When you are a writer, anything is a writing prompt.
There’s nothing quite so powerful as the arbitrary set of ingredients. I’ve used a very elaborate set of constraints (aka the Novel Cook Pot) for each year’s National Novel Writing Month first-draft effort. The Cook Pot (like its culinary counterpart) is ruled by the pleasure principle: I throw in there what I like, what excites me, without regard to contradiction. In fact, contradiction is what runs the whole thing: the tension between things that don’t necessarily belong together, which excites the pattern-making, story-telling brain to create the story that fills the dark places between.
Oh yes, and the pleasure principle means that research doesn’t feel like research, but like digging into the cookie jar. For example, right now I’m doing “research” for my Summer NaNo effort, with the American cousin of the painter from Dorian Gray as my protagonist, and Greenwich Village of the 1910s as my setting. I’ve been kicking back and reading Wilde’s original novel, taking notes and trying to reverse-engineer the magic, and learning about the Village art scene by reading Republic of Dreams, John Sloan’s Gist of Art, the recent biography of Sloan, Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit, Emma Goldman’s Living My Life. Shortly I’m to look up Martin Duberman’s biography of Paul Robeson (who’ll have a walk-on role, because of his collaboration with Eugene O’Neill) and O’Neill’s early plays. I’ll also be watching Warren Beatty’s Reds, which has some excellent scenes set in and around the Village.
Is that research in the grim, white-knuckled way of undergraduate term papers?
Absolutely not. I’m kicking back and swinging my feet in the hammock, letting the waves wash over me.
And as I read Wilde, I’m noticing things about his narrative technique, specifically the use of the senses. Dorian Gray, this most visual of novels, opens with the other four senses; it’s only in the second paragraph that we get a picture. And that’s not accidental, either. I am taking notes. Wilde is known for his quips and cranks, his razor-sharp epigrams, but he’s also a master of poetical description. He held dual citizenship in the realms of poetry and prose.
As I read, all sorts of little things trip new ideas: things I might try, characters or situations or bits of setting. I’m taking notes, not only on a master and older brother in the art, but on the trains of association set off as I read.
That’s a writing prompt.
Poets know the writing prompt, as do song-writers: here is a form, a fixed music; you must fit your thought to it. At its best, poetic form knocks out of your head the first word you reached for, which is probably the one engraved on your nervous system by ordinary language. Poetry is the frontier between language and music.
In the fall, I will be taking up another exciting set of research: the technological attainments of the Alexandria, that marvelous multicultural metropolis of the first century B. C. E., where the land of the Pharaohs met the inheritors of Alexander the Great and the Greek philosophers, with influences as well from African cultures further south and the Mediterranean world, as well as places further east. The central figure is Cleopatra VII, the last of the Ptolemaic dynasty, both famous and enigmatic. I will be writing an alternate-history version who’s none the less rooted in fact: the scholar-physician-politician attested both by the Arabic sources and the reactions of her Roman contemporaries. (Among other things, she’s the true patron of the Julian calendar: it was her court astronomers who consulted with Julius Caesar on the resolution of the technical issue.)
The genre: steam-punk, rooted in Greco-tech, complete with steam-powered warships (counterfactual) and magnetic magic (real), and written as much as possible in the way that the Greeks and Egyptians understood the world, not the way that we see it. It’s a head trip in the purest sense, looking at a lost world through an entirely different intellectual and cultural framework. Cross-over genres and alternate history are a delight, that let us slip anchor and sail off into the wide and wild seas of What If—in a vessel constructed from the Known.