Hygge Writing Prompts

As the winter solstice approaches and the nights lengthen to their darkest and most forbidding, I am inclined to go dormant along with the trees and squirrels. The Danish concept of Hygge (hoo-ge) has a way of embracing that desire to bring things down a notch, while remaining pleasantly productive throughout those dreary days of winter. It’s all about connecting with nature, friends, and all that nurtures the soul in the colder months. Here are four writing prompts inspired by this way of living that just might help you find joy in the beautiful coziness of our shortest days.

 

Winter Walk

A winter walk can be inspiring.

When temperatures drop, our human instinct tells us to stay as comfortable as possible at all times… which generally means we collectively become homebodies if we weren’t already. Less time outdoors means less daylight and vitamin D, which means lowered seratonin production, which encourages scroogey attitudes. Don’t let it affect your writing mojo!  Bundle up and head outside. Notice the changes of the plants in your area. Is it peacefully silent in your neck of the woods? Or busier than ever on your street with the impending holidays? Notice everything. Take notes. When you get someplace you can really write, flesh out vignettes of the places you went and the scenes that were most interesting. Was it that one tree stubbornly insisting on autumn with one vibrant leaf still clinging to a twig? Was it the stressed-out convo overheard? An act of kindness observed? Post your experience here or on our Facebook page!

 

Cozy Cups

Awaken your senses.

Hot drinks warm you up from the inside out and just feel right at this time of year. Prepare an assortment of hot drinks and some nibbles. Something familiar is nice, but be sure to include something you’ve never tasted before. Find a comfortable place to sip and write without distraction. Describe each tea, cocoa, or even soup, in detail. Finding the right words to accurately represent the complexity of flavor is the challenge! If it’s a hot toddy, how does the alcohol affect your senses? Include any memories that pop up in association with each concoction. This exercise is almost meditative as you learn to slowly savor each sip and decipher the language of your palate.

 

Friends and Food

Collaboration with friends.

One critical element of Hygge is self-care; understanding the need for kindness to ourselves. While many here are already paring back their meals in penance for the holiday feasting, the Danes embrace all that  brings comfort and joy, especially friends and good food. Gather some of your favorite people, prepare some of your favorite foods, and play some of these improv games. Thinking on your feet and collaborative storytelling encourage you to think outside the box in ways staring at a blank page just doesn’t.

  • One Word — Sit in a circle and tell a story together. If you’ve ever played “Fortunately but Unfortunately,” this is similar, but as you go around the circle each person contributes only the next single word to the sentence/story. Don’t overthink! Just say whatever pops out. The result is hilarious fun.
  • Telestrations — This is a game that can be purchased, or done simply with paper and pencils for the group. The first person writes a sentence, then folds the paper so that the sentence is covered, and passed to the left. The next person peeks at the sentence and illustrates it. If you are a horrible artist, no worries! It just makes the next part more fun. Fold that paper the other way, so your art AND the sentence are hidden, and pass it to the left. Now look at ONLY the illustration, and write a sentence to describe what you see. Repeat this process, passing the papers until you get your original paper back. Sharing and laughing together by firelight feeds the soul, and the whole shenanigan improves creativity.
  • Yes and No… with a twist– This message will self-destruct after you finish this page. Well, maybe not, but the game can really only be played once with any particular group of friends. Tell your friends it will be a storytelling game, where half of you will be creating a story, and they have to guess what it is asking only questions with yes and no answers; then send half the group out of the room.  The remaining half is told that they are actually NOT going to create the story, the guessers are. For every question that starts with a consonant will be a yes answer, vowels will be a no. When the other half returns, the incognito collaboration begins.

 

Luminaries

“There are two ways of spreading light:

to be the candle, or the mirror that reflects it.”

Edith Wharton

Hygge culture thrives by candlelight. So light a candle, find a cozy fireplace, and contemplate those who have given light, illumination, a brightness to your world of some kind. This can be someone you know very well, a child, an artist who has inspired you, a historical or religious figure who lit a figurative fire in some way; anyone who has been a luminary to you personally. Write a quick character sketch based on that person. What have been their biggest challenges and how did they overcome them? Write their biography from your limited perspective. Write them a letter thanking them for their influence in your life. This can be four writing opportunities in one if you let it.

 

Snuggle into the rhythms of winter. Writing practice can include creative collaborations and silent contemplations. Be kind to yourself, embrace friends and comforting traditions. And keep writing.

Strengthen your Character.

 

 

Hemingway once said, “When writing a novel, a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.” So how do you create that depth of realism in your protagonist that makes you (or at least your readers) weep at their misfortunes? How much time should you devote to these exercises? I once attended a Brandon Sanderson book signing where he answered the question saying you need to know (at minimum) these 3 things about each and every character, no matter how minor:

 

  • Where did they come from?
  • What do they want?
  • What’s stopping them from getting it?

 

You will find endless lists online of questions to ask yourself/your characters to help define who they are and how they will function in your story, but I find myself returning to these core questions again and again. It doesn’t need to take long, but the more fully fleshed out these answers are, the more fully your people will live and breathe on every page.

It can be as simple as deciding that my gatekeeper from the village now works in the big city, and just wants to go home and see his visiting daughters for the evening, but this rough-looking traveler is getting in the way. It can be as complicated as detailing the religious beliefs of an political dissident who is plotting a major coup with multiple obstacles. Very versatile.

 

There are a variety of apps that can help as you seek to give your character depth and clarity. I’m not talking about those word processing apps (with a little spunk) like Scrivener or yWriter, I’m talking about dynamic organizational tools that will make your background work on character development and world building easy to find and integrate into your writing.

My very talented niece introduced me to Notebook.ai, a free online app that organizes all of your background information into four integrated categories: Universes, Characters, Locations, and Items. I find it to be a very efficient way of seeing all the pieces I need easily and directly. It includes relationship maps, and can be as simple or as detailed as you like. Its format does encourage you to be succinct, but doesn’t have a character limit that forces the issue.

Another fairly new option is StoryShop. This one is more comprehensive, there is a price tag, but could be worth it. While this one features a character development section, it also provides space for outlines, research, and a word processor so you can keep ALL the pieces in one box. (I will do a follow-up post reviewing these tools and others soon!)

So spend some time fleshing out the people in your stories. Make them live and breathe and desire. No matter their age, they have goals and fears, and something drives their decisions. What is it? Make sure you know.

 

A word of caution: Don’t let your time spend in character development or world building become so all-encompassing that it distracts you from your true goal: Completing that story! You NaNoWriMo soldiers get back to work!

Poetic Devices. Why Should I Care?

Let’s cover poetic devices! I can just hear the groaning in the back row. Alright, alright. Hear me out. In no way are these just for poets. Each one addresses unique ways writers of all kinds play with words to create more polished prose. Whether you are a news reporter or a novelist, mastering them can bring a subtle sophistication to your writing. We experience the effects of these devices all the time without realizing it. It’s what makes good literature feel musical and inviting. Think of some of your favorite passages of your favorite novel. Inspiring words, or a well-written article will certainly embrace them. You’ll find it in moving storytelling and clear expositions all over the place that just… sound better. So let me introduce you to your ten new best friends.

  • Alliteration.

Alliteration is rhyme’s mirrored twin. It’s when words begin with the same letter, rather than end. Aunt Annie’s Alligator from Dr. Seuss’s ABC book comes to mind. But we see it used to create emphasis, or a certain mood, all the time in literature. The Great Gatsby is the classic example, as F. Scott Fitzgerald seemed particularly fond of it.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly against the past.”

Keep an eye out for alliteration as you go about life, and notice what effect it has in its context. Does it slow things down? Does it add a punch of humor? Does it draw your attention in a certain way? Next time you’re warming up for writing, give it a try! The more you experiment and play with the sounds of words, the more you will be able to use it intentionally.

  • Assonance.

Assonance is when interior vowels echo each other every so often within a phrase. (See what I did there?) As with most of these devices, it creates emphasis and a certain mood, depending on the sound emphasized and the context.  A favorite example from literature is found in Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Tombs of Atuan:

“Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward towards the light; but the laden traveler may never reach the end of it.”

It’s also a great example of the next tool for your literary cabinet, and some others I am sure you will discover on your own.

  • Consonance.

As you may guess from the sound of it, this is a close cousin to assonance. It’s referring to consonant sounds that pop up with in a sentence or phrase. Depending on the consonant repeated, you can really amplify a mood with consonance. Hard /k/ sounds command your attention and might make a phrase more lively or harsh. Sibilant sounds tend to create a hushed mood. Great speech writers use this tool all the time to produce a lyrical  quality that makes you want to listen. Here’s an example from Martin Luther King’s famous I Have a Dream speech:

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

Alliteration, consonance, and assonance are all about playing with the interior sounds of words, and are well suited to all kinds of writing. Because they are surprisingly easy to incorporate and are almost imperceptible to the untrained eye, their value goes far beyond poetry. They don’t make a stab at your attention the way overtly poetic phrases do, but give that certain je ne se quois to our favorite quotable quotes. Play around with them the next time you are dreading that blank screen.

  • Imagery.

Okay, so this one is pretty self-explanatory. Images are what make good writing come to life. But it’s about more than just the visual components. It’s engaging all the senses to tell your story. If readers feel as if they are experiencing the action, they will be drawn to your work. We read because we want to feel transported to another place, time, or reality, and good imagery is key in making that magic. E.B. White does this excellently in Once More to the Lake:

He pulled his dripping trunks from the line where they had hung all through the shower and wrung them out. Languidly, and with no thought of going in, I watched him, his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment. As he buckled the swollen belt, suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.

Ouch. The boy feels it. The narrator feels it. We feel it. Experiment with this in areas of your work that just feel disconnected or bland. What experience can you craft for your reader that will show not tell?

  • Metaphor.

Every time I encounter this word, I think of the hilarious and poignant old Italian film, Il Postino. Metaphor is when we say one thing, but mean another. In a good way. It’s a key means of using imagery to convey more than what can be seen with the eye, or felt with our skin. I love Carl Sandburg’s poem, Landscape. It can mean so many things to different people at different times.

See the trees lean to the wind’s way of learning.
See the dirt of the hills shape to the water’s way of learning.
See the lift of it go the way the biggest
wind and the strongest water want it.

We use metaphor all the time in common idiomatic phrases and figures of speech. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. A stitch in time saves nine. Music to my ears. The ball is in your court now. Consider this popular quote from Hellen Keller; made all the more significant because of her native blindness:

Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see a shadow.

We use metaphor all the time to convey a stronger, more intimate meaning than can be conveyed with simple factual description. Notice it in the literature you read every day, and consider when you might use it more effectively.

  • Meter.

This is, loosely speaking, used to describe the rhythmic combination of stressed and unstressed syllables in language. In poetry it can be a very specific set of patterns to follow; we typically think of very structured poetry examples such as Shakespeare’s famed use of iambic pentameter. But we aren’t going to be writing sonnets, generally speaking, so let’s look at this in other great works. Examine this excerpt from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inaugural address. Notice where the stresses fall in these lines:

This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself-

Can you see the rhythm created in his word choice, emphasized in his delivery? Paying attention to where the stressed syllables fall in your most crucial concepts can lend that extra oomph to make your work stand out.

  • Onomatopoeia.

Clickety-clack. Pitter Patter. Squelch. Words that mimic the specific sounds they describe are abundant in English and can be playful or powerful. They help the reader really hear what is happening, making descriptions more vivid. Exploring onomatopoeia can be a fun writing warm up before your real writing assignment begins because it’s really all about appreciating the sounds of the words and the feelings evoked by them. The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes is full of great sounds that pull the reader into the action.

Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard,
He tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred…

I would argue that in this case, even the sounds of words like locked and barred lend to the delightful commotion and energy of this piece, even if they aren’t typically words we think of as onomatopoeia. I recommend giving it a read in its entirety! Then see if you can write some noise.

  • Personification.

Personification is when the author or speaker ascribes emotion to the inanimate. It’s in the whispering winds or angry clouds that bring alive the storm. It’s in the lonely road and forlorn shack that set the mood of a place. Edith Wharton demonstrates this beautifully here in an excerpt from The Mother’s Recompense:

“Hadn’t she known that something good was going to happen to her that morning – hadn’t she felt it in every touch of the sunshine, as its golden finger-tips pressed her lids open and wound their way through her hair?”

  • Repetition.

Repetition is really the soul of many other devices on this list. Rhyme, assonance, consonance, and alliteration are all about the repetition of various sounds. Meter is about the repetition of emphasis creating a repeated rhythm to the words. Here repetition refers to the reappearance of words or phrases throughout a sentence, paragraph, or even the entire text. Have you ever noticed that the funniest parts of any stand-up comedian’s act are when they cycle back to ideas you thought they’d abandoned? Watch a few Drybarcomedy shows and you will absolutely see it. It’s the same concept. It just adds a little candy for the brain. Some of the above quotes give great examples of this; as in FDR’s famous speech, three times just in that excerpt; throughout that short Sandburg poem; and in two other places, if you can find them. Comment below if you think you see it!

  • Rhyme.

Nope. This one isn’t just for poems either. Listen to this well-loved quote from the Buddha:

Health is the greatest gift, contentment the greatest wealth, faithfulness the best relationship.

Does it sound overly rhymey and trite? Not really. Rhyme doesn’t have to be at the end of a line of poetry to be rhyme or to have impact. Ok smarty pants in the front row. So that last phrase spills over into consonance rather than rhyme, you’re right! That’s what makes it such a good example for use outside of strict poetry. Hear the pleasant echo of the “th” sound in each phrase … health, wealth, faithfulness? See how it bounces from the beginning of the line, to the end of the next, back to the beginning? It makes it memorable and underscores the importance of those words in his message. It goes back to the principle of repetition in fine art, whether visual, auditory, or written. Our brains like it. Whether it’s because it makes things easier to remember or because we like the familiar, it just feels good.

  • Simile.

This is basically a more explicit kind of metaphor that really calls out the comparison by name. The classic example is Robert Burns,’ “O my love’s like a red, red, rose…” It differs from metaphor in that it employs clue words to tip you off that a comparison is being made: like, as, shall I compare thee… you get the idea. Charles Dickens was fond of using simile, and did so with great success, adding vivid imagery and personality to his stories. Check out this quote from Great Expectations:

It was a rimy morning, and very damp. I had seen the damp lying on the outside of my little window, as if some goblin had been crying there all night, and using the window for a pocket-handkerchief. Now, I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass, like a coarser sort of spiders’ webs; hanging itself from twig to twig and blade to blade.

He personifies the wet quality of the morning by comparing it to a sobbing, miserable goblin or a network of spiderwebs strewn about. No plainly visual description could achieve the same kind of creepy, foreboding mood at the same time as painting clearly the damp, wet landscape.

Alright. Now you try it. Keep noticing these poetic devices being used by good artists everywhere. Jot them down in your writer’s journal. You can hear it in the music on the radio, and that friend who’s a great storyteller. These tools are found in important, famous speeches and your favorite childhood books. If you want to dive right into it rather than waiting for opportunities to pop up along your path, I highly recommend reading Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven in its entirety. He uses each and every poetic device to wonderful effect. Here’s just one stanza. See how many you can identify. Leave your answer in the comments section!

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me — filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,
Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door —
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; —
This it is, and nothing more.

Ten Minute Writing Prompts

Maybe it’s living in Michigan where the summers can be brief and the weather is unpredictable, but summers bring out the carpe diem in me. In addition to all the regular items on my to-do list, I am always snatching every chance I can to get outside in the sunshine, off to the lake, and into the woods. All this means that time is at a premium, but writing must happen regularly or I can’t call myself a writer anymore. So what’s an author to do? Even if it’s only ten minutes, if it is regular and thoughtful, it is better than nothing at all. So here are ten good ten minute prompts to get you thinking and working out your writing muscles, and still have time to enjoy summer!

  1. Find a beautiful scene, and describe it through action. Use as many verbs and adverbs as you can in ten minutes.  It’s best if you can actually go out and be present in the moment there, but a photo can work, too. Imagine or observe who or what lives there. How are its actions communicating the setting? If there is a child, are they laughing and splashing through the stream? Scowling after being scolded for her muddy escapades? If it’s a bird, is it singing joyfully, or warily watching the dog napping below its tree? Beautiful places are great. What happens there is what makes writing interesting.
  2. Spend ten minutes creating a character. You may or may never use this information later, but its excellent practice. Who are they? What drives them? Who/what is stopping them from getting what they want? What do they fear? What are their ideals? What are their flaws? You only have ten minutes, so don’t filter, do not edit. Just zip it on out. Try it every day for a week. You might come up with some  interesting and quirky side characters for your next story.
  3. Brainstorm as many plots as possible in ten minutes using the following format:  [blank] discovers [blank]. The cat discovers a crayfish. The Martian discovers ice cream. The toddler discovers the camera. Use these for further writing prompts later!
  4. Expand on your discoveries.  Take one of the possible plots from number three, and expand on it. Spend just ten minutes fleshing out a vignette describing each of the more promising discoveries.
  5. Imagine a vacation gone impossibly wrong.  Take the most perfectly planned vacation. A honeymoon, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a celebration. Plan out the itinerary. Now sabotage it. At every step along the way, insert some disaster. The plane is ridiculously delayed. Or crash lands in the wrong climate. An obsessive ex happens to be staying in the hotel room next door. The bus breaks down. In drug lord territory. How bad can it get?
  6. Play the eternal optimist. Take the vacation gone impossibly wrong, and create some twists that turn each stab into a surprise win. The plane is ridiculously delayed, which means your travelers get to see an event they thought they’d miss. They crash land in the wrong climate, but that forces them to take a hilarious shopping spree. The ex next door hits it off with your new love and is finally able to let go. Get creative!
  7. Write a haiku. Or ten. Remember, five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the last. Focus on one moment. The stark collection of images can tell a provocative story.

    Haiku by Richard Wright
  8. Ten minute tabloids. Tabloids take sensationalism to the extreme. Take a political view, extravagant lifestyle, or belief and push it to the most narrow, untempered boundary. What does that look like?
  9. Write up a tourist brochure for your hometown. What are the must-see locations? What’s the best restaurant in town? Best house to stay in if they offered it on VRBO? Places/people to avoid?
  10. Ghost Story Revamp. What was your favorite (or least favorite) campfire story as a kid? Take it and change the protagonist. Change the villain. See if you can give it a twist of humor or a shake of realism. See if you can come up with something even better than the original.