If the humidity is up a tad, the sunset causes a riot of pink to streak the sky. The mountains darken to a dusky blue which sets off the brightness of the tall green grass with its late summer swatches of gold.
As usual, my mind wanders beyond the sip of beauty and the questions begin. How to describe that shade of pink? What is behind the mountain? When will I tire of the view? Who lived here before, drinking this same view? Why did they leave?
Sometimes I think fiction writers are simply impatient to understand. Along with asking, “what if…” we also ask, “why?” We want to understand motivations. Literature lingers over character development and takes the span of a novel to contemplate why people do the things they do.
Narrative-driven stories dig right into motivation as if the answer is the ending of the story. Now we know why! Based-on-true-stories (BOTS, thank you, Irene Waters) seeks to answer the “whys” unresolved by history or facts. And that is where my mind most often wanders as I sit outside at sunset, grilling my dinner and drinking my fill of scenic beauty.
Most obvious is, why did Hickok kill Cob McCanless? I also want to know why Cob left North Carolina with Sarah Shull but then sent for his family. And why did his wife follow the man who left her in the midst of a property swindle? Why did they all stay enmeshed in their relationships out west? Why did Sarah leave North Carolina? And why did she stay with Cob in Nebraska?
I want to have eyes for this history. I want to be like those wine tasters who can discern the individual notes. I once interviewed a Cherokee wine-maker who grew grapes in Minnesota. His wines started at the vine. He’d grasp a fistful of grapes and chomp them big and mouthy able to tell what the wine would be like. He didn’t use beakers and additives–he could taste the wine in the grapes. I want to taste this story like that.
It all comes down to motivation. What motivates people can be external–a desire to please, to be found attractive, to be accepted. History tells us that Sarah was shunned by her family and community, never to be forgiven even when she returned to North Carolina almost 50 years later. That’s a strong motivator.
Motivation can also be internal–a drive to succeed, a passion to experience adventure, a fear of failure. One fact about Sarah is that she was 22 -years-old when she had an affair with Cob. That was unusual for her time period and all her elder siblings had married before reaching that age. Some say she was driven to better herself.
But why Cob? He was educated, a fine fiddler, dashing, powerful and a captivating orator. Maybe the two shared ambitions to have something bigger and better than the harsh mountain living of North Carolina. If my understanding of the clan-mentality is close then Cob would have had strong external motivations to stay married.
Ultimately, I think Sarah bribed Cob. He liked fine things, he desired to be wealthier than he was and she was an accountant trained in her father’s businesses. I imagine that Sarah was so desperate to leave after the shame of her daughter’s birth soon followed by the grief of the babe’s death a year later that Sarah concocted the scheme.
It required Cob’s position as sheriff and involved many others. The scheme itself is similar to the mortgage fraud pulled off by American banks where the note was re-sold so many times that it became difficult to trace the original fraud and by the time it was clear, the homeowner lost the house.
The court records in North Carolina indict many people who re-sold the debts of others after the sheriff collected them, but no one was ever convicted, not even Cob or his deputy. By that time he and Sarah were long fled to the Colorado gold fields presumably financed by others–unwittingly. And those who lost their payments were never reimbursed and were still in debt.
Maybe by then Sarah didn’t care if Cob sent for his family. If her motivation was to escape the shame of North Carolina, she succeeded. She even wrote out a business agreement with Cob for him to pay her as his business accountant. He set her up on the east ranch of Rock Creek, built a profitable toll-bridge, then built the west ranch for his wife and children.
But he sold the east ranch to the Pony Express. Sarah had to move into a one-room sod house similar to the one where Hickok lived. And he never paid Sarah. His brother Leroy paid the note after Cob’s death. Why?
You see, there’s so much to motivation. It can drive a narrative big or small. So that is our quest this week, to explore the motivation of a character in 99 words.
External motivation is called “extrinsic” and is typically behavior based on achieving a reward or avoiding a punishment. Internal motivation is called “intrinsic” and is more personal. Think of it as the difference between playing a game to please your fiancee or playing a game because you find it exciting.
And here’s a drink of my summer sunsets for extra inspiration (may it help you relax and start asking, why):
August 13, 2014 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) show the underlying motivation of a character. He or she may not even understand the motivation fully, but let the reader grasp it. It can be an external or internal motivation (or both). Maybe it’s a decision, a revelation or the beginning of disaster. Maybe it shows fortitude or reveals fear. Let motivation drive your flash this week! Respond by noon (PST) Tuesday, August 19 to be included in the compilation.
All That She Buried by Charli Mills
Sarah stood straight, wearing her crisp black skirts with matching mutton-sleeve blouse. Cob and Leroy paid for the hole in the ground and their father crafted the pine box that looked more like a diminutive traveling trunk than a baby’s coffin. Yet none showed for the burial. No prayers. No solace. No tears.
A shovelful of dirt buried Sarah’s pride. Another shovelful buried any love she’d ever felt for her parents. By the time the hired gravedigger finished his task without even stealing a glance at her pale face, Sarah was ready to make a crook out of Cob.
Rules of Play:
- New Flash Fiction challenge issued at Carrot Ranch each Wednesday by noon (PST).
- Response is to be 99 words. Exactly. No more. No less.
- Response is to include the challenge prompt of the week.
- Post your response on your blog before the following Tuesday by noon (PST) and share your link in the comments section of the challenge that you are responding to.
- If you don’t have a blog or you don’t want to post your flash fiction response on your blog, you may post your response in the comments of the current challenge post.
- Keep it is business-rated if you do post it here, meaning don’t post anything directly on my blog that you wouldn’t want your boss to read.
- Create community among writers: read and comment as your time permits, keeping it fun-spirited.
- Each Tuesday I will post a compilation of the responses for readers.
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