June 6: Story Challenge in 99-words

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.

June 6, 2023

Once, I lost a book my Grandpa Sonny showed me in Montana. He and Grandma Donna drove all the way from San Benito County, California to Helena, Montana when I was a junior in college. Sonny was a writer and often took deep dives into the historical stories that activated his imagination. He was influenced by authors he admired — Ivan Doig and James A Michener. Both wrote family sagas; Michener was famous for l-o-o-o-n-g family sagas. Sonny had a vision for such, beginning in Scotland with the defeat of the Jacobites when, according to mythology, seven McCanles brothers fled to seven different colonies.

The book he drove over a thousand miles to show me contained notes and research he did in North Carolina and eastern Washington with his niece. He enthralled me with his stories and idea for a saga. He was proud of the manly men in his tree. He was even proud that we had an ancestor shot by Wild Bill Hickock. I was intrigued. Before he left, we agreed to work together on his manuscript about an ’80s casino crime story. He died before we finished.

At his funeral, I discretely asked about the book he showed me of all his research. His secretary knew it but hadn’t seen it. She said he’d filled a box for me and maybe it was in there. It wasn’t. I asked my aunts. I asked my mom. No one knew what I was referring to. Sonny’s niece, my first cousin once removed, researched with him and had gone on numerous trips across the country, and could get me copies. But it wasn’t the book I lost. I wanted his notes.

Fast forward to Idaho and the early days of Carrot Ranch. I accidentally found the book when a small box of my children’s early schoolwork fell apart when I went to move it into a closet. It was one of those boxes you never really intend to open again like a living time capsule. I must have grabbed a stack of school papers off my desk in Montana when we moved and kept them all those years in Minnesota as a box of mementos. When the box tore, out spilled colored stories, math homework, and Sonny’s lost book. I was flabbergasted because it never occurred to me that he’d left it for me to find on my desk. Only, he’d put it in a pile I didn’t go through!

I’ve told this story before because it had a profound impact on my own dream to write a historical novel, if not the saga my grandfather had envisioned. Rock Creek was born of this lost book found. I began by exploring the characters in 99-word stories. I found that the story constraint is a great tool for digesting historical research and experimenting with character motives. The stories add up and I also cranked out a raw draft for NaNoWriMo in 2015. When Todd and I wandered, we stopped in Kansas and Nebraska to research primary documents. I brought Sonny’s book with me, not daring to leave it behind in storage.

And so, it has sat. This lost book. This found book.

On Sunday, the first time since Finlandia University closed, I did not have papers to grade or lesson plans to post by midnight. I pushed the Challenge post to Tuesdays to further free up Sundays. Research Sundays. I peeled open the book and the first handwritten note to fall out of the cover focused on relating our McCanles line to Cobb McCanles, shot and killed July 12, 186 at his Pony Express Station in Nebraska Territory. Shot by Wild Bill Hickock (or not). Sonny speaks to me through his notes, “I am his descendant as are you, through Julia.” I had not seen this note before, or maybe I glossed over it. It encourages me because my tough-as-nails, hard-gambling, hard-drinking, visionary grandfather acknowledges what I had already discovered — the real story of Rock Creek resides in the women.

Yes, I descend through Julia McCanles, my third-great-grandmother who likely knew the real reason the historians are wrong about who shot her brother, Cobb. For someone who is returning to writing women’s fiction, a lost book was a good place to find my purpose again.

June 6, 2023, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a lost book (or many). What is the book’s significance? Who lost it, or who found it? How does this element fit into a poem, memory, or a specific genre? Go where the prompt leads!

  1. Submit by June 12, 2023. Please use the form below if you want to be published in the weekly collection. The Collection publishes on the Wednesday following the next Challenge. Stories must be 99 words. Rules & Guidelines.
  2. Writers retain all copyrights to any stories published at Carrot Ranch.
  3. A website or social media presence is not required to submit. A blog or social media link will be included in the title of any story submitted with one.
  4. Please include your byline with your title on one line. Example: Little Calves by Charli Mills. Your byline can be different from your name.
  5. Please include the hashtag #99WordStories when sharing either the Challenge or Collection posts on social media.

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  1. Norah

    How wonderful to find the lost book, and the lost incentive. I’ve enjoyed your Rock Creek stories about the McCanles family. How wonderful for your grandfather to make that family link explicit. Research Sundays is sure to be a welcome, enjoyable and productive institution. I look forward to reading results.

    • Charli Mills

      Norah, perhaps what we lose circles back around for another chance. It felt good to settle into research and fun to read Sonny’s note. Thanks!

      • Norah

        This one circled back, that’s for sure. Interesting that you picked it up without knowing. Perhaps it needed to rest for a while.

      • Charli Mills

        You are wise, Norah — we need some things to rest for a while!

      • Norah

        Indeed we do, Charli. ????

  2. Writing Sparkle

    I like this prompt. Thank you for sharing.

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks! I thought “lost books” might appeal to writers! 😉

  3. Sue Spitulnik

    How interesting your grandfather left you the book on your desk. What a find!
    I remember my father talking about a mystery he was writing. At one time my sisters and I knew where the manuscript was kept, but when we cleaned out the folks house, it was gone. Who knows who destroyed, or took it. None of the three who might have done it are left to ask.
    I enjoy doing research, especially for a family saga. Learning about something you want a character to be involved in is fascinating.
    I like the new time format, it fits my schedule well. Thanks.

    • Charli Mills

      Sometimes, Sue, I think it is enough to know we share something like a desire to write stories with a parent or grandparent. It certainly would have been fulfilling to finish my grandfather’s book, but I appreciate that we got time to work on it together. It makes his research notes more valuable to me. As for your dad, how cool that he also worked on a manuscript. You understand that researcher’s joy. I can picture you in your happy place — research a family saga, setting aside pieces like a vision for quilt art! I’m glad the new schedule shifted favorably for you.

  4. Anne Goodwin

    Sounds like it came back to you at just the right time. Looking forward to more of your Rock Creek stories.

    • Charli Mills

      It’s time to explore the relationship dynamics at Rock Creek, Anne. I enjoy using 99-word stories for processing characters and research.

  5. sweeterthannothing

    This post is so heartwarming, I’m sorry the two of you never got to finish the project you started together, if you ever do finish the 80s casino crime story, I’m up for reading one. I’m so pleased you found his notes, it made me wonder about all the lost treasures stashed in keepsake boxes around the world, you never know what’s lurking in your own closets.

    Here is my little 99 word story based on your prompt. https://sweeterthannothing.wordpress.com/2023/06/08/99-word-story-lost-and-found/

    • Charli Mills

      Maybe one day, I’ll find a “writer in crime” to collaborate on the manuscript with me. I always thought it would be fun to work in such a partnership in a different genre. Right — I think about the lost stories that lurk, forgotten, too. I love what you did with the stashing and finding of a maternal grimoire. I chuckled, too, thinking it could go much darker with two sisters giddily seeking love potions!

    • Charli Mills

      Oh, let the adventure begin!

  6. Jules


    I’m really glad you found that book. My BoTS is about a book I’ll never get back. I’ve got the lyrics to a song and a Youtube link… at:

    Right Oh, ‘Naughty’?!

    My new favorite song is from Matilda the Musical and it is called ‘Naughty’. ‘Literary Lives Matter,’ those poor souls are just written as they are. They can’t really change that at all. There is no compromise for those poetic champions. Which reminded me of a book I’d lost. An English teacher of mine just didn’t return because maybe she thought I was ‘naughty’? Perhaps she only wanted to scare me? Why, I don’t know.

    My early poems were written there in dated order, they’re gone! I listen to my own muse these days and keep copies of everything.

    © JP/dh

    The first time I heard ‘Naughty’ it was sung by my ‘grandie’ – accent and all, at her talent show last month. She was stellar!

    (Naughty is from the Musical ‘Matilda’ adapted from the book.)

    • Charli Mills

      Jules, that’s a big loss, one’s earliest writings. Yet, you wrote and continued to write. Thanks for sharing the lyrics and link on your post, too! I bet it was fun watching your grandie perform!

      • Jules

        Writing for fifty years + or – pretty much my whole life. Keeps me young 😉

        Watching her was fun. And the rest of the talented students too. ~Thanks

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