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 Est. 1998

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Nathaniel Hawthorne’s
Story Ideas

“THESE and other sketches, with which... my Journal was copiously filled, were intended for the side scenes and backgrounds and exterior adornment of a work of fiction, of which the plan had imperfectly developed itself in my mind...”  —Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864)

Follow out the fantasy of a man taking his life by installments, instead of at one payment, — say ten years of life alternately with ten years of suspended animation.

A French artilleryman being buried in his military cloak on the ramparts, a shell exploded, and unburied him.

To describe a boyish combat with snowballs, and the victorious leader to have a statue of snow erected to him. A satire on ambition and fame to be made out of this idea. It might be a child's story.

An old man, on a summer day, sits on a hill-top, or on the observatory of his house, and sees the sun's light pass from one object to another connected with the events of his past life, — as the school-house, the place where his wife lived in her maidenhood, — its setting beams falling on the churchyard.

A sketch to be given of a modern reformer, — a type of the extreme doctrines on the subject of slaves, cold water, and other such topics. He goes about the streets haranguing most eloquently, and is on the point of making many converts, when his labours are suddenly interrupted by the appearance of the keeper of a mad-house, whence he has escaped. Much may be made of this idea.

A change from a gay young girl to an old woman; the melancholy events, the effects of which have clustered around her character, and gradually imbued it with their influence, till she becomes a lover of sick-chambers, taking pleasure in receiving dying breaths and in laying out the dead; also having her mind full of funeral reminiscences, and possessing more acquaintances beneath the burial turf than above it.

A story, the principal personage of which shall seem always on the point of entering on the scene, but shall never appear.

The scene of a story or sketch to be laid within the light of a street lantern; the time, when the lamp is near going out; and the catastrophe to be simultaneous with the last flickering gleam.

Cannon transformed to church-bells.

Some treasure or other thing to be buried, and a tree planted directly over the spot, so as to embrace it with its roots.

To contrive a story of a man building a house, and locating it over the pit of Acheron. The fumes of hell shall breathe up from the furnace that warms it, and over which Satan himself shall preside. Devils and damned souls shall continually be rising through the registers. Possibly an angel may now and then peep through the ventilators.

To make one's own reflection in a mirror the subject of a story.

The human heart to be allegorized as a cavern; at the entrance there is sunshine, and flowers growing about it. You step within, but a short distance, and find yourself surrounded with a terrible gloom, and monsters of divers kinds; it seems like hell itself. You are bewildered, and wander long without hope. At last, a light strikes upon you. You press towards it, and find yourself in a region that seems, in some sort, to reproduce the flowers and sunny beauty of the entrance, — but all perfect. These are the depths of the heart, or of human nature, bright and beautiful; the gloom and terror may lie deep, but deeper still is this eternal beauty.

In a dream to wander to some place where may be heard the complaints of all the miserable on earth.

A person to be writing a tale, and to find that it shapes itself against his intentions; that the characters act otherwise than he thought; that unforeseen events occur; and a catastrophe comes which he strives in vain to avert. It might shadow forth his own fate, — he having made himself one of the personages.

A man arriving at the extreme point of old age grows young again at the same pace at which he had grown old, — returning upon his path throughout the whole of life, and thus taking the reverse view of matters. Methinks it would give rise to some odd concatenations.

In a grim, weird story, a figure of a gay, laughing, handsome youth, or a young lady, all at once, in a natural, unconcerned way, takes off its face like a mask, and shows the grinning, bare skeleton face beneath.

An angel comes down from heaven, commissioned to gather up, put into a basket, and carry away, everything good that is not improved by mankind, for whose benefit it was intended. She distributes the articles where they will be appreciated.

A Fancy Ball, in which the prominent American writers should appear, dressed in character.

A lament for life's wasted sunshine.

A new classification of society to be instituted. Instead of rich and poor, high and low, they are to be classed, — First, by their sorrows... Secondly, all who have the same maladies... Thirdly, all who are guilty of the same sins, whether the world knows them or not... Then proceed to generalize and classify the whole world together, as none can claim utter exemption from either sorrow, sin, or disease; and if they could, yet Death, like a great parent, comes and sweeps them all through one darksome portal, — all his children.

Our body to be possessed by two different spirits; so that half of the visage shall express one mood, and the other half another.

An idle man's pleasures and occupations and thoughts during a day spent by the sea-shore: among them, that of sitting on the top of a cliff, and throwing stones at his own shadow, far below.

The excruciating agonies which Nature inflicts on men (who break her laws) to be represented as the work of human tormentors; as the gout, by screwing the toes. Thus we might find that worse than the tortures of the Spanish Inquisition are daily suffered without exciting notice.

A person to be in the possession of something as perfect as mortal man has a right to demand; he tries to make it better, and ruins it entirely.

A fairy tale about chasing Echo to her hiding-place. Echo is the voice of a reflection in a mirror.

To personify winds of various characters.

A cloud in the shape of an old woman kneeling, with arms extended towards the moon.

A perception, for a moment, of one's eventual and moral self, as if it were another person, — the observant faculty being separated, and looking intently at the qualities of the character. There is a surprise when this happens, — this getting out of one's self, — and then the observer sees how queer a fellow he is.

All the dead that had ever been drowned in a certain lake to arise.

A blind man on a dark night carried a torch, in order that people might see him, and not run against him, and direct him how to avoid dangers.

A blind man to set forth on a walk through ways unknown to him, and to trust to the guidance of anybody who will take the trouble; the different characters who would undertake it:  some mischievous, some well-meaning, but incapable; perhaps one blind man undertakes to lead another. At last, possibly, he rejects all guidance, and blunders on by himself.

A newspaper, purporting to be published in a family, and satirizing the political and general world by advertisements, remarks on domestic affairs, — advertisements of a lady's lost thimble, &c.

Dialogues of the unborn, like dialogues of the dead, — or between two young children.

To have ice in one's blood.

A bonfire to be made of the gallows and of all symbols of evil.

A physician for the cure of moral diseases.

A stray leaf from the book of fate, picked up in the street.

Passing along the street, all muddy with puddles, and suddenly seeing the sky reflected in these puddles in such a way as quite to conceal the foulness of the street.

To have the North Pole for a fishing-pole, and the Equinoctial Line for a fishing-line.

To write a dream which shall resemble the real course of a dream, with all its inconsistency, its strange transformations, which are all taken as a matter of course; its eccentricities and aimlessness, — with nevertheless a leading idea running through the whole. Up to this old age of the world, no such thing has ever been written.

Great expectations to be entertained, in the allegorical Grub Street, of the appearance of the Great American Writer, — or a search-warrant to be made out to catch a Poet. On the former supposition, he shall be discovered under some most unlikely form, or shall be supposed to have lived and died unrecognized.

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published 2023 Jan 19
last saved 2023 Jan 19