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.
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.