I love writing prompts. They're writer mind kindling, always starting something with that built-in "what if." The right prompt will jumpstart an idea out of nowhere, and there really are no limits to how far you can take one.
Case in point: long ago, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, a friend asked me, "If you could be anyone, in any time period, and do anything, what would you do?"
It probably is the oldest writing prompt in the world, but I got a lot of mileage out of it. I started by writing a personal parody/short story about an ER doctor in the future who is forced at gunpoint to deliver a killer alien's vicious quintuplets, which became my short story Border FreeClinic. That story evolved into StarDoc, which became my first published SF novel. StarDoc evolved into a SF novel series of six books and counting, two spin-off parallel novels, and a same-universe standalone. And I'm not done yet.
During my ambles through the book store, I picked up a copy of the chunky little book Writer's Digest has been advertising on their prompt page: The Writer's Book of Matches: 1,001 Prompts to Ignite Your Fiction. I tend to be very leery of WD advertisers, but this one actually delivers what it promises.
The brain child of the twisted minds at Fresh Boiled Peanuts, the book is packed with great starters, ideas on how to use them, and a fun, user-friendly format. It's also not genre-specific or targeted, so it will appeal to any type of fiction writer.
Three sample prompts from the book:
You come home from a business trip and realize you have the wrong suitcase.
A man opens his mailbox to find an envelope containing a set of instructions.
"Whatever you do, don't turn on the light. Please."
My only complaint is that at $19.99 US/$27.99 Canadian/£12.99 UK the book is a bit pricey, especially for writers on a tight budget. I recommend you find a copy at your local bookstore, if possible, and have a look first. You'll get a better idea of the contents and if you think they're worth that much to you.
Or you can take a shot at getting a free copy of the book right now: in comments to this post, give us a writing prompt* by midnight EST on Monday, July 17, 2006. I'll draw three names from everyone who participates and send the winners a copy of The Writer's Book of Matches. Giveaway open to everyone on the planet, even if you've won something here at PBW in the past.
*Your prompt can be a random line of dialogue, a situation, or anything else that you think up, or a great prompt you've found elsewhere.