Finding short stories among intriguing paintings and photos

This post has been written by me, Mike Staton.
This post has been written by me, Mike Staton.

Take a look at the first photograph, the one of the silhouette of a hooded girl looking through a window.

What congeals in your mind as you look at the photo? Do you think of a shivering girl out in the cold looking into a living room being warmed by a crackling fireplace, hoping you’ll invite her in for hot chocolate and a chance to unfreeze her bones? Or maybe she’s being stalked by a killer, saw your house ablaze with light and is now screaming for help?

For the last several years I’ve been writing short stories about photographs like this one and posting them mostly to my Facebook author’s page. One story – a Halloween piece – I even posted to Writing Wranglers and Warriors.

Look at the photos that are in my post. One is a steam-punk painting of a

So why is this girl looking through the window? When I come up with a reason, I'll be the beginning of a short story.
So why is this girl looking through the window? When I come up with a reason, I’ll be the beginning of a short story.

woman in a red gown waving goodbye to a lover who’s about to embark on a war cruise aboard a souped-up dirigible. Of course, this couple and other people are living in an alternate reality, maybe on a planet orbiting another star or on an alternate, might-have-been Earth that only can be reached through the mind and writing skill of a painter or writer.

The other is a painting as well, a slinky woman cradling a man’s head. I immediately thought of Salome and John the Baptist. Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee at the time of Christ, had imprisoned John because the prophet censured Herod for divorcing his wife and taking the wife of his brother. On Herod’s birthday, his stepdaughter Salome danced before the king, and when the drunken Herod – pleased with her sensual dancing – promised to give her anything she desired, she asked for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. We know the end of the tale… Herod executed John the Baptist.

I intend to create short stories to be woven around the dirigible and decapitated head paintings, just like the girl looking through the window. I find it’s a way to sharpen fiction-writing skills while sharing the stories on my Facebook author’s page. In time, I may indie-publish the stories in

There's a story in this painting that's screaming to be told... I just have to discover it.
There’s a story in this painting that’s screaming to be told… I just have to discover it.

an anthology. I’ve written science fiction and fantasy short stories, Halloween horror stories, and most recently stories composed around antique Christmas cards.

No doubt the stories would have to be published without the photos, since I’d be making money from the stories. Obtaining permission from the photographers and painters would be a logistical nightmare. But most fiction – unless comic book or graphic novels – are solely word-based except for the cover art. It would not be difficult to tweak the stories, removing references to the photos and

So is this John the Baptist's head?
So is this John the Baptist’s head?

paintings. I live with a graphic artist… maybe I could get on my knees and beg her to do the cover art for me. Hey, I’m kidding… well, maybe not.

In the meantime, I believe I’m improving my writing skills as I concoct tightly written tales, most no more than five hundred words. Interested? Here’s the link:

I’ve written a fantasy trilogy. The first two books are published, the third book, Assassins’ Lair, is being editing.

Book 1 in my trilogy is The Emperor’s Mistress; book 2, Thief’s Coin. Check out my publisher’s website. The novels are also available on the websites of Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


19 thoughts on “Finding short stories among intriguing paintings and photos

  1. You are so creative. I enjoy writing stories from pictures or ideas given by others also. Even fleshing out newspaper blurbs. It’s great exercise and seems a spring board for story ideas. I do believe that is John the Baptist’s head by the way. Really enjoy your writing.


  2. I once wrote a short story inspired by a picture. Several years ago, National Public Radio sponsored a three-minute fiction challenge in which listeners were asked to write a story inspired by a photograph of someone looking in a window at a newspaper that lay upside down on a table. It was called a three-minute fiction challenge because the piece couldn’t be more than 600 words long, only to be read in three minutes. Unfortunately, my tale metastasized into something bigger so I never submitted it to them. Because of the length, I’d better not post it here but perhaps on my own blog. Thanks for the idea.


    1. Good idea to post it on your blog, Abbie. And you should see if you can cull it down to 600 words. I try to keep my short-shorts from 450 to 500. The latest went more than 700, way too long for the attention span of most Facebookers and it shows… 86 reaches so far instead of the more typical 160-200 views. And the subject — time travel and steampunk — might not garner the attention of some.


  3. I really enjoyed this post Mike. As a songwriter I have picked up song ideas in all kinds of places, including photos. I never thought of using pictures as an inspiration for writing stories. I’m going to try it for sure. Thanks for sharing!


    1. Glad I could help out, Linda. I started posting interesting “fantasy” photos and paintings — fantasy as in sword and sorcery, not the other kind — on my author’s page several years ago. I’d write several paragraphs telling what I thought was happening in the images. They got quite a few views, so I decided to expand to short stories. FB software limits the reach of the photos, but the numbers are encouraging enough that I keep doing it.


    1. Productive enough that I am spending more time on these short-shorts, and less on the WIP. LOL. I need to get back to tidying up “Assassins’ Lair” so I can send it off to my publisher. There’s no deadline, but book 2 of the trilogy was published back in 2012, so it’s been while.


  4. Mike, your dedication to your craft is inspiring, and your stories are well worth the read. My inprov writing group offers a similar ‘prompt’ for me. However we create, it is the readers who benefit. Best on your writing and publishing. Doris


    1. Our writing club in Henderson/Las Vegas does something similar on the third Wednesday of each month. The facilitator hasn’t used a photo or painting so far, but will come up with a prompt based on what he has read in a book of improving writing. I’ve posted a couple of them on my author’s page. He too limits them to 500 words. It does force quick thinking, because we only have one hour to compose them.


  5. Hi Mike. The Facebook stories I’ve read have been excellent. It would definitely be a great idea to put them in an anthology or short story collection/s. Getting inspiration from a photograph sounds like a fun thing to do. I’d love to try it…sometime… but I’ve only written a few shorts so far and have a lot to learn about writing them. Best wishes for your next plans.


    1. Thanks, Nancy. For a long time, I stayed away from short stories, preferring to put my time in working on novels. But I now find they’re fun and you can get to a start and finish in a short amount of time.


  6. Mike, I love your stories. I’m sorry I’m so far behind on them, but there are only so many hours in a day and I’m spending half of them in the hospital, at the doctors, or laying up at home on pain meds. I do think you should use 12 or so similar stories and make an anthology. It’s so easy and you’re such a great writer. I also think Doris should put her poems and photos in a book. Both of you are so committed. I love your thought process. Cher’ley


    1. Thanks, Cherley. I should have followed your advice and called dad. He’s in the hospital in Morgantown fighting for his life. I think God used you to speak to me, and I didn’t listen, said to myself, “I’ll call him in a day or two.” Odd timing, wasn’t it?


  7. This is a great idea, Mike. I’ve thought about using family photos as inspiration, and I participated in a writing workshop this summer where one of the exercises was to write story based on a photograph. But outside that exercise I haven’t really done any writing like that. It does seem like a great way to stretch your writing muscles and develop new ones though. I’ll have to try that someday.


    1. Thanks. With my dad’s heart attack and the need to get to West Virginia/Ohio pronto, I’m having trouble focusing good enough to do any writing. But I will eventually post a new one, hopefully soon.


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