Guest Post & Giveaway: Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, Claire Legrand & Emma Trevayne on Writing Prompts

By Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, Claire Legrand & Emma Trevayne

The Cabinet of Curiosities began in January 2013 as a spooky-stories website devised by Emma Trevayne, who invited Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, and Claire Legrand to join her.

Each month they choose a theme, from cake to love to Halloween, and each Wednesday, one of them posts a scary middle-grade story written to that prompt.

On May 27, 2014, Greenwillow/HarperCollins released a collection of those stories, The Cabinet of Curiosities: 36 Tales Brief and Sinister, which includes eight never-before-seen pieces, other new material, and art by Alexander Jansson. It has already received a Kirkus star.

The widely-scattered Cabinet curators—they live in New Jersey, Austin, London, and Zurich—gather below to talk about what they love (and hate) about writing to prompts.

Stefan Bachmann: I was actually pretty terrified to start writing with prompts. I had never done that before, and I had never tried writing one short story per month either, and I was convinced it would stifle my creativity or something.

Our prompt for the first month was “Cake”, so I started a story called “The Little Cakemaker” about a girl who bakes cakes for the people she doesn’t like and thereby brings about their weird and gruesome downfalls. And it was lame and fake, and I was like, “I can’t do this.”

So I ended up re-purposing a very old story about a dollhouse with metal spider-legs and adding a reference to cake to make it work. Basically. I cheated that first month.

But I got over the initial shock the prompts weren’t a problem anymore, and now I really like them. I like trying to think of the least obvious way to make the prompt an integral part of the story.

One of our themes coming up is keys. I’m already excited. Because what kind of keys are they? And what if someone had keyhole for eyes? What would unlock them? And keys have teeth, right? So what if the keys eat things… Ahem. And so on and so forth.

This is Stefan, roughly 86% of the time.

Katherine Catmull: Sometimes—often—my brain spins like a tire on ice. Writing prompts give me some traction, which is incalculably helpful. In fact, I began getting serious about writing when I entered the ScriptWorks (they’re an Austin-Dallas playwrights’ organization) “Weekend Fling” contest, where we write a ten-minute play to three rules in 48 hours.

I often use prompts even in non-Cabinet writing, and not always words. I’ll focus on a writing problem, then do a random Flickr search or draw a tarot card.

Once you’re deep into a book, you’d think writing to prompts would narrow you too much, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. They’re flint to spark against.

Katherine’s cat, who, like her, is curious, nervous, and frequently aghast.

Claire Legrand: You might think writing to a prompt would limit your creativity, but that hasn’t proven at all true for me. In fact, I find it as helpful as writing a novel based on an outline; the prompt gives me guidance and focuses my creativity.

Writing to a prompt also helps stretch my creativity. For example, last March we wrote to the prompt “luck.” Without that prompt, I might have never thought of writing about a demonic monster living in an old tin who, once released, grants children luck in exchange for pain—which ended up being one of my favorite stories!

The only part of Claire’s office not covered in plastic
cockroaches and cat hair. (That’s a Lyra doll, by the way, not

Emma Trevayne: The first thing I do when writing to a prompt is play word association, looking for a way in. For example, with our “cake” prompt, I thought of baking, icing, decoration, birthdays…and then I thought of how in England, where I live, small cupcakes are known as fairy cakes.

Aha. Now that had possibilities. From there, a tale of malevolent fairies who demand cake from innocent villagers as part of a yearly ritual (like a birthday!) unfolded.

Prompts are excellent for getting you moving forward creatively, and with the Cabinet, I love seeing how the four of us take one word and run forward but in completely different directions.

Emma admits that, yes, she cleaned before taking this pic.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a copy of The Cabinet of Curiosities: 36 Tales Brief and Sinister (Greenwillow, 2014)
signed by one of its authors! For one entry, leave a comment. For four entries, leave an extremely short (100 words or less) scary story in the comments. In honor of the Cabinet authors’ status as visitors to Cynsations, please write your story to the prompt: “visitors”. Author sponsored. U.S. only.

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14 thoughts on “Guest Post & Giveaway: Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, Claire Legrand & Emma Trevayne on Writing Prompts

  1. They arrived in the middle of breakfast. It had been so long since we’d had visitors in our little attic home. Their large eyes peered in the windows, shocking Father, who fell backward in his chair. Mother grabbed up Baby and pressed herself into a corner of the kitchen. Suddenly, one of them reached inside our home and picked me up in its sticky hands! It had just placed on top of my bed on the third floor when somewhere beyond a voice boomed, “Children! Stop playing with the dolls and come eat.” – Laura Woollett

  2. The visitors silently filed through the door in a single line. Their hooded black covered everything except for their faces. Faces that were hidden as they resolutely stared at the floor. The students lined along the hallway to greet the visitors were told that their guests were teachers from a neighboring school looking to form athletic teams with kids from both schools. The hair on Sidney’s arms rose as the last hooded figure walked by. She thought she heard…hissing? When she turned to watch them, the end of a green, scaled tail darted out from under the robe.

  3. Nope. No questions about writing prompts. I love them. I have a package of story cubes at home that I use sometimes.

    And now my 100 word story.
    Anne glanced at the attic door from her hiding place behind a dusty stack of boxes. Her heart pounded in her chest like a trapped animal desperate for escape. His heavy tread echoed from the lower parts of the house. Her only escape was the small window on the wall behind her. It was a two story drop.
    His sing-song voice called her name, searching the hidden recess of the house for her. The attic steps creaked. In a panic, she dove toward the window, her hands frantic on the latch.

    “Going somewhere?” asked a thick voice.

    Anne screamed.

  4. I enjoy writing prompts. They get my juices flowing, and I find after a few successful prompts I start finding writing ideas all around me.

    Do you ever find it difficult to work with a group? Do you write as a team (on the same story) or do you all just write your own separate things?

  5. And now my story… which I managed to get to EXACTLY 100 words.

    We stopped putting out the dishes of cream and honey once Grandma died. The low hum that always filled the backyard ceased.

    “It’s in your head, darling. Grandma’s visitors never existed,” she whispered and hugged me tight.

    She discovered a toppled sugar bowl the next morning.

    “Did you sleepwalk?”

    A desiccated bird on the porch. Tiny blood drops led into the yard.

    “Neighborhood cats.”

    She tumbled down the stairs. I found nearly invisible threads crisscrossing the top of the landing and shivered.

    Now I put out cream and honey each morning like Grandma always did. Mom doesn’t say a word.

  6. Maria–we only ever work on our own separate things. The time differences between London, Zurich, Princeton, and Zurich make all communication among us a bit excessively complex. I'd love to try a group thing though.

  7. I saw the cover of The Cabinet of Curiosities: 36 Tales Brief & Sinister in this week's edition of Publisher's Weekly Children's Bookshelf enewsletter and and it was love at first sight. I read their short blurb and went in quest of additional information. I'm a reader not a writer so I'm not familiar with the concept of writing to a prompt. I found the authors comments insightful and I look forward to reading the book.

  8. I do enjoy–or train my brain to enjoy writing prompts, or flash fiction contests. They're a great way to flex a little brain muscle, whether before or during a WIP. The Cabinet of Curiosities sounds amazing!

  9. As soon as I saw Stephan´s name, I was hooked. I just read the story about the creepy house…wow! Loved it from beginning to end. I so want to read more, but I live in Mexico, on a budget so it´s hard to get my hands on books!

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