Many films, novels, songs, paintings, poems, and plays are inspired by other art, or by other parts of the artist’s culture. Urban legends are certainly a big part of our culture, whether we realize it or not. Chances are, you have seen, or even created, a piece of art based on an urban legend. Most of these are easily debunked. Some turn out to be true. But they can all generate ideas for our work.
The Man Who Changes Tires
A strange encounter at the mall startles you.
You are at the mall. If you’re like me, you are there because you need exercise, or because the mall contains the only branch of a store that sells something you need and can’t find anywhere else. If you’re like a lot of people, you are actually having fun, trying on new outfits, sampling perfumes and makeup, and hanging out with friends. Either way, you are exhausted at the end of the day. Suddenly, a woman shoves a flier into your hand. It is tempting to simply wait until she’s not looking and shove it into a trash or recycling bin, but as you glance at it, a few words jump out that make you keep reading. The flyer warns of a man trying to trick women into letting him into their car by pretending to help with a flat tire. You ask the woman for the full story. She pauses in stopping people to explain.
A security guard was startled to see a frantic customer.
Last week, at this very mall, a security guard was startled to see a woman he had just noticed walking out a few minutes before come frantically running back in and head straight for him. The customer begged him to come out to the parking lot with her, and to call the police.
As the guard and the customer headed across the mall, the woman explained that she was loading bags of clothing and cosmetics she’d purchased into her trunk when a man she had never met before approached her. The man did not stand out in appearance. He was clean and dressed neatly in clothing popular with many men today.
“Excuse me, Ma’am,” he said, “I noticed that your tire is looking a little flat. Why don’t you move those bags into the back seat and let me get your spare tire to change it for you?”
The woman was touched someone would notice such a detail about a stranger, and moved that someone would go out of their way to help, so she thanked the man and moved the packages. The man changed the tire, and the woman thanked him and started to climb into her car.
“Hey,” the man said, “I’m late now. I have a job interview to get to, and my car is parked all the way on the other side of the mall. Would you mind giving me a quick ride over, so I can head out right away?”
That “little voice” told her to run.
The request struck the woman as odd. If his car were parked on the other side of the mall, and he remembered parking over there, why did he walk out the door to this section of the parking lot? The woman began to feel frightened.
“I forgot I needed to pick up some socks while I was here,” the woman said. “Watch my stuff and I will be right back.” She ran back into the mall, and told the security guard what had happened.
The guard agreed this was a suspicious situation. He accompanied the woman to her car. When she checked to see if the stranger had stolen any of her purchases, everything was intact. But when she opened her trunk, she was greeted by the sight of a strange gym bag. The security guard peered into the bag and looked up at the woman, all the color drained from his face. The stranger had slipped a bag containing rope, tape, and other items he could use to commit kidnapping, rape, and possibly even murder into her car.
Is it true?
There is no evidence that this particular story ever took place, but dangerous people have used fake offers of help, or fake pleas for help to lure victims. Ted Bundy was known to pretend to have an injury in order to trick his victims into helping him load books into his car. Far from being a kind fellow student in need of help, Bundy would come to be known as one of America’s most famous serial killers, and a near “perfect” textbook psychopath.
While we have not all encountered someone who was later revealed to be a serial killer, most of us have been approached by someone who set off warning bells about trusting them. Most of us have encountered someone who frightened us, or whose presence made us uneasy, despite them initially appearing helpful or friendly.
A few years ago, I lived in a town full of people who could not seem to understand that I took walks for exercise. Every time I would leave the house, somebody who knew me or one of my parents would be pulling up near me and asking me if I needed a ride. It was annoying to have to politely explain to people, often the same people over and over again, that I was taking a walk, and assure them that I knew how to call a cab if I needed a ride.
During one walk, I turned toward the standard “Do you need a ride?” offer to see a man I had never seen before leaning out the car window.
“No,” I said firmly, and turned away. Suddenly, the “helpful stranger” turned aggressive.
“Get in the car!” The man ordered me. He was parked a bit behind me, so I could not see if he had a weapon in his hand. I moved further away from him, closer to the houses along the road, and purposely screamed as loud as I could.
“I said ‘No!’ I yelled toward the homes. “I don’t want a ride!” I sounded childish and overly dramatic, even to myself. But that was the idea. I hoped somebody would mistake me for a disrespectful child or a woman fighting with her friend or boyfriend, and come outside to tell “the kid” or “that couple ” to shut up. I needed witnesses, not new friends.
As soon as the nearest house’s resident came out to see what was going on outside his fence, the man in the car sped off without another word. I explained the situation to the resident, and thanked him for coming outside. After a few minutes had passed, I purposely walked away from the direction the stranger in the car had gone, but also away from the direction of my own house in case he was waiting someplace to follow me. I walked around other populated areas, around a block near an open, well-lit, and populated grocery store a couple of times, and then went home using a different route than the one I typically took.
I never saw the car or the man again, or learned who he was or what he might have done to women who accepted his offer of “help” and climbed into his car. But considering that he seemed about to force me into the car when I refused, and sped off when faced with a woman who might fight back and a witness, I’m guessing he wasn’t really going around town hoping to save people a few bucks on cab fare.
Urban legends vary in truthfulness, with some being completely true, some being entirely invented, and some containing elements of true stories. In the “Help a stranger danger” legend detailed above, the basic plotline of someone pretending to offer or need help is certainly true, though the details about changing the tire, leaving the gym bag, and the woman going back in and finding the security guard were invented in a later version.
While the basic plotline has been used several times, every other detail can be fictionalized from a true story, or changed from a debunked legend to create a new plot for a novel, short story, play, poem, or even a song.
Welcome back to Prompts, the series designed to generate ideas for characters, settings, plots or themes for all types of creative projects. Previous prompts have explored Las Vegas casinos. Today, we feature people you might find in the casinos in Vegas, or anywhere problem gambling may occur, casino kids.
Casino kids are people under the age of twenty-one who must spend large amounts of time on the periphery of casinos due to a parent or guardian’s problem gambling.
Once a person reaches the age of twenty-one, the legal age to gamble, he or she is free to roam around the casino floor. People under the age of twenty-one are only permitted on the casino floor to pass through in order to access the restrooms, buffets, or stage areas in order to attend shows. They are not allowed to loiter, or to approach the gaming tables or slot machines. Parents and guardians whose gambling has become a problem, even an addiction, often leave their underage children in casino parking lots, restaurants, buffets, shopping areas, game rooms, hotel lobbies, or even on the very edge of the casino floor, in designated seating areas.
Casino kids are not always at the casino with the parent or guardian.
A “casino kid” is anyone who has spent large amounts of time in the designated non-gaming areas of a casino due to a parent or guardian’s problem gambling. They are not necessarily in the casino every day. Sometimes the casino kid is brought to the casino. Other times, they are left home alone, or dropped off someplace else, such as a store, library, community center, or diner.
Casino staff often pretend casino kids do not exist, or treat them as though they are doing something wrong.
One adult “casino kid”, who chose not to be named for their own privacy, remembers spending an entire evening and part of the night stuck inside a casino while their legal guardian gambled. The person was in their mid-teens at the time, and relegated to a hotel lobby and video game room off the gaming area. The teen grew so stiff from sitting on the game room stools, and so tired, they slumped against the video game and began to drift off to sleep.
“You look tired,” a staff member remarked before walking away. The casino kid further reported different staff members kicking them out of gift shops and restaurants, without ever asking if they were okay or needed help.
From the staff member’s point of view, they are likely only protecting their own job. Casino workers are typically low-paid customer service workers, and the guardian with a gambling problem is the customer. The staff member may not intend to be cold-hearted, but may only fear that the parent will complain to management and get them fired. However, adult casino kids who contributed their stories to this article report that even a supportive word or inquiry would have meant the world to them.
Dangers lurk around the casino for casino kids.
On the surface, it may look glamorous or fun for a kid, especially a teen, to get to hang around casinos so much. But casino kids are typically bored, stressed and worried over their parent or guardian’s gambling, and vulnerable to a variety of dangers.
Predators look for vulnerable kids. Adults intent on causing every type of harm, including traffickers, may approach a casino kid and pretend to offer friendship or a supprtive adult role model, in order to gain their trust. Many casino kids are aware of this and know to be cautious around any adult they do not already trust. But others may feel so alone in their situation as a child of a problem gambler, they let their guard down at the first sign of someone who cares.
Casino kids may lack basic resources, even if their parent or guardian has the means to provide them.
A casino kid may be hungry, dirty, or falling behind in school, even if their parent has plentiful resources to their name. The parent or guardian with a gambling problem may earn plenty of money, but gamble it all away, leaving little or nothing to pay for basic necessities like food or hygiene products. The casino kid may attend a good school and live in a home with plenty of room for studying, but have low grades due to stress and exhaustion from spending too much time stuck out in the casino.
There are no specific resources for casino kids.
Community resources such as law enforcement, child protective services, domestic violence centers, and homelessness services can of course be contacted, whether the child or teen’s problems are related to a guardian’s gambling or not. But there are no organizations devoted specifically to helping casino kids.
That is not to suggest there isn’t hope. Therapy and support groups are available for both problem gamblers and for those their gambling impacts.
Polyglots are people who can speak at least four (some set the number a little higher, at five or six) languages well enough to hold an everyday conversation in the language. As of the writing of this article, I have not read a novel, poem, or short story, seen a film, or heard a song featuring a polyglot. They may exist, but none instantly spring to mind. Creating a polyglot character would add a unique angle to your work. Here are some features real polyglots seem to share. Use these, or any one of these, as a starting point for your next piece, or all of them as points of reference for a polyglot character.
While many polyglots review language learning programs, none of them wait until they have the money to spend hundreds of dollars on Rosetta Stone or a similar program before starting. Most polyglots seem willing to use everything from tutoring programs to free websites to good old fashioned print books to learn their languages.
Polyglots are not afraid to be beginners and to sound like them.
Nobody is good at something the minute they try it for the first time, and speaking another language is no exception. Polyglots understand this. They aren’t afraid to speak a language, even when they know they’re going to sound a bit rough or even childish to a native speaker or someone more fluent than them.
Most polyglots are not upset when corrected.
We hate to be told we’re not perfect these days. Anyone who suggests the slightest change in any aspect of our lives is labeled “negative” and brushed off. We excuse conflating our opinions with fact by saying “That’s MY truth.” Polyglots don’t do this, at least not when it comes to language learning. When a native speaker says, “No, it’s actually said this way…” the polyglot corrects themselves and tries again rather than arguing.
They respect other cultures and languages.
Polyglots do not make fun of other cultures or other languages, and many English speaking Americans are unfortunately prone to this behavior. I once saw a thread on social media where people were proud to announce that they said “tacos” and “burritos” because they had no idea what the song “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi was about. There’s just no point in doing things like that. It wasn’t original or clever or funny. It just made them sound stupid, and wasted the opportunity to find out what the song is actually about. Most polyglots do not respond to unfamiliar languages in this way, and are often inspired to learn an additional language after hearing it in a song or other piece of art.
Polyglots don’t approach language learning the way we do in school.
For most of us, our language requirement is just another class. We learn how to do the homework and pass the test in the language, but we don’t truly learn the language. In both my Spanish and French classes in high school and college, we didn’t even learn a second tense of a verb until many months into our studies. This renders your skills practically useless. In order to have even the most basic conversation in any language, you’re going to need to know more than one verb tense. Polyglots aim to understand and truly speak the language, not just pass a class in it.
Even when full language immersion is impossible, polyglots surround themselves with the language they are learning.
Most polyglot’s language learning advice includes watching movies or television shows, listening to music, and reading as much as you can in your target language. Polyglots do things like change the language setting on their phones to their target language, or write their grocery lists in the language. The well-known language learning method of labeling things around the house with post-its written in the target language is something a polyglot might do.
Clubs, conferences, and other gatherings for polyglots are a resource for those who can afford to attend.
Polyglots do not necessarily have a lot of money. It is possible to use the internet, books from the library, and free tutoring or language exchange programs to learn a language without spending money. Those who do have some money to devote to their language learning may travel to attend conferences or other gatherings devoted to polyglots.
Polyglots argue over who is and who is not a real polyglot.
While being able to speak four languages, your native language and at least three others, well enough to hold a conversation in those languages is the most common standard, it is not universally accepted. Some insist you must speak at least five. Others demand fluency in each language, not just conversational ability.
Fake polyglots are a problem language learning enthusiasts.
Fake polyglots are people who present themselves as polyglots, while only actually knowing a few words or phrases in the language, or being able to speak just enough to fool non-speakers into thinking they can communicate in that language. Genuine language learning enthusiasts understandably resent this, as anyone who puts in the time and effort needed to learn a skill would resent somebody claiming it without putting in the work. When a fake polyglot is drawing students away from polyglots who teach language, or getting their videos monetized on YouTube while a real polyglot is not paid for their content, this resentment of course intensifies.
A polyglot character will certainly make your work stand out. And they may just inspire you, or someone who reads or hears your work, to learn a whole new language themselves.
A few years ago, we learned that teens were challenging each other to do dangerous things, film the dangerous activity and the results, and post the video on YouTube, Facebook, or Instagram. One of the first of these well-known instances of pure stupidity was known as the “Tide Pod Challenge,” where kids were “challenging” each other to eat laundry detergent pods.
Doing completely useless and often dangerous things to yourself for attention was not new at this point. Before the Tide Pod Challenge, You Tube featured the “100 layers” challenge. Completing this one required the participant to choose a cosmetic item and apply one hundred layers of it. In some cases, this can be dangerous. Choosing something that goes all over your face, like moisturizer or foundation, and rubbing a hundred layers of it around your nose can cause you to inhale a great deal of it. Mostly that one is simply a stupid waste of money.
Other challenges have been a bit more interesting, and designed to impart somewhat useful ideas and information. The “worst rated” challenge urges participants to find the worst rated businesses in their hometown, and give those people some business with the goal of learning if the low rating was well deserved, and advising readers/audience members to avoid it, or if the low rating is unfair, and giving that business a boost.
Sending around formal “challenges,” filming yourself carrying out the challenges, and posting the results online are of course a product of the internet age. Before we were able to create our own YouTube channel, post videos to our personal Facebook page, and tell our own video stories on Instagram, filming yourself doing something and sharing it with others took a lot more effort. Cameras were much heavier and bulkier, you needed to have a tape in them, and there was no option to shoot a little extra footage, or even a whole video, on your laptop, tablet, or phone. To share footage, you had to hand or mail the video tape to someone else, or invite them over to your house to watch it.
The challenges themselves are nothing new. People who really should know better have been challenging each other to do stupid things and prove they did it for decades.
In the 1950’s, teens challenged each other to see how many people could stuff themselves into a single phone booth at once. Some made rules that each person’s entire body must be inside the booth. Others allowed limbs to stick out. The whole point of this challenge was to take a picture and prove that you did it.
Using ouija boards became popular in the 1960s. There were no set competitions or challenges associated with ouija boards, but friends organized groups and urged each other on in communicating with what they believed to be the spirits of those who had passed on from the earth. Ouija boards are both psychologically and spiritually dangerous, even if the session does start out as a game.
The 1970s brought us a challenge that wasn’t even real. Most of us who were alive in that decade remember the Life Cereal commercial featuring “Mikey,” the kid who shocked his siblings by happily eating the healthy cereal they wouldn’t touch. When the actor who played Mikey was not recognized in any future commericals, an urban legend began to circulate that he had died as the result of eating Pop Rocks candy while drinking soda, only to learn that it was a lethal combination. Kids were warned not to challenge each other to take a drink of soda while eating Pop Rocks. Those who did it anyway quickly learned it results in nothing more than a hollow feeling in your stomach as all those bubbles go down.
The 1980s did not so much challenge, but warned us to be vigilant for Satanism. Satanic cults were said to be everywhere. Kids, teens, and adults were warned to watch out for Satanism in their music, in videos, in movies, and even during the course of their ordinary day. Benign neighborhood businesses were said to have been taken over by Satanic cults. This sounds like it should have been funny. It wasn’t. Although there was absolutely no credible evidence that Satanic cults were anywhere near as widespread and far-reaching as the rumors suggested, many lives were ruined due to baseless accusations turning into gossip.
During the 1990’s, everyone was given one big challenge. We needed to prepare for the end of life as we knew it. As the decade progressed, more and more people sounded the alarm about computers. It seemed they would not be able to read the year turning over into 2000, would malfunction, and everything from our bank accounts to our basic utilities would be lost forever, or at least until the system could be fixed. By 1999, people were storing food and water, taking their money out of the bank, and hoarding medical and other supplies in anticipation of a coming electronic shut down of society. The worst thing that actually happened were people getting past due notices from video stores and other businesses listing them as one hundred years past due.
Many of these challenges and calls to action have been dangerous. Others are simply wastes of time, energy, and money. Some harm others. A few, such as giving a low rated business a chance, may even be useful. But they would all make a great launching pad for a story. Choose one, and place your character in a situation where he or she has participated in or known someone who performed the challenge or heeded the call to action at the time. Or, set your story in the present day, and have your character look back over one of these.
Psychopaths and sociopaths are people we want to avoid in real life, but they make compelling characters in art work. Creating them for your art piece just takes a bit of research if, like me, you do not have a background in psychology. While I always suggest doing further research after reading any of the articles from the Prompts series, here are a few guidelines to get you started.
There is some argument about the terms “psychopath” and “sociopath.” Most mental health professionals make the distinction by noting that sociopaths are people who become the way they are due to environmental factors, while psychopaths are born that way and only need the right environment for their harmful tendencies to flourish. Others use the words interchangeably. For the purpose of this article, I am going to use “psychopath” to refer to anyone who displays the traits discussed. This does not mean my way is the right way, just that it will be easier to read if I use one word.
Psychopaths are not psychotic. They are completely in touch with reality.Psychosis occurs when someone is unable to correctly interpret reality due to hallucinations or delusions. Someone having a psychotic episode may hold a wide variety of attitudes toward other people. If I think angels come to my apartment in human form and tell me that this web site is not simply going to help out some of my fellow artists in the Utica area, but will in fact save the world, I am having a psychotic episode. Psychopaths are perfectly capable of perceiving the world around them as accurately as anyone else.
A psychopath’s most distinctive feature is a lack of empathy and lack of ability to love others deeply. Psychopaths are distinct in that they have little or no genuine feelings for other people or animals. They might love other people and pets, but they love them only for what they can do for them, and not because they have deep feelings of affection, respect, trust, and love for them as individuals. A psychopath’s love for others is more like our love for our favorite things than our love for our partners/love interests, children, extended families, friends, or pets. They also lack love for humanity in general, and are genuinely unmoved by either the suffering or the blessings of others.
The most common portrayal of a psychopath is that of the serial killer. You often see them profiled on true crime tv shows, and they are chilling. They will describe performing acts of horrific torture on another human being using the same tone and facial expressions the rest of us might use to tell our friends a story about cleaning the house last Friday or getting done a little early at work yesterday. That is because their emotional response to another person undergoing horrific torture is the same as the typical response to getting some chores out of the way or ducking out of work a few minutes early. They realize the details are a lot more unpleasant, but they are not hurt by the suffering the other person endured.
Psychopaths do not typically act out in shocking ways. Serial killers might be the most famous psychopaths, but most psychopaths are not killers, or even violent. While it truly would not bother a psychopath to kill another person, most of them do not commit acts of violence. It isn’t in their self-interest to do so. Most psychopaths seek money, fame, power, or personal control over other people, and harming others might get them in trouble and ruin their plans.
A psychopath is more likely to do things like cheat with married people because it makes them feel attractive to know that someone is willing to ruin their relationship just to be with them, or set out to damage their coworker’s professional reputation simply to see how much ruin they can bring, than to physically torture or murder someone.
Psychopaths are often great at business, and are particularly successful in corporate environments. Their lack of empathy and feelings of genuine deep love for other people enable them to do anything it takes to turn a profit. They don’t hold back out of concern for the impact their behavior might have on another human being. The psychopath is the one who can go ahead with that merger that brings X Corporation billions in profit without concern for the hundreds of people at Y Corp who will lose their jobs. They’re the person with no hesitation in firing a good and loyal employee due to age, disability, race, gender, or orientation simply because the market research says the business’ customers respond better to a different image.
Most psychopaths have excellent social skills. They may not feel deeply for other people, but they are able to understand that others have genuine feelings. Psychopaths can usually read others well, and tend to be particularly skilled at learning where another’s vulnerabilities lie. Those vulnerabilities are then used to manipulate the person to the psychopath’s advantage. They are typically charming, and smooth in all or most social situations.
If your character is a psychopath, he or she will not feel remorse or guilt over his or her actions. You can show them feeling quite sorry they got caught. They may wish they had never experienced the consequences of their actions. But they cannot experience genuine remorse for what they have done.
Psychopathy is completely different from the Autism spectrum. Those on the spectrum may appear to have little regard for others, and often seem indifferent to the feelings or needs of those in their lives. But autistic people, or those with Asperger’s syndrome, are not psychopaths. Those on the spectrum are capable of deep, genuine love for humanity and for individual people and animals. They just have trouble interpreting social situations and recognizing the needs of others. Someone on the spectrum might need to be taught that when a person starts blinking rapidly and frowning after something they said, this means they hurt their feelings. But once they are able to correctly identify and interpret these social signals,, they will be moved by the thought that they may have hurt someone, and make an effort to change their behavior in the future. A psychopath would be completely aware of the impact they had on the blinking, frowning person. They simply would not care.
For further research, check out the writings of Dr. Robert Hare and Dr. Martha Stout. Mental health professionals you know may also be willing to answer any questions you may have, but please make sure to request an interview and be upfront and honest about seeking the information for your project.
In honor of LBBTQ Pride month, this edition of Prompts offers a series of ideas for LGBTQ characters and settings for LGBTQ stories. Some of these may be similar to characters you have read, or people you know, but none of them are based on any other character or real person. The idea is to take the vague description and use it as a jumping point for your own unique character or setting for a novel, poem, play, film, song, or short story.
Character Idea: A gay man who is considered elderly by the time the gay rights movement begins.
The modern gay rights movement began fifty years ago this month, in late June 1969, with the Stonewall Rebellion. This marked the first time the LGBTQ stood up against police brutality in large numbers. A group of patrons at the Stonewall Inn in NYC responded to a police raid by fighting back. This kicked off days of demonstrations. Create your character by imagining a gay man in a frail state watching these events unfold from his home.
Character Idea: An asexual character.
Some people consider the “Q” for the word “queer” to encompass anyone who is not heterosexual, but does not fall into the categories of “gay,” “lesbian,” or “bisexual,” either. There are indeed people who are none of the above. There are those who do not feel any type of sexual attraction or romantic love for anyone. Imagine what it would be like to be an asexual person today, or in a decade in the recent past.
Setting Idea: Make your own gay bar or club.
Gay bars are gathering places that cater to the LGBTQ community, or a portion of it. That’s pretty much all it takes to be a “gay” bar. Create your own for a setting. Try breaking stereotype with it. We all expect disco or club music, neon lights, and revealing club attire. Create a gay bar that’s a sports bar frequented by married gay men. Make the place an upscale lounge. Design an entire casino in Las Vegas with an LGBTQ theme. Place your gay bar in small town Arkansas or Idaho instead of San Francisco or New York City. Shift the time period around.
Character Idea: A transgender person living long before the world noticed they exist.
Transgender people are those whose souls, and the very beginnings of their brains, were created one gender by God, but whose bodies have developed into the other gender as they continued to form in the womb. Many of us think transgender people are somehow new simply because we see them being open about who they are today, but there are reports of transgender people existing as early as the 1800s, and many cultures had terms for transgender individuals dating back much further than that. Try creating a transgender character who lived during the Civil War, or the 1950’s, or in Victorian England.
Character Idea: A straight, cisgender person who has been raised to hate those in the LGBTQ community, but slowly realizes the person they have known professionally for decades is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer.
I don’t have to tell anyone in the LGBTQ community that prejudice against them still exists in the world. And my fellow straight, cisgender people should know that things are not perfect just because there have been great strides in LGBTQ rights and acceptance over the years. But I also shouldn’t have to remind anyone that people can grow and change. Create a character who slowly changes as he or she comes to realize that someone important in their life is in the LGBTQ community.
Setting/Plot Idea: Choose a recent issue for the LGBTQ community and build your story around it.
We all remember the “transgender bathroom issue.” Many rights that members of the LGBTQ community only recently gained, such as the right to legally marry, may be threatened in the near future. There are still businesses that refuse service to gay people. Choose one of those issues. Create a story about a group of people who become caught up in it.
Did any of these give you an idea? Please feel free to introduce us to your character in the comments below. Artist Cafe Utica would like to reaffirm our commitment to LGBTQ rights and to wish all of our readers from the LGBTQ community a safe and happy Pride Month 2020.
Sometimes, new stories are based on old stories. Novelists, poets, short story writers, and songwriters might hear something on the news, or on a web site, and be inspired to write something completely new. Visual artists often take inspiration from the world around them as well. Cokeburg, Pennsylvania based artist Helen Toth created a series of dolls inspired by the Cabbage Patch Dolls popular in the early 1980’s. Helen was my grandmother, and I remember the particular doll that provided the pattern. Lou Santacroce’s song, “Connie and Carl,” is based on a news story about a prison escape several years ago. And of course, my own novels would not exist without the very real story of The Tram, and the impact it has on the lives of those who spend time there.
Often, the story that inspires a piece of art does not have a tangible object or place, or a verifiable news story to back it up. Yet many people will swear it’s true. These are known as urban legends. Re-telling these, or any, stories described as urban legends on Artist Cafe Utica is in no way a suggestion that it is true or untrue. It means it is just…an urban legend. Perhaps the two urban legends below will inspire your next work.
Urban Legend #1: Mattress stores are fronts for illegal operations
Many of us like to shop. Some people love the act of shopping, and even have fun getting the weekly groceries or stocking up on shampoo and soap for the month at Dollar Tree. Others enjoy shopping for gifts. Some like to shop for clothes or makeup or sporting goods or music and books. But even the person who seems to have five new outfits and a makeup haul or a new set of camping gear every time you talk to them probably doesn’t spend a lot of time browsing in the nearest mattress store.
Despite this lack of a steady customer base, mattress stores are everywhere. If you do an internet search for “mattress stores” in your ZIP Code you are likely to find anywhere from two to ten stores. Stop by these stores, and you are not likely to see a lot of people browsing inside.
Something else must be going on. There must be something else being sold from these stores for them to thrive without seeming to attract many customers. What could it be…..? Or…is there a completely reasonable explanation?
Urban Legend #2: Starbucks baristas misspell your name on purpose to get free advertising
My favorite coffee brands are Utica Coffee Roasting Company and Dunkin. I’m not a huge Starbucks fan. But if they’re the only thing around, and I really need coffee, I’ll grab a cup. If I were to order one, there is a good chance my name, Jess, would be written out as “Jace” or “Jass” or “Jazz” on my cup.
Misspelled names on Starbucks cups are so common, and often so silly, customers are left confused. Letters that would never even make sense in that particular name are added in. Common names like John or Darnell or Antonio or Jennie and Maria, are misspelled. People who go by initials receive cups with odd words scrawled across them, when all the barista needed to get right was two letters.
Posting the strangely mangled name on social media can be a fun way to lighten the mood of your day or your page overall. Darnell’s Facebook friends get a good laugh when he posts his cup with “Durrenelle” written across it. “T.J.’s contacts can’t believe the barista wrote “Tea Jaye” on the cup.
It happens so frequently, one would think the Starbucks baristas were doing it on purpose. Surely they are. Every time you post a Starbucks cup with your misspelled name on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram, or any other social media site, you draw attention to the brand. This provides free advertising for Starbucks. Or…is there another reasonable explanation?
Hopefully, our first urban legends edition of Prompts gave you the idea for a character with a strangely spelled name who works in a mattress store. Or a mattress store owner who just wants kids to stop popping in looking for illegal activity that isn’t there. Or maybe your Starbucks employee reveals she just can’t hear her customers that well and doesn’t have time to ask them to spell their names.
Creating characters from ethnic backgrounds or cultures different than our own, or that we do not know well, can be difficult. Many of us hesitate to create characters that are too different than us out of fear of offending someone, getting things wrong, or accidentally promoting stereotypes. This often happens when people create Gypsy characters for films, novels, and songs. Here are a few things you may not know about Gypsy people.
Gypsies are a race of people, not a clothing style, lifestyle, or decorating style.
The people we call “Gypsy” are more correctly called “Romany.” Gypsy/Romany people originated in India, but have traveled for so many centuries, most Romany peoples’ dna originates from an area stretching between the Middle East and all over Eastern Europe. Most Rom identify as both Romany and of the country where the majority of their Romany ancestors settled. They may say they are Polish Gypsy or Hungarian Gypsy or Croatian Gypsy. A person can be Gypsy and also be someone who has never left their hometown.
Gypsies are not white people.
Television shows devoted to “gypsies” tend to show some Romany people, and some Irish people who are part of an Irish traveler society. The race of people we call “Gypsy” are not white people. They originated in India, and typically have the same brown skin, coarse, thick black hair, and dark or bright eyes we associate with people from India. Not all Gypsy people look this way of course, as appearance varies among Gypsies as much as it does among any other race of people. You can also be part Gypsy and part something else, or several things.
The stereotypes you probably learned about Gypsies result from centuries of discrimination.
Traditional Gypsy food is cooked outside over a fire. Real Gypsies have, and in some cases still do, lead a nomadic lifestyle. This is because they have not always been welcome in villages and towns. Gypsy fortune telling began to be practiced when the Gypsy people were prevented from making an honest living. That’s how we got the stealing, scamming, and cheating stereotypes as well.
All Gypsies are not okay with these less than honorable parts of their culture.
Every culture has made its contribution to the world. And every culture has added in some things the world would be better off without. Some people embrace some or all of the good in their culture, some people embrace some or all of the bad. Some brush off the bad, and some speak out against it. The same is true of Gypsy people.
There is a Gypsy language, called Romany.
Most Gypsy people do not speak it today. It contains several dialects, all of which are close to being dead. Most Romany people speak the language of the country their family settled in. If someone is Polish Gypsy, for example, they are more likely to speak Polish than Romany. The Romany language is also extremely difficult to learn.
Romany/Gypsy food is known to be heavy and to rely on meat.
Most people who have eaten Romany food do not report enjoying it much. It tends to be very heavy, and Gypsy people eat a lot of meat. The only well-known Romany dish seems to be Joe Grey Stew, a heavy, starchy, potatoes and meat concoction.
I have never tried Joe Grey stew. The only Romany food I have tried was a dish made by toasting a thick piece of bread over a fire, adding charred bacon, fat and all, then topping it with onions, green peppers, and cheese that are also allowed to toast and melt over the fire. That was tasty, but quite heavy.
Some Gypsies are not offended by the word “gyp,” though that is a racial slur.
The word “gyp” is commonly used to indicate a ripoff. Some Gypsy people use it too, and some are not offended by it. But it does originate from the word “Gypsy,” and is just as racist as using the N word before the word “rigged” to indicate something is set up for questionable purposes, or to use the word “Jew” as a verb meaning “talked into a much lower price.” As with any term originating from a racial slur, it is best to just use a completely separate term.
Romany people were one of the groups targeted by the Nazis for extermination during the Holocaust.
This is something that a lot of people do not know about the Gypsy people. They were rounded up and killed at the concentration camps along with Jews, gay people, and the disabled. Anyone from any category who dared stand up to the pure unfiltered evil that is nazism during Hitler’s reign was also killed.
There are Romany/Gypsy celebrities.
Yul Brynner, Rita Hayworth, Charlie Chaplin, and of course, Django Reinhardt, were all of Romany descent. Modern celebrities who have mentioned being of Romany descent include Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones and actress Fairuza Balk.
You can attend Gypsy cultural festivals.
There are Gypsy/Romany festivals throughout the year. They are held across the United States. The New York Gypsy Festival was held on September 6-October 5 2018, in New York City. Djangofest Northwest is held in Washington state in the fall. There have been Romany cultural festivals in California in the recent past as well.
Gypsies are not necessarily pagans or new age practitioners, and “gypsy goddess” and other new age festivals and practices are not a part of real Romany culture.
The image of a Gypsy with a crystal ball and tarot cards telling your future is one of those stereotypes born from centuries of discrimination mentioned above. If you do happen to meet a Gypsy who practices any of these things, it’s a scam and the person knows it’s a scam.
Festivals titled “Gypsy Goddess” or books offering to teach you “Gypsy magick” are no more real than any other claims that you can be a goddess or turn yourself magic by reading a book. Most Gypsy people practice the religion of the people around them. A large percentage are Christians.
You read a Gypsy’s artists’ web site.
You’re reading it right now. My ethnic background is made up of Hungarian, Russian, Greek, Italian….and Gypsy. My grandfather on my father’s side, Steve Szabo, was a Hungarian Gypsy.
Welcome back to Prompts, our series of ideas meant to inspire a setting, character, or other detail of your art, or kick start your research.
Narcissistic characters are often antagonists in novels and short stories, though they can make interesting protagonists, if their narcissism is what causes obstacles for them. Many song lyrics in which the character brags or declares him or herself special were likely written with a narcissistic character in mind.
Narcissists stand out for being self-absorbed.
Everyone relates to things on a personal level. It’s normal to think of the odd weather patterns you’ve observed when someone mentions global warming, or remember your own lean times when meeting someone who has little or nothing to eat or no money to pay his bills. Narcissists take this to a startling extreme. Issues faced by the world or by other people are not so much something the narcissist can relate to, but a springboard to bring the focus back to the narcissist.
Suppose two people did learn that a friend did not have enough money in their account to purchase food for the week. Someone who was not narcissistic would think about a time when they struggled to make ends meet, share a story about those times if appropriate, and then do what they could to feed their friend, whether that be buying them some food or helping them find a food bank and soup kitchen. A narcissistic person might help if they could use the situation for attention and praise for themselves, but they would quickly bring the topic back to the two items they had to put back at the grocery store last week. In their view, that would be more tragic, since it happened to them.
It does not matter if you do not find the narcissist attractive, smart, talented, or funny. They’re impressed with themselves enough for both of you.
Normal individuals may consider themselves attractive or be proud of talents and skills, but they remain humble enough to realize they are not objectively the greatest in whatever they are proud of. Narcissists are their own biggest fans. They typically demand that everyone else be a fan too, and treat them accordingly.
Your narcissistic character won’t just be proud of himself for being a great lawyer. He’ll think of himself as the greatest lawyer there ever was, or the greatest lawyer alive today. If you create a character with healthy pride in her appearance, she may be content that many people find her attractive. She may even find herself attractive. A narcissistic character will automatically declare herself the best looking woman in every situation or place. She will assume everyone else shares her opinion, and will expect to be treated accordingly.
Narcissists are not necessarily psychopaths or sociopaths. Your narcissistic character should have a conscience and be able to feel empathy and love for others.
Mixing up narcissists and psychopaths is an easy mistake to make, as both hold themselves in extremely high regard, are focused on their own wants before the needs of others, and seem not to care much about the effect their actions have on other people. But unlike psychopaths/sociopaths, narcissists do have a conscience and feel empathy for others. They’re just far less concerned with others than they are with themselves.
A person can be both a narcissist and a psychopath, but the character who is a narcissist but not a psychopath will lack that chilling coldness psychopaths often display. Once their public mask is down, a psychopath would be able to describe their plans to ruin another person’s life with the same calm, detached voice I’d use to tell you I cleaned my apartment before sitting down to post this article. A narcissist would not be so detached or cold. They might have a wave of excuses as to why they were justified in ruining someone’s life, but it would bother them on some level.
Narcissists feel entitled to special treatment, unending praise, compliments, or devotion from everyone.
We all enjoy feeling special from time to time, nobody likes to be criticized or insulted, and we all think people should treat us well. Narcissists feel the world owes them the special treatment, they are above being criticized, and anyone who does not tell them how wonderful they are or fails to display willingness to do anything for them is a fool.
Imagine you are creating a novel about two musicians. Your musician with healthy self regard will expect to be made the featured performer at the venue when he releases a new album, has played there for free for several weeks, or has done something else to earn the special treatment. The narcissistic musician will think he should be made the featured performer simply because he’s better than everyone else playing tonight. If he does not get the treatment he believes he is owed, he will declare the venue “worthless” or refuse to play there in the future.
Special treatment can also extend to sympathy or soothing. Narcissists will go to great lengths to garner sympathy and attention from just about anyone.
Most of us have areas we are sensitive over. Narcissists react strongly to any criticism or notice of a weak area.
You are not likely to meet anyone who will not get upset if you imply that they are universally considered unattractive, unintelligent, unkind, or boring. But most people have only a few areas they are particularly sensitive about. I would be crushed if someone whose opinion I value did not like my singing, novel writing, or writing about the arts. I would not be bothered at all if someone pointed out that I’m a bit slower than most people and lack any natural talent when it comes to instruments, and that I’m not much of a technical writer or poet. Those are areas I am not so talented in.
Narcissists cannot handle the idea that they are not wonderful in every way. They may lash out, cut someone out of their lives, or exact revenge on another person for pointing out any weakness or flaw.
Narcissists are full of criticism for others, but tend to make excuses for themselves.
Most of us take a balanced view of why things don’t work out all the time. We acknowledge that sometimes, factors beyond our control contribute to our lack of success. Perhaps we happened to move to a town that takes nepotism to the extreme, or the weather kept people from attending our performance, or our partner or crush just didn’t notice how good we looked yesterday because they never notice new outfits on anyone. But we also acknowledge those situations in which we had a hand in our own failure, and seek to do better. We may not be living in the right town for us, but we’re not getting any online offers because our resume is poorly written. The weather kept people away today, but we’re not getting strong turnout because we’re not doing enough publicity for our shows. Our partner didn’t compliment us because we brushed past them without giving them enough time to notice us.
Narcissists rarely if ever take responsibility for anything going wrong. Their failures are always the result of external circumstances beyond their control, or the fault of somebody else. When they do admit to failure, it is likely attributed to other peoples’ shortcomings rather than their own behavior. If you wrote a song and nobody in the audience seemed to like it, it’s because you’re a bad songwriter or you ruined it with your bad playing or singing. If they wrote a song and nobody seemed to like it, those people just don’t appreciate good song writing.
Hopefully, this piece inspired a new character, poem, play, song, or painting, or launched some further research for a piece you are already working on.
Remember that all health related articles, including mental health, are intended for entertainment/art prompt purposes only. My academic background and most of my professional background is in the arts. The rest is teaching and customer service. I am in no way a mental health professional. If anything you read on this page makes you think you have a disorder profiled or are dealing with a real person with these issues, please speak to a trained and licensed mental health professional.
Setting your work in a place you have never been, or have only visited briefly, can be difficult. There are countless YouTube videos you can watch, but those tend to focus on the absolute worst and the absolute best of anywhere, with little in between. They’re still useful to watch, but it takes a lot of video watching to get even the start of a solid picture. It’s easy to tire of watching travel videos before you get to the one full of important details. This is especially true if you want to set all or part of your work in Las Vegas.
Most of Nevada is rather desolate; a lot of small towns with rather odd, isolated populations spread out around a bare desert. Reno is okay, but a bit bleak and boring during the day. Then there’s Las Vegas, or “Vegas,” as it’s known to residents and regulars. It has a reputation as the place you go to do whatever you want without consequences, making it the ideal setting for a scene in your novel, screenplay, stage play, or poem set at a bachelor or bachelorette party, wild girls or guys weekend getaway, post divorce or break up trip, or vacation for the repressed character who just wants one wild experience. The city does have a dark side as well, making it a strong setting for work about trafficking, street life, poverty, gambling addiction, alcohol or drug addiction, and scams.
Should you decide to create a piece of art centered around a Las Vegas strip casino, here are a few things to keep in mind as you begin your project.
The casino lights are disorienting to people who are not from Vegas.
Turning Stone resort is the closest thing to a Las Vegas casino in the Utica area. Picture a series of “Turning Stones,” some with even brighter, flashier lights, all sitting in a row, and you have an approximation of the Vegas Strip. Now add the lights of any big city on to that. Like most of Vegas, it’s pretty in it’s own tacky, overdone way, but it takes a minute for a person’s eyes to adjust to all that swirling color and light and a night time that’s never entirely dark.
There is a common cab scam that hooks a lot of people new to Vegas.
Many Vegas cab drivers are honest, hard working people. And many are not. The most common scam begins when a customer gets into a cab. The driver strikes up a conversation, asking the person if they are from the area. Most people assume that the driver is just being friendly, or planning to suggest clubs, restaurants, and casinos run by friends in a city that runs on partying. The driver is really only trying to gauge if the customer is naive enough to believe they need to go all the way down the strip to get anywhere, or take another overly long route. Answers like, “Oh no, I’m originally from the Pittsburgh area but am now from New York” are a green light to go ahead and turn a $5.00 cab ride into a $20.00, or a $20.00 one into $50.00. In order to avoid being scammed, tell them you’re very familiar with Vegas, map the shortest route out on your phone, and tell the driver you want to take that exact route. They still might make an excuse about traffic and get a few more dollars out of you, but you can avoid a double or triple fare.
Your character cannot hail a cab.
If your art is set in a Las Vegas casino, your characters cannot be seen or described as hailing a cab. They don’t stop on the street. In order to get a cab in Vegas, you need to walk to a designated taxi stand and get in line. The taxi stand will be clearly marked with a sign and a path to the place where the cab pulls up.
It is considered horribly rude to cut in the taxi line. If there are ten people ahead of you, then you’re getting in the eleventh cab that pulls up. Occasionally, someone might offer another person their place in line. I once spotted a family with a small baby hanging around the bench in the back of the taxi stand outside a mall in Vegas. They appeared not to understand that they needed to get in line in order to get a taxi. They also did not seem to speak English or any other language I can speak. I gestured, pointed, and offered them my cab to get the baby out of the sun. The family each stopped to thank me. People behind me grumbled.
The hotel rooms are much tamer than the rest of the casinos.
Walking the strip, you see a flurry of swirling lights, colors, and patterns. Once you get into your room, you’re more likely to see sedate black, dark brown, taupe, and camel accented with touches of red, yellow, or purple. There won’t be dice, pictures of Elvis, or slot machines around once you get to the hallway to the guest rooms.
Everything on the strip is not glamorous.
Most people think of beautiful places like The Bellagio, Mandalay Bay, or Caesar’s Palace. Those are certainly there, but there are also a couple of Travelodges known more for the garbage in the hallway than anything else, and some of the lower priced casino hotels receive similar reviews.
The strip does not remain constant.
Some of the casinos and their hotels have been there for decades. Others were built in the past few years. There is often construction on the strip. If you’re writing a novel or short story, you might want to do some research and make sure something existed on the strip in your story’s time.
The buffets are as great as they are cracked up to be.
Eating at a buffet is a tradition in Vegas for a good reason. Most of the food is as good or better than what you can get at a traditional restaurant. You can walk into any of their casinos, ask for the buffet, and choose from a mind boggling number of dishes for a fairly reasonable price.
Buffets in Vegas function pretty much like buffets anywhere else. You get in line, pay a set price for your meal, and then help yourself to whatever food you want to eat. A buffet attendant will bring you your drinks and bus your table when you leave. Unless your character is self-centered or completely naive about the ways of the world, have them leave a dollar or two as a tip for the buffet attendant who waits on them. And if you visit Vegas for real…leave a small tip for the person who brings you your drink and cleans up after you. Yes, you had to get up and get your own food. But they spend their whole shift on their feet, are not exactly paid like rock stars, and have to clear all three of the plates from the moments when you couldn’t decide if you wanted Italian, Chinese, or burgers tonight and got two bites of food to try on each trip. Leave the tip.
You can enjoy the Vegas strip without “partying.”
If you’re setting a painting, poem, song, novel, or film in Vegas, gambling, drinking, and other behaviors we associate with “partying,” are probably going to be a part of it. The strip truly is set up for people to party. But that’s not all there is to do there. Caesar’s Palace contains a huge shopping mall. Luxor has an exhibit of artifacts from the Titanic, and is now home to the “Bodies” exhibit, a scientific museum featuring the systems of real human bodies. (That one’s not for people with weak stomachs.) It would be entirely reasonable to have a character who is not into the party scene wander away and enjoy a tamer time on the strip.
Moving from one casino to another is commonplace.
Each of the large casinos on the strip will have a buffet, a hotel, a showroom or other performance venue of some type, and a casino. But unless someone buys a package, they do not always stay in one place. Characters checking into Caesar’s Palace, going to gamble at The Bellagio, seeing a show at Aria, and eating at the buffet or a restaurant at Wynn would be perfectly reasonable.
Casinos all follow the same basic layout.
The casino floor is one big loop. Some may wind more than others. There may be separate rooms for Poker or other games off to the side. There will be huge neon signs telling you where to go to play certain games. But the gambling area is going to be fairly accessible from one area to another. The building will only dead end at the restaurants, the buffet, and the hotel.
Creating your own fictional casino is easy with a simple formula.
Choose a theme. Places are common. Luxor is patterned after Egypt. Caesar’s Palace is Italian themed. New York New York and Paris are modeled after the cities they’re named for. There is also Circus Circus, modeled after…obviously…the circus and the film themed MGM Grand. Anything you like will work. Give the casino a catchy name that’s easy to say. You want your Vegas strip casino with an upstate New York theme to be called “The Utica,” not “The New Hartford New York Mills” or “The Mohawk Valley Vault.” Name the buffet and a few restaurants in honor of the theme you chose. Add a hotel. You can add a mall, a museum exhibit or two, a nightclub, a wedding chapel, and a performance venue if you wish.