Carrot Ranch Literary Community

Home » Flash Fiction Challenge

Category Archives: Flash Fiction Challenge

November 14: Flash Fiction Challenge

Storm windows form an extra layer against the cold like thermal underwear in winter. It’s that time of year when my global positioning triggers EOSO — early-onset-snow-obsession. I recently entered a short story contest dedicated to the theme of snow. I wrote, “I live in a snow globe where a dome of clouds hunkers…” Storm windows buffer my watch over the ever-falling snow glitter.

And they went up this morning with whacks and thunks. When your house has lived through 120 years of storm window seasons, a rubber mallet helps to pound the frames into place. My son-in-law popped by this morning to finish up a few before-winter-hits house projects because winter already hit.

Already, I feel less of a draft with the extra panes. I wonder, when were storm windows invented? We have the original 120-year-old windows with glass imperfections that can warp the view outside. Who were the people who lived here before, and were they window-gazers? As writers, as creatives, as dreamers, we stare out of windows.

“Give me a window and I’ll stare out it.”

~ Alan Rickman

“In the old days, writers used to sit in front of a typewriter and stare out of the window. Nowadays, because of the marvels of convergent technology, the thing you type on and the window you stare out of are now the same thing.”

~ Douglas Adams

“My favorite journey is looking out the window.”

~ Edward Gorey

“Set wide the window. Let me drink the day.”

~ Edith Wharton

“If you want the people to understand you, invite them to your life and let them see the world from your window!”

~ Mehmet Murat ildan

“I was just sitting on the train, just staring out the window at some cows. It was not the most inspiring subject. When all of a sudden the idea of Harry just appeared in my mind’s eye.”

~ J. K. Rowling

My friend, Paula, drove six hours from Minneapolis to stay with me this week while drafts of cold wafted through the windows before the second layers went up. She came to stare out windows, winterized or not. My vision for home and Carrot Ranch converges — this house at World Headquarters is the Roberts Street Writery. A place to stare out of windows.

Paula calculated that we’ve seen each other three times in seven years. Before that, we saw each other daily, working on a management team together. Paula is a leader of leaders. Specifically, she is an independent certified Dare to Lead™ facilitator trained by Brené Brown.

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

~ Brené Brown

As writers, to own our stories is to cultivate our authentic voices, the one distinction that will define our writing and keep our output original. We know all about vulnerability. To write is to be courageous.

My friend dares to step out to the frontlines of a VUCA world, to train leaders for uncertain times. When I first read the definition for VUCA, I thought perhaps it was a bit harsh, but then, look at the state of American politics this week and how much has shifted and polarized over the past two years. Look at crises around the world and our connectivity to it all. VUCA is a dim prospect to consider.

In a way, my friend installs storm windows, teaching leadership skills for a turbulent world.

Entrepreneurs are like artists. Or artists are like entrepreneurs.

“When I say artist I mean the one who is building things … some with a brush – some with a shovel – some choose a pen.”

~ Jackson Pollock

The Roberts Street Writery is a place where my friend could unplug from her busy uncertain world and slow down to dream about building her leadership consulting business. She arrived at the Keweenaw snow globe on Monday, Veteran’s Day. She joined a group of us from the Vet Center for dinner at the Pilgrim Steakhouse (they generously offered free meals to veterans that day). She joined one of my local writer friends, Donna, at the Continental Fire Company to co-judge a Rodeo contest and met my friend Cynthia at the Ripley Falls Home of Healing. We toured Finlandia’s facilities for workshops, shopped Copper World in Calumet, and had coffee at Cafe Rosetta. She told me it felt like there is more air here.

Carrot Ranch Headquarters is a place where artists and entrepreneurs can collect their thoughts, breathe, and find respite. It’s also a place to find an intact community. Paula writes about her visit in Good Times and Perfect Strangers. The benefits are reciprocal. The Keweenaw experiences new ideas, art, and exchanges. Roberts Street Writery guests experience what they need for rejuvenation. My friend is my fourth guest (our very own D. Avery was my first).

We have much yet to do to get the house the way I envision it for guests, but it is fully functioning and everyone enjoys its character. We have a queen bed in the Rodeo Room and a twin air mattress for the Unicorn Reading Room. After the first of the year, I’ll be hosting Silent Reading Parties and Write-ins. They will be live literary events simultaneously at the Roberts Street Writery and online. More details to come mid-January.

If any Carrot Rancher wants to get away to the Keweenaw, the Rodeo Room is open to you for up to three nights at no cost to stay. In the future, I hope to establish an actual Artist in Residency and seek travel support locally or through grants. But that’s likely a few years out. Like with everything we do, this is a simple first step.

If you are interested in coming to stay at the world headquarters for Carrot Ranch, shoot me a message. It’s an exchange: you get respite and a place to write, my community gets to meet a writer. I can set up readings from private to public, take you on a media tour, and let you experience all the Keweenaw has to offer or space for staring out windows.

This term, I’m studying plot and continuing to master x-ray reading. I’m plowing through I novel I detest, which is good. I’m reading carefully to understand how the author constructed it, what rubs me the wrong way, and why critics highly regard it. I’ll withhold final judgment until completed, but it has ruined my I’m-so-excited-to-read-every-day vibe. It’s work.

The other two novels offer more story, although one has horrible characters. Mind you, they are well-crafted characters, but shallow, racist, sexist, selfish characters. The third book has a great narrative drive and a protagonist (a book conservator). But the point of my opinion is that not all readers are a book’s target market. As an MFA student, I don’t get to read my pleasure. I’m reading as an author, and each book is teaching me something about the craft and industry marketing.

I’ve talked before about plotters and pantsers (writing by the seat of your pants). I firmly believe a book writer must be both, but how and when is a matter of learning to work to one’s strength. I identify as a pantser, but professionally, I’m striving for plantser, an intentional combination. I’m excited to be learning more about how to plot.

This week, I learned a way to craft a chapter like it were carpentry. Author Gabriel Garcia Marquez described in an interview (Writing Craftsmanship, Films on Demand) how the writer is to hook the reader by revealing the what but not the how. He gives an example of an opening that makes a reader wonder if the character gets killed. Our curiosity often breaks the spell to flip to the last page. Instead, Marquez advises, state right away that the character gets killed and then hook the reader line by line with the story of how.

One of my professors also linked to Kurt Vonnegut’s Shapes of Stories! We already know that one. But it is a useful technique to think of every story you are familiar with (from fairy tales to books read) and name their shapes. This exercise teaches you to identify plot. You can also answer these questions in brief when you read:

  1. How is the plot introduced?
  2. How does the plot develop?
  3. How does the plot climax?
  4. What is the plot’s resolution?

Know the difference between premise and plot. Think of a premise as that the what-if setup — what if an orphaned boy was capable of magic and had to go to a secret school to master his skills? How Harry Potter does that and all the things that happen next are elements of plot.

My professor pointed out that often, early in writing, we have a great premise but no plot. Premise is not plot. It gave me an a-ha moment. I love to write for discovery. But that doesn’t mean I discover the plot. Therefore, it’s good to master quick plot-mapping skills (through learning to summarize book plots) so that you can plot while you pants. Plantsing.

And if you are the opposite, carefully plotting, make sure you also take time to write without the framework to see what you might discover. You can pants in between plotting. Plantsing.

I know we have stared out windows before, but let’s have some fun with storm windows as a phrase or device in our stories this week.

November 14, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story using storm windows. It can be literal on a house, but also consider other portals, even spaceships or submarines. Can you make it into something new or build a story around something historical? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by November 19, 2019. 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.

NOTE: Contest winners from all the flash fiction contests during the 2019 Rodeo will be announced on November 28, 2019.

Snow is the Mother of Invention by Charli Mills
Trudging snowy streets in blizzard conditions, Regis arrived home. He flipped a spring-loaded mechanism at the side of each lens of improvised goggles. In place, the outer lenses prevented moisture from coating the inner ones. Tiny nozzles spayed an anti-freezing gel that kept the outer frost-free without harming his eyes. “Eureka,” he shouted, startling the crows in his bare maples. He hopped, skipped and slid, crashing through the basement door, grasping for any handhold. Empty-handed he sprawled across the floor. Regis pushed himself up and whistled cheerily. Storm windows for the nearsighted might be his best invention to date.

October 31: Flash Fiction Challenge

It’s the day before the Day of the Dead. As a kid, Halloween was my favorite holiday. Living on the California and Nevada border meant a two-day celebration. You see, Nevada Day is also October 31. We could talk at least one parent into driving us “Alpine County” kids across the border on the night of October 30 because that’s when Nevadans do their trick-o-treating. It was only a 20-mile drive.

The next day, we got to dress up again because we partied at school. Yes, we partied at school. Bobbing for apples, games, even the older grades setting up a haunted house in the gymnasium. If that wasn’t enough, the Forest Service Station in my tiny hometown also hosted a party. But that was after every child in Alpine County paraded through Markleeville in full costume. Businesses competed to hand out the best treat bags. Then we marched on down to the Forest Service garage, where they roasted hot dogs and handed out hot cider. Once we warmed up, we ran around town in our costumes, trick-or-treating every house to the delight of the old-timers who rarely got so many visitors.

The refrain “trick or treat” still reverberates in my heart, a joyous sound. We never tricked anybody. It never occurred to us to do that because we were so happy to get candy and compliments for our clever costume ideas. We whooped and hollered loudly between houses, and in the dark stretches where there were no lights, we told ghost stories to scare each other. I didn’t know about zombies. Tommy Knockers from the old mine shafts or Water Babies from the Washo tradition kept us properly spooked.

One time, an older girl from a different town wanted to go up to the cemetery. I didn’t like the idea because the cemetery was special to me. It contained stories and curious people and beloveds. I was one of few children who lived in town, and as an only child, I sought out the company of old-timers. They fed me cookies, taught me about afternoon tea and coffee at any time of day. They knew where the old shafts were, and who was buried in the abandoned cemetery on the hill. They even told me where the old road to it was.

I’d go up to the cemetery to find and read every marker I could. Some had toppled. Some I had to scrape free of lichen. And some were simply gone, only depressions and snow-damaged wooden railings remained. Three of my favorite old-timers were what we’d call shut-ins today. They were also siblings, and despite their memories of burying their parents and another sibling who drowned as a child, I could not find the family graves. That’s what led to me reading and locating all the markers.

Curiosity drove me to ask about the other children buried up there or to find out about names I recognized from places. Grover’s Hot Springs was a state park near Markleeville, and the cemetery had elaborate graves marking the Grover family, including a 10-year-old girl. Yet, no one in the area remained who was a Grover decadent. Over the years, I also found many other abandoned graves, cemeteries, and even two burial grounds of the Washo. It took listening to stories, exploring, and learning to read old records. By the time I was 16, I had served on a county board to save the cemetery records and to record the archeological sites around my town.

So that Halloween, when the older out of town girl insisted we all go to the “scary” cemetery, I felt uncomfortable. It was not a scary place for me. I still laugh at the memory of climbing the hill in our costumes, crawling under the barbed wire fence that kept out the summer cattle, and shining a light across the familiar chaos of titling and toppled gravestones. When the light caught green eyes glowing in the dark and illuminated a black cat perched on a granite marker, the group screamed in pure terror and fled. I stayed behind laughing, petting the stray cat I knew well.

The Day of the Dead begins October 31 and goes through November 2. It’s a Mexican holiday, but one I’m sure that echoes the sentiment of other cultural days set aside to remember and pray for ancestors and those who have passed on. It’s a prayerful day, not one meant to incite fear. Like those kids that Halloween decades ago, fear is of the unknown.

Sugar skulls are a memento left behind at a grave during the Day of the Dead. Sugar was an ingredient readily available in Mexico and could be easily crafted into a skull treat left behind to remember a loved one or ancestor. Today, they can be made of other materials and are often elaborately and colorfully decorated. Some celebrants even dress up with faces painted like sugar skulls, which fits in with the Halloween tradition of dressing up in costume.

Tonight, the Hub is on his own to greet neighborhood trick-o-treaters. I look forward to future times when I’m not buried beneath coursework and responsibilities, and I create some fun outdoor decorations. I’m heading out to 41 North Film Fest at the Rozsa Center. I plan to read in between films this weekend. It’s like an intense artist date, screening thought-provoking films crafted as visual stories, and meeting directors and screenwriters. What a way to spend the Day of the Dead!

October 31, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about the Day of the Dead. It can be the Mexican holiday, a modern adaptation of it, a similar remembrance, or something entirely new. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by November 5, 2019. 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.

NOTE: Contest winners from all the flash fiction contests during the 2019 Rodeo will be announced on November 28, 2019.

Submission closed. Join us for the next prompt.

Bridging Culture by Charli Mills

Stage lights bounced to the beat of the music and Carmen danced with her college friends. Halloween landed on a weekend and that sent the entire engineering department to blow off steam in town. The floor was sticky with spilled beer and Carmen’s ears rang. She grabbed her roommate; said she was getting a breather. Outside, she walked downhill to the waterway. From her pocket, Carmen retrieved one of the sugar skulls she had made to delight her American friends. She held it to her heart, cast it into the water, and prayed to the memory of her father.

Rodeo #4: TUFF Beans

With Pepe Le Gume on the prowl at Carrot Ranch, I might regret prompting anything with beans. But beans hold a special place in my heart. I grew up on pinto beans, cowboy beans. A special treat was refried beans. I never had navy bean soup or chili beans or baked beans until I was an adult. Chili was a con carne served over pasta, soup was sopas, and whoever heard of maple-sweetened beans in buckaroo country? Now that I’ve had Vermont beans, I understand Pepe’s appeal.

In case you aren’t familiar with the mainstay challenges at Carrot Ranch, D. Avery created Pepe along with a host of characters in her weekly Ranch Yarns. Like beans, once a writer gets a taste for 99-words, you’ll keep coming back for more. We make sure the pot is always on at Carrot Ranch, where we create community through literary art. I want to thank all the regular Ranchers for honing their skills and diving into the contests. I’m proud of all of you for your dedication to writing and growing.

Now things are going to get TUFF. Our final contest of the 2019 Flash Fiction Rodeo is all about having the guts to revise. As if writing weren’t challenging enough, we also have to know what to cut, what to add, and how to improve our stories. Revision is where the work happens. TUFF is an exercise in getting to the heart of a story and rebuilding it with that understanding. TUFF stands for The Ultimate Flash Fiction. In this contest, you will be asked to write one story with several reductions and a final revision. Your revision should be different from your initial draft. That’s where a writer has to gain courage and insight. TUFF will help guide you if you practice it.

Keep in mind that the TUFF contest is all about process. So far in this Rodeo, writes have tested skills of storytelling, craft, and creativity. Now it’s time to show how you approach revising an initial story idea. Your first 99-words should be a first draft and your final 99-words should be polished and improved. The word reductions in between help you find the heart of your story (59-words) and a punchy line (9-words). Judges want to see how you manage the entire process of TUFF.

And yes, beans are involved.

CRITERIA:

  1. Your story must include beans (go where the prompt leads).
  2. You will submit one story, retold through varying word counts: 99 words, 59 words, 9 words, and 99 words.
  3. Your second 99-word story should show the evolution or transformation of revision. How is it different? How is it improved? Did the TUFF process lead to new insights that changed the final version?
  4. The story can be fiction or BOTS (based on a true story).
  5. It can include any tone or mood, and be in any genre, and don’t forget the beans.
  6. Make the judges remember your story long after reading it.

CONTEST RULES:

  1. Every entry must meet the word count requirements exactly. You can have a title outside that limit. Check your word count using the wordcounter.net. Entries that aren’t 99-59-9-99 words will be disqualified.
  2. Enter this contest only once. If you enter more than once, only your first entry will count.
  3. Do your best to submit an error-free entry. Apply English grammar and spelling according to your country of origin style. As long as the judges can understand the language, it is the originality of the story that matters most.
  4. If you do not receive an acknowledgment by email WITHIN 3 DAYS, contact Charli at wordsforpeople@gmail.com.
  5. Entries must be received by 11:59 p.m. EST on October 30, 2019.
  6. You may submit a “challenge” if you don’t want to enter the contest or if you wrote more than one entry.
  7. Refrain from posting your contest entry until after November 28.
  8. Use the form below the rules to enter.

CONTEST IS NOW CLOSED.

2019 JUDGING

Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo at Carrot Ranch, will collect stories, omitting names to select the top ten blind. Please refrain from posting your contest entry on your blog. A live panel of judges from the Keweenaw will select three winners from the top ten stories. The blind judging will be a literary event held at the Roberts Street Writery at Carrot Ranch World Headquarters in Hancock, Michigan. After selections are made, a single Winners Announcement with the top ten in each category will be posted on November 28. All ten stories in each contest will receive a full literary critique, and the top winner in each contest will receive $25 (PayPal, check, Amazon gift card, or donation).

Rodeo #3: Three-Act Story

What is a story? We all tell them, and as writers, we craft them in the written word. A story is about Something that happens to Someone, Somewhere. It’s plot, character, and setting. A story has a beginning, middle, and end. Because we are hardwired for stories, we retain data better from narrative. Storytelling is in my blood.

When I was a kid, my mother ran a general mercantile in a town of 99 people. One of those 99 was Eloise Fairbanks, a one-eyed shut-in born in 1908. Her father operated the water mill, and when she was a young woman, she rode the backcountry of the Sierra Nevadas as a telegraph lineman. Weezy, as she was called, would call the store and order a six-pack of Coors. My job was to pedal the brown bag over to her house. She’d holler for me to come in when I knocked, sitting at her kitchen table. I’d sit, too, anticipating what followed the popped tab of her first beer — stories.

See what I did there? I slipped in a little story about stories. It has a beginning and is about someone, with me as the narrator (first-person POV). The Someone is Weezy. She’s from Someplace in time (when I was a kid, the Sierras, my implied hometown). Something happened — she’d tell stories once she got her beer. The end.

According to Greeks, stories happen in Three Acts.

Act I, the beginning, the story rises. It’s marked by pity, or what we would now consider empathy. If a story is about someone, we have to feel something for that character. Literature can teach empathy because writers and readers practice it. When we care what happens next for or to this Someone, we come to the middle.

Act II shifts to fear, according to the Greeks. We can interpret this as the emotion that drives the writer and reader to worry about what happens next. Or be curious about what comes next. The driving emotion doesn’t have to be fear, but the middle holds an important shift or build-up of tension or expectation. The story is in motion.

Act III is when that motion comes to an end. The Greeks called it catharsis. The action falls; the story has arrived at an exit. A good ending is not canned, but one that lets the reader think about the story and the Someone long after the conclusion. A twist is when a writer ends with the unexpected, and it can be humorous or dramatic.

When I teach storytelling to engineers, researchers, and entrepreneurs, I like to show them the science of a three-act story mapped out in a graph. This video is worth watching. Kurt Vonnegut graphs stories, and once you see their form, you’ll also understand how versatile story structure can be.

Now it’s time to craft a story!

CRITERIA:

  1. Write a story that has Three Acts (they do not need to be labeled).
  2. The story must have a discernible beginning, middle, and end.
  3. The story must be about someone, set somewhere, and something happens.
  4. The story can be fiction or BOTS (based on a true story).
  5. It can include any tone or mood, and be in any genre, and there is NO PROMPT.
  6. Make the judges remember your story long after reading it.

CONTEST RULES:

  1. Every entry must be 99 words, no more, no less. You can have a title outside that limit. Check your word count using the wordcounter.net. Entries that aren’t 99 words will be disqualified.
  2. Enter this contest only once. If you enter more than once, only your first entry will count.
  3. Do your best to submit an error-free entry. Apply English grammar and spelling according to your country of origin style. As long as the judges can understand the language, it is the originality of the story that matters most.
  4. If you do not receive an acknowledgment by email WITHIN 3 DAYS, contact Charli at wordsforpeople@gmail.com.
  5. Entries must be received by 11:59 p.m. EST on October 23, 2019.
  6. You may submit a “challenge” if you don’t want to enter the contest or if you wrote more than one entry.
  7. Refrain from posting your contest entry until after November 28.
  8. Use the form below the rules to enter.

CONTEST NOW CLOSED

2019 JUDGING

Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo at Carrot Ranch, will collect stories, omitting names to select the top ten blind. Please refrain from posting your contest entry on your blog. A live panel of judges from the Keweenaw will select three winners from the top ten stories. The blind judging will be a literary event held at the Roberts Street Writery at Carrot Ranch World Headquarters in Hancock, Michigan. After selections are made, a single Winners Announcement with the top ten in each category will be posted on November 28. All ten stories in each contest will receive a full literary critique, and the top winner in each contest will receive $25 (PayPal, check, Amazon gift card, or donation).

Rodeo #2: Pro-Bull Mashup

Where else would you find a bull-riding flash fiction 99-word contest but at Carrot Ranch? Come on, all you pencil crunchers, gather ’round and listen to a  tale.

My dad rode bulls. His dad and his dad’s dad rode bulls. My second great-grandfather wore high-heeled vaquero boots in an 1880s photograph, and while I have no more evidence than those boots, I suspect he rode bulls, too. When you grow up around ranch critters, you ride everything that will hold your weight (you can’t ride a chicken, but you can ride a pig).

Getting bucked off is fun, or so you grow up believing. Your relatives and their friends, congregate in the corrals, hold down a critter, set you on it, hoot like crazy throughout your ride, and dust you off when you faceplant in the dirt and critter-pies.

Following this generational bent, I wanted to ride bulls, too. I never got to, but I did ride goats, calves, mustangs, and even a few mild-mannered steers. Somewhere along the way, I got the taste of goat-hide in my mouth, and it’s kind of like getting the smell of a skunk caught in your sinuses. To this day, the barest hint of goat cheese makes me shudder. Eating it is like licking a goat. That and my boots are all I have left of a bull-riding heritage. The boots, by the way, are for when the BS gets deep.

Bull-riding in the US has evolved into a huge sport outside its original heritage. It’s dangerous, fast-paced, and still draws crowds. Raising stock for rodeos is also a big business, and bulls have names as extravagant as carnies or prize-fighters. It’s from the list of Pro-Bull names that this contest takes inspiration. Take a moment to feel the vibe of this year’s ride:

At Carrot Ranch, our weekly literary art and wordplay are expressed in 99 words. Several regular Ranchers often include the prompts or constraints of other writing challenges, and that is known as a “mashup.” This contest has several mashups based on multiple prompts derived from three Pro-Bull names, and the amalgam of two genres. Read the criteria carefully because this contest requires you to combine multiple writing elements and prompts.

Rosin up your writing gear!

CRITERIA:

  1. Write a story using all three bull names as names, places, or things: Bodacious, Nose Bender, and Heartbreak Kid.
  2. Combine two genres: game show and pirate. (Use the provided links for genre tropes and plots.)
  3. It can be fiction or fictionized BOTS (based on a true story), but if true, wow, what a life you lead!
  4. It can include any tone or mood.
  5. Use original details to express your tale.
  6. Make the judges laugh, gasp in surprise, or remember your story long after reading it.

CONTEST RULES:

  1. Every entry must be 99 words, no more, no less. You can have a title outside that limit. Check your word count using the wordcounter.net. Entries that aren’t 99 words will be disqualified.
  2. Enter this contest only once. If you enter more than once, only your first entry will count.
  3. Do your best to submit an error-free entry. Apply English grammar and spelling according to your country of origin style. As long as the judges can understand the language, it is the originality of the story that matters most.
  4. If you do not receive an acknowledgment by email WITHIN 3 DAYS, contact Charli at wordsforpeople@gmail.com.
  5. Entries must be received by 11:59 p.m. EST on October 16, 2019.
  6. You may submit a “challenge” if you don’t want to enter the contest or if you wrote more than one entry.
  7. Refrain from posting your contest entry until after November 28.
  8. Use the form below the rules to enter.

CONTEST NOW CLOSED

2019 JUDGING

Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo at Carrot Ranch, will collect stories, omitting names to select the top ten blind. Please refrain from posting your contest entry on your blog. A live panel of judges from the Keweenaw will select three winners from the top ten stories. The blind judging will be a literary event held at the Roberts Street Writery at Carrot Ranch World Headquarters in Hancock, Michigan. After selections are made, a single Winners Announcement with the top ten in each category will be posted on November 28. All ten stories in each contest will receive a full literary critique, and the top winner in each contest will receive $25 (PayPal, check, Amazon gift card, or donation).

September 26: Flash Fiction Challenge

From his post in the Eagle River Lighthouse, a young surfman spied a double-stack steamer through his binoculars. It was dead in the water, listing sideways and he couldn’t see the ship’s name. The maple and birch leaves must have started to turn because it was September 16, 1901. Autumn colors and gales hold hands in September. It can be warm and muggy one day, blustering with cold rain the next. In between, mist hovers and chlorophyll dissolves to expose brilliant oranges and yellows. Concern might have wrinkled the surfman’s brow. A gale with steady eight-foot waves will even stop the modern US Ranger from going out to Isle Royale. Today’s lake freighters will plow through autumn gales but change their course, wary of the Keweenaw. The western edge is unfriendly when Lake Superior orchestrates a gale.

That day, 118 years ago, communication systems fainted at the mere mention of winds, so fragile were the lines to weather. The surfman had no communication with the ship. It was not flying any distress flags, but it was no time or place to have cut the engines. Did they fail? Did something precipitate the quiet listing, such as the ship’s load shifting or another below decks emergency? The winds whipped, the waves roared with a pushing surf, and colored leaves blew from the shoreline trees. The American flags along the Keweenaw were flying half-mast on September 16, 1901, while President McKinley laid in state, assassinated two days earlier. No other signals indicated distress. The surfman watched from his post as the ship rolled over whole and disappeared.

For days, uncertainty cast doubt upon the sole witness. Boats launched to rescue survivors and found nothing and no one. No other ships experienced difficulties with the September 16th gale; it had not been particularly forceful or noted for rogue waves. With communications down, and trips taking days or weeks to complete, it was hard to determine if a ship was yet missing. Newspapers and the nation were focused on the tragic death of the president, not on speculation over what one young surfman at a remote Lake Superior post might have seen.

Then debris began to emerge, most of it wood, including the black and yellow masts that caused alarm — could it be the famous steamer known by those colors? A few bodies emerged, wearing lifevests clearly marking the ship’s identity. As feared, it was the Hudson. 288 feet long, her steel hull never appeared. It took mere days for Lake Superior to bash her wood parts and release the debris to surface and shore. A lake not known for giving up her dead, the surfmen must have felt surprised that a few escaped. None survived. Lake Superior held tight to the crew of 25, including the ship’s master, Angus J. McDonald.

But that is not the end.

There is a maritime legend to consider. In the 1940s, a tug coming around Keweenaw Point encountered a rusty, mud-slimed ship. It plowed toward them, and the tug had to veer to avoid a collision. Thinking the ship in distress, the tug captain boarded it. While it was solid beneath his boots, the apparitions that appeared were not. The ghosts warned him to get off as they were the crew of the Hudson and doomed to relive their sinking every year for eternity. The date was September 16.

That’s not the end, either.

Two Great Lakes shipwreck hunters located the Hudson, using sonar equipment they built. They had narrowed their search to 32 square miles, which in regards to the size of Lake Superior, was a relatively small area. In July of 2019, they found the Hudson in deep water, its bow plowed into the bottom of the lake. Eerily, the Hudson remains intact as if she could rise and float the way the tug captain described of his ghostly encounter. On September 16 of this year, the explorers who found the wreck attempted to see if she remained on her historic day of sinking. They were unable to determine.

It’s not the ghost stories or the maritime history that captivates me. I’m drawn to the Keweenaw shipwrecks because of those unremembered. Immediately, my imagination flashes to the surfman who witnessed the ship capsize. What a sight! And to have no one believe you for days, how would that feel? Who were the people who waited for those 25 men to return to Detroit? One account claimed that the ship’s master was “wedded” to the Hudson. What did that mean? And if the ship were doomed to relive its sinking every year, why? And who was that tug captain anyhow?

The best way for me to answer these questions is a combination of research and writing. You all know my favorite format for writing — 99 words, no more, no less. I start my research with Wreck Reports and other records my maritime historian friend collects. Her interest is in the surfmen who risked their lives to save those in peril on Lake Superior. Over 30,000 lives have been lost on the Great Lakes. That’s a lot of unremembered sailors and such. Alas, I must wait for the initial documents and can do nothing more but imagine the whipping winds and the shock of the sight, a ship rolling over.

This past week, my coursework prepares me to begin training in the infamous MFA workshop process. As writers, we can feel intimidated to receive feedback. Receiving criticism on our writing is not easy but is necessary for improvement. It’s not the writer who is critiqued, but the work. Authors make common mistakes, and we are learning what to look for when critiquing our peers. An amusing but informative primer from the Science Fiction Writer’s Association blog pinpoints such problem areas with humor specific to sci-fi. However, all writers can learn from it’s evolving list. The same site also offers guidelines for critiquing work for publication.

This training will inform the bedrock of workshops we’ll one day have online at Carrot Ranch. In addition to my MFA, I’m also studying for a certificate to teach creative writing online. While that fruition is a ways off yet, another endeavor at the Ranch is right around the corner — next week, the Flash Fiction Rodeo begins.

Leaders and judges from last year might feel unremembered, but that was not the intent. So much has happened between last Rodeo and this, I simply did not plan as I had in the past. D. Avery, Sherri Matthews, Norah Colvin, Geoff Le Pard, and Irene Waters and their judges did a fine job last year. Their creativity and critique are much appreciated. This year, a group of local judges will manage their duties at a Roberts Street Writery event. Judges will converge over a shared meal and relaxed environment to pair up on four different contests to pick a top-prize winner and two runners up. I’ll be the tie-breaker judge in all events.

The purpose of the Rodeo is to provide writers with an opportunity to showcase your best skills. It’s also a chance for those who have not entered contests to get their feet wet in a safe environment. This year, I intend to provide a brief critique to the top ten contestants. It’s a way for me to practice, and an opportunity for writers to gain an insight into the effectiveness of flash fiction writing. 40 critiques, even brief, is as much as I can manage. As I did last year, I’ll publish all the contest entries in collections.

Another difference: This year, writers can only submit one entry. Why? Because it is a contest. I want us all to learn how to first critique our own work. I want you to take enough time to let your first draft sit. Sit, don’t submit. Then read it over after a day or two. You’ll be surprised at how you’ll read it differently. Read it out loud. How does the language flow? Is it complete? Is it correct? Polish it up. A contest is different from a challenge. Focus on your best draft. If the prompt leads you to multiple drafts, you will have the opportunity to submit extras as challenge responses. Or, if you don’t like the idea of a contest, submit as usual, but indicate Challenger in the box that will ask you Contest or Challenge. Challengers will be published weekly through the submission form as usual.

Top prize offered is $25 in the form of US dollars or an Amazon gift card or as a donation to the charity of the winner’s choice. The Rodeo is meant to be fun, and also a step up from a weekly challenge. I hope you all enjoy the next four weeks. The Flash Fiction Rodeo begins October 3 and ends Oct. 29. We’ll run on the same schedule — contests announced on Thursdays, ending the following Tuesday at 11:59 p.m. The only difference is that I’ll be more punctual! After all, I have to step up, too.

Now, let’s play one more week before the Rodeo commences.

September 26, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about someone unremembered. Is it a momentary lapse or a loss in time? Play with the tone — make it funny, moving, or eerie. Go where the prompt leads you!

Respond by October 1, 2019. 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.

 

The Night After Lake Superior Swallowed the Hudson by Charli Mills

“And she rolled over like a lapdog!” First-mate of the Eagle River Life-Saving Station hooted. He slapped Charles on the back, blowing pipe smoke in his face.

Charles coughed; his lungs weak from a bout of pneumonia after attempting to reach a floundering fishing boat last month. “Saw it, I did.” He glowered at their jovial faces and stalked off, rounding the dark corner of the station, nearly colliding with the white-bearded keeper.

“Wreckage will rise, Charles. The teasing will cease. Let them laugh for tonight. It’s the best they can do for those unremembered beneath this cold-hearted sea.”

September 19: Flash Fiction Challenge

Last night my hands shook as I checked my iPhone battery obsessively, focused my camera, and touched the American flag on a stick in my back pocket. I didn’t want to gouge somebody with the flag, but I couldn’t hold my sign, banner, and phone all at once. My sign read, Welcome home, Rich. His wife made a batch of them for us who gathered with her. I did not want to miss the loving moment 49 years in the making. B had waited that long to welcome home her soldier.

On July 4, 1969, R left for Vietnam, giving his fiance a rhinestone American flag pin. He married her, perhaps with reluctance as most returning Vietnam soldiers felt like damaged goods, unworthy for loved ones they had left behind. Many broke off engagements. Many lashed out at wives, initiating cycles of generational trauma. Some rode out the storms, finding help, finding balance, finding peace.

B waited for R, and they exchanged vows. Their marriage has been both loving and fraught with the specters of Vietnam. Every veteran adjusts — or not — differently. The spouses do, too. Those who are strong, like B, hold onto their identities, advocate for healthcare, and shake up their veterans when necessary. At lunch a few weeks ago, R told me his wife is a pit bull. He means she fights for him as committedly as he fought for his nation. He then said I was a pit bull, too. I take it as a term of honor, coming from a combat veteran who fought an unpopular war.

Standing next to B at the Delta County Airport in Escanaba, Michigan which is 200 miles from their home on the Keweenaw, I asked her what it felt like to welcome home her hero 50 years after he had left for Vietnam. She confided that she never thought she’d see the day. R never spoke of what he experienced in-country, but he finally opened up after seeking help for PTSD ten years ago. Like me, B was surprised to meet other combat veteran spouses. We are so invisible that we don’t even know about each other until we end up in groups like ours. The Vet Centers of America are the only organizations that actively include veteran spouses in readjustment counseling.

Three of us BABs (veteran spouses) stood next to B on the tarmac, watching the sunset turn the scattering of horizontal clouds copper. We waited with B to welcome home R from the Mission 17 UP Honor Flight to Washington DC. It’s a project that helps combat veterans find closure. They visit war memorials, meet their state representatives, read mail call on the flight, and return to a patriotic reception. Koppers, a local plant, charted a bus and catered our dinner, all free of charge, so we could travel the 400 miles to be part of the crowd that welcomes home our veterans. R. was on Mission 17 yesterday.

B with her new blue hoodie that reads on the back, “It’s never too late to say thanks,” printed off greeting signs for us. One of our other BABs bought us all small flags to wave. B wore a huge smile and her 50-year-old pin. Beneath it was a new one to commemorate the Honor Flight. She said she never believed she’d see the day R would be welcomed home. A youngster waiting in the crowd told a bystander, “My friend thought it was disgusting that my grandpa got spit on, but we are not going to spit at him this time.” No, we were going to cheer and hug.

And I was going to capture that reunion. A welcome home born of war, cancer, and interludes.

Just like when we write a novel, life holds key kernels, those events that shape us and our relationships. All else are satellite details in terms of narratology. But the interludes add up too and quantify who we become. Despite war on one end of marriage and cancer on this end, B and R have had sweet interludes with family, friends, and living on the Keweenaw. B was there to welcome him home like they were young and in love all over again. She was going to welcome him home with the expectation of the young woman who waited 50 years ago, not knowing if she’d ever see the young man who gave her a pin. B was going to welcome him home with every ounce of energy she had left in her bones and soul.

Interludes are not the transitions, but the sweet music that fills in the gaps of life. After we graduate school, often we take an interlude of traveling or working. When the kids leave home, we fill the space with distractions until we find purpose again. Writers complete a novel and paint until words come again, and a new novel takes seed. Veteran spouses know many interludes and are adept at filling the space. I find that my own life has entered an interlude of sorts. Not a transition, not a beginning or an ending, but a song until the orchestra returns; coursework until I’m ready to tackle the manuscript with new vigor.

Soon, I’ll be starting the workshop process. I want to learn both sides — as a writer and as a teacher. One gap I see for indie writers is the lack of access to creative writing critique. It’s crucial to development, and yet it can be crushing if not executed with respect and expertise. Kind of like squashing the spirit of a veteran who is trying to find healing and closure. For now, I’m learning with an eye to offering critique groups in the future. It can help develop a book to prepare it for an editor. My instructor has advised us that how we learn to critique is like developing our own editorial style. I hadn’t thought of editing being a style like writing.

And so it progresses. Life with its big moments and small interludes in between. How can we use those to tell stories?

September 19, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about an interlude. It can be a pause between two key moments, the pause between acts in a play, an intermission, or a temporary amusement Go where the prompt leads you!

Respond by September 24, 2019. 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.

SUBMISSIONS FOR PUBLICATION CLOSED

To Be Left Behind (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

Iraq was Ike’s interlude. He said it was what he needed to do between jobs, something temporary, a way to make money until they got better situated. Danni sensed it was greater than a diversion. Iraq threatened her marriage. It was the husband-stealer, a merciless sexpot siren with a hunger for middle-aged soldiers, Dolly Parton’s Jolene. “I cannot compete with you, Jolene,” the words sang without mercy in Danni’s mind, clenching her chest. Interludes end and the main event picks up again. Ike would come home. But Danni could not get over his leaving. What if Iraq kept him?

September 12: Flash Fiction Challenge

Lightning flashes as quickly as minnows in the shallows. It’s fall, cool, and a storm rumbles over the Keweenaw in the black of night. A few seconds after sharp silver pulses, thunder rattles the window panes. The radiators that sat silent throughout summer now diffuse a cozy heat that keeps the cold outside with the rain. Hot tea sits on my desk, and I ponder, what is the greatest gift?

Life. Liberty. Family. Art. Love. Home. A laundry list of answers comes to mind. It’s not my question but the suggestion of a prompt from my husband’s cousin. She and her mom sit on our couch in Hancock, the one they bought for us when we started to rebuild our household. It’s midnight, stormy, and conversation rolls around the room. The Hub is happy, sharing stories of the past. I wonder what my cousin means about the greatest gift when she says her story is dark.

I call J my cousin because she and the Hub’s sister, Silly the Kid (his nickname for her), were part of the greatest gift I got when I married him. Early on, I knew J was going to be one of my greatest friends. I loved her humor and intelligence and free-spirit. As a young couple, the Hub and I went weekly to her house to play board games with her and her husband, who was serving in the Navy. I marveled at their young three-year-old boy whose bedtime story was The Hobbit.

At the time, so long ago, J had a baby girl, a precious baby that made me anticipate the one I was expecting. Then a sheriff’s deputy showed up to our house one day with their son. We were the trusted people to watch over him the day tragedy struck. A few days later, we were burying that sweet baby girl over her great-grandfather’s grave. J’s husband was restationed out week, and J left.

I sit here now, 32 years later, thinking how heavy such an incident remains. J’s greatest gift, I suspect, was the second daughter she had years later. But as all mothers learn, daughters and sons are not our gifts to keep. They are their own people. We might give them life, but they make of it what they will. But it’s a pleasure to see J and Aunt M, her mom, travel the world together, staying in New Zealand January through March, visiting family across the US, visiting places like Poland or Alaska and taking world cruises.

Aunt M and Uncle R are my patron saints. Many, many years ago, Uncle R read something I wrote, and he told Aunt M that I was going to make something of my writing. She explained to me that he had vision and believed in my ability and dreams. He was subtle about it. He never complimented me directly but always showed interest, asked questions, and read my published work. When he lay dying, Aunt M read him my very first, and very raw draft of Miracle of Ducks. Whatever the book will be one day, it will be dedicated to them.

Perhaps the greatest gift one can give another is the support and encouragement to achieve potential. It’s a gift Aunt M, and Uncle R gave to me. I miss him. As any of us do when loved ones pass.

We are calling this trip, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. J and Aunt M flew from Phoenix to Chicago, boarded a train to the Wisconsin Dells, and hopped in my car last night. We stayed over in a motel after dark, so we weren’t on the road late. It was a five and a half-hour trip. The greatest gift can be the conversations on a road trip — the connections and deep sharing, the confessions and insights. Deep communication.

We arrived in time to meet up with the Hub, our daughter, her husband, and his dad and step-mom. We shared a meal at a new restaurant in Houghton called The Den. Family meals create some of the best moments, especially when the food and fellowship rank high. The gave me a bite of his scallop, and it was as near perfect as seeing my daughter so happy. I wish I could see all my three children framed in such happiness and enjoyed the moment, memorized its texture like the edges of a comforting quilt.

Tomorrow night is another dance performance where I get to perform four new flash fiction pieces. Having family in town for the show is a treat. Sharing art is another gift and a great one. The greatest gift this year came in Vermont, sharing scams and words, kayak trips and waterfalls, loons and laughs. Art is best shared. Art must be shared. For all the critics have to say or teach about art and define what it is, those who create it and experience understand art at such a deep level as to escape definition.

This week, both of my courses are focusing on the writing community and what it means to be a literary citizen. Well, my oh, my. I might have something to say on those topics! The greatest gift to my writing life is the ranchers of Carrot Ranch, their literary art, aspirations, and community. We might need solitude to write, the courage to go to lonely corners, and the solitary act of dragging words from the brain to the page to shape stories, but we also need companionship. If you are interested, one of the articles I’m reading is Do Writers Need to Be Alone to Thrive?

I want to take time to explain participation at Carrot Ranch. Ranchers can come and go as they please. The idea is that we play, remembering why we love the ride. You bring your own goals to the Ranch where it is safe for you to share, grow, and discover. The literary critics do not reside here. Personally, I feel that literary art involves three actions — reading, writing, and discourse. We discuss what strengths we see in writing and how a story moves us or leads us to recall or realize.  I believe in the 99-word art form as one that can open up creativity and be useful as a tool. I believe writers who regularly practice the constraint experience magic or breakthroughs in creativity.

But what does this means to the mechanics of participation in our literary community?

You can write to the prompt and share in different ways. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, submit your response in the form. One, it streamlines collecting. Two, it signals permission to publish your writing in the collection. You don’t have to do anything more if your goal is to publish at Carrot Ranch. If you submitted a response, but do not see it in the collection, shoot me an email at words for people(at)gmail(dot)com. Some weeks I get a storm of spam, WP can be glitchy, and I’m at risk for human error.

If you want to build up your blog traffic, you can share a link or your story (or both) in the comments. However, passive sharing might not garner more traffic. Community requires interaction. Think of it this way — if you went to a social event to network, you would introduce yourself, hand out business cards, and respond to the cards you collect, as well. In the comments, be social at the level you hope to cultivate. If you want blog traffic, visit the blogs of others, and make supportive and meaningful comments.

If you want kinship among writers, get to know people through the comments, stories, and blogs you encounter. You’ll find that many writers who come here are also on other social media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Many host or participate in other prompts. Some also have blog opportunities such as indie book reviews or posting thematic blog archives. Get to know what is happening in the greater writing community.

As a rule of thumb, comment “high and low.” In other words, read the story before yours, and the story after. You are not obligated to read them all in the comments, although I highly recommend taking time to read each 10-minute part in the weekly collection. If you were moved by a particular 99-words, let that author know.

Next month, we will have a Rodeo of Flash Fiction Contests. I’ve been remiss all year in following up with my terrific leaders from the past two years. But the show will go on — instead of challenges, Carrot Ranch will host four weekly contests next month instead of challenges. Each contest will be juried and a top prize of $25 awarded. Each contest is meant to test the skills of a writer, and your best work is anticipated.

September 12, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes the greatest gift. Answer it as if it were a question, or show what it could be. Go where the prompt leads you!

Respond by September 17, 2019. 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.

SUBMISSIONS FOR PUBLICATION CLOSED

A Better Way to Serve (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

Freya returned from Iraq, friendless. Mark Bastia didn’t survive the IED blast. His dog tags hung with hers. Despite combat, she was never counted as their brother. She pulled a long drag from her last cigarette, eyed the perfect branch from which to hang herself, and decided the greatest gift to the world would be to remove herself from its spinning. She touched the branch and recoiled. 22 a day, and she would not become another nameless statistic. Instead, she enrolled in college to battle veteran suicide and opened the first satellite Vet Center in North Idaho. She survived.

September 5: Flash Fiction Challenge

All across the Keweenaw, there are abandoned apple trees. Crisp fruit pulls heavily laden branches downward. Decades of harsh winters have dwarfed many of the trees, creating gnarly branches. Despite the burden and neglect, the apples remain sweet and crisp. They have true grit.

The first time I saw John Wayne’s classic, True Grit, I swooned from the very start of the movie with Glen Campbell’s song of the same title. The film adapted Charles Portis’s novel about a 14-year-old girl named Hattie who seeks justice for her murdered pa. She hires Rooster Cogburn (played by John Wayne) to get the job done.

The movie is not a love story as you might think by the lyrics (a “girl” finding a “man”). It’s truly a story that examines what it is to be brave in the face of fear. Mattie searches for the toughest man of the law she can find but comes to recognize that she has what traits she sought all along. What Mattie must learn is that we cannot stand on our own — we need others, both fierce and kind.

What is true grit? It’s defined as “True resolve, determination, or strength of character.”

This week, my coursework continues to push into genre and themes. Genre, I’m learning, is not something writers can control, unless, of course, you are specifically writing with genre tropes in mind. As far as literary criticism goes, genre is ever-changing. Romance, for example, once had nothing to do with love and happy endings. Today, genre rules the marketplace because it is the easiest indicator of book success. Want to make a living by writing novels? Romance remains the number one selling genre.

Of course, unless that is the love of your pen to paper, most authors don’t know what genre they want to write. It’s easy enough to differentiate between contemporary (realism) and speculative (fantasy). But start drilling down into subgenres and Amazon categories, and it’s easy to get confused. Theme, on the other hand, is something writers can control. It is the why of your story and less concrete than the who (character), what (plot), and where (setting).

Last NaNoWriMo, I spent the entire month writing over 55,000 words of why. I wrote out of sequence scenes to try and understand the motives of my protagonist and supporting characters. I wrote to better understand the context of theme for my book. I came to realize that as long as a nation believes war is a necessity, there will be soldiers who serve, even if it forever alters them. Veterans need loyal spouses, and veteran families need supportive and caring communities. It’s a price a nation at war exacts from all its citizens. Like it or not, we are all called to serve.

A theme, according to Harvey Chapman at Novel Writing Help, “…doesn’t have to be profound, but must always be true to the  storyteller.” We don’t write books because of genre; more likely we write them according to themes of love, revenge, hope, memories, or any experience that moves us to understand it better. Chapman writes, “We’re all on a quest for ‘meaning’ from a very early age, whether we are aware of it or not.”

Writing books is not easy, and the act of writing often requires us to be vulnerable. This week, I’m finding that deep vulnerability in putting my ideas and writing out to professors and peers for critique. I’m challenged to reflect deeply on much reading and challenged to turn in writing with high expectations. At times, it can feel unnerving. The excitement of exploration slowly erodes as the trail climbs higher and demands a brisker pace. This is when I need to summon my true grit.

A graduate of SNHU, Angela Duckworth, studied grit because she learned that it is a decisive factor in success. You can start by taking her Grit Scale Test. She advises students and writers to organize goals with a top-level one. At Carrot Ranch and in my overall writing life, my goal is to make literary art accessible. This gives meaning to my creative writing. It’s like having a theme in a novel. Both themes and top-level goals are like North Stars. It’s your vision, for you as a writer, and for what each book you write is all about.

Learn more about grit:

September 5, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that shows true grit. You can use the phrase or embody the theme. Who or what has true grit? Go where the prompt leads you!

Respond by September 10, 2019. 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.

SUBMISSIONS FOR PUBLICATION CLOSED

True Grit by Charli Mills

Jose tended cattle while Angelina refried pinto beans, mashing them in the cast-iron with lard and flour. At night he tooled leather to sell at the market, making coin purses and wallets. Nightly she carpooled with three other amigas from the ranch into Paicines where they cleaned the elementary school, using grit to shine the grout on the bathroom floors. When the winter rains returned, the foreman would drive them all south to the border so they could spend three blessed months with family before returning to work the rest of the year. Only now, there was a wall.

August 29: Flash Fiction Challenge

Grab your notebook and walking stick, a light coat, and maybe a hat. It’s cold enough to turn a few maple leaves into fire paintings. We’re going for a walk.

Feel the brisk air? Inhale deeply and watch your breath frost on the exhale. I wasn’t kidding about the cold. I know, it’s dark so let your eyes adjust a moment. See my tomato plants in the shadows of night? It won’t frost yet. They’ll be okay. If you can strain your eyes, that’s a potted eggplant. No flower, no fruit. Ah, well. It was worth a try. See over there to the right of the tomatoes? Yes, I know it’s dark, but see how the light-colored leaves illuminate? Those are all Brussel sprouts. Six of them and they will continue to grow until frost. After that, they will sweeten on the stalk.

Carefully take the stairs, and we’ll gather beneath the street lamp. Look back at my home (MY HOME!) and see how the light in the back windows glows. It makes me sigh in satisfaction. A heavy sigh frosts my breath again! Notice the color of the lamplight is pinker than the warm yellow tones emanating from inside my house. Just an observation. Smell that? Crisp fall air smells sharp and clean. It clears the sinuses the way champagne cleanses the palate. Did you catch the whiff of smoke? Someone has lit a fire against the chill.

This narrow street we are standing in is named Jensen. It’s a one-way alley. See Mrs. H’s house over my shoulder? She’s on the corner of Roberts and Ethel. Next door on the corner of Ethel and Jensen is her granddaughter’s house. Their back yard is a run-on sentence to ours. We really don’t know the property lines. That bank of lilacs might be mine, or they might belong to Mrs. H. Their snow gets shoved into our yard each winter. But I’m jumping ahead.

If you count those two houses and the ones across the alleyway down to where Jensen curves back up to intersect Roberts, we total six houses. There’s only one other house on the other side of my next-door neighbor. That makes eight, ours makes nine. Let’s walk to the corner. The alleyway slopes downhill slightly then rises again to meet Roberts Street. That open space fills with snow removal in winter.

If you go past the last house, there’s a hillside where we all dump our maple leaves after they drop. That house on the corner is for sale. Bet the new owners will be surprised to see the neighborhood crossing their yard with a parade of leaves this fall. Okay. We are at the corner. If we turn left, we’d have to cross the snowmobile trail. It’s great for walking the dogs in summer. If you walk up the long hill, you’ll pass the county fairgrounds where the city of Hancock stores all its removed snow. It’s like glacial melt in the spring.

Further, are the Maasto Hiihto Trails. I know, it looks like a misspelling, but double vowels are typical in the Finnish language, and you’ll find that our area is imbued with Finn culture. The Laurn Grove Park is only a block up the snowmobile trail. It has an ice hockey rink and play area for kids. If I had young children, they’d play there, making sport of cutting paths through the small copse of woods on the other side of the trail.

The park is named for two boys who grew up in the scattering of neighborhoods like ours on this hillside. Both died in WWII on different ships in the Pacific. Past the park is the house where the Koski boys grew up a generation later. They both served in Vietnam, and their wives are good friends of mine.

The opposite way down the snowmobile trail is the Finlandia football field. I heard them practicing well after dark tonight. The Hancock high school squad practices there, too, and I know the parents of one of the boys. His dad served in Iraq, and his mom works fulltime at Michigan Tech. She takes care of him. He has back injuries, TBI and PTSD almost to the point of agoraphobia. But he watches his son play.

War has left its mark on my small neighborhood. My husband is a veteran of Grenada and deployments to Central America. My next-door neighbor was in the Army. Not sure if he’s a combat veteran, but he can seem intimidating. I talk garden matters with him, and that softens him.

Let’s walk back to the house from Roberts Street and add to our count the neighbors on the opposite side. Fourteen. That’s our block. A good baker’s dozen of us. A friendly bunch. Dog walkers and bird watchers. A few general landscapers, just two of us gardening, but everyone mows their lawns or hires Mrs. H’s great-grandson.

Come on inside. I don’t know about you, but my hands are cold! The tip of my nose, too. It was quiet tonight. Last week, when the fair was in town, traffic got loud up and down Ethel. Sometimes we can hear noisy bikes or trucks blasting down Quincy Hill. Otherwise, it’s a quiet place for town-living. I’m going to link a map for you, and you can zoom in to see 1112 Roberts Street or zoom out to where I live in proximity to Lake Superior.

What a glorious tool, Google Maps! You can also click on places like Maasto Hiihto Trail or Franklin Mine or McLain State Park and look at streets and satellite views and click on photos. You can measure distances and see the terrain. Maps used to show space on a grid. Now they can be more interactive. The purpose of our walk tonight was to introduce you to something I just learned and feel excited about — deep mapping.

Consider the difference between space and place. Space spreads out on a map and can be measured in longitude, latitude, and altitude. Place is what we make of space, the meaning we attribute to it. To deep map a place, we start with observation. We took a walk. According to Linda Lappin, author of a book I’m reading for my MFA called The Soul of a Place, “A deep map, then, is a sample swatch of the multiple manifestations of the genius loci [the spirit of a place].” The term comes from PrairyErth: A Deep Map by William Least Heat-Moon and shows the stratification of a geographical spot.

Walking the spot is the first step to deep mapping. This is exploration. Next is a gathering of details — how does the light of day, the cold of winter change the place. Lappin advises authors to learn the names of plants and birds and streets. This act transforms a writer into a camera, a recorder, a scientist before artist. As artist, deep mapping then calls the writer to respond to all discoveries, to learn and observe. Push deeper and research the place names and local history. Think about how your personal story intersects with all this information about a single place. Finally, a deep mapper must organize all this material into blocks, miles, and themes.

Lappin writes that she gathers superstitions, plant lore and recipes to add local color. All this true-to-life background informs the details upon which she traces out the plot of the story. She shows that deep mapping crosses all genres and can include interiors as well as exteriors. I find it fascinating because I’ve intuitively deep mapped places I write about not realizing there’s an entire process to this kind of work. Film-makers, visual, and performing artists also use the tool.

And as a writer of 99-word stories, I often use that literary artform to catch my mapping impressions, which makes me even more excited about the process. If you give deep mapping a try or find, like me, you already do some of it, let me know your thoughts in the comments.

While reading The Soul of Place, Lappin shared a list of street names she collected in Italy. One translated to Girl Thief Road. This jogged my memory of a Mean Mary song:

The banker’s boy, the boss’s son
They’re hoarding all the treasures their daddy’s won
And they think the vault is safe but she’s smarter than they thought her
They always underestimate the safebreaker’s daughter

You can listen to the full song here: The Safebreaker’s Daughter. One of the techniques for deep mapping can be music. I like songs that hint at a story, ones I can apply to a place. Mean Mary never reveals “the story” in her song, and that’s why it always niggles at me. How did they underestimate the safebreaker’s daughter? And, who was the safebreaker? Did he have a legitimate job, or was he a thief? What if I plopped these characters from a song onto my street? Deep mapping can be fun, and there are endless ways you can use it to spark your own writing.

August 29, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about the safebreaker’s daughter. Who is she, what did she do, and where? Go where the prompt leads you!

Respond by September 3, 2019. 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.

 

Thelma on Roberts Street by Charli Mills

The light overlooking Roberts Street flickered and faded. Thelma smiled and accepted the omen – all that glows holds no permanence. Probably the gales blew out a transformer nearby. Wind gusted through the maple trees, scattering small flocks of leaves to the ground. Summer was over. The tourists went home; the college students returned. The latest batch of football players for Finlandia made a good excuse for her to walk this path. Just another smitten female sauntering home late. Who would think she was casing the football coach’s house? She had ten minutes to prove she was the safebreaker’s daughter.