February 23: Flash Fiction Challenge

Written by Charli Mills

Charli Mills, a born buckaroo, makes literary art accessible at CarrotRanch.com. She writes about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history.

February 24, 2017

february-23In my mind, my Aunt Mary McCanles is as stoic as the women painted in pioneer portraits. Grim smile, bun puled taut, knuckles gnarled from the hard work of homesteading folded passively on her lap as she sits in her rocking chair for the camera. The romantic notion that wagons west was the adventure we modern descendants missed, that times were once simpler and more decent is among the big western myths. It’s true, Mary had courage and the wit to survive. She worked hard to raise four sons and an invalid daughter on the vast prairie of Nebraska Territory as a widow.

Maybe it’s because of the romance of the west, or maybe because she was my kin, I find it difficult to access her complexity. She’s human and must have been a woman of dichotomies. Aren’t we all? Life isn’t just about our personalities and the places we live, but it’s the intersection between our worst and best traits on our worst and best days. Add to the mix a harsh land and the reality of migration, and Mary had no chance to be a paper doll from a children’s American West set. She was a flesh and blood, heart and mind, physical and soulful woman.

When I think of stories, I think in terms of what if. To me, that’s where the action unfolds. What if a woman followed her husband and his former mistress out west, migrating to a frontier? What if she left behind a home and family she’d never see again? What if her husband was gunned down one afternoon? What if is the blueprint for the external story.

Internally, motivation becomes a driver. Why would she follow her husband and his former mistress to such a place? How did she cope in a new community? Did his death change her? What about love? Did she love her husband because he was the father of her five children or did she marry out of a sense of duty? The internal story shapes the human triumph or tragedy.

For a work of historical fiction, research collects the facts that detail the story. These details include every day occurrences, such as the life of a pioneer homesteader. They can also give clues to personality through eye-witness accounts or remembrances. Newspaper clippings give tone to decipher attitudes and culture. For example, slavery in the US is unavoidable, reading a southern newspaper from the 1850s. The attitudes of the culture emerge in ads advertising poultry and slave auctions like normal events. They were, for the times.

I’ve talked about the story structure I use to write novels — a W that outlines the hero’s journey. Recently, I heard Matt Damon give an interview about an upcoming movie about the Great Wall in China. He called it a classic hero’s journey. Yet, I think even the tale of a woman on the prairie, sweeping a cracked mud floor and boiling laundry can be a hero’s journey, too. Rock Creek, my historical novel in progress, has five heroes. Two are historically accounted as one hero and one villain. I retell their story through the three perspectives of the women who knew them both and experienced the infamous event at Rock Creek one hot July day in 1861.

Only one character has the full hero’s arc — Sarah Shull. The remaining characters fill in the external or internal stories.

Motives for the two men have been debated over 150 years. I have new ideas on plausible motives to expand the narrow thinking of the men who have written the histories. I also have motives for the women. But Mary’s domestic motive has seemed bland to me — I don’t want to paint her as just another stoic prairie wife. And Sarah Shull, as former mistress, has been given several titillating motives and I didn’t want her to be a mythological soiled dove of the West. Nancy Jane has been vibrant to me because she is what any woman unfettered could have been — capable and feisty.

Writing into Mary’s dark intentions one flash a few weeks ago, I hit on an important plausible motive behind her pursuit of Cobb. It continued to worm its way into my imagination to give more fertile ground to consider motives of Sarah. How might Sarah’s knowledge of Mary’s motives shadow her own? That led to me thinking about Sarah’s friendship with Nancy Jane. After spending a weekend with a McCanles cousin whose research and opinion I respect, I was in a brain churning process. Do you know that feeling? That mind-space where you go over your internal and external stories trying to dig deeper for that coveted surprise you know is there, somewhere between the details?

Then a conversation with a trusted friend who knows the full story (something I protect from historians because it is a bombshell and will rock the Wild Bill World) led to a moment of inspiration. You might say, I had a perfect storm this week. When I sat down to tap out that inspired idea, 5,443 words later I actually had my motives emerge fully and I had my ending. That might sound odd — to find an ending to a historical story where we know how it ends. But of course, who would read it if I told the story from start to finish? That’s why novels are never a straight forward telling of the external story.

My W has been mapped out for Rock Creek. I have worked hard to fill in historical gaps; I scrapped the first half of the book; expanded the Nebraska accounts; and wrote Sarah Shull later in life. However, I’ve been stumped as to how to weave the three women’s perspectives to show the men in action and use Sarah’s reflections in old age. It all came together in this new ending I wrote. What blew me away is that Sarah had one last secret for me — a motive of her own I had never considered. And it would not have come to me if I hadn’t allowed myself to think of Aunt Mary in a darker way.

While breakthroughs seem to abound this month for both my novels in progress, I hoping for a breakthrough in my homeless situation. I have come to enjoy my RV with my little office, couch, kitchen, bedroom, shower and toilet. I don’t feel so “homeless” with such basic needs met, yet we are displaced and have to move on by April because the tourist season at Zion begins in earnest and rates go up beyond my earnings as a writer. The Hub was accepted into a VA vocational program and we continue to battle the stress of his PTSD, he being more stressed than me. Progress is slower than our timeline to move. And we have no way to move our big RV, something we said we’d figure out. Well, we’re still figuring! I’ll hope for some perfect storm of inspiration.

The first anthology is making its way back to our capable and talented Trail Boss & Editor, Sarah Brentyn next week. She and all the Rough Writers have been patient and I appreciate that. The Raw Fiction series is meant to be a platform for our anthologies, expanding the literary community here as one that discusses as well as performs feats of raw literary art. The synergy is evident in what we write individually and collectively among such diverse writers. Once we have Volume 1 under our belts, we’ll invite new Rough Writers to join our core of ranch hands and continue to grow.

With all this movement and wandering (imaginatively) across the plains of Nebraska Territory, I can’t help but think of migration. Immigration dominates world news as refugees seek asylum, countries ponder how to balance humanitarian efforts with safety protocols, and the US slams shut its borders and evicts “illegal” immigrants from our neighbor, Mexico. The announcement of 15,000 new jobs for border control is not one that has many cheering new jobs in America. What would we have done had Trump lived 150 years ago and was chief of the Plains Indians? Would the west have known such a migration as the pioneers? Would we have an Indigenous west, open to Mexico, closed to Americans?  And we just discovered 7 new earth-like planets only 39 light years away! What will future global migrations look like?

February 23, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a migration story. It can imagine the dusty or arctic trails of the frontiers past or look to the travel across the galaxy. What issue about modern migration bans might influence an artistic expression in a flash? Migrate where the prompt leads you.

Respond by February 28, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published March 1). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!


Leaving for the West (from Rock Creek) by Charli

“Pa? Are you leaving us?”

Mary glared at her husband. To avoid the new administration’s secession policies, Cobb was leaving his sheriff’s post. Her family and friends no longer visited, political beliefs dividing neighbors and kin. “Answer the boy, Cobb. He’s your son. He deserves your words, not the gossip to come.”

“Monroe, anyone asks, tell them I’m seeking gold with the Georgians.”

“What about our farm, Pa?”

“Sold, son. We’ll have a new farm out west. Uncle Leroy will bring you all out once it’s settled.”

“Out west? Where they sent the Cherokee?”

“Further west, son. The frontier.”


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    • Charli Mills

      Hi Michael! I’m enjoying where your thoughts go!

      • Michael

        Thank you Charli. It’s an adventure from week to week.

      • Charli Mills

        Ah, to the writer, I think life always provides adventure — even if just within the mind!

  1. Annecdotist

    I love your description of the writing process and the challenge of fully realising the character to whom we feel some sense of connection. I love how you sum up the richness of character in this line
    Life isn’t just about our personalities and the places we live, but it’s the intersection between our worst and best traits on our worst and best days.
    It ought to be easier when Mary is your relative but somehow it isn’t. It’s been similar for me with my WIP: I have three point of view characters and the most difficult so far is a woman who echoes my younger self. She’s become a bit more alive in my current draft through her back story, but I still need to sharpen up her worst traits.
    Pleased for you that you’ve made such progress with your story and of course you need an ending that’s right for this particular telling – and after all, history itself doesn’t ever really end. But so sorry that you’re facing yet another move of home. Migration is a timely theme – I’m just off to see whether I can pair it with the reviews I’d planned for today.

    • Charli Mills

      Finding that intersection can be a struggle, and I wonder if it’s like a loved one for whom we might be reluctant to see the bad. Tonight, watching the POTUS, I wondered if I was capable of seeing his good traits? Regardless, characters are more interesting with that real struggle within themselves and with their circumstances. I look forward to reading how your characters unfold in their shared perspectives of the story. And as for migrations, I’m honestly relieved not to be moored on Mars, beautiful and strange as the landscape has been. Hope you got through your busy days! I had a few of my own, too. But we can’t approach the end — to much yet to do and experience!

    • Charli Mills

      Hi Henrietta! Thanks for sharing the challenge!

    • Charli Mills

      Hi KL and welcome to Carrot Ranch! Thanks for joining us in the challenge!

    • Charli Mills

      Hi Neel! Good to see you at the ranch, again. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    • Charli Mills

      Hi Di! I enjoy your BOTS that make it to flash. Thanks!

      • pensitivity101

        Thanks Charli. Looking forward to this week’s challenge.

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks for your flash, Joelle!

      • floridaborne

        It’s fun. 🙂

    • Charli Mills

      Process is fascinating to me. It’s something that continue to unfold as we progress as writers. Thanks!

    • Allison Maruska

      Cool take on the prompt!

    • Charli Mills

      Welcome to Carrot Ranch, Scarlett! Glad you could join us and you put your link in the right spot. 🙂

  2. cheryloreglia

    I follow the same, excruciatingly predictable pattern, almost daily, traveling from home to work, to home, to mom’s, to home, like a migrating bird, I wonder when my wings will fail? Although I take the same damn roads, I remain neutral, aloof to my surroundings. Sometimes traffic forces me to stop, it’s like being stuck in an elevator, I’ll glance around just to avoid making eye contact with my fellow travelers. Today I not only notice a new homeless encampment on Southwest beside the light rail tracks, but on the same expressway, where the old White Front used to be, a new housing development is springing up. The simultaneous construction of housing for humans living worlds apart yet across the street from each other gives my heart a savage twist. (From my latest blog Is Guilt Not Enough?)

    • Deborah Lee

      The dichotomy of the have and have-nots; heartbreaking.

    • Charli Mills

      Hi Cheryl! This works well as a stand-alone piece (and I like that you thought to excerpt your longer post). Two images here are striking: the exhausting worn path with it’s own pain amidst familiar traffic light, and the conflicting human developments witnessed while traveling it. That last line twists my heart, too!

    • Liz Husebye Hartmann

      Nice. And yes, there is a painful twist for those with eyes/hearts open enough to see.

  3. denmaniacs4

    Hi Charli, my first thought was to channel the Home Children, many of whom were shipped to Canada over many decades, some to do well, many to be abused ad enslaved. Some other time perhaps…do this contribution stems from the ban. It also stems from my understanding of how decision makers rationalize how their decisions impact the innocent recipients of their decision making process. It is not a new theme. We see it in play everyday. It is so ordinary.


    “Their parents are dead. That surely is a factor?”

    “Not to me. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not unsympathetic.”

    “Perhaps not. Still, they would have a better chance here, in our country.”

    “And lose their identity? Their culture? Their language? We cannot be the world’s orphanage.”

    “Is that what you think this is all about? Look, no matter what we do, how many we take in, it will never be enough. But to do nothing, under the pretext that they’ll come to hate us makes no sense, shows no humanity.”

    “The risk is far too great. My ban stays.”

    • denmaniacs4

      Edited version…

      Hi Charli, my first thought was to channel the Home Children, many of whom were shipped to Canada and elsewhere over many decades, some to do well, many to be abused and enslaved. Some other time perhaps…

      So this contribution stems from the ban your country and others are facing in these Trumpian times. It also stems from my understanding of how decision makers rationalize how their decisions impact the innocent recipients of their decision making process. It is not a new theme. We see it in play everyday. It is so ordinary.


      “Their parents are dead. That surely is a factor?”

      “Not to me. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not unsympathetic.”

      “Perhaps not. Still, they would have a better chance here, in our country.”

      “And lose their identity? Their culture? Their language? We cannot be the world’s orphanage.”

      “Is that what you think this is all about? Look, no matter what we do, how many we take in, it will never be enough. But to do nothing, under the pretext that they’ll come to hate us makes no sense, shows no humanity.”

      “The risk is far too great. My ban stays.”

      • Charli Mills

        Witty title, Bill. I feel an odd sense of relief in your statement about decision makers rationalizing their decisions because I was starting to feel as if I was missing something in the letters I’ve received from my representatives who claim their bills will help the very people they will harm. Not that I’m relieved it’s ordinary, but that I must not succumb to thinking as they do. Your flash carries that message in it’s dialog.

    • Liz Husebye Hartmann

      We could also name title this “Ban-on”…it’s amazing how easily fear limits doing the right thing. Sad.

  4. Norah

    I’m pleased you had some character breakthroughs this week, Charli, and have found the ending to your story. I’m also intrigued about the secret truth. Will we learn of it in your story? It sounds like good progress has been made in one direction anyway. Interesting your comments about Mary’s hero’s journey. I wonder is it any less heroic to give up your own dreams and ideas to support a man, hold a family together, and raise the children. Can there be any role more heroic and more necessary to creating the future we want, than nourishing our children’s bodies, minds, and hearts? I think too often the role of child rearing and family maintenance is not given the respect it really deserves.
    I hope your homelessness soon becomes a thing of the past, and that you receive the support you have so readily given to others. I hope the support for Todd with the VA can migrate with you, wherever you go.
    How exciting that the anthology is nearing completion. The Raw Literature series has been a wonderful addition to the Carrot Ranch’s education program. Thank you for all you are doing for we writers.

    • Norah

      Hi Charli, I’m back with my contribution, Adventurous plans. As usual, it’s towards the end of the post. http://wp.me/p3O5Jj-S8 I hope it’s not too predictable. 🙂

      • Deborah Lee

        What a great mom. 🙂

      • Norah

        Thank you, Deborah. 🙂

      • Charli Mills

        It’s a sweet story, Norah and has an appropriate twist to the tale. 🙂

      • Norah

        Thanks Charli. 🙂

    • Charli Mills

      Norah, precisely what you said! Yes, it is heroic to be the family nourisher, and that was certainly the role I see Mary upholding. But there was a flatness to her development or perhaps a lack of tension. She was the woman who had the upper hand, but I needed to be willing to see a crack or else her character might suffer from Perfect Wife Syndrome, and women were more capable than that one role. I think I found a way without detracting from the importance of role as mother and wife. Yes! You will find out Sarah’s secret and it isn’t what historians thought she was hiding. 🙂 Thank you, we will land or continue to travel, and where we go is influenced by proximity to VA centers. It’s my pleasure to support writers with a platform where we can inspire and learn from each other. <3

      • Norah

        Well I can see there are going to be a few surprises for me at Rock Creek. I’m looking forward to them! You do so much for the rest of us, it must be your turn to be on the receiving end! Have a great weekend. 🙂

      • Charli Mills

        I think there might yet be done surprises for me, too with Rock Creek! You, too Norah! Thanks! ????

  5. julespaige


    From the dawn of time humans are/were immigrants who attempted migration. Those new planets in the news have some short years… But if humans were ever to settle on them (if they already aren’t settled in some way) I’m sure they would adapt.

    I sort of took a little bit of past and mixed it with the present and future in:
    Spaced Out?
    (title should be link to post)

    Spaced Out?

    Is moving around most of your life migration? Especially if you
    ain’t returnin’ to that place you was born. For a the most part of
    livin’ front doors seemed to always be different colors with
    differing keys. An’ most them keys just don’ open the attitude
    of folk to welcome you with open arms.

    You think you settled as you ages. Then there’s a call to clear
    outta your home world and find a new hovel, in space. But you
    knowed you ain’t on that list. Ain’t migrated enough education
    to lift off to one of them new planets.


    • Charli Mills

      Hi Jules! I like what you did to take an old-timey view and voice to explore the idea of planets for migration. One of my favorite but short-lived television series is Firefly and its an old west sort of tale told in a futuristic space setting. The writers mixed in themes of education, migration and exploitation. All plausible with new planets on the horizon.

  6. A. E. Robson

    If you have never had the pleasure of hearing and watching Canada Geese during migration, please visit the link for this post. I have included a short (wavering) video I was lucky enough to capture.

    By Ann Edall-Robson

    Their sound reverberates across the meadow. Haunting voices carried on the wind. Finally, the recognizable V comes into sight. They split. They reform.

    It seems early in the fall for their trek to have begun. Makes you wonder what they know about the coming winter that we don’t.

    They’ll stop where there’s open water and feed. But, for today, they are making miles while the weather’s good. The long journey taking them south to warmer climates for the winter. Where they’ll stay until the spring thaw opens the lakes and ponds and they wing their way north once again.


    • Sarah Brentyn

      This is exactly where my mind went with the prompt. Love it. 🙂

      • A. E. Robson

        Without a doubt Sarah, that’s where my mind headed too.

    • Charli Mills

      Some of my fondest memories of Elmira Pond involve migrating (and mating) Canada geese! I love that honking sound, and looking up to catch the V in progress.

      • A. E. Robson

        The unmistakable sound can’t help but make you look skyward in search of what you know is coming.

    • Deborah Lee

      The fear and new worlds opened up by assimilation. Nice flash!

      • Enkin Anthem

        Thank you!

    • Charli Mills

      Welcome to Carrot Ranch, Enkin! I take Word at its word count! Thanks for joining us!

  7. Liz Husebye Hartmann

    With apologies to Kim Stanley Robinson, here’s my flash:

    Migration to ‘TRAPPIST-1’?

    “You’re telling me there are seven new human-habitable planets, a mere 40 years away light-speed distance?” She looked at him, eyebrow raised.

    “Yes! No more worries about ruining our natural resources here on Earth,” He squeezed his sweaty hands together. “We can leave today and arrive in time for retirement!”

    “Once we fund and develop the advanced technology?”

    “We can easily rewrite Universal Healthcare, and the tax code! It’ll be huge! What could go wrong?”

    “Okay, Donnie,” she sighed, looking at the armed border patrol. She flipped open her copy of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora. “We’ll just wait here.”


    • Charli Mills

      “…It’ll be huge! What could go wrong?” Oh, Liz, I started laughing, but really not funny. Who knew healthcare was so complex, space travel so easy? 😀 I think Robinson can forgive you! What a take on the prompt!

      • Liz Husebye Hartmann

        Thanks! Flash seems to be the best format for laughing…um…editorializing on the headlines.

      • Charli Mills

        That might be a fun prompt…Hmmm.

  8. Pete

    Vagabond Soul

    Stu checked the address and stepped out of the car. He cursed Ed, his sponsor, and his conscience. They always teamed up on him.

    He was far from that kid who threw that drunken punch twenty years ago. His mind, body, and soul, had migrated, were still migrating, carving wrinkles as it sojourned out of the muck of stupidity to, what was he now, anyway? Middle aged? Tormented? Humbled?

    Two knocks. Duty fulfilled. But the door opened.

    Reconstructive surgery on his left eye, the guy couldn’t even cry properly.

    Without warning, Stu released the two words that haunted him.

    • Charli Mills

      That’s a deep and meaningful migration, Pete! It expresses the wandering of a lost soul.

    • Charli Mills

      Finally had something exciting to share! 🙂 Revision has not had the fun surprises as first drafting, and some gaps seemed agonizing to figure out. That a resolution dumped in an afternoon, I’m delighted!

    • Charli Mills

      Hi Lucy! Oh, no worries, it’s been a whirlwind week for me and I’m late to my own bonfire at the ranch. 🙂

  9. Sherri

    Ahh…darn it all Charli, I really, really wanted to get over here and get my flash in but…well…you know. I have lots to say about migration, having been in immigrant of sorts for almost 20 years! Oh I can hardly hold onto my excitement as you prepare to rock Wild Bill’s world! What a fantastic breakthrough, thrilled for you 🙂 And I can definitely relate when you say you had to search for your ending. It has been just the same for me in writing memoir – a true story, yes, but we need to write the ending that fits, pulling the story in its entireity together in the perfect way. And we have to wait for that surprise to catch us, not the other way round. Oh what a beautiful thing it is when that happens! Love your flash and the weekly tasters of your bigger story to come. And what a thought – Mexico closed to Americans. Wow! What a great point Charli… More changes on your not so distant horizon…but you will do it, you will find a way. I know it because you, my friend, rock…! <3

    • Charli Mills

      Thank you for helping me discover that ending! I was inspired to write into it after our conversation and completely surprised by what I found in the ending. On one hand, it was the ending I’ve had, but there was something more to it. Yes, it is a beautiful thing when it happens and why I want Carrot Ranch to be available a safe place to have fun and explore and hopefully spark those surprises on the hard days of writing alone. ?

      • Sherri Matthews

        Thank you in return for helping me through those alone days…we need those surprises! <3


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