For those on our creative writing courses, writing prompts can be a great way to get students’ creative juices flowing. In week three of Starting to Write Your Novel, the first of our foundation online writing courses, tutor Anna Davis gives students a ‘line of action’ and asks them to build a story around it. The prompt is: ‘A woman is driving along a lonely country road at night. Suddenly she brakes hard, quickly turns her car around and drives back the way she came’ – our students need to fill in the rest.
It’s always surprising what original, interesting, and often rather strange directions students go in. Here we’ve picked three of the strongest pieces of new writing from the most recent course. Enjoy!
Every time she turned on the engine the music started pumping. Brash top 40 pop music. The stuff you bought on iTunes and got bored with after five plays. It was a relief to get into her car that day and head home to her stiflingly hot clapboard house at the edge of the city. The house was chronically neglected but it was cheap.
She enjoyed the journey from the cramped city toward the silence of the night road and the clarity that it bought to her mind. It was her second week temping in the government department. Before she landed the job a quiet desperation had clung to her; the thought of one more day attending job search appointments and training was unbearable. She had rewritten her resume more than ten times. One might be forgiven for thinking her final resume was intended for the position of CEO of a bank or airline rather than a temp employed to take minutes, organise flights and type up correspondence.
She turned on the engine at 6:15pm and made her way through the congested traffic that had slowed to a crawl. Her new boss, Roger, had given her work just as she was packing up to go home. Most of the time he was taciturn but occasionally the pressure built and he would erupt. She only ever seemed to face the top of his head as he hunched over his desk, so rarely did he look up from his work.
There was something about him, perhaps his tendency to anger quickly and unexpectedly, that made her wary of him. She wasn’t sure she liked him much. But then she always gave people the benefit of the doubt. After all you never knew what was going on behind the scenes. As long as he didn’t get into the habit of yelling at her she was willing to stay on in the job. Roger had asked her to doctor documents by using the eraser tool in Photoshop. It had made her slightly uneasy as her days were increasingly spent altering documents, leaving little time for mandatory allocated work.
Roger was still on her mind as she drove west out of the city. The volume of cars had started to thin and the road began to snake into the darkness. Street lights were becoming fewer and further apart, until it was just her on the lonely road, a beam of headlight cutting a swathe through the enveloping darkness. On either side of the road was scrubland interspersed with houses on large privately owned properties tucked well back from the main road. Horses grazed placidly in the daylight and somewhere out there were wild deer that someone wanted to cull.
It was 6:45pm when, with her left hand, she started to rummage through her handbag, searching for her phone. She wanted to look at Tinder to see if anyone she had swiped had swiped back. The position of her phone on her desk at work flashed in her mind. She swore loudly and braked suddenly, surprising herself in the process. Her phone was her primary connection to the outside world. She didn’t have a landline and it was the only device she owned that could wake her up in the morning. She quickly turned the car around; there was no question she would make the half hour journey back to get it.
As she entered the office she noticed that the door to Roger’s office was slightly ajar. Lamp light streamed out into the darkness of the partitioned, open plan office where her desk was located. I’ll just pick up my phone and pop out, no need to disturb anyone, she thought. When she reached her desk she heard a murmured conversation shift to higher decibels. She froze with her hand over her phone. For a moment she considered letting them know she was there but she didn’t move. The voices rose to a heightened pitch and then, after a heavy thud as though a sack of potatoes had been thrown to the ground or onto a desk, complete silence. She dropped to the ground and crawled on her hands and knees to peer around the partition.
The man who stepped out of Roger’s office was a person she had never seen before. His face and shirt were splattered with blood. The large hand that held the gun quivered slightly as he wiped it down. Her eyes followed him as he walked towards the exit.
When she heard the sound of the door clicking shut she crawled towards Roger’s office, getting up only when she reached the door. Distorted moments stretched out before she was able to ring the police. She heard a voice say, ‘My boss, he’s been shot in the head. I’m only a temp. I just came back to get my phone.’ It was her voice but it sounded disembodied, as though coming from someone else not in the room. She heard the distant wail of sirens approaching. Reflexively she opened Tinder to see if anyone had swiped her.
Headlights hurtle toward me and I brace myself for the crunch, the shattering of glass, the explosion of the airbag but the lights swoosh by to my left. I place my palm on my heart to calm it. I should pull over, let the palpitations pass, but I can’t be late. Clive is waiting for me at the airport.
I push on. I don’t think I’ve driven this way before. Country lanes aren’t my thing. They’re lonely, constricted and full of dark corners. A car is coming toward me. I toot him and he swerves by just in time. They take the corners too fast, these youngsters. In my wing mirror, I see him pull up behind me. I should stop, remind him of the Highway Code but I won’t. Can’t let Clive down.
I do note his number plate though. I’ll commit it to memory then write it on Clive’s boarding pass when I get to the airport. I should ask the police to have a word with the chap, make sure he knows it’s a thirty next time. They’ll fine him, I suppose. Let’s pray it deters him in the future. Better repeat the plate a few times so I don’t forget. DM06 T… DM06… DM… Oh, what was it again?
I don’t like this road. It’s eerie. Rain is falling, droplets landing on the windscreen and spreading across the glass like the starfish Clive and I collected on our honeymoon. I fiddle around and find the switch for the wipers. They squeal as they clear the windscreen. Hurts my ears. I turn them off. Clive will have to look at them when we get back. He’ll have a few minutes while I take his pie from the oven and whip up some gravy. Doctor says too much red meat is bad for his heart but I think it’s good for his soul. That and an ale. He’ll offer me some but I’ve never had the taste for it. Sherry’s my thing. I’ll have a single tot glass, as I always do, to celebrate his return.
Why haven’t I turned the wipers on? Water is running in rivers up the windscreen. I probably wasn’t thinking. Feels like I’ve been driving all day. Probably just excitement warping my sense of time. My knee creaks as I press down the accelerator. Wet weather doesn’t agree with my joints. Not that I’m grumbling because, in just a short while, I’ll be with my Clive. We’ll have our pies and, after he’s soaked up all the gravy with a bread roll, he’ll tell me ‘that were fine, love’ with a kiss on my nose. Then we’ll curl up on the sofa with a pot of tea for company.
I’m trying to spot the signs for the airport but the rain is scrambling the letters. As I search for the wipers, I hear a honk. Looking up, I see a truck coming toward me. I let go of the wheel and throw my hands in front of my face. I feel the front of the car rise up and, when I take my hands away, my bonnet ploughs into a hedge as the truck rumbles on behind me. Doesn’t even stop, the sod, and I’m shaking too much to make out the number plate in my rear view mirror so now I can’t report him.
A noise comes from my handbag. I reach inside for my phone. It’s smaller than I remember. Looks like one of the calculators Clive carries in his blazer pocket. Someone has taped over most of the buttons, leaving just one which someone has painted green. I should ignore it. I don’t have time for a call now. But, what if it’s Clive? What if he’s arrived early and I’m not there? I put the phone to my ear.
“Mum, thank God,” the woman on the other end says. “We’ve been terribly worried. Are you okay?”
There’s a knot of branches over my bonnet which I shan’t concern Valerie with. She’ll get all het up. I’ll tell Clive when I get to the airport. He’ll know how to fix the paint if it’s scratched. “Everything’s fine, dear.”
“Janet. Your neighbour. How did you get the keys?”
“I always leave them on the hook.”
“They were with your pills in the safe.”
“My keys aren’t at the bank.”
“Never mind,” she says, sounding like she’s running. “Where are you?”
“I’m on my way to pick your dad up from the airport. We’ll be back presently.”
Valerie sighs. “Dad’s gone, mum.”
“To Hamburg, yes I know. But he’s back today.”
“What I meant was—” She sniffles. “Is there anything familiar around you?”
“Any road signs? Houses? Pubs?”
I look around. I don’t think I’ve been this way before. All I can see is a hedge. How have I ended up like this? I put the phone down and reach for the menthols in my hand bag. They always help me think straight. I’ve not had a ciggy so far today. No wonder I feel so confused. I light one up and, after a few drags, feel calmer. As I go to tip the ashes into the tray I find it’s already full. I’d never have left it like that. Someone’s been in here.
No time to worry about an intruder now, though. The sky is starting to darken. I’ve got to get to the airport. I start the engine and place down my cigarette so I can use both my hands to reverse. With a clunk, the car backs off the verge and I’m back on the road.
The sooner I get to the Clive, the sooner everything will be okay. I pull away but it’s hard to see. Someone must be having a bonfire. Smoke is filling the car. I open the window to get some fresh air but the air becomes thicker. I’ve let in all the smoke now, silly me. I should have kept it shut, waited until I’d passed. This is why I hate driving in the country.
There’s a spark of light in the rear-view mirror. Blue. Must be the police. The vehicle’s too small to be an ambulance. I’ve been speeding haven’t I? Criminalising the law abiding is a business for them these days. Well, I won’t let them pull me over. I’ll never get to the airport in time. I’ll have to lose them. Should be easy with the density of these bonfire fumes.
I hit the brakes, turn around and push the accelerator to the floor. I’ll be there in a minute, Clive, my dear, don’t you worry. I’ll be there.
The house stood at the top of the hill, perfectly poised to absorb the beauty. Below were fields, green and fertile dotted with animals. Cows tugged at the grass, munching and chomping, lambs suckled and bleated, horses snorted and swished their tails. A hawk swooped above, gliding on the winds that streamed through the gap in the purple hued mountains. Above, a jet, America bound.
And she stood, her head watching the tail smoke dissipate into the atmosphere. 300 people, their ears plugged into some form of distraction from the square foot of space they were wedged into. And she was grateful that she was firmly on the ground, surrounded by the sounds of quietness.
She sat down on bench, its seat warmed from the sun and opened her note pad and began to write, her hand lilting and her pen scribing as she wrote up her latest restaurant review, the only interruption her mobile phone ringing.
“Jeremy darling,” she greeted the caller.
“Yes it really is the most perfect little spot. The cottage is delightful, I’m sure you will find it rather charming.”
She smiled as she spoke to him.
“I find it very pleasing being able to get from one end of the house to the other in about 100 steps!”
She laughed at his response.
“Yes of course. I shall see you then.” Jeanne hung up and got back to her article. She had dined alone last night, not that that was unusual, she was happy with her book or her paper or whatever she brought for company. The food had been superb, freshy caught pink and generous prawns, hot and buttery, served with kind and crumbling brown bread to soak up any runaway juices. Her main was a mountain lamb and their diet of herbs and soft grass made for good dinner. It had been a busy little pub, full conversations and content bellies.
Tonight, however she was meeting Jeremy and they would dine together, not as a journalist and her boss but as secret friends and lovers, away from the office, away from the city, away from his wife, away from her friend.
Dusk descended, the crows cawed and sang as they roosted in the trees nearby. Sparrows and bluetits swooped and twirled and danced before settling down. She could hear the sheep in the field calling as the dew settled on the grass under them.
She told Jeremy to take a taxi to Nells in Killorglin and she would meet him there, there was a reservation under her name. Nells was a funny little place. Because it was on a steep hill it meant that the tables inside were arranged in a staggered and higgledy-piggledy manner with nooks and coves and corners. They served delicious food that would warm the coldest of hearts, lots of hot crab claws and prawns and muscles and chowders and privacy and intimacy. And she smiled in anticipation as she drove along the country road towards the village. The sun had gone down and the western sky was flecked with pinks and oranges. The road winded along and the trees stretched out and up above Jeannes rental. She was lost in her thoughts of Jeremy, excited to see him, to talk to him, to wake up with him.
“Shit,” she yelled. Jeanne braked hard but it was too late. She hit it. She felt her car crumple as her beams reflected against the white of his frightened eyes. And then quietness. She knew he was lying down in front of her. She held on the steering wheel as her heart pounded and the blood rushed through her body. Her engine was running, her beams on. Was he dead? She couldn’t look. The road was too narrow to turn. “Shit,” she said again.
For an in-depth course as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission) with a great tutor and participation from our literary agents, apply for:
Six-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Christopher Wakling (deadline for applications is Sunday 21 January).
Six-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Lisa O’Donnell (deadline for applications is Sunday 28 January).
For a dedicated online course for those writing for young adults or children as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission), with a top children’s author, apply for:
Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson (deadline for applications is Sunday 4 February).
We are also offering three low-cost ‘foundation’ online courses, featuring tuition from CBC director Anna Davis:
Starting to Write Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 15 January).
Write to the End of Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 22 January).
Edit & Pitch Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 29 January).