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November 25: Flash Fiction Challenge

The turkey roasts in the oven, a compound of sage, smoked sea salt, orange zest, cracked black pepper, and butter slid carefully beneath its skin. Every thirty minutes I will baste it with white wine, sage, and orange sauce.

Green beans and mushrooms slow cook in one crock, and French onion dressing cooks in the other. It took nearly an hour to carmelize the onions for the dressing and it will be worth the effort.

Outside on the porch, I have a second cooler thanks to the cold temperatures. The Reisling chills. Pumpkin pies I baked last night rest. The scalloped corn and candied yams wait their turn in the oven. Soon I will peel the potatoes, set out the olives and deviled eggs, and pull the Mills Family salad from the freezer.

There are two Mills for dinner. The family table set for two. I won’t linger on that thought. Instead, I focus on cooking the feast I cherished most to fix for my family.

We did get Facetime — Allison and Drew cuddling with their puppies on the farm where I will go tomorrow; Kyle and Leah at her mom’s place in Wisconsin where they are cutting backstraps from the deer my son shot this morning to the pride of his Hauck women; Brianna and full bar with 500 bottles of the best whiskey in Europe in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway.

Yesterday, as I ran errands and visited friends in town, I swung through Urban Rustics for a treat — a dark chocolate peppermint mocha. The barista asked if my dog wanted whip. Sure! Mause got a cup of whipped cream. She licked every inch of that cup and then ripped it to shreds. I saved half my decadent drink for this moment. For posting a new challenge while Thanksgiving stews in its juices.

This is one of those moments when every muscle relaxes. Ahhh…! I wish I could share the savory smells and the sweet sips with each of you.

Remember, your writing needs lulls like this, too. Where you let the hard work of plotting, drafting, character development, and world-building be. You, the author, need the equivalent of the best warm drink ever. Warm enough to soothe your aching bones. Sweet enough to melt your heart. If you have been hard at projects or NaNoWrimo, let it all rest. The feast will come together after you take this moment.

For our prompt, I want to give travel writing a shot in the arm. News has focused on holiday travels in the US. A local radio station offered the lamest “tips” for what to do if your flight is canceled — buy travel insurance and don’t get upset. It was such a useless report, I wondered if travel writers have left the field after a rough year and a half of a global pandemic.

Of course, here at the Ranch, we write stories — fiction, BOTS, and even poetry. I figured we’d all have more to offer on the subject of canceled flights. Anything can happen. Maybe we’d have better tips, too.

November 25, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write about a canceled flight. Where was the flight headed? Who does it impact and why? How does a protagonist handle the situation? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by November 30, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

A Relief by Charli Mills

Snow blew in horizontal lines. The gate agent assured the twenty-four passengers the flight would depart. Downstate, Clarice knew small planes as puddle-jumpers but above the Arctic Circle, they were called ice-breakers. She shuddered at unwanted images of airplanes crashing through expansive sea ice. She wrapped her arms around a worn travel bag, willing the screen above the single gate to read, FLIGHT CANCELED. Winds howled outside the Quonset hut. Clarice missed family, her cat, her university friends. Luck had landed her an internship on Baffin Island. Would her luck run out? The screen flickered. Others groaned. Clarice rejoiced.


November 18: Flash Fiction Challenge

Snow whirls from every direction. Lady Lake Superior conducts her frozen orchestra, each note a snowflake that adds to the howling concert. Snow is going to become an issue.

On the Keweenaw Peninsula of Upper Michigan, snow removal becomes a big deal. We often get over 300 inches of the white stuff. Today was the first big dump and I was the first neighbor to start scooping. Ordinary snow shovels won’t do. We need Yooper Scoopers.

I opened the garage to find a smaller shovel and one fell into my arms. I laughed, thinking about Liz Husebye Hartmann’s rakish romance from the prompt Carry On. I was excited to grab the shovel to clear my steps. Except, it was the wrong shovel. I leaned the disappointed gardening shovel back against the wall and found the square shovel instead. I’ll dance with the digging shovel next spring.

The steel scoops and shovels clang against paved driveways and cement steps. It’s a distinct scraping sound that can be heard by neighbors. Once someone within hearing distance initiates snow removal, others want to join in. We each have our own tools and we shout to one another over the roar of wind, friendly banter that will continue all snow season.

Now, some of you better acquainted with snow might wonder why we are shoveling in the storm. Most people who live in snowy places shovel or blow driveways after a storm passes. We don’t get storms like that. We get a chugging snow machine who creates her own weather. I’ve seen months when the snow never ceases. It might lessen, but it doesn’t stop. Going into snow season, the lake effect storms putter like bad gas in a snowblower. We’ve had lots of puttering, but the system is now fully operational.

We make hills as high as we can push a Yooper Scooper. The bottom of the scoop is like a sled. You don’t lift snow with this tool, you push and scatter it, eventually building giant debris hills of white. If the accumulations are deep, we have to think about removal. One year, some neighbors hired a loader to remove snow so they could continue to scoop their driveways. We have an effective piling system, and as of yet, we have not required the services of a big tool like a loader.

The City of Hancock employs workers between 2:30-7:30 am to remove snow from streets. As a late-night writer, it’s one of my winter pleasures to watch the machinery and dump trucks parade up and down Roberts Street in the wee hours when no one else is awake. For now, they will plow and grade. By the New Year, I’ll have a front-row seat to all the snow removal tools.

And speaking of tools, it’s time to consider tools of revision.

Many writers confuse revision with editing. They are not the same thing and each requires different tools. A lot of writers skip revision because they don’t understand how to do it. Or, find the creation of a Revision Plan too difficult. It is a lot of work. Just like removing snow. But it comes with the territory of being a writer. As a reformed pantser, I discovered that I love the process of revision.

First, consider the work you are dreaming or drafting. I say dreaming in reference to pre-writing activities. Currently, I’m dreaming my next novel. I’m writing some flash fiction with a protagonist in mind, curious about her story. I’m exploring, hoping to learn more. My next novel is churning in my imagination. Pre-writing is dream-time. It’s also plotting, mapping a character arc, and planning.

You cannot jump from dreaming to revising. Revising requires that sloppy first draft. Whatever you want to call it — sloppy, shitty, ugly — be sure to respect it. Can we find a more accepting word to describe first drafts? We have to tell ourselves the story first (or let our characters or muses inform us). To me, that’s raw literature. It’s a body of writing at its freshest. It’s vulnerable. It’s lost. It’s brilliant. It’s not finished, yet.

In fact, it’s only just begun.

This is the kind of love we must have for our raw first drafts.

A Revision Plan acknowledges the hard work of dreaming and drafting coming together to produce this literary love child you proudly call your MS. Your manuscript. A Revision Plan sets out to feed, nurture, educate, and grow this bookchild to the best of our ability. Think of it as your toolbox to fix or keep the pages humming like a powerful engine.

The way I create a Revision Plan is in sections. There are four:

  1. Structure
  2. Content
  3. Research
  4. Correctness

Structure gives shape to all that draft material. Think of this — if your raw draft were kale, what is your intended dish? A hip kale salad with cherry vinaigrette? A kale frittata with lion’s mane mushrooms? Baked kale chips with curry powder? Kale stir fry with scallops and sesame seeds? Structure asks you to consider your genre, tropes, and audience as much as your plot points, paring back scenes to purpose, and changing the hair color of your character. You want to collect these sort of tools:

Content covers what goes into your structure. Be aware that content is layered. You need a variety of tools:

Research is anything you need to verify to create verisimilitude. When you invite readers into your story you want them to believe, to feel the tension, imagine the setting, and connect to the protagonist.

Correctness is part of editing, but more. It includes getting your genre right or meeting standards for manuscripts. Are your dialog tags and punctuation correct? Make a list of misspelled words, wobbly grammar rules, and any craft confusion that you need to double-check.

What goes into your Revision Plan is as unique as your style of writing, intended audience, publishing path, and the material you plan to revise. It’s multilayered and is a process that is repeated. Once you begin to make your own lists under each section, you can refine your tools.

Time to get dreaming about tools, any tools.

November 18, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write about tools. Whose tools are they and how do they fit into the story? What kind of tools? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by November 30, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Pike’s Peak or Bust by Charli Mills

Bertie packed her father’s carpentry tools along with her calico dresses. The rest of his estate she sold to buy passage on the Merry Rover, a flat-bottomed steamship of the Missouri River. Somewhere, out there, where the sun set in streaks of orange and pink was her destiny. She learned the trade of building boxes and houses from her father, although none of the locals would hire her on account that she wore a skirt. Out west, her skills were needed, and she reckoned convention of gender wouldn’t matter as much. Pike’s Peak was not a bust for Bertie.


November 11: Flash Fiction Challenge

The waves at the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula are crashing to shore seventeen feet high. A freighter has taken safe harbor in Keweenaw Bay. It’s Veteran’s Day in the US and I’m listening to Mary Gauthier’s “Rifle & Rosary Beads” album as I drive to campus to teach. In the parking lot outside Nikkander Hall, I text my “Sixers” to thank them for their service. One is my SIL, one is D., and the other is a local counselor who serves veteran families.

Sixers are those who have your back. In military lingo, what you can see is reported as if a soldier is facing noon on a clock. Font and left would be ten o’clock. Front and right two. Directly behind a soldier is a blind spot. Brothers (sisters, too) watch each other’s six.

I couldn’t do what I do every day, which is to get up and face the damn day, without knowing I have support. Sixers are top-tier support. I also have the support of my Veteran community, my Copper Country community, my Carrot Ranch community, my Water Walker community, my three kids, and a handful of family, including my veteran cousins. Then there’s the support of my wellness toolbox contained in the Unicorn Room — writing, meditation, ancestors, spirit guides, and rock medicine — and in the hope of kayaking sloughs.

I have an arsenal of support. I need an arsenal. As Mary Gauthier asks in her song, War After the War, “Who’s gonna care for the ones who care for the ones who go to war?”

In return, I give support. My friends and family. My communities. My students. My Warrior Sisters. And my veteran spouse who is at the center of my life’s craziness. It wasn’t always this way. But it’s extremely complicated. PTSD meets cognitive demise elevates my daily living to what the Warrior Sisters and I call “battlecare.” Caregiver doesn’t quite cover what we do as veteran spouses. We are a strange misunderstood invisible overwhelmed clan. Venting to one another, we feel heard and witnessed. We also “get” each other’s situations.

Thanksgiving, for example, has been looming like a black cloud. It used to be my favorite holiday — the menu-crafting, marathon cooking, feasting, playing board games, and eating leftovers for a week. It comes at the dark of the year and fills the home with savory aromas, family, and light. But not this year. The middlest is in the Arctic. The youngest is newly married and keeps a safe distance. The eldest is nearby but refuses to be near her father. His condition scares her. It scares me, too. I have a safety plan, go bag, and daily drive-bys from the Hancock Police. My Sixers and local community can request a welfare check at any time. They have. The Chief of Police is friendly with my husband. He’s military and has a friend who was in the Rangers, too.

Did I mention it’s complicated? Lately, I prefer calling it crazy. When my husband hears me saying it’s crazy in our house, he agrees. “Mause,” he says. It’s not the pup. There are moments he flashes who I used to know. Often, the next moment reminds me we are in an evolving normal. Sometimes he makes me laugh. Sometimes I laugh because it’s all too crazy, like turning on the snowblower because the neighbor woke him up with a leaf blower. Then taking the pup for a three-mile hike with me desperate to figure out how to kill the snowblower belching fumes into the house.

Watching my life fall apart at the seams that no longer hems my marriage is sad. Like deeply sad. Like waves cresting at seventeen feet sad. Sad enough that I want to cry, listening to Mary croon the pain of my veteran community. But then, I turn my thoughts to gratitude. Grateful for strong friends, for the collective wisdom of my Warrior Sisters, and for time with my children, when I get it. I don’t take love for granted. Love is the best thing we can give and receive. It makes me a more loving community member, a more loving teacher, and weirdly enough despite the fear of conditions and circumstances, a more loving spouse.

Letting go has been a major theme for me this year. Finding moments of respite, another. I’ve been working doggedly since starting my MFA that I hardly feel like I finished it, yet here I am teaching, ghost-writing, and even building websites. I’m writing and revising, researching and exploring. If I take a break I have to work up to it and catch up after. That’s not ideal, but I’m aiming to wrap up big client projects, overcome the learning curve as an adjunct, and complete the development of my writing and coaching career. Letting go without giving up is what it means to carry on.

Carrying on is a lot of work but it is not going to be hard forever. Or maybe it gets harder. Who knows? I don’t.

If my life story were a novel, I’d call this the “mushy middle.” It’s when the protagonist has left one shore but not fully arrived at the other and now the waves and wind have kicked up. If you are the author, you might know where your novel starts and ends, but after writing scenes and chapters you have lost control of the story’s form. A mushy middle is not a writing problem, it’s a storytelling issue.

I’m in a mushy middle because I don’t know what my story is at the moment. Is it too late for me to have a college teaching profession? Will I ever publish any of my manuscripts? Will anyone sign up for coaching? Will I get to offer workshops again? Will I stay married? Stay tuned.

What if you are in the throes of a first draft (hint: NaNoWriMo) and the middle is oozing all around you and you feel like you’ve lost the point? Go back to basics. What is your story? Do cause and effect drive the action? This is your plot. Does a character transform? How and why? This is your character arc.

One reason a novel gets mushy in the middle is because of the backstory. In the first draft, we discover. It matters to us, as the authors, what happened to our protagonist at the age of nine years old. We need to find out her favorite food, his greatest dislike, and their deepest secrets. But pages and pages probably don’t fit into The Story our book will become. Don’t fret. You need as much material as possible to begin the revision process.

Remember that planning I talked about several weeks ago? Pantsers, you don’t get to escape it. And planners, you might be wondering why the best-laid plot has gone awry. Pull out of the story mush and flash-plan. Have fun with 99-word possibilities. What if your character… What if your story… You don’t have to commit pages to play with possible scenarios. Just 99-words. You can also summarize your book in 99-words. Practicing your pitch or book jacket blurb (back of the book) is a good way to gain a different viewpoint on your story.

Here are some Mushy Middle resources that got me through my MFA:

After class, after thanking my Sixers and Warrior Sisters for their service, after all, they carry the burdens of those who went to war, I held class. Listening to my students in peer critique groups warmed my heart. They make me want to workshop for the rest of my life with writers. Students helping students, writers helping writers, what a wonderful world. The gale winds blasted Nikkander Hall. I got caught squatting in a classroom not assigned to me. I assured the other instructor that we’d be out by the time her class arrived. She left and we chuckled. I said, “Someone finally noticed.” I’m used to invisibility and leveraging it to my advantage. Why not? I’m only trying to do good. My class deserves the space required to workshop. I like the feeling I get went I’m looking out for others in a way that will improve their lives.

That’s the thing about service. About veterans. Yes, it’s difficult. Yes, it’s painful. Yes, it can be dangerous, unfair, and even unjust. But it’s not about the individual. It’s about serving something bigger than ourselves. That feeling brothers (sisters) in arms get when facing battle. That feeling that sparks a veteran spouse when advocating for the quality of life for her wounded warrior. That feeling when we shelter another in the storm. The importance of doing what it takes to carry on.

It wasn’t always crazy. I came across a story Todd wrote in 2011. Before we knew anything was wrong. I want to honor him, this Veteran’s Day by sharing his story in his own words:


To get to the Battalion you had to pass RIP (for enlisted E-5 and below) ROP (E-6 and above) Not sure on that one but it doesn’t matter because I was an E-1 which put me cleary taking the RIP route. Anyhow, we get there and get issued our camoflage fatigues and wait for the rest of the Battalion to come back off block leave for Christmas. Then we PT’d twice daily. We did hand to hand in the pit. Ran/crawled through the ‘worm pit’/obstacle course. Which was sawdust dumped into a dugout pit, with barbed wire staked over the top of it. Except for times when it was really cold, it was flooded when we ran it. RIP instructors would piss in it before we made our run, just to mess with our heads. We learned our knots and all the other Ranger necessities before we we were shipped off to our companies. Of course we met Battalion standards for the Run and road-march. Run five miles in under 40 minutes and roadmarch 12 miles with full combat load in under three hours. Upon arriving at B Co. we immediately deployed to Texas for a month.

Todd Mills, Ranger Airborne 1st BN 75th INF B Company 1981-1985

In letting go of how things used to be, I’m embracing new adaptability. For Thanksgiving, I’m making all of Todd’s favorites. We might have some students over. We will watch football and A Christmas Story. We will call the kids. Call our parents. Take Mause on a long walk along the Masto Hitto Trail where she can run and flush grouse. On Friday, I will go spend the day and night with my eldest and her husband at their farm. They will wait to celebrate Thanksgiving until then. My daughter says it will give her a day after work to clean and relax. Maybe some of their friends will join us. Definitely, we will play board games and play with their two new farm puppies, Uther and Oberon (Utie and Obie). In December, after classes end, I will go spend time with my youngest and his wife. I’ll check in on Todd. He’ll sleep, walk the dog, maybe go to the range. Maybe I’ll join him, and maybe it will make him happy. Who knows? But I will try. I will let go of expectations. I will adapt and carry on.

To all who serve — including the invaluable support of those who serve the veteran community — to all the advocates, warriors, and poets, to the storytellers and teachers, to those who serve their communities and families, you are seen. You are witnessed. Thank you.

For my Warrior Sisters:

Who’s gonna care for the ones who care for the ones who went to war?
There’s landmines in the living room and eggshells on the floor
I lost myself in the shadow of your honor and your pain
You stare out of the window as our dreams go down the drain

Invisible, the war after the war

I get no basic training, I get no purple heart
I’m supposed to carry on, I can’t fall apart
People look at you and thank you for the sacrifice you made
They look at me and smile and say I’m lucky you’re okay

Invisible, the war after the war

But I’m a soldier too, just like you
Serving something bigger than myself
And I serve unseen, caught in between
My pain and the pain of someone else

But I’m stronger than you think I am
I’m right here by your side
I am not your enemy, I don’t wanna fight
There’s no going back in time, I know you’re not the same
But you are not the only one for whom the world has changed

Invisible, the war after the war

Mary Gauthier, War After the War

November 11, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story using the phrase “carry on.” It can be an expression of perseverance or behaving in a particular way. It can even be luggage you take when traveling. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by November 16, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Sharing the Load by Charli Mills

Max rested her sea bag against her good leg, the one that survived Iraq. Delta Airlines employees huddled like amateur football players, pretending they had a game plan. Without flinching, Max waited for them to okay her carry-on. She resisted the urge to twitch her nose or wiggle her fingers. A grunt could stand at ease in the worst conditions. A woman with white hair approached Max and loudly asked, “Are you a veteran?” Max smiled and nodded. All it took was for one person to notice and the burden shifted. She got to board with her sea bag.


November 4: Flash Fiction Challenge

Hail the size of popcorn kernels announced the second return of a local event — Lady Lake Superior has turned on her snow-making machine. Late as she is, she’s back. Hail softened to flakes big and downy as chicken feathers. A couple of inches covered rooftops. My weather app can’t predict lake-effect snow, but to its credit, technology attempts to keep pace. Officially, we have recorded two inches of snow.

The Big News, however, is that 41 North Film Fest has returned after a pandemic hiatus. I had never been to a film festival before going to the one hosted at Michigan Tech University. Typically, these cinematic events feature independent films from a diversity of filmmakers.

Maybe I can blame our film noir columnist, Bill Engleson. His latest Tales From the Silver Screen is a compelling reason to study story through film. Cinema gives us a dual-lens approach to issues and art through perspective and originality. Take the film, All Light, Everywhere by Theo Anthony. He connects the development of cameras and weapons to policing and justice. Yet, he also set out to create a beautifully artistic look at ugly social issues.

It might not be noir, but a film festival is a comprehensive cinematic statement on the current condition of the world from cats to artificial intelligence. It is art, expression, absurdity, awareness. And with the snow, it is coming to my town.

What does film have to do with NaNoWriMo? Inspiration!

National Novel Writing Month challenges writers to draft daily for thirty days. While many hope to achieve the 50,000-word count by November 30, the real magic happens when writers realize they can cultivate a daily practice of their craft. Even if one doesn’t hit the big goal, the understanding of limits is just as valuable. It’s important to learn if you are a binge writer (hand raised) or a daily sprinter. It’s practical to learn your daily or weekly word count.

It’s vital to learn what fuels your inner writing engine. I’m talking Muses and Inspiration. No writer can spew stories without absorbing life. All artists require a full well.

“In filling the well, think magic. Think delight. Think fun. Do not think duty. Do not do what you should do—spiritual sit-ups like reading a dull but recommended critical text. Do what intrigues you, explore what interests you; think mystery, not mastery.”

~ Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity

Inspiration is linked to your passion. What excites you? Take your inner writer kayaking, hiking, snowboarding, or wind-surfing. Go watch people. Find solitude in nature. Visit a museum, art gallery, or food market. Watch a performance, listen to live music, or take dance classes. Play in the snow, the sand, the attic. Play.

This week, in ENG I, I created a 41 North Film Fest playlist of shorts, trailers, and interviews to capture a taste of the film festival. While they watched, they had to jot down moments of inspiration — a reaction to what they saw or heard. They then had to write a 99-word story from that spark and will share it in class. Then they will work in small groups to discuss how they can expand their story into 450-900 words. Next week, they will peer critique their longer drafts and have one more opportunity to finalize their short story.

Even if you arent in my class or writing a marathon 50k words this month, pause to reflect upon your own sources of inspiration. You can share them in the comments. For your story, come along to the film festival with me!

November 4, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a film festival. It can be a small-town indie fest or the Festival de Cannes or anything in between. Who is in the story? An audience-goer, filmmaker, actress, or something unexpected? Through in some popcorn for fun. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by November 9, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Film Fest Debut by Charli Mills

Whiskers tickled Barnyard Betsy’s arm. She patted her lead horse, Magic, her hand shaking. Two country souls about to debut at a big city film festival. BB had never attended a “fest,” but this movie was different. An independent documentary. Instead of her horses acting, a filmmaker caught the relationship between movie wrangler and herd. The promoters wanted BB and Magic to meet movie-goers. Terrified she’d have to put on one of those sparkling sausage casings of a dress, she was relieved they liked her idea of looking authentically Nevadan. The crowd roared when Magic pooped on the carpet.


October 28: Flash Fiction Challenge

All those years, driving up the North Shore of Lake Superior to the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area, I missed Great Lakes Candy Kitchen. Was it the smell of smoked fish lingering in the air of Knife River that hid the sweet scents of vat-stirred confections? With a bit of sleuthing, I realize that the candy kitchen and I missed like two Great Lakes freighters passing on a moonless night.

For ten years, my family camped along the Gunflint Trail with our tents, dogs, and red Coleman canoe. I savored the North Shore drive that hugged the craggy coast of Lake Superior on the Minnesota side. Knife River, twenty miles north of Duluth, was our first official stop. Smoked salmon. The smell would fill our Expedition and our mouths watered until we found a way-stop where we’d picnic and watch the waves crash to shore.

I never saw the candy kitchen.

Turns out, the last camping trip we ever took as a family was in 2007 when we camped in northern Wisconsin instead because we were taking our eldest to college at Northland College. That same year, the third-generation candy-makers from the Iron Range opened their shop on the scenic North Shore. We never returned to the North Shore, shifting our camping and Lake Superior outings to the Chequamegon Bay. By 2012, I was living the dream — writing my first stab at a manuscript from the picturesque communities of northern Wisconsin. That was the year I discovered bobbing in the waves of Lake Superior, something not possible on the North Shore.

All along, Lady Lake has wrapped me up in a siren’s call, luring me from my mountains of the West.

A good friend later purchased a timeshare at a North Shore resort outside of Knife River. Where my timeline dropped off, hers picked up. She’s only known the North Shore with the candy kitchen, and I only knew it without. Until last week. At first, I was shocked that my kids and I had no idea such delectable chocolates and sea salt caramels existed. Although the family has been in business for three generations, they didn’t open this location until after 2007.

And, you don’t have to visit in person. After the busy season, they shift their sales to online (November 1 — what a way to kick off NaNoWriMo).

The North Shore had felt like wilderness to me, all those years ago. I suppose it still is, but I had no idea about Madeline Island or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan until later. Now, it feels overly commercialized. There are few public beaches and most are state parks. Unlike Michigan, Minnesota has outlawed the collection of rocks and agates along what few pebble beaches it has. However, my friend has purchased time in a condo she shares with other owners on a rotating schedule, and her place faces due east — sunrises and splashing waves.

It was cozy to sleep on my camping pad in front of the gas fireplace with one of the huge picture windows cracked to let in the crisp air and sound of the surf. We shared good meals, and I had my first-ever Bloody Mary. I got to hike along Gooseberry Falls, look (not touch) agates along the beach at a state park, and watch eagles wheel overhead as if to welcome one of Nibi’s friends to the other side of the Big Lake. The full moon rose over the water, painting a silver path. I got to taste some of the best chocolates ever, share good food, and coat my nails in cherry bonbon glitter. And, the car I rented was upgraded at no extra cost to a Mini Cooper! It was a fun trip and yet good to return to my community and classroom.

The weather has since shifted. I feel the cold in my bones and a call to hibernate during the dark of the year. I remind myself that it is sunny Down Under. Somewhere there is warmth and light. It will return. Time to prepare for snow. Time to take a deep breath and steady the resolve for NaNoWriMo.

I’m not a participant this year, but I will offer NaNo Mentoring. I will cheer your efforts, listen to your woes in the official NaNoWriMo group for Rough Writers, and offer tips. When it comes to mentoring, I’m aware that all writers are different. It can help you to absorb this truth. Why? Because writers often compare themselves to others or expectations. This week, before NaNoWriMo starts, whether you are participating or not, write a love letter to your inner writer.

Acknowledge your hopes and dreams. Recognize your efforts. Look for growth in your craft. Count your celebrations, big or small. Give your inner writer some love. Be generous, kind, and accepting.

All writers suffer from doubt. In fact, the very first article in my MFA program was all about writers and the imposter syndrome. Read the article before you craft your letter. If you feel scared, recognize the truth that writing matters to you. If you feel you are behind, different, or not good enough, recognize the lies of self-doubt. Every week at Carrot Ranch, don’t we see how beautiful and compelling variety is? If you must compare yourself, do it in a healthy way. Learn what you admire in other writers. Study the craft. Read (listen to the spoken word or watch films) to learn how stories are felt and shared. Let your inner writer grow.

That’s the best way you can prepare for any writing project as big and intimidating and thrilling as NaNoWriMo. And if this isn’t your year to tackle it, so what? It isn’t mine and I’m volunteering to be a cheerleader to those who are! So join me in that endeavor. And if you are committing to the big NaNo Event, don’t fret if you discover that your capacity for daily word count is less than what is required. Either you will binge when you have longer stretches of time, or you will learn what your daily limit is.

Keep on writing. Your writing vision belongs to you, and you alone. Strategies, tools, time, and energy will come and go like seasons. But your inner writer will remain. Remember the “power of yet.”

October 28, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that features a candy kitchen. You can interpret the phrase creatively or stick to the traditional. Is it sweet? Ironic? Any genre will do. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by November 2, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Ranch Candy by Charli Mills

Red paint smeared across a box flap declared, “Bailey’s Candiey Kichun.” Jolene eyed the boss’s daughter who’d set up shop on the cookshack table. The crew sauntered in, and Bailey explained confections and prices. Bittersweet chocolate chunks sprinkled with dried garlic. A dime. Butter rolled in coffee grounds. A quarter. Balls of bread softened in pickle juice. A nickel. Change and delicacies exchanged hands.

Bailey wiped the table and gathered her mama’s plates. “Well, ain’t you gonna eat your candy?”

Hank said, “Jolene don’t like us eatin’ sweets ‘fore breakfast.” Everyone nodded vigorously.

“Why, Hank Barret, that ain’t so.”


October 14: Flash Fiction Challenge

The west-facing wall of my Unicorn Room holds two important developmental tools of my craft. A three-foot by three-foot cork board displays a visual representation of the plot and character arc for my thesis novel and a similar-sized white board shows the bones of a story in progress. One is a Vision Board and the other a W-storyboard. Above the W, purple vinyl letters on shell-pink paint read, “No mud, no lotus.”

This quote, the title of Thich Nhat Hanh’s book on mindful living, reminds me to embrace the mud required to write books from within the depths of my mind, heart, and soul. Some might mistake my long process for perfectionism. That is not what I seek in my writing. I aim for truth which takes years of diving into the mud, trusting the lotus to bloom.

Not everyone writes the same way. Some barely process at all and yet, make wonders of surface material. I think of writers who naturally observe the details of people and write stories — drama, horror, comedy — with flair and ease. Others write with intellect, emotion, or both. Some dabble when the mood strikes. Many follow the story that begs for release.

No matter planner, pantser, or plantser, every writer encounters mud.

Planners do exactly what it sounds like they do — they plan. I hold an image of my eldest in mind. From an early age, she planned her life in lists. She journals and monitors data. When she was 12, she convinced me to track the number of infant and mother mortalities in the graveyards where I collected stories. She wanted to track and discern. Today she works for a science data organization, planning communications between scientists and media. She plans before she writes with the precision of a Dungeon Master.

Pantsers are the free-spirited writers chasing the lead of a story by the seat of their pants. Pantsers live in perpetual media res. They don’t know the beginning or the end, they write what comes to them and follow what unfolds. They don’t know the plot; that’s what they are writing to discover. They love their characters and fall in love with the dozens more that step out onto their pages. They don’t whip the WIP, they ride it into the sunset.

Plantsers combine the elements of planning with the discovery of free-writing. Some plantsers outline from the beginning and others track their plot as it unfolds. Every writer eventually comes to terms with the reality of needing both attributes. Planners have to draft their plans and pantsers have to frame their drafts. Both will come to a tentative, “The End,” and require a Revision Plan. It’s revision that confounds many writers. But we aren’t there yet.

We are talking mud because it’s time to embrace the suck, which is warrior slang for accepting the friction that comes from facing the unpleasant inevitable. Writers face the mud when planning or pantsing stalls. No matter your best laid plans or your pages of drafting, the story will get stuck. It’s part of the process. We anticipate mud this time of year because it is NaNoPlaNo. Time to plan (yes, Pantsers, this includes you) for National Novel Writing Month.

This year, Carrot Ranch will be a NaNoWriMo Mentor. Once a week, I’ll offer tips and encouragement to participants, which will be useful for all writers beyond the month-long event. I’ve started The Congress of Rough Writers group at NaNoWriMo and if you want to join, you need to send me your official member handle at the site. If you have never NaNoed before and want to go for it, I’ll help you get started. Email me at I’m a huge fan of the event and organization. NaNoWriMo is an incubator, global community, and the best writing tool for drafting (yes, Planners, this tool is for you, too).

The reason I have a Vision Board and W-Storyboard mounted on the wall opposite from where I meditate and commune with Unicorns is because I want/need kinesthetic tools for my craft. I interact with both boards, involving my body in the mind and heart process of writing. I also create music playlists and dance when I’m stuck mentally. I believe in mudding tools.

99-words is a tool, too. NaNoWriMo is sixteen 99-word stories a day. It takes five minutes to draft 99-words, so roughly it will take an hour and a half to write 1,667 words a day. That’s speed drafting, which happens on the good days. Count on three hours of writing on the slowest days. NaNoWriMo teaches you the value of stick-to-it-ness. In 30 days you will have gone from 99 words to 50,000.

The best way to deal with the mud is to plan for it (settle down, Planners; stop whining Pantsers).

I may as well say it. “Hi, I’m Charli Mills and I’m a recovering Pantser.” My deep processing and pantsing inclination seemed a match made in Muse Heaven but not so. They languished, lost in the wilderness of never-ending-stories. I’ve learned to use planning for my deep processing and to allow pantsing during dream time (pre-writing phase) and scheduled drafting stints. My profs were right — never again will I draft a novel without a Plan. My MFA program introduced me to tools and I will share some of them with you. I encourage you to explore each one, try them on, and keep what fits. I’ve created my own hybrid of planning starting with the simple and ending with the complexity of combined plot and character arc that I can map on my W.

NaNoPlaNo (Planning for Drafting)

A few other resources can help you in the planning phase, or be used as references throughout your drafting. One is TV Tropes. We’ve used this resource at Carrot Ranch to develop wickedly fun and unexpected prompts during the TUFF challenges. It details genres you didn’t even know existed. It’s a great way to jumpstart plotting or character development. The other is a Name Generator. There is nothing worse than getting stuck in the mud because you can’t come up with a quick name for the character who just walked onto the page.

I’d like to welcome any writers from Finlandia, especially those in Helsinki Slang, the university writing group. I’ll be planning weekly NaNoWriMo Write-ins with our fabulous campus library and providing a Zoom Room for any Carrot Ranchers who want to write-in, too. If you have NaNoWriMo questions, you can add them to the comments and stories below. If anyone in the community wants to answer, please join in! We all embrace the power of diverse perspectives and lived experiences at the Ranch.

And before we embrace the mud, please note the extended deadline. I will be on the North Shore of my beloved Lady Lake Superior for a week in Two Harbors, Minnesota with a dear Minneapolis friend who has a condo. I get to teach classes via Zoom and sit by the fireplace in between hikes, train rides, agate hunting, and working on client projects. I’m currently wrapping up a book I’ve been researching and editing since June and have two days to finish it. And I survived my first mid-term grading period.

Life is good, though muddy at times.

“Without suffering, there’s no happiness. So we shouldn’t discriminate against the mud. We have to learn how to embrace and cradle our own suffering and the suffering of the world, with a lot of tenderness.”

~ Thích Nhất Hạnh

October 14, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story embraces the mud. What is the mud, real or metaphor? How does it transform a character or place? What happens? Go where the prompt leads!

EXTENDED DEADLINE Respond by October 26, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Face Down in the Mud by Charli Mills

Max howled when her ankle buckled, sending her face first into the Keweenaw mud. Rain pounded. The trail morphed into a rivulet. She refused to drown in a mud puddle. She pushed up; her upper body still Marine-strong. That blasted leg. Useless foot. Unreliable ankle. Her second howl had nothing to do with unhealable soft tissue. Without her unit, without a purpose, life sucked. Embrace the suck. She managed to rise to one knee, the other leg mired. When her dad emerged from the woods, her relief was genuine. Even if he was wearing a wet pink gauze skirt.


October 7: Flash Fiction Challenge

Take a walk in the cemetery with me. Come on, it’s October, a time of seasonal transition in both hemispheres, and I’m itching to catch stories. Gravestones contain the tales of people who once lived where we do. History for those who can read between the rows of marble and lines etched in stone.

Many writers tingle at the mention of a local bookstore. Others revere libraries. Me, I’m a cemetery geek through and through. And what could be better than a local National Park offering a tour of the dead and buried? A tour led by a local historian and fellow graveyard geek.

Meet Ranger Lynette of the Keweenaw National Historic Park.

Full disclosure: Ranger L is my hero. She not only researches, she gathers stories and allows them to haunt her the way writers work with characters. I could sit late into the night and listen to her collected stories of the Keweenaw.

When the KNHP advertised fall tours of Lake View Cemetery on the fringes of Calumet, I felt a jolt of excitement. I knew October was going to be a busy slog into the long winter, so I decided to take a guided evening stroll among 35,000 buried stories. The cemetery is so large that our tour clocked over a mile of walking.

We began at the veterans section where one stately memorial honored soldiers of the Civil and Spanish Wars and a block of granite acknowledge the burials of other soldiers with missing markers. Ranger L pointed out the marker of Louis Schweigert. Behind his white marble veteran’s grave were the plots of most of his family. Except daughter Caroline, who remains buried at Schoolcraft Cemetery on the other side of Calumet. On June 17, 1873 the seven-year-old girl was found murdered, leading to several accusations and one questionable confession by a teen nephew who later claimed he did not do the foul deed. To this day, her murder remains a mystery. I find it sad and curious that she is interred alone elsewhere. I foresee a headstone hunt in the abandoned cemetery next spring, and archive diving over winter. Ranger L has been researching the murders of women in the Copper Country.

Justice whispers on the wind through the cemetery trees.

Lake View is divided into two cemeteries, one Catholic and one Protestant. Immigrants on both sides abound. The copper mines attracted families seeking work and a better life. That life didn’t always turn out. For the first time, I paid respects to the victims of the Italian Hall Disaster.

Copper mines took advantage of workers and families lost homes when mining accidents claimed the lives of husbands. The company owned everything — the land, the ore, the houses, the stores. Miners went on strike for fairer conditions in July 1913. By Christmas, children were suffering the impact of the strike and Big Annie gathered other women who had fought along side their men to host a Christmas party for the children at the Italian Hall. Mothers and children from various faiths and countries attended. When a thug yelled, “Fire!” a crush of women and children fled and perished in the stairwell. This disaster still hangs over the Copper Country.

Stories from cemeteries are not all horrific, though. We can learn much through the observation of icons. Hands, for example. It’s common for one spouse to hold hands with another on a grave marker. Have you ever noticed different cuffs? One is a wife, the other a husband. Today, we could have same cuffs on a grave which society would have denied. Some hands, like the one below, reveal secret handshakes. Today, we could engrave fist bumps.

Someone took great pains to decorate a marker with pebbles from Lake Superior (and ,yeas, I examined all the rocks eagerly). Ranger L referred to such markers as folk art. Today, cemetery associations forbid home-made gravestones, including hand-carved slabs of Jacobsville Sandstone.

Some cultures included porcelain photographs on gravestones. They are not common to the cemeteries I’ve studied out west, but Lake View has several.

Veterans are often buried in family plots beyond the military section. I keep an eye out for the bronzed or marble markers. I feel a sense of relief when I see a person lived beyond their combat era. Those who died in combat compel me to look up their units and battle records. Of course, I’m always keen to find military graves of women.

The occasional beer can shows up and I wonder if the resident chipmunks had a party while gathering acorns or if a friend left a cold one.

Cemetery humor is a must for breaking up the sadness of life and the spookiness of wandering among the dead. I laughed when I saw the last name of Geist so proudly proclaimed. Is this where they buried Polter? I hope not! Moving on I noticed the curious coverings on more modern graves. Ranger L explained that families often “winterize” graves, urns and solar lights. I also look for character names. Bessie Bloy is a great name, don’t you think?

Stories are the hallmark of any cemetery. Ranger L’s astute sleuthing uncovered not only the grave of a Titanic survivor, but that of one buried at sea. The story goes, Anges Edwards of Cornwall had a grown son working the mines of Kearsarge (near Calumet). Recently widowed with two sons at home, one a boy, the other a young man of 20, she sold her home and bought passage on the Titanic. She awoke when the ship struck the fateful iceberg. The stewards told her to remain in her berth but curiosity drove them to go up deck. She and her boy were placed in the third lifeboat. She begged for them to let her older son come with her. The boat was hardly full and when lowered, other men, giving into their instinct to live, climbed or leapt into the lowering boats. Her son, Joseph Nicholls, died that night. His marker rests beside hers.

As we neared the end of our tour, Ranger L pointed out a tombstone with a book that read, “Mother.” I took a writerly interest in the feature although it likely symbolizes that Mother’s book is complete.

The final whisper of the evening came from the living. An elderly man reached high into a tree to pluck seed pods. Curious, I asked him about it. He broke apart the pod to reveal the seeds of hophornbeam (ironwood). He told me that he plants tree seeds where the mines left behind barren poor rock. I found that an interesting act, to plant something one would never live to see. An act of faith. Appropriate ending for our tour. Thank you for joining me!

October 7, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that includes whispers. It can be beautiful or creepy and any genre. Where are the whispers, who are they from, and what do they say if they say anything at all. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by October 12, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Whispers by Charli Mills

Jane swung, pumping her legs to gain height. The wooden swing her father hung grew in the red oak her great-grandfather planted as a teenager. Jane never knew Romeo Tonti, an immigrant, but when she reached high enough she heard him whisper through the rustle of leaves. Jane learned the family recipe for spaghetti – use fresh rosemary – and how to splice a crab apple into a honeycrisp tree – for pollination, nipotina. Her mother proclaimed to the other soccer moms that her daughter was a cooking and gardening prodigy. He father would smile and wink. He heard the whispers, too.


September 30: Flash Fiction Challenge

I might as well be floating on water. The day that unfolded was the kind of perfect pool day you can find anywhere in the world when stars, weather, and serendipity aligns. This was a happy chance of a day and I’m buoyant.

Remember last week when I showed up early for the Angeline Boulley presentation because I was so excited? Well, the actual event happened today. And it exceeded my expectations. Today was a good day to be a writer.

First, I dismissed myself early from class to give them privacy to complete teacher evaluations. It was a novelty to be the one cutting out early. One of my students, a natural at creative writing, gathered the evals and delivered them. ENG I received an early lesson in analytical essays to prepare for a late-in-the-lesson-plan decision to watch a movie next week, Indian Horse. We learned about Orange Shirt Day (September 30) and I wanted my class to be prepared in case Ms. Boulley or any of our Anishinaabe community arrived wearing orange. It sparked a discussion about residential schools and I decided that we could watch Indian Horse and use analysis to compare the movie to the Fire Keeper’s Daughter.

After class, I hung out in my office to work on emails and grades. I had a brief meeting with my SBA rep and we set up accounting processes for Carrot Ranch. A big step for the future. It seems that writers are familiar with big steps and long waits. That’s how it goes. We might long for linear time to unfold according to our expectations but what happens with our work, happens when it happens. We take care of details when we can. Carrot Ranch is open for business, has a Tax ID number, but not ready for business yet! The Thirty and new workshops begin in 2022.

The sun lingered warm in a blue sky over red-tinged autumn leaves. I enjoyed the warmth of sunshine as I walked the campus to a small chapel with outdoor picnic tables. One of our school’s PhDs who teach English full-time was reviving a university writing group that had gone dormant with the pandemic. The group is called Helsinki Slang and we are expanding to include staff and even local writers. We discussed ways we can make our writing experience rewarding and accountable. Some may join us here at the Ranch! Talking to students interested in writing felt like sunshine on my soul.

When the event time neared, I was ready! And Ms. Boulley was delayed. If you’ve ever had to cross the Upper Peninsula, you’d understand that our roads are long. We decided to do the book signing afterward and let people gather in the Finnish American Heritage Center. Waiting allowed the jitters to set in, but I chatted with friends from the surrounding communities, including one of the Grandmother’s from the People of the Heart Water Walk. Then, Angeline Boulley walked in, strong and confident, dressed in black with a felt hat beaded in Ojibwe style woodland flowers, including orange.

The honor of introducing Ms. Boulley was mine, a gift from my University for being the instructor who was teaching her book. I wanted to get it right —

We can honor the heritage of people and place any time we gather. I’m here to welcome Angeline Boulley to our place of rich lineage. Welcome to Anishinaabe Homelands, to 1854 Ojibwe Ceded Territory, to the U.P. of MI, to the Keweenaw Peninsula, to Hancock, to Finlandia University, to the Finnish American Cultural Heritage Center.

September 30, 2021

I think I got most of it right. I think I got it in the order I meant. I did look at her directly to make the welcome. After that I babbled. I felt breathless and realized I was reading a passage from her book because I was in full fangirl mode, raving about how masterful her writing is. I’m grateful to have a generous community who allowed me this lapse of professionalism. One friend snapped a photo of me and when I saw it, I realized I had forgotten to remove my mask to speak! I honestly don’t recall much of that moment.

Ms. Boulley took to the stage with grace and shared her writing story. You can find much of what she said in this article Tribal Business News, including that she accepted a seven-figure offer after a 12-publisher bidding for her manuscript. The next day the film rights to a Netflix series sold to Higher Ground, the organization founded by Michelle and Barack Obama. Besides the gobs of money, Ms. Boulley also got rights to call shots on development which is not something authors get. It mattered to her, though, that Native American artists, film crew, and actors be vetted by her to include broader diversity. Ojibwe artist, Moses Lunham, created the stunning cover of her book.

What Ms. Boulley spoke of during her presentation was perseverance and belief in your own skillset as a storyteller. She came up with her story idea when she was 18, but sagely points out that she had to live a life first. It took her ten years to write her book. She worked in government and became the Director of Indian Education, living in the D.C. area. In her job, she successfully wrote grants, which she equates to writing narratives. After she wrote her first draft, she began to focus on improving craft elements. In an MFA program, this is what we call working a Revision Plan. She then began applying for mentorships and was accepted into one, high quality feedback.

Now, Ms Boulley is on deadline to complete a second novel in ten months. The difference, she explained, is that ten years taught her about novel writing. Every writer goes through education whether formal or not. Authors don’t magically emerge one day without a long history of work and learning. Ms. Boulley was 55 when she published the book she thought up at age 18.

After the presentation, people lined-up for her book signing. Again, the sun shed its warm light on us all. I was last in line, listening to snippets of conversation. She signed my book and I asked her if she wanted to go have drinks or get some food. She said yes! I texted T. Marie Bertineau who had just left and told her to meet us at a local Italian restaurant, and someone from a local book club asked to join in so we made it a party!

The way I figure it, we all need to eat and it was too perfect of a day to not go eat with the two authors whose books I’m teaching in my two classes. Both Indigenous women. Both correcting the course that has traditionally shut out Native voices. Dinner was long and slow, the night magical. I got to find out what an author buys with “book money” — a hot red BMW with vanity plates proclaiming, Daunis. Ms. Boulley’s protagonist.

It’s time to cool off after a hot day in the Keweenaw!

Also, congratulations to editors, Colleen M. Chesebro and JulesPaige, and to all the poets set to publish October 1 in the inaugural Word Weaving poetry journal, Moons of Autumn.

Hot new release on Amazon!

September 30, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story uses the phrase, “across the water.” It can be any body of water distant or close. Who (or what) is crossing the water and why? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by October 5, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Water Initiation by Charli Mills

Seele’s initiation to Monitor Creek came in the summer of 1975. Hot asphalt burned the tender pads of her feet. Town kids rolled truck innertubes along the highway, Seele trailing reluctantly. Her Aunt Bonnie suggested she make friends. Did these local kids have iron feet? The cool rushing water soothed until Seele pushed off the edge to follow the others. Rapids grabbed her innertube, swelling over a jumble of hidden rocks, spinning her backward, and slamming into boulders. Rubber bounced, plunged, and rose. At the bridge they all got out. Seele couldn’t wait to go across the water again.


September 23: Flash Fiction Challenge

“Maple leaves turn red first.” One of my Warrior Sisters pointed across the Houghton Canal to a ridge of woods flashing autumn colors. I’m not familiar enough with the North Woods to repeat the assertion, but it reminds me of something an organic farmer once told me in Minnesota. “White flowers emerge first.”

Whether you live where spring has sprung or fall has descended, we have crested the equinox.

The Keweenaw is my community. My home. Home is turning colors and though uncertain about what transitions come next, I’m ready. Ready as a birch tree. Recently I hiked Quincy Hill, pausing to catch my breath and thoughts alongside a pair of birch. As I palmed twin trunks and leaned forward, the trees flexed. Strength comes with flexibility to withstand the winds. I felt solid on my peninsula, holding on, swaying, and trusting what comes of roots.

Here is where I plant mine. I’m a California Girl, long gone from the state that still holds nine generations of my family. I’m a Montana Transplant far from the Queen City of the Rockies. I’ve lived in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Nebraska where my third great grand-uncle got himself shot by Wild Bill Hickok. My feet are in Michigan, and sometimes in Vermont.

I’m from everywhere and nowhere. So I follow the People of the Heart.

In Michigan, that means the Good People, the Indigenous, the Anishinaabe and the Finns. Two cultures who know their roots and their mother tongue. In Vermont, I follow the old roots of mountain people who know who they are and live in accordance with nature. Ultimately, that is always where I feel at home — in nature.

For practical purposes, I’m sorting out possibilities on the Keweenaw. One is that I can buy the Roberts Street House from my Wounded Warrior who can’t stay still any longer. I told him this was the last move for me. I’m done rambling about. I’m not a young tumbleweed anymore. I have students, an office, miles of rocky shoreline, friends, veteran community. I have a Ranch and a determination to have writers in residence when the leaves turn red. I have intentions to return annually to Vermont. Maybe see down under, one day. Catch a flower when my leaves fall.

Now is muddy but mud makes bricks and bricks build stories. I’m at peace and feel joy in my heart.

Today, I coerced college students into a discussion, promising them early release if everyone participated and answered the questions. If not, I told them what they already know — I can fill up the time, talking. They all participated and came up with the insight that heavy topics in literature are bearable — even enjoyable to read — when the protagonist balances conflict with perseverance. They also learned I’m not great with dates on a calendar.

Thinking I had the date right, I dressed with intention, wearing a stunning pair of Anishinaabe earrings, a dark green dress, tights and bronze shoes. I had been asked to introduce Angeline Boulley, a great honor. I carefully crafted an introduction to recognize the 1854 Ceded Territory of the Ojibwe. My only mistake was the date. She’s presenting to our University next Thursday.

Linear time was not made for the likes of me. But I manage.

It wasn’t a bust. My Warrior Sisters met at the canal-side home of one of ours, enjoying the patio, water and company. I was too nervous to eat much and left early to the presentation that was not yet. Happily, I returned to the patio party and ate more! We watched a loon fly and the Ranger III pass beneath the Lift Bridge. In the video, you can hear us chattering as we film the ship. One of my WS’s tells me that she got caught on the bridge during a lift! Do not underestimate Vietnam Veteran Spouses. These Ladies are my role models. They are resilient and fun to be around.

Typically, the Ranch would be decked out for the Flash Fiction Rodeo. This year, I’m taking a hiatus from the Rodeo to finish unfinished feedback and think through what next. I dream big and broad and need to decide what is manageable, what supports the Carrot Ranch Literary Community, and what services will be my bread and beans. I want to simplify with meaningful opportunities for writers and time for my writing, coaching and teaching.

I’m grateful to our Rodeo Leaders, Judges, Patrons, and Columnists. In the language of my borrowed home, Chi Miiwech! Big thank you! I’m grateful for the Saddle Up Saloon and our Poets. We are growing, not shrinking. But we are growing mindfully. In fact, we have a new installment to offer at the Saddle Up Saloon where characters run the place.

While kayaking, or maybe it was by the campfire, or over a non-competitive game of Scrabble, D. Avery came up with a way to spotlight the many authors we have in and about the Ranch.

In October, we are introducing the Carrot Ranch Author’s Chair. Did you ever get to sit in one in grade school? D. recalls that many elementary school classrooms had a special chair where a young writer would read their work to their cohort. When finished they would announce, “I’m ready for questions or comments.” 

The Carrot Ranch Author’s Chair will be a regular feature at the Saddle Up Saloon. Anyone can volunteer to take part; anything can be read, including previously published or prompted pieces. Pick something that is important or memorable for you. Send the text, audio or video recording, and some background to the piece to D. Avery ( for posting on a second Monday at the Saloon.  

We want to encourage reader interaction and invite the community to ask questions of the featured author. A week after posting, we will randomly draw a name from those who asked questions to offer a free book from the Carrot Ranch Community. Shorty will pick the book and mail it to the winner (this is also a way to support our published authors). Kid and Pal will introduce the featured author. We encourage you to send a voice recording (YouTube or SoundCloud). Get signed up with D.!

In October, I have a heavy load of client work, updates, midterms (to grade!), and a week on the Northshore of Lake Superior (Minnesota). If anyone is interested in being a guest challenge host, let me know ( Otherwise, I will have a two-week challenge mid-month.

To prepare for the Carrot Ranch Author’s Chair, we are all going to take a seat this week.

September 23, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about an author’s chair. It can belong to any author. Where is it located and why? Does it have special meaning? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by September 28, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

And Still They Are Missing by Charli Mills

Louise pressed her back against a cottonwood tree, dipped her pen into the ink jar and wrote in her journal. “Silver vanished before the snowmelt and now the mountain aspen turn gold.” Her pen paused. Ink pooled. What else to say? The miners hauled more ore. Investors traded stock. Silver’s mother waited for her “Lord” to return from England. Rumors circulated that Bigfoot carried off Louise’s best friend. No one looked. Only Lord Chalmer’s disappearance made headlines in The Argonaut. One day, Louise vowed to sit in the author’s chair and give voice to the girls sentenced and silenced.


September 16: Flash Fiction Challenge

September silence settles over the Keweenaw with misty rain. Pockets of tourists remain but the din of extra folks cruising the peninsula subsides. The woods exhale, the waves churn, and when the clouds part in the cool of night, the Milky Way burns bright.

With the equinox (fall in the northern hemisphere and spring in the southern) lining up next week, I felt the call of the wild to bring balance to all my professional pursuits. A camping trip was in order, a return to the sandy side of the Keweenaw.

Packing my car required a choice — camp kitchen, tent and comforts or kayak? Alas I could not fit it all. Comforts, by the way, include an array of layers for fluctuating temperatures, pillows, camp chair and firewood. My kayak stayed behind this trip with a promise to glide the Bete Grise sloughs before autumn leaves fall from their trees.

My friend, C, joined me at the old mink farm in Schoolcraft Township where a rustic campground offers ten sites along Big Traverse Bay not far from the desolate black sands of Gay. On an arc of golden sand, we set up at campsite #1. A family occupied #4, and the memory of a summer visit still warm in my veins lingered at #5. It was a quiet campground weekend, perfect for rituals of release.

C is a grief counselor who sits with people’s deepest losses and excruciating emotional pain. She led community workshops at her Ripley Falls Home of Healing before the 2018 Father’s Day flood and landslide hit her house. It’s livable but far from restored. Her backyard is filled with rubble from the landslide. When she was ready to begin workshops, the Pandemic hit. We’ve experienced parallel disasters, hers natural and mine veteran caused.

Together, we’d form a weekend retreat for two to release the trauma of homelessness and open up to the hope for a better future. We both live with uncertainty instead of stability on the home-front and yet we both work to help others find purpose in healing and writing. We needed to find our own healing path.

On Friday, after my last class at Finlandia for the week, we arrived to sunshine, wind, and crashing waves. We set up camp and I got into a battle with the ants. That entire spit of sand must be an ant metropolis! I struggled to find a flat spot to perch my tent without getting swarmed. Finally, we found a truce and I pitched my tent in the trail to the beach. Once settled, I headed to the waves. The frothy rollers reared up and the sun shone through like a lens. I tried to wade but water pummeled my legs with sand and riptides rippled beneath my feet.

That night we ate kale salads and cauliflower soup next to a fire that danced in the wind. Our campsite had a deep metal fire ring on a sandy knoll out of the trees and we watched it closely. The brighter the stars got, the less the wind blew. Finally, we had nothing but embers and shooting stars. We expected rain the next day and we decided to read in our individual tents until it eased.

We woke up to sunshine, not a rain cloud in the sky. That’s Lady Lake Superior’s doing. Hard to predict her impact. She was calm and inviting that day, showing ripples in the sand beneath her water where she had danced forcibly the day before. Many ripples held small stones. I bobbed in the water and then floated above the curious little pieces of quartz and sandstone. Leg cramps drove me to seek the warm sand of shore and I reluctantly left my mindless float.

Sand flies found my ankles until I buried my feet in the sand. Ants ran every direction in a frenzy of gathering food. I began to wonder if their scurrying meant a rough winter ahead. But like most things in my life at this moment, I’m trying to stick to the here and now. What is coming will unfold with or without worry. It was sunny and ants were foraging. Nothing to be concerned about. With curiosity, I watched them.

Later that day we held our ritual of release, naming emotions and circumstances to let go. We chanted with a singing bowl, and C’s dachshund howled, the higher our pitch. We smudged with sage and built cairns of our tiny collected rocks. We journaled and fixed beans for dinner, burning birch bark letters of release. Then the rain came. We retreated to our tents. Despite the beauty of the day, I found it difficult to shake the sadness.




Each a meditation. Each a prayer.

And then a cotton candy sunrise broke through the mist and clouds. The rain stopped. The Lake let out misty breath caught by a warming sun of pink and gold. The sadness lifted but I felt no joy. Just emptiness. Until the Big Black Horse arrived.

At a particular moment, I decided to walk not to the beach, but rather to the road. I had heard the gronking of sandhill cranes and followed their call, hoping for one last sighting before they left. C and her dog still slept. The other campers had left, maybe the night before when the rain came. No one was around. No one. Then the distant rumble of a truck. I could see a trailer hitched and surprised it was not an RV but a livestock hauler. When I woman stepped out of the truck, my heart soared.

To me, it was a Captain Marvel moment. The one where Carol Danvers decides to rise…again. I took it as a sign to rise and claim my joy. I had released and now I was about to receive. A new door opened. In fact, I asked if I could help open that door. To the trailer, that is. She said yes and I helped her with a new horse and an enthusiastic golden retriever pup. She was experienced and courageous, taking the horse to the lake for introductions. I followed with the pup.

Meanwhile, C woke up and ventured to the beach. She told me later she saw a most beautiful sight — two women, a Big Black Horse and a dog. She wanted to wake me up, thinking I needed to see this vision. She had her phone so she filmed it for me before realizing I was one of the women.

Charli Finds a Woman with a Big Black Horse

There’s a reason the Indigenous call horses “big medicine.” You have to build trust with a horse. The woman I met was dedicated to that, leading her horse to water, walking her in the sand, familiarizing her with new territory. Eventually, she mounted the Big Black Horse and and walked the campground. I secured her dog in her truck, told her to honk when she got back if she needed a hand loading her horse. And off they rode.

I was beaming. Horse medicine is a always a good sign to me.

It’s been a good week at school. I danced for one of my classes. They laughed. I promised them a “sun” day on Monday. Weather Predictors are predicting sunny and 81 degrees F. I’m scheduling class outside on the green to read or work on research on their laptops. I will give them yoga and poetry (Joy Harjo) breaks! My other class shared their 99 word stories. It was interesting to note that the number one fear students expressed was that they “did it wrong.” I’m teaching them that recognizing their differences from the norms is the beginning of realizing their unique voice.

Tomorrow, I’m wearing a dress (again) and starting to get used to it. We get stiff when stuck in patterns. We need stability and framework but we also need flexibility and freedom to grow. I might dance again. Twirl my skirt. If I do, this is the song, I’ll be stepping out to:

September 16, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a Big Black Horse. It can be a horse, a metaphor or an interpretation of KT Tunstall’s “Big Black Horse and a Cherry Tree.” Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by September 21, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

A Wild Ride by Charli Mills

Clods of dirt flew. A big black horse thundered through the apricot orchard, a small child perched bareback, her knees drawn up to his withers, tiny hands grasping long mane.  A woman in a kerchief ran, bellowing like a calf separated from its mother. Saucy, the Australian Shepherd with one blue eye, zipped past the woman and caught up to the horse, nipping at his hind hooves. The dog turned the horse around at the one lone cherry tree planted at the orchard’s edge. He trotted smooth as butter back to the barn. The woman wheezed. The child grinned.