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February 23: Flash Fiction Challenge

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.”

###

Watchers

Watchers at Carrot Ranch by the Rough Writers & Friends @Charli_MillsEver had that feeling of being watched? The hair on your neck prickles, you turn around, or maybe you flee. Who, or what is watching?

This week, writers pushed into the territory of watchers, exploring who and possible motives.

The following is based on the February 16, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a watcher.

***

The Watcher (Jane Doe Flash Fiction) by Deborah Lee

Torry aims her phone at rubbish in her newly-acquired back yard and clicks a picture. Turn slightly, aim anew, click. Turn, aim, click. These should let Juan-Jose-Jorge-whatever-his-name-is know what to haul off.

Her back to the empty house, she can feel it, a physical force between her shoulder blades.

Watched.

She whirls toward the house. Upstairs, undraped windows stare like blind eyes. Lower, behind winter-bare rhododendrons tangled with weeds and trash, sun manages to glint off a dirty basement window.

Nobody.

When she’s done, safe in her car, her skin is still crawling. And she’s supposed to live here?

###

Haunted? by Jules Paige

When a person dies before their time…or at least the time is too
early, like a parent before a child reaches the age of recognition
and memory; often the child is told that their parent is angelically
watching over them.

I saw the staged play ‘Our Town’ – where the dead are boldly
told to let go of earth and what they can no longer have. Does it
help to imagine the photographic eyes of our loved ones watch
our decision making?

Perhaps I believe that only genetics are the true watchful eyes of
where I might go next…

###

The Watching Spirits by Ann Edall-Robson

Tall. Silent. Formidable. Welcoming only those true of heart. In search of guidance, not all who make the journey pass the test. Their search not always clear. Their direction muddied.

Yet, they come knowing they are watched over. They’re not alone. They will be given the chance, only once, to reach the desired result of the challenge. They must be focused. Ready for the trial. Ready for the blistering, mind altering vision.

It is here the young men came. Following the path to the towering rocks. To the place of the watching spirits. And so began their vision quest.

###

Falling Shadows (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

The Beehive was where granite met duff and towering larch. Hikers said they saw a dog like Bubbie run up the trail. She swore she saw dog-prints by the spring. Nothing. No Bubbie. Just a warm breeze through the pines.

She felt…watched.

Looking up, high on the granite mound considered sacred to the Salish, and called the Beehive for its shape, Danni could see the shadow of a dog. How did Bubbie get up there? She’d need a rope to ascend.

Her breath left her as the shadow fell. Before impact, it spread wings and an eagle flew away.

###

Watched by FloridaBorne

“Dingo,” his master called out, opening the gate to her country home. “Let’s walk.”

A head peeked through the dog door. “YiP-yIp-YIP!” he announced his joy.

Ears up, eyes alert, each bush an adventure, he ran toward an all-you-can-sniff world of possibilities.

Feet fluttered over a carpet of pine needles. Tail up, head outstretched, he sprang forward.

Zagging around a flora of obstacles, he jumped at the squirrel scurrying up an oak tree, missing the back legs by an inch!

“Dingo!” A scolding voice yelled. “I’m watching you!”

Tail tucked between his legs, head down, he lumbered toward home.

###

The Watcher by Irene Waters

He lay watching, hidden by the elderberry. Its clusters of purple fruit succulent like the woman he watched. Visualising his capture his pupils narrowed as he imagined her softness. She would not be able to escape. She would succumb to his attentions. He’d cut her if she didn’t and she’d know that he would. He’d captured her in the garden on another occasion. She didn’t sit on the love seat often, usually protecting herself with the tools she toiled and turned the earth with. But he watched. Today he’d have success. She sat. He pounced.

“Oh! Killmouski good pussy.”

###

The Porcelain Cat by Allison Maruska

Skylar sees it as soon as she wakes—the small figurine on her desk. She picks it up, turns it, strokes its glass ears. I wish she could see how happy her discovery makes me.

I couldn’t give it to my granddaughter before I passed, as my grandmother had done for me. The porcelain cat is old, precious. It deserves to be in kind hands.

So, I broke a silly old rule and moved it. I was careful. No one saw it floating.

And watching her now, I know I’ve done the right thing. They will protect each other.

###

The White Porch by Sarah Brentyn

She was about five when she stopped crying. But she still crawled into bed with me. Me. The broken one, the brave one, the older one.

My identity was older sister.

I’d been alive three years longer than she. That’s all I had to offer.

She snuggled with me, her raggedy stuffed rabbit tucked tightly to her chest.

Sometimes, on summer nights, we’d tiptoe to the porch. I’d point to the trees and tell her they were our watchers. They would protect us.

I remember those evenings the most. When the skies were beautiful watercolor paintings of our bruises.

###

Friends by Norah Colvin

He stood at the periphery, silently observing, calculating their disposition, weighing his chances. Were they friend or foe? Appearances could be deceiving, as could his gut reaction.

They seemed harmless enough; but his sweaty palms, throbbing temples, and churning belly turned his legs to jelly. Even breathing was a struggle.

He became aware of someone tugging his shirt. Though unsure if she was talking or mouthing, he understood, “Would you like to play?”

His head would neither nod nor shake, but she led him by the hand anyway.

“Hey, everyone! This is Amir,” she announced.

“Hi Amir!” they chorused.

###

Mamma’s Here, Leroy by Anne Goodwin

His mother watches. First the cap. Then the wrist and ankle straps.

He always welcomed me and my “box of tricks”. Vocabulary, comprehension, digit symbol. If there were points for effort, he’d have been off the scale.

Mamma’s here, Leroy. She knows her words can’t penetrate the glass. She’s here because she birthed him, the cord around his neck. I’m here because I couldn’t trade his failures for the court’s compassion. He’s there because he’s poor, uneducated and black.

She watches the electricity convulse her baby’s body until it breaks him. I watch his mother witness this country’s shame.

###

Watching the Hanging by Luccia Gray

‘We’re going to Horsemonger Lane, Boys,’ said Fagin.

Dodger pulled away. ‘Ain’t nothing there except Southwark prison.’

‘A public hanging!’ said Fagin.

When they arrived, the street was teaming with watchers, howling, screeching and yelling like animals.

Oliver gasped. The place was crawling with thieves and prostitutes fighting and shouting obscenities.

‘Might as well get some work done. Look, there’s a fancy looking toff over there,’ said Fagin, pointing to Charles Dickens.

‘Bet I can half inch his bread and honey,’ bragged Dodger.

‘Watch the hanging carefully, boys,’ warned Fagin. ‘Remember, if you get caught you’ll be brown bread.’

###

Watchword by Bill Engleson

I can’t take my eyes off me. When I was younger, that observation might have embarrassed me. But there is nothing to be ashamed about.

We, each of us, are unique. We live our lives creatively, every step, every thought, every breath.

I look outward, sometimes to the sea, sometimes to the sky, less than I should to her.

I always see me.

Good citizenship requires us all to have a strong and honest eye looking inward.

This is how we serve our great country.

We know when we deviate.

It is our duty to report every single deviation.

###

Being Watched by Pensitivity

It was a big world out there, one where they did not belong and would never begin to understand.

It was unsafe and unpredictable, a place where no-one could be trusted.

You couldn’t tell a friend from an enemy, and who would know the truth from a lie?

Here inside, no-one could harm them, they could live forever in a safe haven, everything always familiar and unchanged.

Some saw it as boring and dull. They wanted adventure, to explore the unknown.

They were tired of predictable and fed up with being watched.
Tentatively they stepped out of the television.

###

The Watcher by Victoria Bruce

I watch. I wait. I report. I never intervene.

Day or night, I watch.

I watched her laugh with the barisita as she picked up her coffee. I watched her walk down the sidewalk, her bright pink coat a splash of colour in the early morning grey.

I’d watched her all of her life – in silence.

I watched as the black van turned the corner. I watched as it sped up.

I said nothing. I made no sound of warning.

I watched as they collided and as her blood turned the white snow crimson.

And I wept in silence.

###

Being Watched by Michael

When I look down my hallway I catch a glimpse of someone standing there. It happens often enough for me to think it’s real. I am being watched, not like a guardian angel but more like by someone curious about who I am and what I’m doing.

They vanish when I glance up at them, blending into the background, the dark curtains in the back room an ideal hiding spot for them.

I wonder what they make of me, sitting here tapping away. The past trying the fathom the future?

One day they might have the courage to ask.

###

The Watcher by Liz Husebye Hartmann

Joseph leaned against the hardware store’s outside wall, impatiently tapping his fingers. Its surface was cool in the shade of what promised to be another scorcher. He drew on his cigarette, then used the same hand to slide his sunglasses up the bridge of his nose. His fingers trembled and the ash dropped to the dirty sidewalk.

He’d waited here every morning for the past week, sure that she would walk down this neighborhood street again. She’d shown up every couple of months, in her bright yellow dress, ever since they’d split.

He had some words for her. Finally.

###

Flash Fiction by Paul Chiswick

April stares at me, invitingly. What a woman: glowing olive skin, hair the colour of espresso, deep brown eyes, glossy red lips.

Oh, man.

My eager fingers trace the pencil-thin seams from the heels of her impossibly high red stilettos, up along her shapely calves, past the contours of her perfect thighs. Her eyes never leave mine, never blink.

Oh, man, oh, man.

‘Lights out!’ The screw’s barked command echoes on the cell’s bare walls.

I kiss the tip of my finger and place it on the calendar girl’s bare rump.

‘Till tomorrow, babe.’

I smile. Close my eyes.

###

Who is watching who? by Geoff Le Pard

‘Mum please.’

‘It’s just a painting. It can’t watch you.’ Mary smiled at her daughter’s scowl.

Penny turned away. ‘It just does, like it’s possessed or something.’

‘You watch too much TV. Well the wrong sort.’ She followed her daughter into the kitchen. Penny had picked up her father’s laptop bag. ‘What are you doing?’

Penny said nothing until the computer was on the table. ‘There’

‘What’s that?’ Mary studied the piece of tape on the edge.

‘Dad says it’s to stop anyone watching him through the internet.’

Mary picked it off. ‘You’re both as bad as each other.’

###

The Watcher by Kecia Sparlin

Mall shoes still did a fairly brisk business. Browsing the internet wasn’t the same, not for them, not for him. At lunch time, Marty often sat alone on a bench facing into the store.

Her skirt was slit, ankles slim, her shoes…worn and scuffed. He winced. Then she took them off. Marty clenched a fist and gnawed his knuckle. When she wiggled her toes, he swallowed his gasp.

The salesman brought a box and slipped her tired foot in a new, patent leather shoe. Candy apple red. Marty swiped sweat from above his lip. His eyes watered with love.

###

Third Time Lucky by Sherri Matthews

Three times around the park, that’s what she always did. He’d watched her so long that he almost regretted it was coming to an end.

Almost.

He crouched down low behind the hedge, his heart racing at the thought of having her all to himself at last.

She walked by, once, twice and almost upon him, third time a charm.

And she kept walking, oblivious to the danger lurking just a heartbeat away.

‘Business owner found dead of heart attack in park’, the local news reported days later.

The body was found by a woman who walked there regularly.

###

Raw Literature: Possibilities

Raw Literature Possibilities @Charli_MillsFor the purpose of this series, we’ve been exploring what it is to write first works. We’ve considered What Lies Beneath the ongoing process of a memoirist who digs deep. We’ve interviewed a writer newly elected as State Representative of Missouri’s 91st District. We’ve contemplated writing that is Natural or Explicit, as well as recognizing when Raw is Ready. We’ve considered Jewels on the Page, Safe Spaces and what feeds Grit Lit.

Clearly there’s much thought to share about the process.

If you seek prompts, like the Weekly Flash Fiction Challenge at Carrot Ranch, you probably understand the benefits of writing quick raw responses. It can be like practicing scales, or warming up before a sport. After a year or two, you can amass suitcases of raw stories. What to do with them, might be on your mind. This week, Raw Literature is going to unpack some possibilities.

Suitcase #1: Craft

When I studied creative writing in college, I was taught to master the short-form before tackling the long-form. Master is a relative term, as I think writers continue to master their craft throughout their lives. That’s something raw literature reveals to us — our writing evolves. As craft, however, we can work on elements, such as characterization, tone, structure and language. What you practice, explore or learn in short-form you can apply to longer works.

Flash fiction is often spontaneous and can be fun for the surprises it might bring to both the writer and reader. Yet, the writer can also be deliberate in craft. I’ve watched regular writers play with twists (which work well in short form and also becomes a linchpin to ending book chapters). I’ve marveled at others who employ BOTS (based on a true story) as a way to use the challenge to explore inroads to memoir. Poets tackle the challenge with further constraints of form. Some flash focuses on imagery, others are character-driven. The brevity each week can offer ample possibilities to try different craft styles.

Another craft technique flash fiction can offer is what I’ve come to think of as non-committal application (point of view, character traits, tone). Raw literature employs discovery, but if I’m uncertain about a character, I don’t necessarily want to discover something essential half-way through the first draft of a novel. Flash fiction allows me to play with characters. One week a character might be the villain; the next week I might write him as the hero. When practicing craft, I don’t have to commit during exploration.

Something else I’ve seen other writers accomplish are serials. Through the weekly challenge, characters and their plots are born and progressed. Through the course of hosting flash fiction challenges, I’ve seen continuing stories of brow-beaten werewolves, a family with more twists and turns than an epic novel, a school girl explore her life between various ages, a western tale unfold and conclude, and characters start their own blogs. Many WIPS begin as a serial idea energized by weekly additions.

The possibilities for developing craft and raw material are endless.

Suitcase #2: Platform

A writer’s platform is both a billboard (for the writer) and a launching pad (for the writing of a writer). Raw literature can inform the platform’s elements of branding, credibility, community and target audience.

Voice is unique to each writer. Some writers might use the craft aspect of a writing challenge to discover or hone that voice, and more seasoned writers use it to further broadcast identity. That identity — a dark, lyrical writer of YA who is fond of hedgehogs and armadillos — becomes part of the brand. The writing that accumulates gives visual credibility that this is a writer who writes. If a writer intends to break into a specific genre, writing shorts in that genre is also a way to develop brand and credibility.

Writing among other writers is an experience in community. This is one of the most rewarding aspects of a platform. It’s interaction that can lead to friendships, tribes, networks or an assortment of each. Community can be supportive and encourage your aspirations, or you can reach out to community to learn from different experiences. Diversity is another rewarding aspect of community and can lead to greater insights through writing raw literature collectively.

You can use your raw creations to find or test your target audience. Often this is a confounding aspect of platform building because your readers are not always easy to encounter. However, you can use your raw creations to polish a few pieces you think represent your writing and longer-term goals and submit to short-form contests or literary magazines. This is a way to find readers and continue to build your brand and credibility.

Think of raw literature as possibilities for expanding your platform.

Suitcase #3: Marketing

If you are a writer, your writing is something marketable. First, let’s simplify what marketing is: it’s the continuous cycle of research, action and measurement. You can get into it more deeply than that, but at least recognize that marketing is more than promotion (action) and that promotion is one of many actionable tactics.

You can use your raw literature, your excerpts from WIPS or your flash fiction stories to gauge response. You can ask your community what they thought of a particular twist or for their impression of a character. You might produce a flash that others want to know more of the story. Exploration is a part of research when you are attentive to it. It might give you the idea to tackle a different genre. I don’t think I would have taken on a full-blown historical novel without the original feedback I got from flash fiction.

Action items can take many forms. You can use raw literature to build e-newsletters or e-books of short stories. You can quote from your own raw works and make memes on Pinterest or quotes on Twitter or Facebook. You can make postcards or bookmarks for promotion. What better way to promote your own writing than with your own words. You can take excerpts from your published (or soon to be) book and reverse-engineer it into a raw response to showcase the work it comes from. You can use your raw literature on your blog to drive traffic. You can be a guest writer and intersperse your raw literature between lines of an article or essay.

Measurement is about knowing if your actionable items were effective. While you don’t really use raw literature to measure, you can measure the impact it might have had on your action goals.

Final thoughts: keep writing raw, be mindful of your process and the possibilities of what you produce.

<<♦>>

Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at wordsforpeople@gmail.com.

Times Past: 4-Wheeling the West

Times Past at Carrot Ranch by @Charli_MillsGen X, rural California, USA

Granny-gear is as expected: slow, slow enough a toddler can drive. If that sounds surprising, you’ve not grown up on cattle ranches in the American west. Every buckaroo has stood behind the wheel (yes, stood because to sit is to lose sight over the dusty dash).

“Hold it straight, follow the rows,” were the instructions I remember.

Where are the adults, you might wonder. On the back of the truck, flaking hay.

Back when I was a toddling buckaroo on one of the oldest land grant ranchos in northern California, my task was to steer the truck straight so the adults could cut the wires on rectangular bales of hay (each weighing about 125 pounds) and peel away portions. The hay was dry and it came off in chunks called flakes. The herd of 300 black ballies (a nickname for the cross-breed of Black Angus and Red Hereford for which some calves were born black with white faces) trailed behind to get their winter hay.

Winter in this part of California was the wet and rainy season. It turned the blond hills green for a brief time. While the hills had time to grow grass beneath massive oak trees, the cattle roamed the barren hay fields and ate nubs and dry flakes. Feeding was a daily ritual and everyone worked, even the toddlers. Though I don’t recall thinking of my driving chore as work.

Just like with horses, I never had a fear of driving. Probably because I was exposed too young to have the common sense to fear large beasts and steel cages on wheels. By the time I was 13, I no longer lived in buckaroo country. My parents moved to the Sierra Nevada mountains where my mom ran a general store and my dad logged.

I worked in the summer logging camps, leaving for the job in a logging truck at 4 a.m. I had to be back by 3 p.m. to saddle my horse and ride out to check the cattle for a local ranch. My task was to keep the cattle from coming off the high summer pastures. Any I encountered, I’d have to push back to the mountain springs among quaking aspen.

Granny-gear took on new meaning this phase of life — it’s the lowest gear used to slow a logging truck on a mountain pass or a exit the rough-cut switchback known as a logging road. Hardly a road! Heading off the hill, as the phrase goes, requires low-gear and high prayers. I used to enjoy listening to C. W. McCall’s Wolf Creek Pass, an 8-track tape my dad had:

We’d gear down for our own Sierra Wolf Creek pass (the song is about a hairy switchback in Colorado) and at one corner I could see the wreck of a Cadillac from the ’60s. I remember the belch of the jake-brake as we approached and geared down to granny. We never lost a load, or a truck, either.

At the logging camp we had an old Willys Jeep, the kind the US used in WWII. The thing about a Willys is that in granny-gear it could go up, down, over and across anything. After lunch, I was allowed to take the Jeep for a drive, and I found pioner trails and even old mining camps in this ride. And many old roads required granny-gear and 4-wheel drive.

4-wheeling is a distinct western heritage and why so many people in the US West drive trucks. It’s what replaced the Conestoga wagon and horse. For me, a truck is a work vehicle. We have the Mills farm truck and have hauled our own firewood and had many adventures in it. But I still dream of one day having my own Willeys.

And you bet I’d take that Jeep 4-wheeling the back-roads of the west in granny-gear.

***

Join me and others in a look at wheels from Times Past with Irene Waters.

February 16: Flash Fiction Challenge

february-16There’s a juniper tree on the slope of scree between my view outside the library window and the cliffs of Zion Canyon. The juniper is the size of a person, and each time I glance out I think someone is there, watching me. I’m torn between my inside world of words and my outside world of nature. A person on the periphery of both is startling. As if this Juniper Tree Watcher can see through to me.

I’m not paranoid. I use aluminum foil for BBQing, not blocking nefarious satellite spying. Honestly, I don’t feel watched in that sense. I don’t feel the need to wear hats in public to hide my face from Big Brother cameras or apply duct tape to the video cam on my lap top. Seriously, if anyone is watching me as I write, they have weird clips of me contorting my expression in frustrated pain when internet feeds are slow, deep breathing, arm/shoulders/neck exercising, or drooling when in a daze to flow thoughts from the head to tapping fingers.

The worst Big Brother can nail me for is one-handed keyboarding and scratching my nose (it was just a scratch).

I’ve long known the NSA is watching my email and blogs and bank accounts. The NSA alerts come from Idaho neighbors who’d come over for coffee and the latest conspiracies. I don’t doubt the government is watching, but doing something with that data is beyond their abilities. Try getting VA care. They have tons of data. They lack resources.

Once, when I was 12, a Native American elder warned me about water babies and watchers. He described a place where the Washo knew the watchers to be. It was a spot I avoided because my horse snorted every time I rode past this low bit of land along a creek. My friend said my horse recognized the watchers. I began to think about other places I felt watched, yet another correlation emerged: history.

Feeling watched became a clue for me to look for historic or even pre-historic evidence of habitation. I got so good at it that I recorded 11 archeological sites around the town where I grew up, including the spot I had been warned about. Of course I learned to identify features and clues, but that sense I feel, like a hunch, also feels like being watched.

The top of Dalton Wash felt like a hunch the first time we crested the mesa. It didn’t take long before I found chippings and tools, indicative of an encampment. Subsequent times I’ve been back, I’ve brought loose tobacco to share, a gift to the ancients my Native friends taught me. The first time I brought tobacco, I had the hair on the back of my neck stand up at a certain point. I felt I should not go past and I left my gift there on the wind.

I’ve been asking around, to fill in the gap between knowing this place was once inhabited and wanting discover their story. Some of the rock shops had said the Shoshone and Paiute lived and hunted here. It didn’t feel like my watcher, though. Then I discovered a small warning to hikers on the Zion side of the mesa above Dalton Wash — leave rocks, petrified wood and artifacts behind for others to enjoy; do not climb or disturb the rock dwellings.

Rock dwellings would mean Pueblo or even the mysterious Anasazi. I began asking outfitters and all were reluctant to say anything more than the park doesn’t want people to know in order to protect the ruins. In a round about way they confirmed the existence of ancient ruins in the vicinity where I felt watched and compelled to leave tobacco.

Whatever the feeling is, it taps into my imagination. Of course, a logical explanation would be my mind attempting to fill in the gaps it doesn’t know. I could agree with that. When I was younger I thought an archaeological career would be the greatest ever. I had always wanted to write historical novels and I saw the possibility of being an archaeologist/historical fiction novelist. It was beyond what I could do at the time, and college was not part of my family dynamic. By the time I got to college, I was a mother of three. Practicality dictated a teaching profession, but history and creative writing called my name. Creative writing called the loudest.

When I started writing Miracle of Ducks, Danni came to me as Dr. Danni Gordon, an historical archaeologist. She disdains dogs until her husband Ike abruptly decides to serve a private military company in Iraq. She has to overcome her dislike of dogs and Ike’s best friend to hold her life together in Ike’s absence. She ends up finding a friendship and a pup, and eventually she even finds her community after believing she never needed to be part of one.

The friend, Michael Robineaux, is the perfect foil for Danni’s career — he’s Ojibewe. He frequently challenges both her profession and disbelief in the supernatural. While the plot doesn’t get too “far out there” there is a thread of supernatural regarding the pup, Bubbie. Most of it is easily explained away like my sense of feeling watched by those who’ve gone before, but there’s several incidents that are left to the reader to decide.

The community element was something I originally set up to contrast Ike’s commitment to duty and Danni’s need for solitude. Community is a dynamic force, and complex. Miracle of Ducks drills down through the layers until Danni can finally see her own placement and come to understand why Ike would feel the need to put himself in harm’s way.

Last week I had a huge breakthrough in revising. I’ve mentioned before that I’m changing the setting from northern Wisconsin to north Idaho. One chunk of story that I wasn’t sure how to transfer involves Bubbie getting lost on Madeline Island. There is no such place in north Idaho, although several peninsulas on Lake Pend Oreille might work. Last week, I responded to the prompt and was thinking about Danni’s angst over her missing pup. In my original scene, Danni and Michael spend days searching for Bubbie, following up on sightings including a farmer who finds the pup in his hen-house.

Without thinking, I wrote Bubbie was lost on the Pack River and a group of rednecks shot at him for sport. Suddenly, the transfer was complete in my imagination. I could see Bubbie getting lost on the Pack (many dogs do each year) and the dangers became real and unfolded. I’m biting at the bit to get this scene rewritten now, thanks to the insight from that flash. Sometimes, my own responses to the prompt are like a flash light showing the path in the darkness!

I hope to find that ruin above Dalton Wash before we leave Mars. We don’t know where we are going next, or how we are going to move our RV, but I hope we get a flash of insight before the snowbird season ends, early April. Like a good story, I know something is up on Dalton Wash. It interesting to note, it’s not the only Anasazi ruin in the area.

The other is beyond the slope where the Juniper Tree Watcher stands.

February 16, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a watcher. It can be a sentinel like the Watchman formation that overlooks Zion Canyon, or a Big Brother conspiracy theory. How can you use a watcher to set a tone or present a twist?

Respond by February 21, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published February 22). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!

***

Falling Shadows (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

The Beehive was where granite met duff and towering larch. Hikers said they saw a dog like Bubbie run up the trail. She swore she saw dog-prints by the spring. Nothing. No Bubbie. Just a warm breeze through the pines.

She felt…watched.

Looking up, high on the granite mound considered sacred to the Salish, and called the Beehive for its shape, Danni could see the shadow of a dog. How did Bubbie get up there? She’d need a rope to ascend.

Her breath left her as the shadow fell. Before impact, it spread wings and an eagle flew away.

###

The Murky Side of the Rainbow

The Murky Side of Rainbows by the Rough Writers & Friends @Charli_MillsMud is murky. It’s certainly dirty. Yet sometimes it can hold surprising reflections. A mud puddle is an unlikely place for a rainbow, but it was the place to look.

This week, writers went where rainbows in puddles led them. The murky side of the rainbows holds some surprises.

The following stories are based on the February 9, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a rainbow in a puddle.

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Good Riddance by Diana Nagai

Kelly descended the front steps, leaving her first love in the doorway. Sliding behind the wheel, she ran her hand over the many tears in the leather seat and tugged firmly on the belt. She cranked her window down, using a pair of pliers gifted to her by her father when she left home; a man who truly adored her. Crisp air flowed over her, creating a lightness that gave her the moxie to reach out and wave goodbye.

With mirrors in place and a blinking oil light, she vanished with a smile, leaving rainbow puddles in her wake.

###

Jaguar Baby by Kerry E.B. Black

A dreaded rainbow glistened on the garage floor, the tell-tale oil which portends the death of a beloved machine. Chris kicked a pile of tires heaped in the corner. “Darn it. She never listens.”

Fumes from Aunt Connie’s 1968 E-type Jaguar still lingered after her hasty departure. She’d waved, ignoring Chris. “Thanks for fixing my baby!”

Water eddied through the oil slick. She judged from the size of the slick the car would make it to Aunt Connie’s destination, but coming back would not be happening. She packed oil and mounted her Vespa, rushing to rescue her impatient aunt.

###

Faith (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

“A rainbow in a puddle. We’ll have good luck in our search today,” Michael said.

All Danni could see was a biohazard in mud. She climbed into Michael’s truck and they left to follow leads on Bubbie, missing along the Pack River for a week.

“Did you see it?”

Michael was as bad as Ike, Danni thought. Signs, wonders, miracles. “Yes I saw the oil slick.”

“Ever the scientist. Today, have faith.”

Their first encounter with campers reminded Danni why she had none. The rednecks with AR-15s claimed they peppered a dog fitting Bubbie’s description. For fun, they said.

###

Fight Own Battle by Lady Lee Manila

rainbow in a puddle

we’re tiny dots of whole

everything takes its toll

testing if we’re able

gives us hope to scramble

feel of trust in our soul

 

silver lining or not?

up to us to decide

perhaps good if we tried

for us ourselves bethought

and let’s not be distraught

if we make it, it’s pride

 

we trek some dirty mud

not always smooth, the road

got to pay what we owed

if there’s luck, we’re blessed

depends if we acted

carry on as we flowed

 

rainbow in a puddle

tells us that we’re able

fight own battle

###

Rainbow in the Puddle by Reena Saxena

I loved RainBow till I studied Physics. The charm of the rainbow gradually disappeared. The arc transformed into a circle of knowledge, and lost the open element of awe. I was picking up wet laundry from the clothesline, after a shower, rather than look for the rainbow.

I am sure, RainBow was mighty disappointed, and missed my childhood. It was pretty lonely, amidst dense, gray clouds on the gray sky. There it came … down to earth with a thud, in a puddle of water. And the Sun helped the world in noticing its existence. Damn the physics lessons…

###

Coulored Lights by Jane Dougherty

The puddle in the path reflected like a mirror the tracery of the trees and the sky beyond. I stood on the edge captivated by the still beauty. The sun came from behind a cloud and struck the water, covering the surface with rainbow lights. Diesel, a film of leaked fuel turned the timeless pastoral scene into a surreal nightmare. I raised my head, looked beyond the clouds to the scritch-scratched vapour trails across the blue, smelled the traffic on the road ahead and felt the tree roots curling and straining to find the lifeblood of the dying earth.

###

Flash Fiction by Pensitivity

The two giants walked side by side, cursing Man’s folly and the weather.
‘This thunderstorm was due today.’
‘Indeed it was and the rain is badly needed.’
‘Water was their most precious resource but they believed the taps would never run dry.
Overpopulation led to reclaiming wetlands for property development.’
‘Man was stupid, filling in lakes, building on floodplains and not dredging the rivers properly’.
‘So here we are, starting again by making puddles with every step.’
‘They’ll know we’ve been here.’
‘Because we’ve left our footprints?’
‘No. Because you dropped your bow in the rain and it’s arched.’

###

Making a Rainbow by Luccia Gray

‘Look a puddle!’ James rushed to the playground.

‘What’s a puddle?’ asked Timmy.

‘Some water on the floor,’ replied Susan.

‘But we mustn’t spill any water,’ said Timmy. ‘Who did it?’

‘The clouds spilled the water,’ said Miss Rushbrooke.

‘Does that mean the drought’s over?’ Asked Jenny.

The teacher sighed watching the toddlers dip their fingers. They hadn’t seen rainfall in their short lives. ‘Look for a rainbow. That’ll bring us good luck.’

They shook their heads; the sky was clear blue again.

‘Don’t worry,’ said Miss Rushbrooke. ‘Bring the watercolours. We can make a rainbow in the puddle.’

###

The Magic Rainbow by Ann Edall-Robson

The mystical, magical colours dance through the willows and along the creek. Shades of a second rainbow reflects in the puddles. Transparent in the sun showers happening in the valley.

Race to the end of the rainbow. To the pot of gold protected by the little people. Closer and closer. Beneath the small, yellow booted feet, the puddles on the trail scatter in a spray of water and mud. Droplets of rain on rosy, apple cheeks turn to into rivulets. The hunt for the elusive rainbow and the leprechauns that play under its arch gone now for another day.

###

Of Puddles and Rainbows by Norah Colvin

For children of the drought who had never seen rain, the gush when the pipe from the bore burst a seam was a rare opportunity for water play and unexpected learning. While Dad and his Station Hand worked to repair the hole, the children danced in puddles under the cooling spray.

“Look at the colours,” a child exclaimed, trying to capture each one. The men paused to smile at the children’s delight, remembering their own childhood glee. Mum watched from the verandah – without their precious resource, there’d be no washing off mud or cooking the dinner that night.

###

Puddles by Sarah Brentyn

Tina’s legs, splattered with droplets of mud, stuck out from under her dress. A white, frilly thing her aunt insisted she wear today.

“What are you doing? Get off the ground!” Her aunt put her lips close to the girl’s ear, “People are staring!” She hissed.

“White is for weddings,” Tina traced patterns in the brown puddle by her hip. She swirled her finger in circles then squinted. “White is for clouds,” she pointed at the puddle. “Look. They bring rainbows to the mucky mud.”

“Get. Up.”

Tina wiped mud on her dress. “White is not for funerals, Auntie.”

###

The Rainbow by Michael

Through the window I could see him standing by the puddle. He would stoop down and scoop his hand in the water, stand up and look to see if something was there.

I went out to investigate and found him still mesmerised by the puddle. He pointed and I saw in the puddle a rainbow’s reflection.

Together we stared at it. Then he bobbed down and scooped another handful.

I said, “Look at that, you’ve got it.”

He grinned at me proud of his catch.

Not wanting to drop it we stepped towards home. His mum loved his imagination.

###

Rainbows and Valentines by Liz Husebye Hartmann

Nora sat on a low rock, head tipped to one side. The meadow’s shallow pond flashed morning’s sun and last night’s shadows. Peter watched the breeze flip her fine blonde hair, seeming to whisper to her. He left the path to the meadow, and dropped down beside her, “Nora, what do you see?”

Since the accident, she’d become more quiet, and a little strange. His catapult had launched the rock and knocked her to the ground.

His responsibility.

She plunged her hand in the rainbow waters and erased the vision of their future together, and smiling, met his gaze.

###

She Gave Me a Rainbow by Drew Sheldon

I always hated the time after a rainstorm. I was just trying to dry off in peace while the schoolkids would run around the park I called home. They’d splash in the puddles and make all the noise they couldn’t make while cooped up inside. One time a little girl couldn’t catch her friends’ attention so she turned to me. “Look!” she yelled at me, pointing at a puddle. Something in the water was making rainbow colors, something she apparently had never seen before. I couldn’t help but smile and realized I couldn’t remember the last time I had.

###

I Cannot Kill a Rainbow by Anne Goodwin

Even our uniforms are mud coloured, the better to blend with the terrain. Where once was meadow, now is quagmire; our every step hefts a sticky stinking shadow, as if our boots have built a platform sole. No grass, no flowers, no sun to lift the spirits; the only bright spot on the battlefield is blood. Mud paints our hearts with fear and hatred. Where massacre is our mission, colour is a crime. Thus I meet my enemy across a muddy puddle, until I recognise the badge on his lapel. I cannot kill a rainbow. I cannot murder love.

###

Mud Slide by Geoff Le Pard

The urge to call them back was almost overwhelming. Mary rocked Charlotte and focused on Penny, following Paul across the cliffside. He was confident, Penny less so, but determined nonetheless.

Mary shut her eyes, travelling back decades: another cliff, another daughter following her father. This daughter, her, slipping on the wet mud, falling, landing hard aware of the likely pain of the impact (there wasn’t) and her own mother’s screams. Her father, all worried face saying ‘not to fuss so.’

‘Mum, look!’ Penny and Paul stood on the top waving.

Did you ever really let go of your children?

###

What Comes First: The Cloud or the Silver Lining? by Geoff Le Pard

Mary focused on changing the baby while Paul pulled out the picnic. ‘You didn’t need to climb up there.’ She couldn’t look at him.

‘It was safe enough.’

‘Is ‘safe enough’ your standard? I had kittens.’

He put his arm round her waist. ‘She was terrified at the start and buzzing at the end. You know, she saw this rainbow, reflected in a puddle, when we finished. It was her pot of gold, challenging herself like that.’

Mary sighed. Was she the only one to worry the next cloud might be the one not to have a silver lining?

###

Seeing the Wood for the Trees by Ellen Best

Sandy, her boots splashed, hat pulled low, frowning with lips pursed, determinedly marched on. “Keep walking the same path Sand; (she heard in her head) you’ll fall down the same hole”. “Okay dad enough!” She roared wiping her face “Avoid the wood; you’ll miss the trees”. ” just leap shall”? She cried. Jumping she landed smack in the puddle, hiccoughed as tears cleaned mud from her cheeks.

Robert on seeing her, threw a leg over the stile and ran. “Don’t tell me … there was a rainbow at the bottom.” He smiled, his strong arms gathered her and Sandy saw the rainbow.

###

Here’s to Mud in Your Eye! by Jules Paige

Why is it that the groomsmen had (or have) such bawdy
traditions? At the bachelor party the groom had wished
he’d had mud splattered in his eyes. He’d have rather
enjoyed the toasts to his upcoming nuptials more. He
wasn’t really a drinker. And when his best friend took
him home. The bride to be, saw her intended’s green face.
She warned; Take him straight to the bathroom. But neither
man listened.

Instead of a simple mess, the resulting chaos resulted in
more slung mud than necessary. Clothes and bed sheets
had to be changed… and the floor mopped.

###

Why Some Poets Are Falsely Viewed as Irritating Husbands on Occasion by Bill Engleson

“Before the melt, the snow pile was higher than my bearded chin.”

Shelley looks at my hyperbole and shakes her head.

“But,” I clarify, “that’s all behind us. Slush now rules the world, mudpuddles are in bloom and the sun is casting a kaleidoscopic arc of multi-colored joy into the mush of mud and snow.”

“All I said, Sweetie,” Shelley continues to show teeth-grinding patience with me, “Is that we should go for a walk. Put on our booties, go for a simple walk. A quiet walk.”

Alas, she sometimes exhibits limited tolerance for my compulsion to wax poetic.

###

The Murkiness of Emotion by Jeanine Lebsack

There are mud puddles all around as I step gingerly around them not wanting to get my new Ugg boots wet. The sheep lining encompasses my feet making me feel such coziness.

As I tip toe across the plethora of puddles I glance at my reflection. I look so sad as the tears start to glisten in my eyes. I think of my sweet Mama and her saying “this too shall pass remember there’s always pain, but the sun shines after the rain.” I smile as I wade through the murkiness of my emotions and see the rainbows reflection.

###

Celebrating Love by C. Jai Ferry

Rainbeau glanced at the chalkboard: hamburger, cheeseburger, and beer. Fish on Fridays, but today was Tuesday. Puddles was a lonely mom-and-pop bar—perfect for her first Valentine’s Day alone.

“A burger, I guess.” She smiled at the blue-coiffed septuagenarian not-so-patiently waiting for her order.

“That it?” The disgust was thick in the woman’s voice.

“And a coke?” Rainbeau added as an olive branch.

The woman shuffled away.

Rainbeau refused to let the woman’s cantankerous attitude steal her smile. She counted out the money for dinner. Tonight was the first of many celebrations. The divorce was final; she was free.

###

Delusional by FloridaBorne

“Rainbows!” I scoffed. “A delusion of colors.”

My son, far too smart for a 5 year old, asked, “Why?”

“My father told me there was a pot of gold at the end of one, and liked to chase them. We found a beauty at the edge of a muddy field. I jumped into a puddle up to my hips trying to find gold.”

“What did you find?”

“Bacteria,” I frowned. “ I was sick for days. It’s called dysentery.”

“Mom tells me to remember the love,” my son smiled sweetly.

“She should’ve thought of that before she divorced me.”

###

Raw Literature: Writing Grit

c-jai-ferryEssay by C. Jai Ferry, a member of the Congress of Rough Writers.

<< ♦ >>

Several years ago, scandal erupted in a small rural town, population 1,000. A female junior in high school contacted the school administration to say that one of her teachers had requested naked photos of her in exchange for a better course grade.

The townspeople were outraged. How dare this girl make up outlandish lies about such an upstanding teacher—a man who had been voted teacher of the year three times already in his relatively short tenure, who had won state-level accolades and was clearly a rising star? This girl was just looking for attention and needed to be put in her place.

And then a second girl, one who had already graduated, stepped forward with a similar experience.

Again the townspeople were outraged. How dare these girls conspire together to harm this innocent man. Didn’t they know what kind of harm they were causing to the school, the community, and the man’s family? The authorities needed to be called and the girls charged for their maliciousness.

So the authorities came for an investigation, and they charged the teacher, who pleaded guilty, after they found evidence on his computer that he had been requesting nude photos throughout his entire tenure at the school.

Once again the townspeople were outraged, this time reaching a fervor not often seen in such sleepy communities. How dare these girls not just keep their mouths shut? Clearly they had misunderstood the teacher’s propositions, reading something in his emails that simply was not there. Now his career was ruined because these girls had taken it upon themselves to send the teacher naked photos of themselves. Worse, the community was making headlines throughout the region—not for its economic revitalization efforts or its pristine parks and nature trails. The girls should be ashamed of themselves! Clearly they had no sense of community.

The teacher has already completed his three-year prison sentence, but many in the town still blame the girls, saying that they must have worn skimpy clothes that enticed the teacher, that they had to have intentionally manipulated him to say things that could be misrepresented to the authorities, and that they undoubtedly sent him unsolicited photos to get him into trouble.

The teacher pleaded guilty and went to jail. The numerous victims were publicly and viciously shamed. Those who could left the town, losing their families and their homes. Ask the townspeople about this situation today and many will respond that it was such a shame that the teacher had to give up such a promising career.

Yeah, too bad for that sexual predator.

Most readers are probably thinking that “normal” people wouldn’t react the way these townspeople did. But these were “normal” people. They went to church every Sunday, paid their bills on time, and were quick to step up when their neighbors were in trouble…except when their neighbors were female and the situation involved sex in any capacity.

The reality is that humans simply don’t come with pristine white cowboy hats or intense black cowboy hats. We wear shades of gray.

Search the internet for the world’s greatest predator and you will find websites boasting the ferocity of sabre-tooth cats, megalodon sharks, and dinosaurs that make the T-rex look like a baby kitten. In truth, the world’s greatest predator is humankind. We have the unique capabilities of free will, logic, and empathy, yet we routinely and repetitively harm and even destroy our own kind simply because we can. Tearing people down is commonplace in our world (although it is not a new development—not by a long shot), and it seems that hurting someone is easier for many people than standing up for that individual.

Most readers would probably argue that humans are, for the most part, good. I would agree with this. Yet every day we see more and more headlines about how a ten-year-old pushed his best friend into moving traffic, a college athlete raped an unconscious woman, and an aunt sold her teenage nieces to men in hotel rooms. Society goes to great lengths to find a way—any way—to set these individuals apart, underscoring that they are not the norm. They had difficult childhoods. They are mentally unstable. They recently changed their meds. They are too young to understand the consequences of their actions.

In our desperation to prove that we are not like these “evil” individuals, when none of our excuses work, we shift to victim blaming: the best friend had a history of bullying the ten-year-old, the unconscious woman was drunk so she should have known what would happen, the nieces could have just gone to the police for help, but they didn’t….

I think most people would agree that, in certain situations, humans will do the wrong thing if they feel pressured to choose the lesser of two evils. We have that capacity. But we console ourselves with the idea that these situations are the extreme; they would require us to choose between the survival of our loved ones and the harm or death of a stranger. In my writing, I explore just how easily humans make the wrong choice in everyday contexts. The worlds of my short stories focus on the guy next door, an elderly man missing his dead wife, a woman with inappropriate thoughts about her best friend’s husband. My characters deal with break-ups, infertility, cancer, rape, anger, frustration, abuse, and revenge—usually between cups of coffee or during a commercial break. Often my characters are simultaneously protagonists and antagonists; no one is categorically good or bad.

My stories will never be made into after-school specials. They are gritty and raw, tackling difficult issues that we all facecjaiferry_profile-picture-jpg at some point in our lives. I categorize my writing as “grit lit,” which is a type of gritty, raw literature (think Cormac McCarthy). Patrick Ledford describes grit lit characters as “desolate and volatile common folk who will do what they have to do to get the job done. Grit Lit is an uncensored, ‘balls to the wall,’ literary throwdown.”

For me, writing is inspired by characters who have made really, really bad choices in life or who find themselves in horrible situations. I take them back to a point in time when they would be perceived by society as “normal” and then let the story unfold from there. Sometimes I create a “normal” context for them and then, through the story, reveal that their normal is a far cry from the reader’s normal.

My biggest fear in my writing is that readers might accuse me of normalizing such unacceptable behaviors. For example, lately I have been focusing on trafficking contexts in my writing. I am working on a novel in which, in the near future, human trafficking has become the norm due to a biological threat to the human population. To understand the intricacies and relationships between trafficker and victim, I have been studying recent historical situations, like comfort women in Asia, as well as current trafficking situations in the West (and am shocked at how little progress we have made in stopping trafficking). I use my short stories to work out my own struggles to understand how societies accept such occurrences.

But if I write a story where the reader ultimately empathizes with a character who turns out to be more evil than good, am I normalizing the behavior of that character?

Normalization is not my goal. Rather, I try to draw attention to how seemingly everyday activities are actually laying the foundation for a society much darker, much more heinous. The kid sitting next to you at the doctor’s office could be tomorrow’s headline. The girl with her mother ahead of you in line at the grocery store could be a victim of trafficking. Your child’s favorite teacher could be a sexual predator. If we can’t identify and recognize the everyday behaviors that set the stage for the evil world lurking in the shadows, we will never be able to stop it from becoming a reality.

Humans are amazing creatures, and not just because of the atrocities we commit in the name of…well, whatever suits our fancy. We have this fascinating ability of self-realization. We can learn from our past mistakes. We can educate ourselves. We can work through the logic and see where our behaviors and actions today might lead us tomorrow. It’s not always an easy process, and it almost always requires us to confront ideas that make us squirm in our seats, but as long as we are willing to work through the uncomfortable, we have hope.

This is why I write grit lit.

***

skeleton-dance-generic unraveled-generic C. Jai Ferry grew up in a small rural town in one of those middle states between New York and Los Angeles. She put together her first book of poetry, complete with a lime green cover, for a class assignment in fifth grade. Today, she focuses on short stories with narrators who are often described as brutally honest and who likely need some form of professional help.

Her most recent cuntitled-designollection of microfiction, “Unraveled,” earned a 5-star review from Readers’ Favorites, and her award-winning short story “Skeleton Dance” was made into a short noir film that was chosen by the Prairie Lights Film Festival for its Nebraska Noir anthology project. To learn more about her publications, get a free collection of short stories by signing up for her newsletter, and read her (more or less) weekly musings and stories, visit www.cjaiferry.com.

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Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at wordsforpeople@gmail.com.

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