Chris Van Allsburg is an illustrator’s illustrator. Even if you don’t recognize his name, you are probably still familiar with his work. He has produced a score of luscious children’s books. Books so captivating that they have been adapted into several very popular full length movies such as Jumanji, its sequel Zathura, and the beloved Christmas story The Polar Express. Other favorites of mine include The Widow’s Broom, The Stranger, and The Wreck of the Zephyr.
In 1984 Van Allsburg released a wonderful book called The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. It was a collection of 14 unconnected and intriguing but oddly haunting pencil illustrations with a short ambiguous title and cryptic caption underneath each one. I thought at the time they would make great writing prompts for 14 stories—14 jumping off points. Well, it seems Chris Van Allsburg has beat us to the punch. Just this October, he released The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, a collection of 14 short stories by 14 authors, inspired by the 14 Burdick illustrations. I have not read it yet but you can rest assured, it will be added to my Christmas wish list.
Before I even knew that Van Allsburg had released Chronicles, I was thinking that I might try a little Harris Burdick experiment myself. I hope you will join in. Sometimes inspiration can be spawned by nothing more than a simple word or phrase. In a JMU drawing class that I took ages ago as a college art student, our professor introduced us to a variation of the technique called “Exquisite Corpse.” You would write down a bunch of random adjectives, nouns and verbs, fold them up and blindly pick two adjectives, two nouns, and a verb. We were then instructed to arrange them into an adjective-noun-verb-adjective-noun sentence or phrase such as “Fractured Sunsets Produce Limited Symphonies.” Then we had to illustrate our self-created prompt. In a similar vein, an effective book title can conjure up or help pave the way to a new plot line. So here’s my idea: I thought I would invent some book titles as jumping off points for anyone in search of ideas. I encourage you to add titles of your own or provide brief plot line synopses inspired by any of the 38 listed titles. I’m planting some seeds and hopefully a few ideas will sprout, eventually spreading branches that will bare fruit. The more ideas the better. Let’s see if we can’t get a whole orchard of idea trees growing.
(Note: These examples are off the top of my head and are presented in no particular order. I did not conduct any kind of search to see if any are actual book titles. There is no intent on my part to claim anyone’s work as my own idea)
The Garfield Prospectus
Making Dew (or “Making Do” but not “Making Doo”)
Van Gogh’s Banjo
The Reluctant Scholar
Looking for Hell
November Heat Wave
No Assembly Required
The Life and Times of Preston Droodge (or make up your own character’s name)
The Cone of Uncertainty (credit goes to Lucy Merrill. Her blog “Word Crank” is a must-read)
The Structure of Chaos
The Identity Theif
The Dream Forger
Total Job Satisfaction and the Other Benefits of Working at Greene’s Funeral Home
A Bowl of Dust
Fistful of Heartbeats
Any way, you get the idea, or maybe these gave you some. Add to the list, propose some plot lines. Let’s grow some ideas.