Using Prompts to Create Storytelling

-by Ellouise Schoettler

bottom view of a an old book on a table the book has a red cover and the edges of the paper are gold colorPeople ask how I craft the personal stories I tell. “They come from prompts.” By that, I mean that if I pay attention, I find that anything and everything can lead me to a possible story. It will work for you too. Don’t believe me? Here are a few examples of how I gather material for stories.

We furnished our get-away in PA with cast-off stuff. When I notice what is around me there, story possibilities emerge. For instance, I use an old suitcase in my bedroom to hold art supplies. This suitcase was a high school graduation present from my parents. This old and frayed suitcase is my connection to a host of stories from specific trips to the nylon stockings ripped to shreds by its scratchy woven sides.

Television programs are rich sources for your own stories. Watching the PBS American Experience documentary “The Kennedys,” I relived my stories of the days of their lives. When I see Walter Cronkite’s tears I recall the tears I shed when he announced that President John F. Kennedy had been shot that November day.

Any day and time of a historic event carries many stories. Who does not remember where they were and what they were doing on 9/11?

When I prepared stories from “The Arabian Nights” to tell with an orchestra when they performed Scheherazade by Rimsky Korsakoff. I was surprised by the different kinds of personal story connections that surfaced.

The familiar music brought back images of the spare living room of the second-floor walk-up apartment in a Baltimore row-house where my husband lived before we married. We often listened to his room-mate’s recording of Scheherazade.

Sister Mary Loyola read “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” to a group of bored girls on a rainy afternoon in the basement assembly room at my school when I was I the third grade. The idea of calling out “sesame” to open the mountain to enter the robbers’ treasure-filled cave captured my imagination.

Once I bought an Oxford Classics Volume of Burton’s translation of The Arabian Nights for 25 cents in a thrift shop in CA. I used it as a sketchbook on a vacation weekend near Big Sur, CA. I did not read the stories then – the print was too small. I still have that book and its memories.

Collecting scraps of experience like these gives me material to work with then I start crafting a larger story.

Keep your eyes open. There are prompts all around you that can release memories and help you “catch a story.”

Maryland storyteller Ellouise Schoettler learned her craft early, listening to family storytellers spin tales about each other on her grandmother’s front porch in North Carolina. She keeps spinning at festivals, schools, libraries, and colleges. In 2009 she premiered “Pushing Boundaries” or how a 1960s housewife morphed into an ERA activist. Find her website at This article first appeared in 2009.