Bull in front of Kansas barn (all pictures by Marylin Warner)

Bull in front of Kansas barn (all pictures by Marylin Warner)


Consider the possible genres: horror? mystery? romance? true crime? or science fiction?

Consider the possible genres: horror? mystery? romance? true crime? science fiction?

On May 2, I wrote a post about a game Mom and I played during some of my visits when she was still in the early stages of dementia.   As I would drive around town, she’d choose a house and answer the question, “What’s Behind the Door?”    It was intended to encourage her to remember tastes, sounds, smells and feelings. We had a lot of fun with the game, and we usually went for an ice cream cone afterwards.

Several of you have asked if I made up other writing prompts.  Here’s another: “Genre-flecting” (thinking about story ideas based on genre types.)

The purpose with my mother was to use different writing genres to inspire ideas for stories and poems. We talked about various genres–mystery, memoir, western, romance, horror, children’s, fantasy, science fiction, etc.–and also combinations of genres: women’s mainstsream, malice domestic mystery, romantic western, narrative poetry, children’s adventure, etc.

We used buildings as the prompts, and once we chose a place, the next step was to create characters, animals, situations or events that happened there. Since I was driving and she was in the passenger seat, I would cite the genre prompt, she’d think about it, and then she’d create a story or poem idea.   For instance, consider the top picture of the bull in front of the barn. If I asked, “What’s going on here that could make a children’s adventure story?” ~ your answer would be very different than if I asked, “What’s going on here that would make a sci-fi/mystery story?”

For those of us who are not participating in this November’s NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) or National Memoir Writing Month, we have another option.  November 14 is both “I Love To Write Day” AND “Loosen Up, Lighten Up Day.”  

Combine them.  Shake your shoulders loose, grab a pen and write.  Choose one of these pictures or use one of your own or from a magazine; consider a genre you especially like to read—or don’t like to read at all—and set a timer.  Write about “What’s going on here?” for 20 min. or an hour, or for half a page or a full page. Write, and see what ideas or memories emerge. 

The wonderful novelist, essayist and short story writer Anais Nin reminds us this about the importance of writing: “We write to taste life twice, in the moment, and in retrospection…”  

This November—throughout the month, or on the 14th, or any day—write…and taste life twice.   My mother would be the first to tell you it’s okay to treat yourself with an ice cream cone.

old house at pond      

cabin on open plains

tejon st


Filed under Dementia/Alzheimer's, Different kinds of homes, lessons about life, special quotations, writing, writing exercises


  1. Jane Thorne

    Hello lovely Marylin, just what I needed this morning. I love the thought of ‘loosen up, lighten up day’…. and Anais Nin’s ‘we write to live life twice…’ I also feel we write because it is as natural to us as breathing…it hgelps us to make sense of things and prompts for better understanding. All done with love, just like you. ❤ xXx

    • Aw, thank you, Jane. But, like you, I know that writing is as natural to us as breathing…and as necessary. When I read the posts you write as you move around, and all the wonderful and helpful and interesting things you do, I recognize that they are all done with love.

  2. Gwen Stephens

    Great strategy. I love it! Having a visual is a great story starter.

    • When I don’t have pictures handy, Gwen, I grab the nearest magazine–even if it’s FIELD AND STREAM in the dentist’s office–and open it at random. The first picture I see is the prompt for writing until I get called to go into the dentist or wherever. It’s amazing the ideas it triggers.

  3. I love to drive through the country and view old abandoned houses and barns. My mind will wander and I’ll imagine who lived there and what they experienced. I also have a lot of old pictures from my parents and grandparents that are great story prompts. Hugs for your mother, Marylin!

    • You’re on the right track, Jill, and already developing ideas. One of the reasons I like to drive the blue highways instead of the interstate on my way to visit my mother each month is the thought-provoking old homesteads and buildings that haven’t had anyone around for years.
      I’ll be glad to give my mom a hug from you!

  4. I like the sound of your Mum’s game but I think I’d rather go get a dark chocolate ginger biscuit.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

  5. I love that: ‘Write and taste life twice…’ Talking of which, I’ve never heard of National Memoir Writing Month. Love your ideas for writing prompts Marylin, genre-flecting being an excellent idea. I always find sightings of old and abandoned buildings in the middle of nowhere particularly evocative for story ideas, but thinking of all the different story-lines such sights bring, gives much greater scope. For the second photo I would naturally go with true crime first, but in thinking about it for say romance, well, that turns it on its head every which way. Have a great weekend Marylin 🙂

    • You might Google National Memoir Writing Month, Sherri. It’s not the same length or intensity as the novel in a month, but it has some interesting possibilities. The second photo made me think of true crime, too, but the romance angle–meeting in that barn–made for kind of a dark romance. 🙂
      The one that makes me want to write and write is in the group at the end of the post, the house with the pond in the foreground. When I stopped to take the picture, I was tempted to stay there and begin writing immediately.

      • Yes, I must do so Marylin, thanks for that 🙂 And yes, I agree, that photo gives an excellent prompt…so many possibilities 😉

      • I’m still smiling at the picture of you as a young girl, digging with a big shovel. You’re so good at writing surprising twists, Sherri. You might use that one as a prompt. Someone sent you out to dig a hole for some reason, but they don’t realize you’re doing it because ———.
        At that age in your life, what event/mistake/wish/dream would you have pretended or thought about digging a hole to retrieve…or bury?

  6. I will take you up on the ice-cream cone 🙂

  7. Dear teacher, I bow before your lovely, punny prompt topic: genre-flecting. Ha! Again, you have combined the visual with the verbal. There’s a double benefit in using more than one sense in the writing process which you most always do.

    Obviously the exercise you describe works both ways, providing inspiration for both mother and daughter. I love the quote from Anais Nin, some of which I’ve used in my own posts.

    • Usually only Catholics get my play on words with genre-flecting, Marian, but seems like the Mennonites and Brethren caught it, too. 😉
      Anais Nin is a wealth of inspiring and thought-provoking quotes, but this one is my favorite.

  8. Writing for me doesn’t come naturally like my cooking or teaching. A long time ago I enjoyed writing in my native language German but somehow I never gained the same confidence in English . I wish you could be my teacher, your are so gentle and loveing.

  9. Beautiful photos, Marilyn. One of them reminds me of a setting in an Andrew Wyeth painting. Your prompts are a novel idea. They are sure to kick start any one’s creative juices. I’d have loved to have been in the car with you and your mother on those trips. 😉

    • Especially now, Judy. My mother rarely is up for even short rides now, but with both of us talking about writing and life and stories, surely together we could rouse her interest for at least awhile!

  10. Nancy Parker Brummett

    Great inspiration, Marylin. I’m going to make time to do this! Thanks.

  11. I have such an active imagination and tried to impart this to my children, now my ‘grandies,’ too. Marylin, I am always wondering about the history or stories held in beautiful settings, old and decrepit buildings and deserted buildings. Barns and farms have a lot of thoughts attached, I can imagine the struggles within the finances of trying to establish a farm and raising a family there. This is a great way for you and your mother to have connected. I am always happy to read about these times with your mother and you. I like ‘rewards’ or ‘treats’ and often, this is something that my Mom and I still do together. Take care, Marylin. I like the thought that November is a month to have tastes in life twice! I

    • “Spot” perfect, Robin! (I loved your post on all the meanings and plays on the word “spot.” I’m glad that rewards and treats work with your mother, too. They don’t work as well for mine now as they once did, but we used to have as much fun choosing the treat as doing the activity.

  12. juliabarrett

    I love this post! Talk about useful prompts! Would make a great class for creative writing students.

  13. Oh, your pictures are fine! The cow and barn could be many places I suppose, but it reek of Kansas for me. This one is a favorite. Love to Write Day…did not know!

    • Love to Write Day was, as far as I can find out, Claudia, a one-day response to the novel-in-a-month challenge, and encouragement to write something you want to write and enjoy writing, at least for that day.
      It sounds like a good idea to me!

  14. A great, inspiring post Marylin, what a wonderful game and to have an ‘I love writing day’ is fantastic.

    • That was a new one for me, too, Andrea, but I was thrilled with the idea of having a day in November when I can write what I love to write. Too often I have “have to” things to write and deadlines; on the 14th I plan to take at least that one day off from that.

  15. Thank you for the reminder about Love to Write Day. Since participating in NaNoWriMo a few years ago, I find myself every year wanting to dig in and write more in November. There’s something in the air – or maybe it’s the increasing dark.

    • Oh, I agree, Ellen. I think it is the increasing dark, plus the cold and the chances of staying in more when it freezes and there’s ice and snow. Were you glad you participated in the NaNoWriMo? When I Googled the Memoir Writing Month, it had some interesting possibilities.

      • NaNoWriMo helped me get started on what became the writeup of my father’s story. It didn’t reach 50,000 words, but it was what I needed.

      • That’s impressive, Ellen. You’re the first person who’s told me that even though you didn’t reach the 50k words, it was what you needed to really get started on your project. That is all we need sometimes, the nudge to get us going. Thanks for sharing that.

  16. Love this, it’s creative and keeps the person engaged. Something to keep in mind for when I’m with my Mother – thanks so much Marylin.

    • You’re very welcome, Mary. I wish my mother still responded to prompts and activities like these, but I’m glad for all the good times we used to have with prompts…and of course the treats afterwards, too!

  17. Since I retired I discovered other colleagues and friends who blog. One is a serious military historian, writing a book. It never ceases to surprise how much I discover about people through writing. Another is a Hammer Horror Movie buff. I had no idea. Writing is enjoyable and therapeutic, whatever the prompt. I think some of my street photos might work for this. Great prompt, Marylin. Thank you.

    • Andrew, your street photos–and the people, pets, foods and jobs–always amaze me. You have a talent for capturing perfect shots that beg for stories. I’m glad you enjoyed the prompt activity.

  18. I love a picture to get me started. I’d probably use the old barn with the vehicle outside. Is it abandoned? Who drove it there? Are they meeting someone? Oh, the possibilities have only just begun. Thanks, Marylin!

    • The barn with the vehicle parked outside makes me think of a cover for a horror/mystery book, Jenny. I saw it as I was driving to visit my mother recently. I much prefer taking back roads and blue highways instead of the interstate, and when I saw this scene, I pulled off the road and got as close as I could to snap the picture. Just taking the picture gave me eerie vibes about what could be happening.

  19. Hi Marylin, I have only recently thought about writing non fiction; for a long time, I was only interested in writing about the real.
    I love your idea and think that while I am driving (I do alot of driving!) I can look at scenes and make up stories. It would be a great exercise for me.
    Thank you!
    xo Joanne

    • Have fun with this, Joanne. It’s amazing how many surprising ideas will pop up. I was thinking about the beautiful pictures of final wedding decorations and settings you’ve created for others. The inspiring fiction ideas might actually be behind the scene, the setups and mistakes, the meltdowns in the wedding party, the little out-of-place details.
      It’s surprising what we find when we consider and imagine what actually happened BEHIND a picture! 😉

  20. Jim

    My imagination loves the picture of the old barn with the well-used van parked in front. I see a silver-haired man standing inside the barn. The van belongs to him. He is looking at a stall that has become splintered boards with ancient straw on the floor. There are tears welling in the old man’s eyes. He is reflecting on the time he helped his father deliver a calf whose mother was in distress. It happened in that stall. He was eight years old. It happened a few months before the family lost the farm and moved to the city. The van outside the barn bears a license plate from the state of Kansas. Attached to the plate is a bronze medical emblem with the letters DVM.

    • Oh, honey, what a great story idea. And here I was, seeing the same picture as the cover for a Stephen King or Dean Koontz book. I was going to let them figure out the dark twisty turns and gory details, but you took your idea and gave us your own story with richly creative details.
      I’m in awe, sweetie. Next time I ask you to edit something I’m working on, I’m going to expect some full, compelling comments. 😉

  21. jakesprinter

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful inspiration for November Marylin 🙂

  22. Happy November, Marylin! I do love writing photo fiction, and I”m going to add your “cabin in the open fields” photo to my Pinterest board. I Love To Write Day sounds like the perfect day for an ice cream treat, so I will indulge in a scoop or two. Baskin-Robbins is selling its First Class Camouflage flavor in honor of Veterans Day. Here is the description: “Chocolate, Salty Caramel, and Cake flavored ice creams team up to make a flavor so delicious, you’ll never see it coming.” Love it!

    • Oh, wow, Darla! That sounds too good to pass up. Okay, how about this? On “I Love to Write Day”–or whenever we do some writing we really do love during the month of November–you in California and I in Colorado will celebrate with First Class Camouflage ice cream. We’ll do it in honor of veterans, and also to celebrate the writers who continue in spite of struggles!

  23. Hi Marylin. the photos you have posted can be prompts for lovely photo fiction stories. It is an excellent idea to relax and write. I would love to treat myself to an ice cream cone as a reward. Splendid idea. I love your mom. Take care. 😊

    • Thank you, Samina. I’ve often thought that your wonderful pictures and details about police officers are excellent prompts for touching short stories. And of course you’ll also need to complete the process with an ice cream cone! 😉

  24. Good morning, Marylin! I love this post and your idea to take a photograph and write about it for 20 minutes or so. This is a terrific approach and I am going to use it not only for myself, but for my children for their writing assignments. Thank you, thank you, for the wonderful idea! Enjoy the week my friend!

    • I’m so glad to hear your plan for your children’s writing assignments, Robyn. Please let me know how it works out.
      You know, so many of your posts are exactly this. You are an exceptional photographer, and then below the pictures you post are some wonderful quotes that fit perfectly, or you write insightful, creative interpretations or details that suddenly tie everything together. Enjoy your week, too, dear friend.

  25. November 14th is going to be my favorite day this month! (I love your posts, Marylin! They always give me new ideas!)

    It also was my grandmother’s birthday (but was, concerning her, just doesn’t compute for me. She will always remain present in my mind.)

    I generally write every day, but I’m seriously taking to heart the lighten up / loosen up theme of the day.

    • Lighten Up/Loosen Up–for both writing and life in general–sounds very good to me, too, Tracy.
      This November 14th, the anniversary of your dear grandmother’s birthday, how about loosening up and writing a letter to her, and telling her about why she’s always in the present tense for you…and capture a few light and delightful memories to include in the letter.
      Or go to a private, quiet place and read aloud from your book, and share the process with her.
      I don’t believe we ever completely lose we dearly love.

  26. calvin

    Writing reminds me of that Neil Young song ‘One of These Days’. It can be one those long letters written to old friends, strangers and to ourselves; an endless letter of sorts. Writing connects. Writing intertwines, all aspects of our lives; the real and the fanciful. Yes, “to taste life twice” it is that and so much more. It is expression. It is voice. The most important horizon in life is not out of reach or in the distance; it is one step forward and two steps back. Up until a couple years ago I had written at all in thirty years. It tasted good to be creative again. Words after all, merely brushes and chisels.

  27. Thank you for sharing your own writing experiences, Calvin. Writing does intertwine all aspects of our lives. It also helps us taste both the joys or sorrows of our real experiences as well as taste the richness of creativity as it plays out the thoughts behind our pens.
    I’m glad you’re writing again, and I love your final phrase: “Words after all, merely brushes and chisels.”

  28. What a wonderful idea for tomorrow! That’s a deadline crunch for a big report, so spending some time on fun writing after that sounds ideal. 🙂

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