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Same window, different image. Downtown Houghton gathers Tech grad students, professors, locals, sledders, and window apparitions. I settled into my Wednesday spot and wondered if I’d see my three Italian sisters in mourning across the street. I didn’t. I saw a row of miners as if sitting on a bench, wearing blue overalls. I never really thought about what copper miners wore. They could have been futuristic astronauts or ancient argonauts. I can’t say I was prepared to see a different image from the one I saw last time I peered across the nighttime street into the darkened window of a closed business.
I thought about ignoring it. We do that with what disturbs us — put the blinders on and pay it no heed. It’s how the chronic homeless on the streets slip into oblivion before our eyes. They become the unseen. It’s not our pain we fear but the reminder of our own vulnerability. And, thoughts go straight to my favorite researcher storyteller, Brene Brown, who expands the idea of embracing our vulnerability:
“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.”~ Brene Brown
So I explored the darkness. I looked at what was disturbing me about the image I could see of miners created by the reflection of lights and my imagination — they had black hoods on their heads as if they were condemned. Was my mind feeling the pressure of my first week back to school? Regardless, I opened my Word Doc and spun a story in 99-words.
Gerard’s Tale by Charli Mills
Rumbling, the tram lumbers nineteen levels below to the copper veins. Sun, snow — the weather fails to influence the deep. I inhale pulverized basalt, hack black snot. Time slips away, my hands numb [hold the drill, young Geri]. I dream of sweet Maggie’s warmth in our bed, our mewling babe between us [hold the drill, young Geri]. Rock cracks, steel sings, the widow-maker hammers above my head [hold the drill, young Geri]. The tram rumbles like a beast upward, toward my wife and child. My body exits, wrapped in canvas. My soul trapped below, black dust to black dust.
When I realized I only caught one miner, I cut them off. After all, I had work to do. Maybe I’ll continue to press into the songs of condemned copper miners. The brackets reminded me of a chorus as if the group was singing of the individual’s cause of demise. Actually, it’s an influence from a contemporary novel I’m loving to loathe. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff is a beautifully written novel about a seemingly perfect couple (with brackets to denote narrative interruptions from the characterization of their marriage). They are not. And I’m having difficulty with pretention parading as suffering. But I’m pushing myself to dig deeper past my dislike to unravel the workings of the novel.
The Business of Writing class had a reading assignment that amused me because I like to go on about visions and vision-based goals. The article, How to Set Goals for the Life You Actually Want, echoes the Twitter chat I did in December about setting joyful goals. But I’m hoping to learn what I don’t know.
Today’s challenge is going to be something different. Susan Sleggs shared a gif that shows the daily cycle of a park bench, and it is full of different human stories in each timeframe. An option will be to watch the gif play out and write one of the scenes in a story. If the gif is inaccessible for some reason (technology), the prompt will remain “park bench.”
January 23, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a park bench. Use this gif to choose a timeframe and write the story behind that particular scene. Use the time as your title. Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by January 28, 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.
9:30 by Charli Mills
Gina sat and talked about auras. Maizie chalked vivid colors on the sidewalk, capturing the world’s energy field. She said my daughter was an inquisitive “indigo” and that I was a wise “violet.” I leaned back on the bench, hand in hair, wanting to believe my aura held meaningful hues like she said. But as we walked back to our apartment, all I could think about were the lonely shadows waiting inside. I wonder what color his aura was when my husband died in a botched training? In return, Maizie and I received a flag – red, white, and blue.
A black raven lands on my neighbor’s sloped roof to dig in the snow. Always one for a good bird show, I pause in rinsing dishes to watch. With a long thick beak, the raven scoops snow like those of us below with steel shovels and scoops. Finally, he retrieves something frozen the size of a cracker and lifts his wings, chomping his hoard. The raven must have stashed food on the roof, and I witnessed his mid-day snack.
It’s the days of messy middles. With winter half over in the northern hemisphere, we impatiently endure more snow and wait for the sun to return. Half a world away, Australia suffers a hot mess, waiting for the sun to subside, the heat to relent, the fires to burn out. Writer and educator, Norah Colvin, is safe where she lives in Australia but witnesses the daily impact of her nation burning. Last week, she left a link in the comments to an article that lists genuine organizations to help.
Several years ago, Norah created a S.M.A.G. Badge to spread goodness in the world across our literary, writing, educator, and blogging networks. She called the recognition the Society of Mutual Admiration and Gratitude. It calls to mind what 99-year-old Sirkka said about the anecdote to hate in the world. In her documentary, she calls for us to come together for humanity. S.M.A.G. is such a call. If you look to the right-hand column, you’ll see a graphic and a link to Bushfire Recovery Relief.
Please consider copying the graphic and posting it on your own site, blog, or social media. After all, we are communicators with reader traffic, and together, we can share links to legitimate organizations that have boots on the ground in the areas devastated. Norah also shared an op-ed by Jackie French, who writes, “Focus on what you can do. Don’t cry for what you can’t.” It’s easy to get overwhelmed in the face of tragedy, in life’s unexpected twists, in the persistence required to write novels. So, we focus on what we can do.
Sirkka’s mother protested. It was dangerous to stand up for injustice or call out for rights denied. History is filled with tales of violence against those who protest. When Sirkka’s mother protested, she took her daughter with her. The miners were demanding safer work conditions and fair wages. Their wives and daughters took to the picket lines to deliver these messages and make the world aware of the situations. In return, thugs were hired to beat the women and told to aim for the kidneys. Sirkka recalls standing up to a thug ready to strike her mother but shamed by looking into the eyes of a determined little girl.
On Christmas Eve, 107 years ago in Calumet just north of Carrot Ranch World Headquarters 19 miles, a large group of women and children were celebrating the festivities at the Italian Hall. For six long months, copper miners struck, led by a woman, some call the Joan of Arc of the Copper Country. (You can read about her and others in the new novel, Women of the Copper Country.) It was a time of great tension, and the holiday should have provided a respite. Instead, the greatest mining-related disaster on record in this region occurred that night, and 73 women and children died.
Witnesses claimed that someone yelled, “Fire!” from below. The reception hall was upstairs, and some argue that anti-union thugs held the doors. It remains, to this day, a wound upon the Copper Country community. No one yet agrees to the specific events or intentions, and no one was ever charged for a crime. But when families tried to flee, many slipped down the steep stairs, and inexplicably, the doors failed to open, suffocating those on the stairs.
When Sirkka faced down the thug ready to beat her mother, it was 1925, twelve years after the Italian Hall tragedy. I think about how Sirkka stood up all her life for the “foreign-born” like her parents. Cultures came together to speak up for the reason they came to America in the first place — a better life. From my posts, you know that Finns populate the Keweenaw. So do the Italians. My neighbor’s house that holds the raven stash is Italian-American. In fact, my Roberts Street neighborhood is said to have been an Italian one with many markets. Today, the Keweenaw Co-op remains as our corner grocery store.
Maybe I had all these jumbled ideas in mind — influenced by Sirkka’s documentary and resonating words, by recent research to discover the roots of my Italian neighbor, by concern for climate change and how it is burning and flooding communities. It’s no wonder we feel called to protest, to take up from the long line of others who have confronted injustice. But I’m also a writer, and I let these ideas stew and simmer into something I can serve up in a story. The night after the raven’s visit, I was downtown and looked out the window across the street and saw three women in mourning attire. When I focused, I realized it was an optical illusion of night shows and reflected lights.
But I was curious about what my mind had momentarily witnessed.
If you have ever stared at cloud shapes or optical illusions and seen what is not there, that is the power of imagination. Often we feel the need to correct what we thought we saw. Or sometimes we innocently play like a child and describe great ships or rearing lions that float by in the sky on a summer’s day. I often like to indulge the illusion. If it is real, what do I see? If I look closely at the reflection in a closed business across the street, I see a yarn shop with round skeins for sale, tags bobbing. I can’t explain it. No such thing exists across the street, and I don’t know why my brain thought yarn. Fuzzy, right?
But I go with it. Go ahead, brain, play. I pretend what I’m seeing is real. Across the street is a yarn shop. What else? And there they are — three dark-haired women in long black dresses with corseted waists standing together in a tight huddle. Mourners come to mind. Sisters.
When the Hub comes over and asks if I want another beer (full disclosure: I only had half, and it had nothing to do with the optical illusion). I point out the window, asking if he sees anything in the window across the street. He explains what I’m seeing is a reflection of a reflection of KBC, the local brew-pub. Except he sees it differently. Different perspective. I explain what I see, and he grunts and says he’ll leave me alone to write. Not everyone appreciates imagination. So I write my illusion in a sentence:
Three sisters in black opened a yarn shop in Houghton, Michigan, 19 miles away from where their children died in a stairwell.
I’m surprised by what I write because I was not thinking about the Italian Hall tragedy, but it slipped in there – soft yarn, three dark-haired women in black, dead children. Such is my mind. Normally, this is where I would get excited about discovery and let loose. This time, I’m inviting a playmate over for imagination. As an MFA student, I’m studying the writing process. Imagination and discovery is part of that. How we shape it into a story is another part.
I’m figuring out – learning – what I don’t know about writing fiction. I know I’m a pantser who has easy access to imagination and a keen interest in people, history, and stories. But I’m also learning that my pantsing can lead to half-baked stories. Great ideas, emotive, sharply imagined characters, sometimes I even have a point. Sometimes I lack form, the structure of plotters. Intellectually, I know story arcs and plot points. But imagination doesn’t remember to play with intellect. Writing 99-words helps to bridge left-brain, right-brain. But I’m also learning to incorporate other tools. So, Story Spine gets invited to play.
It looks like this (by Kenn Adams, author and Artistic Director of Synergy Theater):
- Once upon a time…
- Every day…
- But one day…
- Because of that…
- Because of that…
- Because of that…
- Until finally…
- And, ever since then…
Like 99-words, Story Spine becomes a problem-solving tool. So, I used my intriguing first sentence to describe the optical illusion as “once upon a time.” Then I followed the rest of the script.
STORY SPINE DRAFT
Three sisters in black opened a yarn shop in Houghton, Michigan, 14 miles away from where their children died in a stairwell. They stood stiff as marble in the back corner like three dark muses, the waists of their dresses pinched as tight as the grief in their eyes. Heads held high to defy pity from the wives of wealthy mine captains, they sold colorful yarn soft as baby’s hair. Pity or fear, they induced a brisk business.
One day, another Italian family from Calumet crossed the Portage canal and planned a confectionary business. They would armor their building with steel ceilings to curb caramel fires that could start in the expansive kitchen filled with heat and sugar.
Because of the false fire at the Italian Hall on that fateful Christmas Eve, 57 children died in the greatest minie-related disaster of the Copper Country.
Because families lost children, safety and survival melded like chocolate and wove a community with skeins of cashmere.
Because grief poured into business, the next generations of Italian Americans prospered greater than the mine captains, owners and enforcers whose fortunes fizzled with the depth of copper and shallowness of the economy.
Therefore the Copper Country was built on the entrepreneurial spirit of widows, mourning mothers, and a desire for comfort and safety.
I’ll plan to use this draft to put it in place as my 99-word response. It’s interesting to follow the script because I didn’t feel as hemmed in creatively as I had expected. It’s also a good exercise to recognize the Story Spine of books or fairy tales you’ve read. This helps you develop as a writer with another tool to aid your curiosity and imagination.
This weekend, I have a choice — to retreat or protest. The Women’s March happens this Saturday with a protest scheduled for the Houghton Lift Bridge. That same day, my friend Cynthia is hosting a retreat for vision work. I’m thinking back to Jackie French’s words about doing what you can. And Sirkka’s about doing things together. Therefore, my form of protest will be to go on retreat and focus on what Carrot Ranch can do together with writers and poets and bloggers and teachers and readers and storytellers of the world.
Together, let’s make literary art our stand.
Submissions closed. Find our latest Flash Fiction Challenge.
January 16, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a protest story. It can be about a protest, or you can investigate the word and expand the idea. Who is protesting, where, and why? Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by January 21, 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.
Legacy Survived by Charli Mills
Three sisters opened a yarn shop in Houghton 19 miles from where their children died in a stairwell. They stood stiff as marble in the back corner, the waists of their dresses pinched as tight as the grief in their eyes. Round skeins of yarn soft as a baby’s head inspired sales to knitters whose wealth they had once protested. Next door, another displaced Italian family opened a confectionary with fireproof ceiling tiles. In business, they dispensed softness and sweets, set codes for stairs, and prospered. Their surviving children’s grandchildren expanded family enterprises long after the copper mines closed.
Well, it is finished: Term Two Week Ten. My final grades come out on January 16, and this week, we wrapped up our discussions. My thesis, when accepted, will be a contemporary novel about Danni Gordon who is an archeologist ready to settle down but married to a restless veteran who finds a way back to Iraq. In Advanced Literature, we studied the four primary genres of my MFA program: YA, romance, speculative and contemporary. Our final project was short and creative. We had to write a two-sentence story for each genre to show the differences.
Here’s my homework:
YA: My name is Danni and I’m a Nevada girl who can drive steers, mustangs, and any old Jeep. Before you start thinking that’s all cool, understand that my life is misery, too — my name came up on the teenage ranchhands list at the bunkhouse today and I drew short straw to muck out the calving barn.
Romance: Danni couldn’t resist staring at the way the fisherman’s black tee-shirt stretched across his muscled chest and she could forgive him for walking across her archeology grid. Ike had no idea who the stupendously sexy woman digging in the dirt was, but he could forgive her from distracting him from fly-fishing the rest of the afternoon.
Speculative: With a single brushstroke, Danni uncovered a metallic glint among fragments of Navajo potshards. She kept brushing until days later the outline revealed what archeology had not prepared her to find — an ancient spaceship.
Contemporary: Ike charged her with his knife drawn but the full-body impact came from her left side. She never saw the charging moose her husband took down with a single slash.
Can you spot the differences? YA is a teenaged version of Danni told in the first-person POV and demonstrating a strong narrative voice. Romance focuses on a relationship and famously includes a first meet, and often told from alternating perspectives, which I did but as close third-person POV. Speculative includes spaceships. Contemporary creates verisimilitude through details that put the reader in the story. My biggest takeaway, though, is that no matter our genres of preference to write or read, we all blend genres. What is important to know for the purpose of publication is which genre best describes yours. Do you give this topic much thought or do you write what you write?
I’ve come to decide, for now, at least for we are always evolving, that I write contemporary fiction about the women’s frontiers. Typically I look for stories not being told or forgotten in time. As a researcher, it can be hard to find women in the records at all. Yet, stories have a way of rising to the surface, even ones buried in time.
Today, I took an artist’s date with a friend who claims to be the longest-standing student of Finnish language who still can’t speak it. I admire her attempt — it’s like Nordic Welsh. Hancock (Hankooki) has street signs double posted in English and Finnish, and after two years in the Keweenaw, I’m still no closer to understanding how to say a single word. Still, I appreciate living in a place with strong cultural identity from many sectors. While I originally planned a post inspired by my local Italian neighborhood, I got sidetracked this afternoon at the Finnish Cultural Heritage Center, where my friend and I watched the new documentary, Sirkka, by local filmmaker and Finnish American, Kristin Ojaniemi.
At 99 and a half, Sirkka Tuomi Holm is blind in one eye and can hardly see out the other. Born five days before women had the right to vote in the US, her foreign-born Finnish parents raised her to fight for what is right. She stood on picket lines as a child with the working class, joined the Army as a WAC in WWII, and stood up as a hostile witness under the hysteria of McCarthyism. She writes a column in the Finnish American Reporter monthly and says history will always repeat itself. She should know. She’s lived through it. A veteran and a woman born before the Vote. Yet living, breathing, and showing how the past informs the present.
You can see from the film trailer how easily Sirkka captivated me. She relates a story about her shoes falling apart, repairing them with cardboard. She lived through the Great Depression and remembers the harsh times. A teacher referred her to the school principal for a shoe donation. The principal wrote out a slip for the program, but rather than hand it to Sirkka, she crumpled it and threw it on the ground to make the girl fetch it, saying, “You foreign-born make me sick! Lazy! Your father should be working to provide your shoes.”
Those words echo down through time and find new mouths to spill out from, shaming those who migrate for a better life, enduring poverty and hardships in the transition. Sirkka was shamed but held her gaze directly at the interviewer and said of the principal, “She was a bitch on wheels.” 80-some years later, Sirkka still recalls how that woman made her feel. As writers, that’s what we want to capture no matter the genre and its tropes we write. Readers should walk away from books remembering how the characters made them feel.
As for living history, Sirkka participated in the fight against fascism, aiding D-Day in Normandy. Yet, less than a decade later, she watched fear of communism turn to hysteria. Many Finns, such as Sirkka and her parents, were indeed Red Finns. They maintained their language, love of theater, religion, and politics without any subversive motives. She embraced being American because it meant the freedom to be who you are, speaking out, standing up for justice. The tide turned against her, and McCarthyism left her hating. Then, she realized that hate was making her like those who had wronged her. She loved people and made a choice to dispell hate.
Sirkka has a message for us. She says history will repeat itself, and it’s up to us to remain human. We do that together. She said, “Sing together. Go for walks together.” I’ll add to that — write together.
The debut of Sirkka’s film kicked off the mid-winter festival in Hankooki — Heikinpäivä. In Finland, they say, “The bear rolls over,” meaning winter is halfway over. And here’s how they say it:
Heikinpäivä 2020 includes a stick horse parade, pasties, kick-sledding, and a wife-carrying contest. Little appeals to me in the sport’s origins or modern contest, but it makes locals laugh and cheer the contestants without being as intense as other races. But it got me wondering, as writers are wont to do with strange little tidbits — what other ways and reasons might wives be carried?
January 9, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a carried wife. Why is she being carried? Who is carrying? Pick a genre if you’d like and craft a memorable character. Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by January 14, 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 closed. Find our latest Flash Fiction Challenge.
Arrival to Rock Creek by Charli Mills
Her black hair sleeked and pinned, Mary Green McCanles rode the Tennessee Walker sidesaddle alongside the wagon train from Carter’s Station. Among the dusty herd and hands, she looked regal and rested. Sarah’s cheeks flushed, and she patted the frizzy sides of her brown hair, feeling like a pale version of Mary. Sarah dimmed when Mary dazzled. Cobb strode from the barn, ignoring the new livestock that just made him the wealthiest man in Nebraska Territory. He swung his wife off the horse and carried to the outburst of cheers. Sarah would have to sleep in the barn tonight.
Outside my front steps, little brown pellets form a scattershot design in the freshly scooped snow. “Farfennugens” comes to mind. It’s a made-up word from the last century — the 1990s. I don’t remember who came up with it, but I recall the incident. My eldest went into kindergarten, where Mrs. C had a classroom bunny. Gus was his name. Every student had a turn, taking home Gus for the weekend. He made similar brown pellets throughout our house, and we called them farfennugens.
These wild farfs puzzle me. Why at the front steps? Our neighborhood bunnies shy away from the doors. When I take Bobo outside, I wander their trails with my gaze, noticing where they dash, where they hunker, and where they hide. I’ve never seen them venture so boldly up the driveway to the steps. And then I recall my poor pitch. Let’s hope I have a better pitch for my thesis than I do with my arm!
Two days ago, after a sloppy-wet blizzard buried us in heavy snow, I watched the pigeons flock in circles. Wanting to make sure our two resident fledglings survive winter, I had been leaving out seed for them, but they were not coming to the back deck once it snowed. I had an idea — I’d sprinkle seed across the driveway the Hub had blown and scooped into a flat white mat. My heart was big, my pitch was not. A cup of seed sailed vertically as if I were trying to feed pigeons in flight. I dropped back down to the steps where I stood.
What the pigeons did not get, the bunnies did. They left their calling cards.
The only hutches I ever remember the women in my family owning were for rabbits, doves, or chickens. Fancy hutches filled with glassware belonged to women elsewhere. Back in Idaho, I used to pick up old glass in the south horse pasture. As a kid, purple glass and square nails held my attention for hours as I combed the hillside behind my house, where likely an old dump had been in the silver mining days. The first time I met someone who collected glassware, I was fascinated to see the pieces in their whole shapes.
Hutches were more common back in the pioneer days. Sod houses and cabins had no built-in cupboards. What I knew as a “pie keep” was a common type of hutch for the practical pioneer wife or ranch cook. Like a rabbit hutch, it employed mesh wire on the doors. The idea was that the cook made the pies on the countertop and then stored the baked goods on the shelves behind the mesh, allowing air to circulate without flies. I could see owning a pie-keep. Yet, it is a fancy hutch I now own.
It did occur to me that I could start collecting whole pieces of glass instead of fragments. But I have this rule of household goods — it must be practical and beautiful. It can’t just be a pretty thing, hanging out to collect dust. I have purchased glassware from the local church thrift and yard sales and the consignment shop. Wine glasses, cider mugs, and teacups for large groups fill my built-ins. I was at a loss as to what to with this large hutch.
For Christmas, Todd got a toy Monster Truck — Gravedigger, a jacked-up hearse on super-inflated tires. Our daughter had seen a friend’s child playing with one and knew she’d have to get one for her dad. The Hub talks in his Monster Truck voice, taking on the persona of Gravedigger. He has vexed me for years in public places, talking to me in his Monster Truck voice. This includes following me through the grocery store, making commentary on every item I set in the cart. In Idaho, he was singing to me in his Monster Truck voice as we were winding through the backroads after cutting firewood, and we turned the bend and, there was the real-deal Gravedigger parked in someone’s yard. It’s a family joke.
So, of course, Gravedigger, the model toy truck, now sits in the center of the fancy hutch. I now know what I will do. Next came the scams (the affectionate name for book and 99-word story sales). The entire bottom shelf is lined with the promotional items I use at farmers markets and book fairs — a copper bowl filled with copper pennies next to a sign offering 99-word stories and a penny for a dollar; a stack of Vol. 1 Anthologies next to a sign and plate of bookmarks touting flash fiction.
Sure, I have some pretties, too, that hold special meaning from special friends. Those and rocks are dispersed. I have room for some local art I might pick up this summer, and room for a bowl of broken glass. The hutch that came with the dining room set now has a purpose. The table gets plenty of use, and moving forward into 2020, it will be the scene of weekly literary events on Thursdays.
Locally, I will host a variety of Thursday evenings from 5-7 p.m. EST. They will alternate, so each one is once a month and will attract different groups of people and a few who want to come to them all. Silent reading parties are for introverts with books. The house is unfinished. Eventually, it will include lots of reading nooks (the Unicorn Room will be a reading room with a plush carpet, lots of sitting pillows, and space for an air mattress for overnight guests who will sleep among the unicorns and cameo-pink walls). Game night is self-explanatory, and my collection includes Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride Europe, Sushi-Go Party, Bananagrams, Story Cubes, and Scrabble. Write-ins are a collective time to write from the various writing nooks throughout the house and are an effective way to be accountable to one’s writing goals. Critique is for those who take my workshops so we can continue to progress on our novels and learn the adaptive critique process I’m developing (so far, it has met with the approval of my professors).
Where do you fit in? Right next to my hutch! I have a lectern where I set up my laptop to record discussions for my MFA classes. On that lectern, I also want to invite you to come and read on a Thursday (Friday morning in Australia). We can do this via Skype, Messenger, FaceTime, or even an old-fashioned phone call. You would introduce yourself, say how long you’ve been wrangling words at Carrot Ranch, what you write and why, and then read some of your 99-word stories, or poetry, or book excerpts. Your choice. It will be a 10-minute spot. And you will help connect the Keweenaw to the World through literary art.
This year, with anticipated and continued stability, my goals include connecting up Carrot Ranch online to World Headquarters on the Keweenaw. I will return to Vermont in July with one writer’s retreat, local workshops, and literary outreach (to libraries and veterans). I’d like to host a couple of writers in residence — a free three day stay where we’ll treat you like literary royalty. My vision grows, but my North Star stays constant — to make literary art accessible (encouragement, inspiration, education, collaboration, and play). I’m still tweaking goals but plan to have plans in place by March, which is the annual anniversary of Carrot Ranch.
If you want to join me on Facebook, I’ve created a private group called Carrot Ranchers. It’s a way to combine multiple communities that intersect here, and also focus on weekly support, accountability to writing goals, and play for writers who want to publish. You can view the weekly schedule here. I realize it’s not for everyone, but anyone who wants to join can. It’s a private group so we can keep it to our known communities (it’s an extension of safe space to grow as a writer).
Now let’s turn our attention to what could be hiding in a hutch.
January 2, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about something found in a hutch. It can be any kind of hutch — a box for critters or a chest for dishes. Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by January 7, 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 closed. Find our latest Flash Fiction Challenge.
That One Day (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Sun beat down on the oxidized hood of the Willies Jeep. It was Danni’s ninth birthday and her dad said they’d explore the old wagon road of the 40-Mile Desert. So far, all Danni had seen were oxen bones and rusty horseshoes. Her dad stopped to check out a dried-out pile of wood.
“An old hutch once,” he said.
Danni climbed out and saw a glint of something in what had been a cupboard door. A marble. Not just any marble but a large globe with an elephant inside. That was the day Danni decided to become an archeologist.
The day after Christmas and some might be elated, some might be feeling battle-weary, and some might not recognize the day as any different. Across Roberts Street, the Christmas tree in my neighbor’s window went dark. No more dazzling LED lights to keep me company into the long dark nights I write at my desk next to the window that gave me an unobstructed view of his. Some neighbors up the street still illuminate their old mining homes and likely will into the New Year.
On social media, I’ve witnessed Christmas joy, angst, and meh.
Joy goes to many who had sorrows last year. One close veteran friend battled agent orange-derived cancer, which shadowed the past two years, holidays included. This year, with surgeries and chemo complete, he showered his wife with thoughtful gifts, the kind that will be remembered — years ago she shattered an heirloom casserole from Poland. He finally found a replacement and surprised her with it. It’s understandable that this couple has savored every celebration in December this year from making cookies with the grandkids to the quiet after Christmas Day. Joy returned to them.
Another family I know from those long-ago days in Montana celebrated Christmas with purpose too — that family matters. They sprinkled gothic Halloween humor into traditional Christmas themes because one daughter created that infusion. Families often invent their own traditions, renewing those passed down. I remember this daughter as a girl who was best buddies with my eldest daughter. She and her sister were children, I loved dearly, and when I think about them, I think back to when my kids were little. It’s hard for me to fathom that she took her own life this year.
Grief comes at Christmastime.
Festive lights and remembered carols remind us of loss — death, divorce, and other unexpected changes. We humans like to pretend that change doesn’t happen. Maybe it’s a protective mechanism, a way to avoid contemplating our own mortality. Looks, circumstances, and vitality inevitably change. When I consider those dark Christmas tree lights across the street, I wonder how my neighbor is doing. He lost his wife this summer. Did he honor her memory by putting up the tree? Was he trying to maintain connectivity with their grown kids? Was it a relief to pull the plug on the lights? Let go?
So many of us try to hold onto what we think was the perfect Christmas memories. Others try to break free of the Christmas past. It’s easy to envy those who look like they have it all with gifts piled under a perfectly decorated tree, family in attendance, and intact traditions. The Mormon missionaries who visit talk about the Christmases back home where family was the focal point and Jesus the celebration.
This year, I tried Yule. It didn’t go as planned with my daughter’s friends feeling shy to celebrate a pagan holiday with others. In no way am I looking to replace one religion with another, I just want to cook and hold an open house. My ideal would be to have my children at home, playing games, eating mama’s cooking, and watching Lord of the Rings. But they have work, homes, and lives away from me. It’s unfair to tug them to my wishes.
It’s hard for married couples to navigate the traditions of their blended families. One mom wants this tradition honored, a step-mom wants to be with her kids alone, another mom just wants daughter time. Often, Christmas is the only time of year that families get extended work holidays. How do you decide where to spend that precious time? And it’s right smack in the middle of cold and flu season. It’s enough to make young couples implode.
My daughter and SIL have declared stay-at-home healing time. My son went with his fiance to spend the holiday with her small but close-knit family. And my other daughter encountered a polar bear that got into town on Svalbard Christmas Day. She was indoors, he was outside. How I long for our own close-knit days but honor the fledging of my children.
This is the most wonderful (complex) time of the year. Just scan your social media feed, and you’ll witness the full spectrum of joy, grief, and frustration. You’ll see faith renewed and lost. You’ll see cookies, jokes, and lashing out. What we all need, no matter our circumstances, state of mind, or expectations, is loving-kindness. Stand firm in your own truth, but don’t rob another of theirs. Find common ground, and don’t be afraid of change.
So why all the human commotion this time of year?
How can we not be impacted by the rhythms of our world? In the north, we celebrate the return of light. In the south, we look forward to relief from the peak of the sun. These transitions have occurred without fail for all our history. I think it is no coincidence that the world’s greatest concentration of annual celebrations lands this time of year.
For our modern calendar, no matter where we are in the world, this is year-end. And it carries an energy of closure and renewal. I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions, but I do believe in the power of planning. Every great plan starts with a clear vision, and this is a good time to renew or articulate yours.
On January 8, 2020, at 9 pm EST, you can join me on Twitter at #BookMarketingChat for a full discussion of how to use vision questing as a book author. Even if you have not yet published a book, it’s never too early to build an author platform. Use the search feature to find the chat and follow along, selecting the Latest tab. If you respond or ask a question, be sure to use the hashtag #BookMarketingChat.
2020 will mark my second year of a workshop series I teach called, To Cultivate a Book. This year, I will be experimenting with online classroom components. But first, I’m taking time to create a plan and to renew my vision. Last year, I focused all my efforts and energies on gaining stability. Now that the Hub, Carrot Ranch, and I all have a home, this will be a building up year, laying down the next level on the stable foundation. The prior two years were sheer survival. However, through it all, I never lost sight of my North Star. That’s the power of having a vision.
Life by design.
Whether it is recreating holiday traditions to align with changes, self-care, and compassion or embracing the joy of the traditions you have and share, be the creator of your life’s story. I don’t mean go write a memoir or imagine a better life. Know what you want to do or how you want to be, and create that life one step at a time. Acknowledge where you are and what your circumstances are but then look for ways to invite what you want to be part of your life.
December 26, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that includes the phrase by design. It can be used in any manner — a label, a mantra, a story. Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by December 31, 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.
By Design by Charli Mills
By design, my garden impressed. Every steppingstone measured, every bulb, seed, and root planted for maximum impact. In life, I did as I was expected. Good grades, college, spouse, suburban split-level, and two sons. On Sundays, I went to church.
Then my husband left me. My sons chose to live with him and his new wife, one without dirt under her nails. I moved into an apartment alone. Devastated. This wasn’t part of the plan. Where was God in this? Then I remembered the mustard seed. By design, I started over with a single planter and found my joy.
The summer before sixth-grade, a girl from Chicago moved to my small hometown in the Sierra Nevadas. She could wrap her ring finger and thumb around her wrist. Such long and nimble fingers. Mine squat short and stout upon the square pad of my hand, failing by a full inch to encircle my thick-boned wrist. This is but one of many instances of body shame I’ve felt in my lifetime.
Garrison Keilor, storyteller and creator of A Prairie Home Companion, once joked that he had a face for radio. I can relate. I’m not one for feeling comfortable in a literal spotlight. I like to be behind the camera, not in front of it. Place my writing in the limelight, and that’s a different scenario. But throughout my career in marketing communications, I often had to go on camera to deliver messages or promote fall apples.
How did I adjust to such discomfort? I got over it.
In some ways, I found it frees me not to have expectations of elegantly long fingers. No one asks me to play the piano. As for cameras, I grin and bear it. And stages? I march right up the steps (and sometimes I fall down them, too) knowing no one is there to watch me. If I’m in such a spotlight, I’m there to read my writing. By the time I finish, no one cares, I can’t encircle my wrist with my fingers. I’m a storyteller, and my voice is my superpower.
Oh, not a voice like a warbler or Dolly Parton. When I say voice, I mean that same one I use when I write. You hear it in your head, not your ears. It’s the voice that plucks the heartstrings, carries the tune of a story, and takes you someplace new. That voice. You have it, too. We all do. It’s what makes us who we are — the sum of all our experiences, thoughts, and emotions rolled up into one enchilada we sprinkle with words and syntax.
I’m beginning to believe that the notion — write what you know — doesn’t mean facts or information. For example, just because I haven’t actually encountered an elephant doesn’t mean I can’t write about one. But when I write about an elephant, I draw upon what I know from my experiences. I feel something about elephants because of the life I’ve lived thus far. I think about elephants in the way I’ve been exposed to ideas, documentaries, or information. When I write about elephants, I write what I know using my voice.
We see evidence of this phenomenon every week at Carrot Ranch. A group of writers responds to a prompt. Think of how different each story is. Sometimes writers go with a similar angle, but ultimately each story is different. Not only are we practicing the craft of creative writing, week after week, we are also exercising our voices. We are writing what we know when we follow where the prompt leads us. It doesn’t matter if any of us are zoologists or circus managers; any of us can write about elephants in our own voice.
My thoughts linger on the stage because that’s where I’ll be tomorrow night. Not the small, intimate stage at the Continental Fire Company, but the world-class 3,800-square-foot main stage at the Rozsa Center for the Performing Arts. My knees are knocking more than a little bit. Last week, I thought I’d be sitting comfortably in my season ticket holder seat, D32 watching the old-time radio and variety show, Red Jacket Jamboree. Now, I’m one of the show’s guest storytellers.
How did this all come about? Last year, I bought a booth at the Rozsa Center to sell my stock of The Congress of the Rough Writers Flash Fiction Anthology Vol. 1. I met the executive director of the theater who took the time to learn about Carrot Ranch and 99-word stories. D. Avery had given me a brilliant idea — to sell 99-words for 99 cents. That encounter reminded the director that she wanted to do something literary at the performing arts center. She did. She brought in Selected Shorts this season. Then she remembered Carrot Ranch and found out I was doing 99-word workshops at the library, and that’s how I was asked to prepare writers to submit to a Selected Shorts contest.
Last week, I told you about the winning entry and the power of writing 99-words. The winning author used 99-word increments to build the arc of her 750-word story. Another writer who writes at Wrangling Words every month (the library program) had her story picked up by one of the writers and performers of Red Jacket. When we spoke after the Selected Shorts performance, my friend who went with me had picked up my story. She gave it to the Red Jacket person and said, “You have to read Charli’s story.”
We all need friends who believe in us, or who watch our backs. I’m fortunate to have such friends. After I returned from Moon Lodge, I had an email from Red Jacket asking if I’d be interested in reading “To Be Known.” You betcha! Then came a flurry of edits — it’s a radio spot, so each segment is the length of a song. I had to get 750-words down to 3-minutes. I revised, read, and trimmed more so I could control the pacing without feeling that I had to read at a clipped pace. Tomorrow at 2 p.m., I show up at the Rozsa for dress rehearsal.
Red Jacket Jamboree performs like the Grand Ole Opry, where all the performers stay on stage throughout the show. We are to laugh, clap, and engage the audience. Naturally, I had one of those panicked what-will-I-wear moments. I had enough time to find a sheer cascading vest of red and black buffalo plaid (Northwoods meets holiday performance), and best of all, it only cost $16. My daughter, the dancer, has lots of glitzy jewelry, and she’s loaning me a set to wear and she’s doing my makeup. I’ll curl my hair, wear my black Mary Janes, and be ready for the spotlight!
And if I feel too nervous, I have a new gnome named Phineas who is like a big cuddly teddy bear. I’m bringing him backstage. Yes, I fell in love with a gnome at Cafe Rosetta. I have my own tonttu.
If you get a chance, I recommend finding an open mic night in your area. Go and read your stories. Red Jacket won a grant to develop the Keweenaw Folklife and Storytelling Center. I don’t yet know how, but Carrot Ranch will be involved! And visiting writers will get to experience the new cultural destination.
Wishing you all a Happy Holidays! I’m celebrating Solstice, Yule, Christmas and Finals next week. Embrace this season that calls us to slow down. Read a good book under a warm blanket. Unplug, unwind, go look at Christmas lights. Practice kindness. Unleash your voice. Write.
December 19, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that features an open mic night. Take a character backstage, on stage or into the deep woods. Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by December 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 closed. Find our latest Flash Fiction Challenge.
Open Mic Night by Charli Mills
Mark tripped, spilling loose-leaf pages from a tattered folder.
Bobby laid a hand on the thin man’s shoulder. “It’s okay, dude. First time here?”
“Yeah.” Mark clutched the folder to his chest.
“A poet, eh?” Bobby tapped the folder.
“Been a while since we had rhythmical composition.” Bobby called the gathering to order, issuing encouragement. Some had instruments made of discarded objects. Some had stories memorized in their heads. One man whistled. Only Mark had paper. A luxury at open mic night on the corner of 5th and Elm where the homeless gathered for culture and comradery.
Snow scatters in the wind like grain to a scythe. White tendrils whisk across the road, accumulating at times into pure whiteouts. It’s hard to tell the difference between snow falling and snow drifting. Evergreens line the road with sagging snow-laden branches and pavement hides beneath the frozen mat. We live where snow-tires are a must. Anyone who tries to fudge that requirement finds out how much it costs for a tow from a ditch or snowbank. Already the city of Hancock is removing snow to the fairgrounds. It is December 12, 2019, and we’ve had 62 inches of snowfall.
Welcome to the lee side of Lake Superior, where her snow globe is in full swing.
It might be time to break into song, “Oh, the weather outside is frightful…” But it’s not all that bad. We adjust here in the Keweenaw. I had an appointment a few days ago, drove through. swirling snow, and stomped my boots as I entered the building. The receptionist said, “That time a year, eh?”
Yes, it’s that boot-stomping, snow-blowing, globe-living time of year again, and I’m settling right into the rhythm. Driving 12 miles to the Hub’s ortho appointments is a breeze compared to the 200 miles we had to drive the past two winters. What has changed? The VA is working with local providers for those of us who live far away from urban VA hospitals. It continues to be a major battle with every approval comes a VA retraction. Medical records don’t get sent.
But our orthopedics center in Larium is fighting for us. After driving through snow dervishes, the nurse greeted us with a growl that she had a battle with Iron Mountain (the Hub’s primary VA. hospital) but finally found the right person to get the right records, and now she had that phone number. We are so grateful for their dedication because they don’t have to deal with the VA. They could refuse to work with veterans like many centers do. So, we appreciate the good care, the willingness to deal with a difficult system, and the close proximity to home.
Before driving through the blowing snow tunnel again, we took full advantage of stopping in at Cafe Rosetta. It’s a small Finnish coffee shop with scratch-made soups, sandwiches, and lavender-honey coffee. They even tolerate my BLT alteration — bacon, sprouts, guacamole, and pepper jack cheese, toasted on whole wheat with a smear of mayo. It’s a divine place to watch the snow howl down Main Street.
And, it’s where I encountered the gnomes.
Bearded fellas with tall woolen and pointy hats (not ears), the Joulutonttu is the Finnish Christmas elf. Cafe Rosetta was overrun with the stuffed figures, in caps gray or dull red. While associated with winter solstice and Christmas, the gnomes protect the house. There’s even a Joulutonttu Sauna — a sauna gnome! His job is to make sure everyone behaves in the sauna. That makes me giggle because I then think up all kinds of ways to misbehave.
If you aren’t familiar, the Fins sauna instead of bathe or shower. Today, I imagine they do both, but it’s still regarded as a weekly activity. We have a cedar sauna built into our house on the lower level and can dive into the snow afterward. I’m not kidding. It’s a thing! We sit in a wooden box with heated rocks that we pour a dipper of water over and then sweat in the steam, followed by a cold plunge outside and a warm dinner. Many people on the Keweenaw sauna. The heat penetrates all the way to your bones. It’s considered fortifying and helps if you have a winter cold. If the idea of the snow plunge unsettles you, opt for a shower.
I think I need to find a sauna gnome made of stone. I like the idea of a Joulutonttu living in the small cedar room off the back of our house.
Finals are quickly approaching. I’m finishing up three novels for required reading and several books. This week and next, one of my courses is focusing on the contemporary fiction genre. I found out that I’m in the minority with my MFA. Most of my cohort are writing speculative novels. With much thought and class discussion, it finally occurred to me what I love most about writing — exploration. And that’s what contemporary fiction does. Themes, styles, and elements can vary, but contemporary fiction explores who and why within a setting of realism.
I’m finally starting to see how I can construct my novel, too. We’ve been deepening our understanding of story arcs, and the complexity of multiple sub-plots added to drive the tension forward. One article I read this week challenged the notion of novels being plot or character-driven; they are all tension-driven. It can be external (plot) or internal (character), but it’s tension that turns the page for readers. Conflict can often come in the form of clashing values, no villain required.
I’ve also added a step before using my W-storyboard that has me plotting to be a better plantser. First step is to plot an arc; second is to draft scenes; third is to map the scenes with the help of the W layout shows both internal and external tension and mimics a hero’s (protagonist’s) journey. A-ha! And I have an expanded idea in the hero’s journey arena, too. An element of contemporary fiction is that the narrative generally focuses on a character’s journey and emotional experience. The call sets up a promise, and the elixir follows through with a satisfying outcome, which does not have to be a happy or expected ending.
In the novel Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, every time her protagonist experienced growth as a character, there was a consequence. Each time, the stakes got higher to the point that her life was in jeopardy. So, her final act in the novel is courageous and seems to satisfy the reader as a conclusion, but actually ends before we witness the consequence we know must follow. I won’t spoil what that means specifically, but the ending ties back to the opening, and it’s a brilliant conclusion, though not it leaves us wondering how much more suffering continued.
For me, it’s back to snow and books.
December 12, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a gnome. It can be a garden gnome, a Christmas Joulutonttu, or a sauna protector. You can write magical realism, or feature contemporary gnome-like product. Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by December 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 closed. Find our latest Flash Fiction Challenge.
House Protector by Charli Mills
The Russian soldier came on baking day. The Finnish women kept their kerchiefed heads bowed. He dismounted, kicked the oafish-looking gnome statue, and grabbed the youngest girl by the waist.
“You smell pretty today.” He smiled coldly.
Macy tried to withdraw and relaxed when she saw Joulutonttu upright himself. “It’s the bread,” she said, distracting him.
She led the soldier to the communal kitchen where the massive beehive hearth burned. She showed him loaves, opened the large oven door —
They later told their men that Joulutonttu protected them. But it was Macy who shoved the Russian in the oven.
My walls are a color between lemon meringue and key lime pies. If you’ve ever eaten a Key Lime yogurt, you know the phosphorescent glow of the paint I slathered to bring cheer to my home. The Hub says he feels like he’s a frog, living on a lily pad. I like frogs, and I like key lime pie. Looking at my walls makes me simultaneously happy and hungry.
Painting was not on the plan. I’m plowing through grad studies eyebrows deep in plots. For a plantser (a writer who writes by the seat of her pants), plotting can feel awkward and frustrating. Yet it’s become apparent that plotting is my weak point, and if I want to get stronger as a writer, I have to work that muscle. Evidently, I needed to paint to plot. Last time I was in school, I had a clean house from baseboards to ceiling. Now, I’m destined to have a colorful one.
Recently, I wrote a 1000-word romance, which my professor critiqued after peer review. It’s interesting, how much harsher peers are with one another. Not that my professor goes easy on us, but she points out the strengths of a piece and makes suggestions for improvement. Peers, like me, are learning. It’s not easy to give productive criticism. It’s much easier to criticize through opinion. That’s a start, but incomplete. The difference, as an example, is that one of my peers flagged my heroine as a dumb country chick. That left me struggling — was it my ability to craft a character or a difference of opinion?
My professor, on the other hand, praised my ability to develop characters, although my heroine didn’t resonate as strongly with her because of a lack of detail in what the character was thinking. The praise gave me enough confidence not to think I went off the rails, and her criticism was specific. Instead of telling me my character was “dumb,” she said my character did not resonate with her, and she offered a fix. In fact, she flagged three places to show me exactly where and offered examples, so I knew what to do.
While I’m working on my MFA to publish, I’m also earning an additional certificate to teach creative writing online. I’m focused on mastering the ability to read novels with x-ray vision (to see the underpinnings of how authors construct books) and critiquing writers to help them improve their manuscripts without slaying their vulnerabilities. I want to tear apart books and build up writers. And I’m practicing as I go.
I’ve painted myself into a corner, though. The dining room is perfectly smooth and ready to eat. The living room needs a touch-up and curtains hung. But, alas, the kitchen has odd angles. I’ve painted the walls I can reach, but there are corners I cannot. That’s where I’m at with my writing. How to fix my corners and beyond my reach? It’s going to look amazing once I figure it out. The upper ledge above the cabinets will be a dark blue-purple, the backboards behind sink, counters, and stove will be dark green, and the remaining walls will be key lime pie. I can see it.
Just like I can see my finished novel. I know Danni’s journey, I know what’s at stake for her. But I’m at the point where I can’t reach all the spaces between draft and finished manuscript.
At times like these, it’s easy to freeze up as a writer. I feel like I have nothing more to type! But I also know that is not true. The brain shuts down with anxiety, but I have a tool for creativity. It’s called 99-words. All this play, practice, and craft we do at Carrot Ranch train our brains to respond to problems with 99-words. This week, I’m writing another 1000-word microburst, and this time, it is in a less familiar genre to me — speculative fiction. I have several ideas, so I’m taking them to 99-words to explore.
The idea I like best is based on a weird dream I had after painting. Maybe the new color induced the strangeness, and yet it was not a nightmare. It felt curious. In the dream, I found hand-made crafts left like gifts in my cleaning cupboard. Among the artistic and woven items were a pair of slippers or moccasins. I had seen a group of strange people of various heights walking confidently beneath the tall branches of a winter tree. One bald man in a full gray cloak turned to look at me, and his face was blurry. I thought it looked like a face seen through a rain-washed window; only the window was clear. It wasn’t scary. It was like seeing water take human form. But why the shoes?
I still do not know why, and I wrote a 99-word story! I’ll TUFF it out and see if there’s a heart or a kernel or a punch to be found. I’ll rewrite it and (surprise, surprise) I’ll plot it out, using a flow chart that I’m building in Canva. I appreciate visual aids, and they make more sense if I create them, thinking about their use. If you are interested in flowcharts, check out Flowchart or Venngage. You can use the flow charts to map your story arc, plot, or show a protagonist’s (former hero) journey. A great model for plotting a story is something you might have encountered, but this is the original Story Spine.
This Saturday, I’ll be at the Rozsa Center listening to a live performance of Selected Shorts. I led a couple of workshops locally to prepare local writers to enter a contest to have a local story read on stage. We don’t know who won, but all the entrants will have their stories displayed at the Rozsa. I’m going early to join other writers for this exciting literary event. I also submitted a story to a contest to win a writing scholarship. I did not get picked as a finalist, but I’ll be studying the stories that did, and I’ll have another chance to enter next year. I also submitted two pieces to a regional journal and wait to find out if my pieces were selected.
I find that I don’t fret after I enter. No, fretting, just forgetting!
One of our Ranchers has met with lit journal success. D. Avery submitted a story that’s now published with Enchanted Conversation, a bi-monthly webzine that publishes original stories using fairy tale, folktale, and mythic themes. It’s more than 99-words and is paired with gorgeous cover art. Check out Wolf at the Door.
Incubation is powerful. I used to read our flash fiction collections at a poetry night in Sandpoint. The Poet Laureate taught me the power of incubating works with a live audience. Poets do it all the time. Musicians jam and come up with new ideas for songs. And we fiction and memoir writers? We write 99 words at a time — exploring, creating, and incubating literary art. Think of all the seeds you plant here! A mighty oak grows from an acorn.
December 5, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that includes a key lime pie. How can you use it in a story? Is it about the pie? Or about characters making, eating, or otherwise engaging with one? Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by December 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 closed. Find our latest Flash Fiction Challenge.
Curious Shoes by Charli Mills
Jena Warbeck found new shoes in the cupboard under the sink with her cleaning supplies – organic sage scents and purple dust-cloths. The shoes sat in a wreath of woven willow, soft brown leather and handstitched. She stood up and saw the beings with smeared features watching her from underneath the leaf-barren maple. They wavered like a wet mirage. Jena felt no fear. Only peace like when she relaxed with a cup of peppermint tea. Had they left the curious gift in exchange for nabbing her key lime pie? When they evaporated, a raven flew off with the pie tin.
For those who rode in last month’s 2019 Flash Fiction Rodeo, this is the date you’ve anxiously awaited. I use the adverb with understanding. This past month, I’ve entered my writing in two contests and submitted it to two literary journals. Waiting for notification can induce anxiety, angst, and doubt. Know that every writer experiences the rollercoaster ride of doubt. Artists combat resistance. Maybe you didn’t participate in the Rodeo because the word contest unnerved you. This is Carrot Ranch, a safe place to write, a fun literary community where you can find kindred spirits, a weekly challenge that displays 99-word stories. A contest invites danger; it sparks resistance.
If you haven’t yet read Stephen Pressfield’s War of Art, it’s worth the read. Some of it will make you cringe. Some of it will make you determined. He’s an author who understands the artistic battlefield. He writes:
“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance…Resistance by definition is self-sabatoge.”
(Pressfield, Steven. The War of Art. Black Irish Entertainment LLC. Kindle Edition.)
It is not easy to overcome resistance. Each and every one of you who finds your way to the Ranch to read, write, or join a discussion is participating in the three pillars of literary art. It matters not that you are here every week, but as the host, I can attest to the growth of those who are regular participants. When writers are new to the weekly challenges, I hope they stick around long enough to experience the magic of writing to a constraint within the bounds of a safe space. The Rodeo is a series of contests meant to challenge you to overcome your resistance.
My hat is off to each contestant. Take a moment to congratulate yourself for overcoming, for resisting, for showing up, and for delaying gratification. The challenges are fun — we get to see our work in concert with others. However, contests select and eliminate. We may not be gratified this time. Even if we win, doubt will still try to whisper in our ear. Winning or losing never offers comfort. So why seek out contests and selective submissions? To overcome the impulses of resistance and to learn. Growth requires an awareness of how our writing compares to others.
Comparison can be the ultimate discomfort for any artist. It produces a host of nagging emotions that range from inferiority to full-blown jealousy. A winner can feel like an imposter. In fact, in the first term of my MFA, we discussed the imposter syndrome as a common affliction of graduate students. Understand that this mindset shows up for contests, too. However, comparison can be productive. Let’s discuss how because it’s important to growth as a writer.
First, acknowledge any negative emotions. Practice kindness. Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book Big Magic, tells us that fear will come along for the ride of everything creative we attempt. Consider her mega-success (she wrote Eat, Pray Love), and yet she still feels fear. Resistance. Her advice is to invite fear along for the ride but never allow fear to take the driver’s seat. You can practice this every time you enter a contest, submit to a journal, or seek an agent or publisher. Invite fear along, recognize its emotional presence, but do the driving yourself.
From this frame of mind, accept any bludgeoning thoughts that tell you, “Hers is much better than mine,” or “His sucked; how could the judges be so blind?” Accept them as signals for comparison. Pause. Compare in a productive (and kind) way. Take a deep breath and ask, “How does her story differ from mine?” This exercise will teach you to learn how to compare and contrast in such a way that you begin to notice how craft skills are used. There is no right or wrong between your writing and someone else’s. The better you can get at identifying craft skills in other writing, the better you can adapt those skills to your own toolkit as a writer. Try to go a step farther and see what the judges selected. Instead of feeling hurt, set that real emotion aside and go deeper to identify one new writing attribute to try.
Originality will always be your ace card. No one has experienced the life you have. How can you express your sensations, experiences, concepts, and observations in your writing? That’s your voice. Cultivate your voice and you will cultivate originality. I see this truth played out week after week at Carrot Ranch. You go where the prompt leads because it will lead you to your voice. That intuition is what you learn to follow. You can always revise, but let originality lead the way.
The most original stories are not always the most sensational. I think mainstream media tricks us into believing that hooks have to be startling. What surprised me most about the entries to the 2019 Flash Fiction Rodeo was how prompts lead to greater originality. One of our contests was unprompted (Three-Act Stories) and instead of broadening originality, many writers resorted to sensational ideas for stories. Funny thing is, this diminished the impact because what was meant to be shocking risked becoming cliche. Let that sink in a moment. Writing about a hard social issue or injustice is not necessarily brave; writing about it from your own point of vulnerability is.
Your voice matters. Dare to follow that sensational (or common) lead into your own swath of experiences, blow past the tropes with something only you could write. If you take on a shocking topic, use it in an original way or say something new about humanity.
The most fun we all seemed to have with the Rodeo (judges and contestants combined) was with the Pro-Bull Mashup. Using three words from the source of pro-rodeo bull names and two niche genres (pirates and game shows) created a tight constraint and yet yielded much playfulness. In opposition to no prompt, multiple prompts pushed creativity. That’s an interesting consideration. Currently, I’m working with a 94-year-old WWII veteran in a writing group and he told me that as a child he read the entire dictionary. If he gets stuck writing, he turns to a page in his dictionary and uses a word to prompt an idea.
A standing ovation to ALL of you who entered TUFF Beans.
TUFF does its job and that is to force a writer to revise. I’ve known that my greatest weakness as a writer is revision. One of my best professors from undergrad days used to say, “Your manuscript doesn’t begin to sing until the thirteenth time.” Reality as a career writer was that I wrote to deadlines. I had to learn to write and edit simultaneously, gather momentum from interview transcripts, find original ways to include research with relatable analogies and write to my audiences for specific publications. As a marketing communicator and a freelance profilist, I got good at my work.
However, as a literary artist, I have had a tough time breaking those habits of simultaneously editing and drafting. I can write fast, and come up with original angles. But the more I pushed into my literary art and the more I grappled with manuscript revision, I felt like I had gaps in knowledge. Part of going back to get my MFA is to identify what it is I don’t know. What am I supposed to do each subsequent revision? Thirteen — how do I get to a singing manuscript when I can’t get past five revisions? I’ve developed tools like my storyboard. And I came up with TUFF to help me identify my blind spots in revision. I admit that I fear to make changes — what if I screw up the original thrust of creativity? How do I plot when my stories are character-driven and landscape-oriented?
TUFF and 99-word stories are tools as much as they are works of art. Many in my community use TUFF to craft business statements, explore narrative therapy, or generate manuscript revisions. Other organizations use it in ways I hadn’t considered. Offering it as a Rodeo contest is bringing it home to where it all began. When I see writers use the constraints to shift their stories and revise their original drafts, I feel giddy with excitement. TUFF provides its own lessons through the process. Our TUFF judge is a local life coach who loves using the tool with clients and business teams.
This year, I worked locally with our team of judges as I build up our Carrot Ranch literary presence in the Keweenaw. Here’s a bit about me and my home crew.
Charli Mills came to the Keweenaw from everywhere out West. As lead buckaroo at Carrot Ranch, she makes literary art accessible 99 words at a time and writes stories about the veteran experience and those marginalized by history. The Rodeo is a chance for her to encourage writers to push through creativity with courage.
Cynthia May Drake lives at the Ripley Falls Home of Healing, having lived in the UP for 30 years. She creates retreats and coaches clients to reach their spectacular potential. She regularly practices the 99-word and TUFF formats to resolve life conundrums, which has her fired up to be a literary judge for the Rodeo’s TUFF contest.
Marie Bertineau, born amidst the copper mining ruins of northern Michigan, is the daughter of an Ojibwe mother and a French Canadian and Cornish father. Her memoir, The Mason House, is set for release in September 2020 by Lanternfish Press of Philadelphia. She enjoyed the opportunity to work with Carrot Ranch on the Rodeo contest.
Tammy Toj Gajewski is an educated artist who recently retired from 24 years in prison where her nickname was Sgt. Carebear. She has written poetry and stories her whole life and is working on her book. She moved to the UP over 25 years ago and loves rock hunting, foster parenting, and dogs.
Bonnie Brandt came to the UP for MTU education and never left. As the daughter of a math teacher, she reads voraciously and belongs to a book club. She lives for the pun. She loves kayaking and cooking. She often will be reading even in summer!
Paula Sahin visited Carrot Ranch Headquarters during judging and joined in a session at the Continental Fire Company. She is a leadership development consultant trained by Brené Brown and manages Inner Wisdom Coaching and Consulting. She has a serious passion for learning and development.
Donna Armistead is a native of Florida and has taught dance and theatre in the Copper Country for over 30 years. Finally emerging from research mode to write a novel inspired by the lives of her Georgia ancestors, she is honored to have been invited to assist as a judge for the Rodeo.
Word Press allowed me to capture each entry and save according to IP address so that I could initially judge blind. I screened entries according to the rules and selected ten finalists in each category. I was looking for entries that met the criteria according to my perspective. I then shared criteria with my judges and let them use their own perspectives. None of the contests were purely technical. A few were more technical than others, but there remains an area of subjectivity. Judges do not all initially agree but everyone is allowed to voice their reasoning. Consensus was reached and three top places were awarded in each contest.
Each of the ten finalists will receive a submission critique. When I used to work with Paula Sahin, she coached me in ways to build strong teams. Together, we worked in senior management and helped our organization develop feedback loops that contributed to the productive growth of employees. As Carrot Ranch has grown, I’ve applied much of my previous career to our literary community, focusing on writers’ strengths and appreciating their use of originality and craft skills. With entry to my MFA program, I wondered if I could meld my positive feedback preferences with that of writing workshop critique.
One of my professors told me after a workshop exercise that I was one of the best line editors he had encountered. Editing is not my natural inclination (remember, I said my weakness is revision). What I realized is that by mindfully practicing positive feedback every week at Carrot Ranch, I had grown my skills. And yes, I’m working toward a brand of productive critique techniques to teach and use with others. I’m in my baby-steps phase, but by offering critique on contest entries where criteria are stated, I get to practice. Those receiving feedback get useful insights.
Be patient with me, though! Today is Thanksgiving in the US and it’s my second dinner, meaning I went to Wisconsin last weekend to fix Thanksgiving for my son at his request (Mama Bear can’t refuse an offer to feed people), then returned to the Keweenaw to fix dinner for my daughter, SIL, Hub, and friends. When on terms with an MFA, there is no such thing as a break. And somehow I thought it was a good idea (back in September) to announce winners today! I will not be immediately responsive, but I’ll be back at it on Friday when I’ll send email winner announcements.
Over the next four weeks, I will email a batch of critiques according to the order of contests. By the end of December, all 40 critiques will be delivered, just in time for my term finals.
I’d like to thank the Patrons of Carrot Ranch — your contributions maintain a dynamic community making literary art accessible. I have no staff. I have a small team of Ranchers who contribute as patrons. The work behind the scenes is my privilege. I’m grateful for all of you at Carrot Ranch Literary Community. It’s my life’s work to encourage others to write, read, and heartily discuss creative writing. It helps us all overcome resistance to our art and pursuit of it. I love what I do.
Thank you for your support of the Flash Fiction Rodeo. I hope you found it scary, fun, enlightening, and anything else you need to keep you on your writing path. Please take the time to read the 2019 Winners Page where all contest finalists, their entries and awarded top three places are displayed. Last year’s Rodeo Pages are all compiled into one 2018 Flash Fiction Rodeo. To celebrate or commiserate winning, our prompt challenge follows.
November 28, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about winners. Who are they, what’s the mood, and what did they win? Express emotion or subdue it. Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by December 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.
NOTE: Contest winners from all the flash fiction contests are located at 2019 Flash Fiction Rodeo.
Challenge submissions closed. Find our latest Flash Fiction Challenge.
Keep Trying Until You Win by Charli Mills
Martha posed her best winning grin to the reporter, spitting dirt as she smiled. The bulb flashed so brightly it turned everything to white blotches. Blinking, and wiping at the mouthful of arena dirt she received after the goat clocked her a second time, she looked for Auntie Bess. The old woman was leaning against the railing beyond the chatter of family and fans. Ducking the swipe of a hankie, Martha joined her Aunt.
“Why’d ya win kiddo?”
“Cause no one else would go after that stinkin’ goat three times. Figured, I keep trying ‘til I got him tied!”
It was outrageous — Erienne Fleming’s father had no regard for his daughter and married her off to the highest bidder. She had flirted with the Yank who’d come to her father’s village, but it was the mysterious and disfigured Lord Saxton who won the prize. He wasn’t the monster Erienne feared he’d be, and soon, her heart was torn between the husband she married and the dashing young man who pursued her. The climax to this tale is fraught with danger, unmaskings, and end — of course — with true love conquering all. Why? Because this is the story of a romance novel.
Kathleen Woodiwiss wrote A Rose in Winter the year I entered high school. By then, her career as a novelist neared a decade. Agents and publishers rejected her first novel, The Flame and the Flower, because it was too long. But it was detailed, building a historical world with accuracy and creating strong-willed characters. When her book published in 1972, it paved the way for what we recognize as the modern romance novel, and her book was the first to follow the protagonist and love interest into the bedroom.
My sister-in-law loaned me a copy of A Rose in Winter, promising me it would be the best love story I had ever read. It was. And it remains the number one romance novel in my heart. “Serious” writing cured me of my crush on romance novels. By the time I graduated with an undergrad degree, I was burned out on reading heavy literature — medieval books, Chaucer, literature with social justice themes, and thick historical novels. I slipped back into reading a romance novel, but the genre had changed. The bodice-rippers had grown up, and contemporary romances had taken their place. Two of my favorite authors had quit romance and were penning modern crime thrillers. I found old copies of Janet Dailey and re-read the Calder series about the Montana family of cowboys over five generations.
Then I quit romance for good.
It’s not so much that the genre changed, but that I had. My heart wanted a good read, and so did my brain. I wanted to feel connected to characters, their relationships, and their world. Oddly enough, fantasy filled the void. After I plowed through my kids’ Harry Potter books, I discovered the works of Robert Jordan and read the entire Wheel of Time series. This led me to read the hefty tomes of Brandon Sanderson, and I eagerly await his next 1,000-page Stormlight series installment. But you see, Kathleen Woodiwiss started my interest in long novels.
Tony Hillerman is my brain candy. His Navajo police stories go as fast as a bag of red licorice. I love his books for the authentic Navajo world-building and for a series that returns familiar characters. But they go fast. To slow down, I’ll read a contemporary work of fiction. Anne Goodwin over at Annectdotal has been my book pusher for recent scores of literary fiction. If you don’t follow her reviews, I suggest you do so as a writer. I’m shifting my own reading practices to read more books as a writer. That means reading books I might not connect with or find entertaining.
Why do we read?
What a massive and complex question. If we had an inkling, book marketers would hustle us off to better understand the reading habits of modern readers. Some like to stimulate their intellect, others their emotions. I like a good book that draws me into a sense of place — it’s why I read Brandon Sanderson, Tony Hillerman, and Janet Daley. Book marketers struggle to make sense of that because I read across such divergent genres. And to mess up the matter more, I write women’s and historical fiction with a commercial style. What is going on?
Librarians better understand that most of their patrons are like me — a hot mess when it comes to “what I like to read.” Book marketers are so hung up on genre that they think I’d only read one genre. Tony Hillerman is the only crime books I read. Outside the Navajo reservation, I’m not interested in mysteries. I don’t like thrillers. Oh, but wait, I read all of Ian Fleming, and I like some of Ken Follette and Clive Cussler. I read everything Kathleen Woodiwiss ever wrote, but I can’t stand anything Nora Roberts writes. I dislike fantasy, but I love Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan. YA is not my thing except for Harry Potter. I read lots of western writers like Louis L’Amour, Edward Abbey, Jim Harrison, Ivan Doig, Wallace Stegner, and non-fiction by Terry Tempest Williams and important cultural literature by Sherman Alexie and Tony Morrison.
The Reader’s Advisory group that helps librarians understand readers like me look at genre to recognize the factors that influence readers and have published a powerfully informative book, The Reader’s Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction. If you are serious about publishing (independently, small press, or traditionally), this is the book that will help you understand readers better. And why do you want to do that as a writer? Because readers buy books. Libraries and book stores buy books for readers. The better you can understand who is your target reader, the better you will be at marketability. Publishers want a well-crafted book, yes, but they also want one they think they can sell.
According to the Reader’s Advisory, genres can be arranged according to four factors:
- Adrenaline Genres (Adventure, Romance Suspense, Suspense, Thrillers)
- Emotion Genres (Gentle Reads, Horror, Romance, Women’s Lives & Relationships)
- Intellect Genres (Literary Fiction, Mysteries, Psychological Suspense, Science Fiction)
- Landscape Genres (Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Westerns)
This blew my mind for a couple of reasons. First, who would have thought that horror and romance had anything in common? Second, what I like to read (fantasy) is compatible with what I want to write (historical fiction). I’ve been saying, I love a book that draws me into a sense of place. Well, that would be landscape! This rearranging of genre by factors helped me better understand my target audience, too. Miracle of Ducks has perplexed me as to where it fits. It’s contemporary, but what is it from there? I had dismissed women’s literature and thought it fit more into literary fiction. But I was wrong! My story is about relationships and women’s voices that go unheard from within the veteran community. It’s emotional, not intellectual. My target audience reads books to feel.
The book breaks down each of these genre groups and delves into deeper factors. It’s intended audience is librarians, but one of my professors introduced me to the guide (buy used because this is a pricey reference book). My other professor has me writing romance this week. They are both teaching me that as a writer, I have something to learn from all the genres.
So, what can we learn from the romance genre? Romance places priority on the relationship between two people — romance, bromance, girl meets girl; the story is all about them. I learned that the genre has niche’s I never knew about (yes, werewolves and women are a thing!). It’s a rich genre, often focusing on details of place like the historical romances Woodiwiss wrote. Just because it has a recognizable framework of they meet they, they come into conflict, more conflict, and near disaster, they reunite and live HEA. HEA meaning, happily ever after. Although modern romance allows for more ambiguity — happy for now. It must end on an upswing.
Romances vary as much as our weekly stories. We are all writing to the same prompt within the same constraint, and yet our stories each week remain creative, original, and unexpected. Romance novels can be just as varied. For me, the take-away is to study relationships and the emotional tension that builds conflict. Whereas romance solves the tension with sex, I’m aiming for an elixir of growth. I’m more interested in personal development and social justice.
Yes, we are going to get our love groove going this week. First, a little mood music. Robert Mirabal is one of my favorite Native American musicians. He introduces why he wrote the song, Medicine Man. It doesn’t have an HEA ending, but it is a story of a man who overcame his unrequited love by marrying his people. What a deep concept — he could not have the romantic love he yearned for, so instead, he loved everyone, serving them as a holy man. That is a relationship story with, personal growth.
November 21, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a romance. Focus on the relationship between two people. Build tension and end on a happy(ish) note. Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by November 26, 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.
Challenge submissions closed. Find our latest Flash Fiction Challenge.
Cupid’s Call on the Range by Charli Mills
A cow caused it all. Maria Sanchez lived on the backside of Hope Valley, watching her father’s herd of Angus, selling steaks to silver miners. Garett Meadows owned the mine. He spotted Maria one day, lifting her skirts to chase a cow, exposing curvy brown calves. A range cow charged the encroaching horse, and Garret struck his head in the fall. Worried that her father would be blamed, Maria hid the injured man in a trapper’s cabin to tend to him alone. Garett was only playing injured. A month later, at their wedding, he blamed love on the cow.