November 14: Story Challenge in 99-words

Written by Charli Mills

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

November 14, 2023

Once upon a time, there lived a girl in the wild, wild west. Every day, she wished upon a silver star to see her missing uncle again. Until one day, she had grown enough to wear his pistols. Because of that, she left for San Fransisco, the last place her uncle had gone. Because of that, she had to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Because of that, she met gold-miners along the way who deputized her after proving handy with her uncle’s guns. Until one day, she discovered what happened to her uncle. And ever since, she was changed.

Ah, the story spine. Do you recognize it in the opening tale? Behold the classic story starter, “Once upon a time…” The template simplifies a story structure:

  • Once upon a time…
  • And every day…
  • Until one day…
  • Because of that…
  • Because of that…
  • Because of that…
  • Until one day…
  • And ever since…

Although each vertebrae of the story spine has a specific purpose to carry the story from start to finish, writers do not need to use the structural phrases. In fact, the classic “Once upon a time…” opening can morph into any place and time. Liz Husebye Hartmann, one of our fellow Carrot Ranchers, recently posted an interesting meme on FB about the way Korean folk stories begin: “Back when tigers used to smoke…” The phrase is meant to cue story. Your options for starting a story are endless.

Here’s a revision of the simple tale above without using the structural phrases:

Where the wind blew fierce across the wild, wild west, a girl mourned her lost uncle. She wished upon his silver sherrif’s star to see him again until she’d grown enough to wear his pistols. On her sixteenth birthday, she left for San Fransisco, the last place her uncle had gone. The wind howled at her back when she crossed the Sierra Nevada Mountains. On a treeless peak, she met gold-miners who deputized her for bravery and proving handy with her uncle’s guns. Chasing claim jumpers, she discovered what happened to her uncle. He’d become the criminal she arrested.

The story spine can expand from each bone. We, as creative writers, get to play. Templates give writers structure to produce more complex and compelling pieces of writing. We can change the protagonist to another gender, a particular age, size, or a million other concrete details. We can change the setting, the tone, the genre. We can specify the action through cause and effect. We can pick one conclusion from a billion. We can reveal what the story meant to the protagonist or the journey or surprise the reader.

Here’s a completely different story created by changing details from the original.

When beavers still roamed the wild, wild west, a girl mourned her lost pony. She wished upon the boulder near her village to see her ride again. After three nights, a vision came. After spring runoff, she left for the coast, following the vision of abalone. The rain soaked her when she neared the Pacific surf. On a friendless beach, she found a herd of stolen horses; her pony among them. Sneaking into camp at night, she released the herd, mounted her pony, and rode away. She returned with horses and a stash of trade shells for her village.

Writers increase their creativity when they play! Curiosity opens our minds wider when we slow down and reconsider different choices to make when writing and revising. If you want extra play this challenge, consider submitting two stories, one based on the original but different in its details and action. Be sure to indicate which story is the original if you submit two.

Back at Carrot Ranch Headquarters in the Keweenaw, we are basking in the newness of grandparenthood.

Knowing that Regis Elle is in the world brings profound peace. Holding her bonded me soul-to-soul to a new wonder of life. She lights me up and softens the Ranger’s features. She has the kind of parents every child deserves. Watching my son gives me so much joy. I’m grateful to my DIL and her mom, too. This past week has been a deepening of my soul.

Crystal, my co-grandma, sent me this awesome cheer: (Give me a “K,” give me a “y,’ give me an “l,” give me an “e;” what does it spell? Daddy!)

Regis has great expressions, her daddy’s eyebrows, her mom’s curly hair with daddy’s cowlicks (that’s going to be wild).

These two grandparents are totally smitten, and you get to see Todd’s soft side!

Much to be grateful for as we slip into the long cold nights of winter Up Over. Can’t wait to kayak one day with this girl!

November 14, 2023, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that begins with “Once upon a time…” or use a different beginning. Invent a new story-starter or research different beginnings from among the world’s cultures. Go where the prompt leads!

  1. Submit by November 20, 2023. Please use the form below if you want to be published in the weekly collection. The Collection publishes on the Thursday 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. pedometergeek

    Great photos of Regis, Grandma Charli. Thanks for sharing them with all of us. He’s a cutie pie!

    • Charli Mills

      Regis is a little girl cutie pie, but I tell you, Nan, I was uncertain of her gender for the first 30 minutes of her life when my son introduced us by name. It was fine but a curious state of further waiting, lol. As someone who identifies as a woman but bears a masculine name, I think name gender-bending can be playful and powerful. I can’t wait to see what meaning she puts into her name as she grows in her humanity. Thank you!

  2. D. Avery @shiftnshake

    I was thinking about a kayak for this kid too. Looks like she nailed the Ranger. Spit happens.
    Regarding the prompt: What fun!

    • Charli Mills

      Ha! The urp on Todd’s shirt makes it a real grandpa moment, D.! There’s a young woman on the Keweenaw who has a Sea Eagle like yours and it is the best ride for a two-year-old (she kayaks with her son). Whenever the parents give the green light, I’ll be there for her first paddle. I have some time yet, but already scoped out a cloth doll who comes with cloth tent, kayak and campfire. Have fun with the prompt!

  3. Bill Engleson

    My mournful contribution belies the beauty of a new life about to flourish…Congratulation to your clan, Charli…

    • Charli Mills

      All good poets know that joy and sorrow intertwine to become something beautiful. And you are a good poet, Bill. Our clan thanks you!

  4. D. Avery @shiftnshake

    Liftin Lines

    “It was the best a times, it was the worst a times.”
    “What the dickens?! Kid, you cain’t use thet beginnin. Thet’s plagiarizin. Someone else’s started their story with thet line.”
    “With that line a thinkin, Pal, cain’t use ‘once upon a time’ neither.”
    “Thet’s dif’rent.”
    “How bout beginning, ‘Mebbe it’s funny, mebbe it ain’t’? That’s how our writer’s father starts lots a his stories, ‘cept his dialect’s dif’rent.”
    “He uses a disclaimer?”
    “More like a preemptive apology. But he never doesn’t tell the story.”
    “Do tell.”
    “An all his stories happened, more or less.”
    “More or less.”

    • Charli Mills

      “Mebbe it’s funny, mebbe it ain’t…” thinking that could be the official Poet Tree OUaT.

      • D. Avery @shiftnshake

        Funny (or not) thing since this yarnlet got posted… actually a lot of funny things, and family fun back east, telling stories about my dad, but so far it’s not looking like I’m going to have time or inspiration to write this week, as my dad passed away Wednesday morning. He’d been on his way out for a long while and went peacefully at home. Still, Kid is right, it’s the best and worst of times, but it’s all good. But I don’t think I’m playing at the ranch this week.

      • Charli Mills

        Kid was not off the mark. The Ranch mourns the passing of a good man, a good storyteller who lived his life well, always curious and reading, hunting and making practical use of his hands. May the best of his bones be in yours; may the best of his stories yet live through the tales and poems you pen. Take time to be with kith and kin. My deep condolences to you and the family.

  5. Gloria

    She’s gorgeous, Charli. Enjoy every moment you have with her.

    • Charli Mills

      Thank you, Gloria! I will enjoy every moment!

  6. Sarah Brentyn

    She’s beautiful! ????

    • Charli Mills

      Thank you, Sarah! I now realize grandparents get the joy of slowing down unlike the parents who are now ramping up their lives for the busy years. This really is the icing on the family layer cake!

  7. Jules

    Charli and family;
    Welcome to the Ranch baby Regis!! (((Hugs))) for everyone. ~Jules

    • Charli Mills

      Thank you for the warm Ranch welcome, Jules! Hugs all the way around!

      • Jules

        Just try and not blink…
        Our (family’s) ‘twins’ are gonna be two in February!!
        My own grands are both in double digits!!

      • Charli Mills

        I’m trying to stay in wide-eyed awe and not blink, Jules! Aw, the twins are two already. And double-digit grands — oh, that’s kayak and history adventuring time, lol.

  8. Bill Engleson

    Congratulations, Charli…

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks, Bill!

  9. Michael B. Fishman

    Dear grandma, the pictures are priceless! I love the “K-Y-L-E” sequence of pictures with Regis cheerleading out each of the four letters! Those are so great! Congrats to everyone, but especially to her grandparents. It’s nice to see you looking so happy, and it’s especially nice to see the Ranger’s (great mustache too, BTW) features softened. You both deserve this joy and happiness. (Psst… google “Barbie toy kayak”. Ages 3-7 but it’s never too soon to start!)

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks, Michael! Kyle is earning his “cheers.” Leah, too! The Ranger has taken extra care with his handlebars since becoming a grandpa. We could watch her all day. Ha! Looked up and marked. There’s also a cloth Stella doll with a cloth kayak. Never to early to add dimension to a granddaughter’s play.

  10. Sue Spitulnik

    The wonder of new life. You don’t understnd it until it’s yours.
    The pictures are tear formers. I’ve never seen the baby spell Daddy’s name. What memorable fun.
    Enjoy, Enjoy, Enjoy.
    And wow, that’s one interesting prompt…

    • Charli Mills

      I keep tearing up, too, lol. It is a wonder, Sue. Thanks! And, have fun with the prompt.

  11. Norah Colvin

    How gorgeous! Enjoy!

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks, Norah! We’re soaking up every moment!

  12. Liz H-H

    What great pictures. What great joy!!

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks, Liz! Your inspiration for the prompt came from the curiosity of “when tigers smoked.”

      • Liz H-H

        I kinda guessed! There really are so many amazing story starters, cross culturally!

      • Charli Mills

        Isn’t interesting how easily we accept story starters, too? Once we understand the phrase we wholeheartedly launch into the tale.

  13. Kerry E.B. Black

    Such a joyful bundle! How such a little person can make an extreme difference in our world.

    • Charli Mills

      A mighty pint-sized package! If only we could all recall this newborn joy and share it with one another through peace. <3

    • Charli Mills

      That’s the spirit of writerly play, Liz! I laughed (maybe I farted with the fish), gasped, and cried for the restart and such wisdom your triad claims despite the different beginnings. Crackin’ creativity!

      • Liz H-H

        Th” devil made me do it. No regrets????????

      • Charli Mills

        Ha, ha!

  14. Anne Goodwin

    Congratulations, Charli, so glad she arrived safely and good to see she knows her alphabet already 🙂

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks, Anne! She will know books. <3

  15. Melissa Lemay

    Soooo cute.????

    • Charli Mills

      And, I get a daily dose of digital cuteness every day, which is often my son trying to nap with a sleeping baby who lights up my world. Thanks, Melissa!

      • Melissa Lemay

        Sometimes I miss the baby days.???? Thankfully I have all the pictures to look back on.????????

      • Charli Mills

        My husband used to miss the baby days way more than I ever did until he forgot. Not sure if he remembers that connection but as our son said recently to his MIL, he felt his dad “more alive” when he was holding his baby daughter. And Todd has definitely been engaged with the daily photos since we got back from Wisconsin. I love looking back at those photos and seeing with different eyes, too.

  16. SandCastleBoy


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