Writing Challenge: Explain the house fire, get published in Writer's Digest magazine

It’s that time again … Time for Your Story.

Your Story is the lone venue for fiction in Writer’s Digest magazine, and in every issue we offer a new prompt for readers to respond to for possible publication.

The stories are eclectic (recent winners have featured a trick bunny riffing on his departed magician owner, a serial killer chatting over dinner, and a teacher surviving her first—and last—day on the job) and always make for an intriguing read, and once the editors have narrowed the pool of entries down to five picks, readers vote on their favorites over at the WD Forum.

Are you up for the challenge?

In 750 words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring, post your story in the Comments section below by July 10 and it’ll be entered in the competition (if you don’t want to post your piece, you can enter by e-mailing it to yourstorycontest@fwmedia.com). By posting below, you’ll also be automatically entered in our occasional around-the-office book swag drawings. (If you’re having trouble with the captcha code sticking, feel free to e-mail your piece to me at writersdigest@fwmedia.com, with “Promptly” in the subject line, and I’ll make sure it gets up.)

??The latest prompt, from our July/August issue, follows. Good luck!

* * *

Your Story No. 27??

Start your story with: “I never would have purchased this house if I’d known that …” End it with: “That’s why tomorrow I’m setting it on fire.”

feature package on how to write and sell your
memoir. Interviews with Life of Pi author Yann Martel, and
the scribe behind “True Blood,” Charlaine Harris. The results of our
Pop Fiction competition. New markets for your work. For more, click

here to check the July/August 2010 issue of WD out.



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7 thoughts on “Writing Challenge: Explain the house fire, get published in Writer's Digest magazine

  1. Joe Kelly

    "Ms. White’s Plight"

    I never would have purchased this house if I’d known that I’d have to clean it all on my own.  Actually, perhaps ‘purchase’ is the wrong word.  In fact, I really didn’t have much of a choice in the whole matter.  Don’t get me wrong – I wasn’t complaining.  One minute, I’m munching on an apple in some hovel I share with seven old men.  Next thing I know, Prince Chiseled Jaw is standing over me, offering to whisk me off to his castle perched on the side of a cliff. 

    Go ahead, you find me the girl who opts for the nursing home.

    Plus, do you know how hard it can be to find a decent castle in Fairy Tale Land?  And I’m not even talking anything elaborate – just your standard forty-five bedroom, fifty-three bath.  Belle, one of my roommates from college, found a great place a few years back.  It had everything – tiered library, grand ballroom, singing furniture – you know, the works.  But she had to spend her first year or so there living with some sort of sub-human bear beast thing.  I mean, don’t get me wrong – it all turned out okay in the end.  But girlfriend had to put in her time.

    After hearing a story like that, how do you say no to Sir Steamy Eyes?

    It’s competitive out there – comatose princesses are a dime a dozen.

    Anyway, it all started out fine and well.  Strolls through the garden after breakfast.  Horseback riding in the afternoon.  The occasional ball in the evening.  Sometimes, on the weekends, we’d take a carriage to the seaside to visit his cousin Eric and his wife, Ariel.  My husband and Eric would spend the mornings hunting, leaving me alone with that red-headed treasure.  She may have been all smiles and splashes when Eric was around, but she had one of the sharpest fins I’ve ever encountered. 

    And she wasn’t fooling anyone with that bra – she must have gone up two shells since I first met her.

    But like I said earlier, life wasn’t bad.  And you know what, it probably would’ve stayed that way if my hubby could invest as well as he could hunt.  Boy, was he an awful business man.  When we first moved in together, he traded a golden lamp to the sultan for three bushels of bananas.  Never once did he think to rub it!  Maybe take a moment to look inside.  Not once!  Another time, his construction company built more than a thousand straw homes for the pigs living down in the valley.  I suppose you can imagine how that turned out.

    And don’t even get me started on the condos in Atlantis.

    But needless to say, if you string together a whole slew of fairly stupid business ventures, even the most wondrous of wizards would begin to feel a little tight.  You know, Aurora’s Charming had it right all along – low risk T-Bills.  The return may not be as high, but you always know you’ll have some clams coming in at the end of the month to pay the bills.  Have you even seen the gas bill for one of these castles?  It’s enough to make even the fiercest knight quiver in his armor.

    So here I am, on my hands and knees scrubbing the marble of the grand staircase.  There used to be a hundred workers keeping this palace tidy, but now there’s just me.  My husband, my own Warren Buffet of Fairy Tale Land, is off looking for new investment opportunities.  He says I should be used to cleaning – he says I was cleaning up after seven men, and now I only have to clean up after one.  But those seven men lived in a hut the size of my bed chamber!  And now, being as gold is up over a thousand dollars an ounce, those greedy old geezers are swimming in more cash than Midas himself!

    I told him we should sell – you know, downsize a bit into something I can more easily take care of.  But he keeps saying that the economy just isn’t right – that we’d never get fair market value.  But I just can’t take it anymore.  All the scrubbing and polishing and dusting is enough to drive a woman crazy!  I mean, not even Cinderella had so many chores.  

    And I may not be a fairy godmother, but I know this place packs a hefty insurance policy.

    That’s why tomorrow I’m setting it on fire.    

  2. Jessica Reed

    I never would have purchased this house if I’d known that I had died here twice already. Set in a quaint, quiet neighborhood, I had thought the house must be a godsend.

    The idea crashed and burned the next day when I heard the moans coming from the attic. Climbing up the ladder and swiping at the cobwebs, I peered through the hazy sunlight and spotted a balled-up newspaper in the corner. Hauling myself through the square opening I just managed to reach it and pull toward me. Climbing down I blew off the dust with a loud sneeze. My eyes focused on the black and white picture, and I felt my hands go numb at the sight of my body lying inert on the sidewalk with my house standing proudly in the background. The words, "Killer Strikes Again!" plastered the top like an overzealous tabloid ad.

    The next sound I heard was the garbage disposal complaining at the newspaper I had shoved in it. Downing two aspirin I lay on the couch and pressed the pillow over my head. The stress from moving must be too much. I convinced myself that was all and almost believed it until three in the morning when the groaning assaulted my ears again. Sliding out from under the enticing warmth of the cotton bedspread I staggered through the house looking for the source of the noise.

    The kitchen tile felt icy on my bare feet and the moment I entered the groaning stopped.

    “Hello?” Stupid thing to say, but at three in the morning I had nothing better. Flipping on the light I saw the plain white envelope in the center of my rickety card table. Picking the letter up I slid out the crinkled paper and begin to read. The beginning addressed a woman with the same name as my mother before it went on to express its condolences over the murder of her daughter fifteen years ago to the date.

    Without bothering to finish the rest I dropped it through the paper shredder and let the electronic whirring sound of the blades destroy it. I decided the next afternoon would be a splendid time to find a doctor in the area and renew my old sleeping pill prescription.

    Instead, I spent the afternoon outside gardening. I didn’t let the cloudy sky and constant drizzle stop me from plowing through the fresh earth with my shovel and upsetting a few earthworms in the process. I didn’t stop digging until something red showed through the earth Reaching down I brushed off the paper cover of a blank DVD.

    “The former owners must have left it,” I told my empty house once I’d made my way back to the living room and settled on the couch. Seconds after sliding it in to the DVD player a night vision shot in dark green panned across the TV screen. The shot of my upstairs bedroom was unmistakable and there was no doubt I was sleeping in the bed. The camera inched closer and the free hand of whoever held it reached forward to slide back the cotton comforter. A butcher’s knife shimmered in a bright section of moonlight coming through the blinds and with the faintest popping noise I flipped the TV off. The sound seemed to echo like a gunshot throughout the house and the sign from the cheap motel down the street advertising a rent two nights get the third free deal flashed through my head.

    It seemed too good a deal to pass up and soon my bags were piled so high in the car I could barely see out the rear-view mirror. When I awoke in a commercial bed smelling slightly of mothballs the next morning I realized it was the first full night’s sleep I’d had since moving.

    Reflecting on the strange events over a strong cup of black coffee, I knew they had to be the result of a mere dream or a psychotic breakdown, or perhaps even some chemical leaked in the water.

    Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I’m not the superstitious type. But I’m almost certain my great grandmother always told me to tie up loose ends and my great grandmother was never wrong. I think I need a house with a more scenic view, and I’d sure hate to disappoint my great granny. After all, I’m sure she would consider this house a loose end.

    That’s why tomorrow I’m setting it on fire.

  3. Tom Tangretti

    No One Would Listen
    I never would have bought this house if I’d known that places like this can’t really help. Does anyone really know what happens around us every day and we don’t have a clue. I’ve been wondering for years why I should be the only one who knows this stuff all by myself. I thought I could get away from thinking about this terrible feeling that talks to me every day if I moved out of the city into the country with Gram. But it didn’t make a difference, don’t you know?
    When I was young and had to deal with all those brats whose only concern was game boards and summer vacation it was as plain to me that they could not possibly understand how smart I was. Their little flirty, flirty stuff bugged me when I’d see them walk down the halls. Jenny, yeah Jenny, I would have liked to explain to her what was possible through me; but like all the others she wasn’t interested in this freak! Or so they thought that’s what I was.
    Now, older , I still haven’t been able to find anyone who I can share my knowledge with and expand the universal vision, yes the universal vision, that’s what he calls it and has been entrusted to me by the ONNE. I thought Dorothy might be interested but she couldn’t tear herself away from the outside sales guy, Sid. So my mail delivery to her office is just a plan delivery without any chitchat like before. She can get screwed too.
    And that Matt guy, who said he was my friend looked at me as if I had two heads when I tried to explain my mission. He didn’t think I was making any sense or at least that’s what he told me. But unlike the others he said it nice and not mean, like he really cared about me. All in still, he will understand tomorrow when things start to happen at JJ Harper and Company.
    So I quit trying.
    I thought coming out to my gram’s house could somehow give me the stuff I need to make them understand. Gram would know how to get them to listen. She was the best. She always was there when I needed help, like when they wanted to put me in that place with all those crazy people and she wouldn’t let them. She said I didn’t need that “phony baloney shit”. That’s what she said. Never heard her say a word like that before but she was mad as a hornet. So I came to live with her in her house. And when she died they said I had to buy the house because my dishonest brother said I owed him part of the money and I had to buy him out or sell the house. So Mr. JJ Harper lent me the money on my credit union account and I bought his share.
    It didn’t take much to make the bomb. A bomb designed by internet instructions is easier to make than anyone would think. Fuses, timers, fertilizer and some careful planning and anyone can do it they said. The van was easy too. The ONNE told me how to do it. I explained I did my best and he knows that but says that we can’t wait any longer for the world to listen. We must act. And so I acted.
    Boy did I ever.
    I know when my letter appears in the paper and tells the people about the ONNE and why I did what I did, that’ll get someone’s attention. Won’t it?
    Dear Paper, it says.
    My name is Delbert Marrs and I work for the JJ Harper Company in Boise as a mail delivery clerk. I have been there since I left school. I was the one who planted the bomb and killed all those people at JJ Harper and Company. I did it for a very good reason. No one would listen to me. I tried to tell them what was happening to our world and why and how the ONNE wanted things to change and that I was here to help him do that, but no one would listen. Now will you please listen? It won’t be me because I won’t be around anymore. The ONNE is coming to get me tonight. Someone else will be the friend of the ONNE who needs for you to listen. Please look out for him.
    Sincerely yours,
    Delbert Marrs

    That’ll get them, I’ll bet.
    OK, check list time. OK, let’s see, the vans in the parking lot. The timer is set for 9:00 AM and I need to call off sick. Oh, I almost forgot set the timer for the house fire.

  4. LK

    I would never have bought the house – a charming, ancient stone building adjacent to a churchyard – had I known that there was a Knight Templar immured in the wall.

    After moving in, I planned a renovation. I wanted to connect two of the tiny, low-ceilinged rooms to make a larger, sunnier space. Before the work began, I experimentally pulled out a few crumbly bricks. That’s when I saw his helmet within the wall.

    I gasped and recoiled, but after catching my breath, curiosity impelled me to dislodge him. One by one, I pulled away the gray stone bricks that entombed him.

    Finally the knight stood revealed in a rectangular recess, complete in his dusty regalia. I reached with a shaking hand to lift his face-shield, expecting to be greeted by a macabre and moldy smile.

    Instead I saw a mouth of flesh and blood, the lips parted and flapping gently as he snored.

    The face-shield fell shut, waking him, it seemed to my horror. Before I could retreat again, he flexed his armor-encased limbs and took a creaky step towards me.

    “Hullo!” the knight said, and thrust out a chain-mailed hand.

    I could make no reply.

    “What year is this?” he asked.

    “2009,” I squeaked.

    “Ah, so it is true,” he sighed, his mossy breath enveloping me like a green fog.

    He explained to me the terms of his immurement. He had been walled up there for violating some of the terms of secrecy of his order, and a curse had been laid upon him. If he were not disturbed he would slumber forever, unable to die and ascend to heaven. If he were woken, he would be confined to this house. It was impossible for him to leave. He was also physically unable to shed his armor, as his bones and skin were like jello within it.

    Not that we didn’t try to get him out of the house during the first few days of living together. I threw him out the door only to have him vanish and reappear in the space in the wall where I found him. I pushed him from the upstairs window, with his blessing, and again he landed back within the space.

    He did not eat or drink, but I was able to get him to rinse with Listerine, to my relief.

    After awhile, he became depressed and started watching too much television. He could not use the internet – sheathed in their chain mail, his hands could barely type. I stopped inviting guests over, not wanting to have to explain the heavy footfalls and clanking on the floor above. He started to call me at work, “just to chat,” he said. I knew he was lonely.

    I asked him if he knew how the curse could be lifted so he would be able to ascend to heaven rather than remaining here as one of the undead. He looked at me mournfully and said simply, “Fire.”

    “That’s it?”

    “Yes. If the place of my immurement were to burn, I would be released. But that is not possible.”

    “Why not?”

    “A stone house like this will not burn, and it is in a wet countryside,” he said sadly. “It seems I am stuck here forever.”

    “Listen. Haven’t you been watching movies with lots of explosions?”

    “Yes, but you said that was all fake. Special effects.”

    “No,” I said. “Well, yes, they are special effects, but these days, making an explosion like the ones you’ve seen in the movies is possible. We can easily burn down this house.”

    “Really?” He grew excited.

    The curse had obviously been laid in the days long before accelerants and blowtorches. I went to the hardware store and purchased the necessary items, to the consternation of the clerk. He undoubtedly had potential headlines run through his mind as he rang up the acetylene torch for a mild-looking man in a brown button-down sweater.

    I put the items in the shed. I realized I could be tried for arson. But there was no alternative. Eventually the secret could not be kept. I did not want my knight to become a tourist attraction – bored, miserable, and exploited on top of it.

    I checked my tire pressure, made sure the car was full of gas. I wanted to be far away by the time this fire made news.

    My knight followed me from room to room as I prepared. He watched me from the window as I brought the supplies in from the shed. I realized I was used to seeing his medieval helmet parting the curtains when I came up the front walk. Most nights, we sat at the kitchen table together while I ate dinner. We often played old Atari video games together, because his heavy hands could manipulate the joystick. We were friends.

    Because he was my friend, I couldn’t bear to keep him trapped here, under this curse. That’s why, tomorrow, I am going to burn my house to the ground.

  5. Mark James

    I never would have purchased this house if I’d known that train whistles could lie.

    There’s things in this world, you see them, but you act like it’s not happening. Like homeless people. I walked by them all the time in the city; never looked twice. Then there was my wife, Delores. I acted like that wasn’t happening, but it ended up with us not being together anymore.

    I was up late watching a movie with blood so fake, they probably used ketchup. That’s when I first saw the house. It looked like everything I wanted: far away, up on a hill; just me and the ocean and wild flowers all the way out to the sky. I called and left a message. Next day the realtor called back, acted like buyers left messages on her phone at two in the morning all the time.

    She picked me up in her cream colored Jeep, drove me out here. The original furniture’s all here, from the little round table in the entrance to the antique beds that look like they sleep five. That first day I went back to the city with a smile on my face that would have looked just about right on a boy who had his first crush. Now that I’d seen the house, heard my footsteps on the wooden floors, seen the way the cliff swooped down to the ocean, it was my train whistle in the night.

    Me and my brother, when we were kids, we’d hear the train on the other side of town, and we’d talk about the places we’d go, and how all our dreams were down the tracks. We both know better now.

    I heard the sounds inside the walls the first night. I thought it was the ocean, the wind, the house settling, the way old places do.

    On the second night, I heard the voices. I didn’t know I was awake until I realized I’d been talking to Delores and my brother Sam, and I was hearing them answer through the walls. I lay there thinking, wondering who could know enough to get their voices on tape and play it back in the middle of the night.

    The next day I went through every room in the house, tapping the walls. Nothing. Solid. No place to hide. I opened all the closets, looked inside every cupboard, even lifted the sheets and faced the darkness under the beds.

    That night, I pretended I was sleeping.

    “Where you been Donny? How come I can’t see you?”

    It was my brother’s voice, around ten years old, the same age he was when he died.

    “Maybe he doesn’t like it when we come back.”

    That was Delores.

    “Why don’t you both come out where I can see you?” I said.

    “What for?” Sam sounded scared.

    “Just need to see you, Sammy. Come on out.” I curled my finger around the gun in my hand under the covers.

    “Lose the gun, Donald,” Delores said. “You can’t kill us again.” I heard the impossible sound of her blowing out smoke in a thin jet. “Couldn’t even get it right the first time.”

    I leapt out of bed. Their voices had come from the closet. I yanked the door open, brought up the gun. Empty. I whirled around. “You can’t hide forever.”

    Something touched my back like a cool, stiff hand and Delores’s voice whispered in my ear “We’re not hiding, Donald. We’re playing.”

    Sammy giggled, and his footsteps trailed off through the wall and up to the roof.

    It was an accident with Sammy. I never told anyone how he ended up on the train tracks; never told them how I dared him to stand there till the train was so close he could feel the heat coming off it, or how his sneaker got caught in steel or how I tried to save my little brother, but I couldn’t.

    I didn’t tell anyone about Delores either. She wasn’t an accident.

    Before I felt the life slip from her, before my fingers around her throat cut off all her air, I bent over, looked into her eyes and whispered the last two words she heard on Earth, “Loved you.”

    Sammy and Delores come back every night. Sometimes it’s just their voices, and sometimes they sound like they’re running around inside the house, playing tag.

    This isn’t my dream house; it’s my corner of Hell. That’s why tomorrow I’m setting it on fire.

  6. Devyn B. Makin

    I never would have purchased this house if I’d known that my crazy ninety year old grandmother’s weird superstitions would come true. Who knew?
    Growing up in an asian household I heard it all. For example, “Don’t fall asleep in front of the fan or you’ll wake up dead.” Okay first, if your dead I can guarantee you won’t wake up. And second, being one of six children in a one bedroom apartment, we all agreed this saying was one of grandmother’s tricks to save on the electricity bill.
    But it didn’t stop there. Never write your name with a red pen unless your wishing yourself dead. Never sleep with your head towards a door because all your dreams will escape you during the night.
    “Stop that nervous leg shaking! Your shaking away all your fortune and the little luck you were born with,” Grandmother would snap at us while giving a sharp slap to our knees.
    Which brings us to her hands. If you were lucky to find grandmother in a good mood, those hands felt soft and comforting like a ray of sunlight, but it usually were what asians called “spicy hands”.
    The threat of a person who owns a pair of “spicy hands”, are a bit lost in translation. But what it meant for me, was when you were hit with those palms of fury, the heat of them would resonate for hours, while you stared teary eyed at the fire red imprint reminding you, “don’t do it again!”
    Yup, grandmother was a treat that never stopped. We listened to every word she said from fear of her “spicy hands”, but with our American modern minds it began to morph only into grandmother’s humorous wit, driven by her prehistoric ideals.
    Then she warned me with her cute little stories, when I respectfully brought her to see my new proud piece of my American dream, but her diarrhea of the mouth began before I even shifted the car into park.
    “Corner house bring only bad omen and that tree in front corner too big! It block out all that is good.” She continued at the front door step. “I can see the back door from front door. How will good energy know to stay in house when you rush it out straight away!”
    That was the last straw for her and she shuffled back into the car mumbling to herself. The words “no good” repeatedly stinging my ears.
    I’ve been in my new house for exactly fifteen days. On the first day my friend left the front door open, while I was in the backyard, allowing my dog to run straight through the house where a soccer mom’s SUV timed it just right.
    Then last weekend was fourth of July which was my annual girls trip to Vegas. Which I happily welcomed.
    Then that monday I learned from the nice police officer, that took down my robbery report, corner houses being accessible from two streets tend to get hit more often, especially during long holiday weekends. He suggested I get a dog.
    Even with that I wasn’t going to give up, until this morning, when I stepped out of bed one feet deep in water. Then the moment the plumber mentioned something about a tree root, I heard nothing else, but my grandmother’s voice. “In ashes you will find strength and only better tomorrows will come from it”
    All my modern reasoning flew out my un-feng shui door, and the only sane thing was my grandmother’s voice telling me, “I tell you these things so one day you may grow up into a human being.” Again, a bit lost in translation, but ashes. Ashes makes perfect sense. Ashes are the only thing I am sure about. That’s why tomorrow I’m setting it on fire.

  7. G. J. Jensen

    I never would have purchased this house if I’d known that the whole town thought their ancestors left something from 1899 inside. The house used to be the town hall, until they moved it and made a proper town square in 1940. I thought it was just an old farm house, until I found the essays of a former lawyer, who was Mr. Andersen’s great-grandfather. That fired up the whole town who was convinced that the lawyer had stolen something from their relation, not just time and money.
    I didn’t expect to have to keep my doors and windows locked when I moved to a small town. But it was when Mrs. Handle sent her fifteen year old grandson through my kitchen window that I changed my mind. He landed square in my sink, busting my Corningware platter in two, and ran off as soon as I helped him up and offered him a Band-Aid.
    After that, old people were lined up at my front door at the time of day they all come out, right at dawn. Some of them had their senior citizen discount McCoffee, some were in their church hats. I turned them away for days before I decided I should look for myself.
    I waited until late Friday night, when all the old people would be asleep, before I started. I thought the attic held the most promise, but I came up short. Nothing in the cabinets, or even the old curio left by the previous owner, which looked as old as the house. I shuffled the book to the curio, when a piece of paper fell down, folded and brittle, snapping onto the ground.
    Dust fell from being unfolded and disturbed, some of which was probably the disintegrated paper. I got a little excited, hoping for something magical or very valuable.
    It was just a list. Then I recognized it as a list of names. Not only that, names associated with the town. Terrance Andersen and Betsy Handle were at the top of the list of ten people along with their ages, all of which were in their early twenties. I tucked it back in the book and went to the basement next.
    I had toured the basement when I purchased the house, but hadn’t had a chance to explore yet. Musty boxes and rats were the only things I wanted to get rid of. Although there were only ten boxes, they were damp and heavy. The third box tumbled out of my grip and flipped open, letting a head roll out across the floor, squeaking the mice like furry bowling pins.
    I ran upstairs, tripping up several of them, bruising my face and knees. I slammed the door shut behind me, hoping no one decided to send another emissary by breaking and entering. The house was silent, as it should have been, even if I really didn’t want it to be.
    My bruising was starting to swell, no matter how hard I tried to ignore it. But that list, ten names, ten boxes. I flung the book to the dining room table and opened it wide, careless of the dust and separating spine. A ribbon bookmark was stuck to one page that had the last name on the list: Ruby Greene.
    “Ruby Greene was rendered as payment for family land. Greene family debt resolved.”
    Each page before it held the record of a family member used as a sacrifice to pay for this land the town was built on. And I had bought the grand-daddy, mother-load, sacrificial burial ground.
    The living elder of each family must know what is in here. They must want their bodies back. Would they believe that they are the only ones benefiting from their murders? The Andersen’s might, since he sacrificed his own family for his piece of land.
    The living wouldn’t believe it today. The police would question me endlessly. No matter how this turned out, I would be the one to suffer. That’s why tomorrow I’m setting it on fire.


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