of that to say, today’s Unblocker is a challenge for you to start taking news stories and making them your own. Go look through the weird and the whacky, or find something that you’ve seen in the news recently that captured your attention. There don’t have to be a lot of details. In fact, the fewer REAL details you know, the better, really, because you want to create a world around this central image that intrigued you, not become a news reporter. To add a layer of complexity to the exercise, though, I want you to do one of the following two variations:
  1. Replace the main character of the news story you choose with your own mom or dad. Write a scene (or two, or twenty pages) where your own parent is the person who is facing the challenges, living in the world, dealing with the circumstances of the news story you found. Call them by their real name, try to imagine how they would react, how they would cope, how in the world your own mom got in that situation in the first place. (If you decide this is a story you want to circulate later, you can go back and change the names of your parents. But for now, try to make it about this fictional THEM.)
  2. Replace the main character of the news story with the mother or father of the main character of your novel-in-progress or a short story that you are stuck on. You may never use this writing for anything other than trying to understand your characters better. Ideally, this will shake loose some new element or missing piece of your story, and that is the whole idea!
Hope you enjoy this Unblocker. Don’t forget that you can go to the summary page for all of the writing prompts I’ve shared with you at any time.
Thanks for reading! Happy Writing!!
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