Family of origin issues ideal for story starters
Sunday, October 10, 2010 at 2:59PM
Gale Martin / @Gale_Martin in Janet Burroway, Scratch writing contests, family of origin, writing prompts


If you're reading this post, then you have a family of origin. You may have disowned them or may spend time with them several times a year--like me. Regardless of how you feel about your family of origin, they can be a rich source for storytelling, no matter the genre you write.


A year ago, I submitted a story I wrote to a fall fiction contest sponsored by Scratch. I used a prompt from Janet Burroway's book, Imaginative Writing, that went something like, "Begin a story with something your parents used to say..."

Some of my mother's expressions cut so deeply into my psyche, despite not having heard them in years, I'm able to retrieve them from the memory center in my brain, as if I went searching for them daily rather than every ten years.

My  mother use to say things like, "You can fall in love a rich boy as easily as a poor one." Who knows? Maybe her mother said it to her. What is clear is that no women in my family have followed the previous generation's advice about who to fall in love with. None of us married Rockefellers. I guess example also speaks louder than words.

Though I have friends who swear they hate writing prompts and won't use them, I have a strong track record with prompts. I like the discipline of meditating on something--a saying, a word, a visual prompt like a painting or an image in real life, and then forcing myself to write about it.

After I typed my mother's saying, "You can fall in love with a rich boy...," the story poured out of me. As it turned out, my opening sentence caught the judge's attention, and she awarded me first place. (Maybe she had unresolved family of origin issues, too.)

Why was this prompt so successful? For one thing, the viewpoint character and point of view were established in an instant, stemming from a very organic place. Without thinking much about it, I realized the storyteller was an adult who'd be relaying an anecdote that occurred during her teenage years.

If you met my sweet little 83-year-old mother today, you might not believe we once had a tempestuous relationship, or, alternately, you would ascribe all the blame to me. Though I can't say I am grateful for the one-time animosity between us, I now realize it's a rich vein to mine for fiction writing.

How about you? Do you use prompts? Are there any prompts that you've used successfully and can share with Scrivengale readers? To what extent have you used family of origin issues in your writing?

Article originally appeared on Gale Martin | Clever Fiction for Clever Readers (
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