When I was just a little girl, my dad pointed out a little plot on the side of our house and told me I could have it for my very own garden. I got to choose the flowers myself, and he taught me how to plant and tend to them. I took readily to tending to things; after all, my father (and my mother, too) had been modeling the practice for me my whole life.
Then, during the summer I turned nine, my uncle died. My mom tried to explain it by telling us that our cousins didn’t have a father anymore, and my brain simply refused to process the thought. I understood that my uncle was dead, but I couldn’t comprehend my cousins’ state of fatherless-ness.
I think I’ve been trying to make sense of it ever since. Through an ongoing coincidence of many close relationships with people who lost their dads while still young, I’ve recurrently been faced with the theme of missing fathers. And since writers often try to work out the loose ends of their own lives through their characters and their stories, the theme has crept into my work as well. My picture book Trick-or-Treat on Milton Street is about a boy trying to come to terms with a new stepfather. My middle grade novel Turn Left at the Cow is about a young teen searching for the father he never knew. One of my long-term works-in-progress features a boy whose father is away at war.
One of the most potent writing prompts I know is the question, “What if?” Thinking about that, I realize that all of those stories of mine came about partly because of those two words. “What if I didn’t grow up with the kind of dad that I have?” “What if I’d lost my father when I was just a little girl?” “What if I’d never had anyone to teach me how to plant my own garden?”
You likely have different loose ends in your life than I have in mine; your “What if?” questions may be quite different than those I grapple with. But if you’re ever in need of a powerful story-starter, you probably don’t need to look any farther than the ideas that begin with those two words: “What if…?”