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April 8: Flash Fiction Challenge

Undaunted by 131 inches of snow — a light winter — some of the Roberts Street royal family has survived. One towering seven foot stalk of Lemon Queen sunflowers bob their dry crowns in the wind. All winter the nuthatches and chickadees have feed at their multiple heads. Winds and snow drifts snapped all but this remaining royal.

Mause joined me today as we worked on a new command, “Off the garden.” We examined the rise of tulips, hyacinth, iris and glories of the snow. Grit and matted maple leaves cover the ground now that most of the snow has gone. Crocus of purple, yellow, white and lavender began to bloom a week ago. They color a dun landscape. Nothing is yet green

Winter bleached the Lemon Queens the color of pale straw. Yet still they give.

A friendly male chickadee sang what birders call the fee-bee song and I responded, “Here, kitty.” Some say the call sounds like “Hey, sweetie.” I like my version because I find it humorous that a bird would call a cat. Mause stood at attention. After all, she is a bird dog. I was gathering dropped Lemon Queen stalks to check for remaining seed. The chickadee tried to land on my outstretched hand and I felt like a Disney Princess. Mause vibrated in excitement and the bird flew off to Mrs. Hitch’s tree.

What seemed a lovely overcast day on the peninsula was not so on Lake Superior. She fussed enough to froth waves that sent the recently returned lake freighters to seek safe harbor. Cedar Bay, one of my favorite swaths of pebble beach that I can access through friends who own lakefront property, churned sand, and broken ice. Someone filmed the action. You can view a nice spring day on the Keweenaw and imagine the Lemon Queens, chickadees, and a young pup ten miles away.

Further North and across the North Pole from me, my youngest daughter is welcoming spring on Svalbard. March and September are the only two months out of the year that the sun both sets and rises. Otherwise it does one or the other. They are now in the days of sunshine. It’s cold on the island, never rising much above freezing. It doesn’t snow much but the ice and permafrost are thick. Caves of blue ice form tunnels through glaciers. My daughter and a group of friends are snow machining and camping, avoiding avalanches and polar bears. It’s stunning country.

Caves remind me of the hero’s journey. An important stop along the way is the symbolic cave — call it a bad day or the point of no hope. It’s necessary for the hero to fall before the rise with an elixir in hand. As an epic moment, the cave represents a near-death experience. And it is a confrontation of death. Consider the class Star Wars story when Luke Skywalker’s training calls for him to enter the cave and confront the dark side of the force.

He enters the cave and battles his arch enemy, Darth Vader only to discover the his own face within the mask. This scene is not the actual cave moment in the story, though, but a premonition of what will follow. In order to confront his enemy he must confront the darkness within himself. Ultimately, this leads Luke to believe that if there is darkness within him, there must be goodness within Darth Vader. The actual full hero’s journey in the Star Wars sagas belong to Anakin Skywalker. His hero’s wound is that Anakin never had a father. He dies when he turns against the dark side to save Luke — to be the father he never had.

What makes Star Wars so crazy-good to study for the hero’s journey is the fact that as a writer, George Lucas befriended Joseph Campbell who defined the epic structure based on worldwide studies of mythology. Lucas and all the writers and filmmakers he has influenced since the 1970s have followed this pattern. Like the 99-word story format, the hero’s journey is a pattern. At the Star Wars epic level, heroes look like the Skywalker men. At its most simplistic form, the hero’s journey is about transformation and not gender specific.

Many people have dismissed the hero’s journey as a white male construct. While that might be so to a certain point, what excites me about the hero’s journey is how its pattern feels like the struggle to overcome and self-actualize. In fact, people relate to this pattern and flock to stories in the Star Wars universe because it stirs up emotion and inspiration. They want to experience the journey. Many fans have, becoming part of the technology, art, and storytelling of LucasFilms.

The latest is a Disney series called The Mandalorian. Many people involved in the project were kids, just like me, when Star Wars rocked our world in 1977. I was ten and started to write stories. My writer-self has evolved with Star Wars. I still get chills hearing the opening music of what has been renamed A New Hope. Now, I have a new theme that fires my synapses, perfectly pitched between light and darkness with a western influence. The Mandalorian is based on western tropes.

The Hub has watched The Mandalorian with me. It’s hard to find shows that hold his attention. Mostly he watches YouTube interviews of soldiers, which I find interesting to listen to as I write but don’t care to watch for entertainment. He began researching George Lucas and the development of Stars Wars and I followed him down every rabbit hole that had to do with storytelling. To bring it back full circle to my ultimate writing mentor, Wallace Stegner, he said:

“An emotional response in the reader, corresponding to an emotional charge in the writer –some passion or vision of belief–is essential, and it is very difficult to achieve. It is also the thing that, once achieved, unmistakably distinguishes the artist in words from the everyday user of words.”

Wallace Stegner. On Teaching and Writing Fiction. Penguin Books. 2002.

That’s why I love the hero’s journey. As a pattern, it provides a foundation to build upon such an achievement in writing.

Yet, many dismiss or dislike the hero’s journey. First, the word “hero” is problematic. Anne Goodwin and I have had numerous debates over the years which has helped evolve my thinking about the hero’s journey. We both decided we like the term protagonist’s journey better. Anne also brought up that not all protagonists complete the journey. I think it’s still a journey, but one that refused to answer the call, and then became an anti-hero’s journey, resisting the cave. Some dark stories enter the cave and never leave it. I see these as variations. You have to know the structure to build it differently.

Today, we have an opportunity to broaden who we define as a hero. Women, BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and different ages, sizes, neurodiversity and abilities can be the person on the journey. Anyone can be the hero. I believe in the pattern of the transformative journey, not who the face of the hero is. Yes! Magazine published an article that challenges us to reframe who the heroes are: “The Kind of Heroes We Need to Actually Save the Planet.” As writers we are heroes of another sort. Rena Priest, the author of the article, reminds us that:

“The word “author” is from the Latin word auctus, which translates literally to “one who causes to grow.” As storytellers, we plant beliefs that blossom into the structure of the world.”

Rena Priest, The Kind of Heroes We Need to Actually Save the Planet. Yes Magazine. 5 November, 2020.

April 8, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that “rethinks the hero.” Define the hero, comparing or contrasting to the classic definition. Break the mold. What happens to the hero in the cave? Is it epic or everyday? Is there resistance or acceptance? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by April 13, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

A Different Way to Serve by Charli Mills

Her bootlace caught the gunrack no soldier ever used. The force of the blast lifted her body as easily as a child’s balloon rises. Weightlessness defined the pause between rise and fall. When her body crashed, her bootlace held. It ripped every tendon, wringing her ankle. Two years later the VA removed the foot Hunter wanted gone. It flopped and failed, unlike the metal shank they pounded into her bone. Strong. Time to return. She wore no cape, no uniform, but stood to defend an Inuit village. She became the climatologist who sounded the alarm. The ice was melting.

🥕🥕🥕

April 1: Flash Fiction Challenge

And so it has come to pass.

Dry leaves from October broke free of their icy moorings following the equinox. Spring in the northern hemisphere, and autumn in the southern. A point of perfect balance between night and day shared by the world over in successive time. Momentous and yet unique to each one of us. The day Sue Vincent died, I was watching dry leaves twirl in the wind with a puppy named Mause.

We didn’t yet know. Gusts hit our old copper miner’s house and leaves circled upward. Mause propped her small body against the top of the couch with lanky growing legs. She’s still floppy at four months old, yet attentive. She never barked but followed each leaf with wonder and intensity. We went for a walk in the wind and Mause bounded, leaping into the air, catching leaves in her mouth.

Seeing the world through Mause’s eyes can shift me in profound ways. Instead of leaf litter or the dun of winter grit, I see whirling wings and hillocks to climb. Every sight and sound is worth a pause and cock of the head. The world is new and enchanting to a puppy. Dogs mature but stay in that center of mindful wonder. I borrow Mause’s perspective — the path is never the same though we walk it every day.

It’s like the weekly collection. I feel like a pup snapping at leaves. Look at that one — the twist at the end. And this one — rich detail. Stories, characters, settings, tones, humor, darkness, hope. Leaves tumbling in a vortex, the 99-word stories delight each and every outing. We are all human. Yet we each have different lived experiences and rich details to draw from, and imagination to express. Our writing prompts brings us to a shared mindful moment where each voice speaks.

Sue Vincent led an extraordinary life. You can read between the lines and see that she paid attention to people, history, mystery, and literary art. Sue had a rich inner life that could express and draw others in to play with words to share moments and tell stories. Sue had a tenacious sense of humor. Even toward the end of her life she found reason to laugh. It reminded me of the time I shared in my best friend’s passing from this world to the next. We laughed.

It’s human to laugh, to cry, to feel, to think, to imagine what if and why.

As writers, we are the containers of human experience. Like ink pads we soak up stories and control the spill of details from our quills. We think deeply and mine the thoughts for expression. Sometimes we barely think at all and respond like wildfire across the pages. No matter what languages we speak, our mother tongue is storytelling. Our beauty and hope and art form words. So do our shadows.

The craft of writing is one of life-long mastery. Writing forces us to heal and grow. Water can’t remain stagnant when it flows. Rivers well up in us and the process shapes the outpouring. We tumble from dark places, artisan wells and cracks in bedrock, to journey to the sea where other waterways spill. From drops of water comes an ocean.

Writing communities meet and mingle in the great bodies of water. We all flow from source to a common place. Each of us with different perspectives, joining our voices through stories. Sue was the captain across such seas. She knew Albion best and drew writers to her source. She gifted many through the life she led and the stories she wrote. We will miss her and yet her presence is palpable among us, such are the echoes of her writing legacy.

What a gift she gave us all, sharing the intimacy of her end days with us. What a gift the community gave to her, surrounding Sue with stories she inspired. She impacted us. Shared her soul’s song. Like a pup chasing winter-weary debris, she made the best of her life and left a legacy of words.

Though gone from us here and now, she left a guided meditation that feels like the peace, calling us to shed our stress and pain. I hope you find the gift she intended for us all with Swift Passage. Sue Vincent went into spirit on March 29, 2021 while old leaves danced to spring winds.

April 1 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a swift passage. You can take inspiration from any source. Who is going where and why. What makes it swift? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by April 6, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

You Were on My Mind Again by Charli Mills

From Ireland to your deathbed was a span of 150 years. Your culture, after five generations in America, remained Catholic. You didn’t call it your religion or heritage. You spoke of your faith as elemental as DNA, your smile brightening a room with the luminaries of sainthood.

You married him anyway. He was Scots to your Irish, a wounded Vietnam vet. A smile that lit yours. Two daughters later, he left to comfort his National Guard Unit as a lay minister on the battlefield. You lost him. But you never lost heart. Swift passage, my dear friend. Home again.

🥕🥕🥕

March 25: Flash Fiction Challenge

Like a dusting of powdered sugar, the snow returned. It covered the humps of gritty snow and carpeted Roberts Street in white. For hours last night not a single car tread marred the glistening cover. Until midnight, rain and wind lashed the windows. I thought spring had finally arrived. The waterfalls broke through their icy cages along the ridge we call the Keweenaw Peninsula. So ravenous is the water, the falls gobbled the snow and continued to blast toward Lake Superior.

My streets reveal pavement. The sky remains hidden. Whites, blues, morph into grays. I want to burst out of this fog, heavy as any steel bars. Where would I go? How would I go? Ducks never fret. They simply fly.

I saw ducks on my way to get jabbed with the Moderna magic potion. Mallards. They were all drakes with bright green heads to attract female counterparts. By the time snow and ice recede from the marshes and smaller lakes, it’ll be mating season. More ducks will arrive. Canada geese, too. Loons. I won’t expect to see loons until after empty nests. Swimming with loons is kinda my thing.

They swim better. I tumble and bob in the waves, flounder and flit for rocks. My motions don’t add up to swimming. I flail. But I love to flail. Especially when I can watch loons bobbing and ducking across the crests of water. On a flat-water day, they glide powerfully across Lake Superior, staying parallel to the shore. When there’s surf, they often hunt the prisms of waves for churning trout or whitefish. Loons pass and then fly low to repeat the path.

Spring snow makes me long to pick rocks on the beaches. Instead, I clean and sort my house rocks, and remember why each was such a treasured find. I have large hunks of weathered basalt with agates embedded like marbles in cement. I have granite, quartz sandstone, jasper, epidote, pink feldspar, prehnite shaped like a flying fish, and crystalized fossils of coral. Stories frozen and tumbled in time.

Stuck in my spring cage, I write. I’m the time traveler’s wife. My husband recedes back into time. The past has become his here and now. It’s not my present and I yank the bars of this duality. He leaves me for journeys to the past. It’s like he’s examining his life and working backward against the tide of progression. I progress and feel guilty, like I’m directing my boat away from his. We drift. He doesn’t seem to notice. We watch Netflix at night trying to connect. I fix dinner and he chops salads.

The salad thing is a weird neutrality. It takes him thirty minutes to chop and layer two bowls of lettuce, spinach, olives, pickled beets, carrots, fake crab and shredded Parmesan. For a person with zero focus and the impatience of a two-year-old, it fascinates me that he can chop and layer with precision. I understand he can do that with reloading because its muscle memory. But when has he ever built green masterpieces? There are no clues in his past. I enjoy his salad skills, however they came to be.

Mause needs a cage. She’s begun to dismantle my radiator hardware. I think they are flanges that fit around the pipes to block the holes through each floor. She’s figured out how to open the metal pieces and get them away from the pipes. Like the Hub’s salads, I have no idea how it occurred to this puppy to endeavor to release the radiators from their captive cuffs. They clunk as she bats them across the hardwood floors. Steampunk dog toys.

Waiting for the weather to lighten is my least favorite time of year. I’m a grumpy bear coming out of hibernation. When I found out that a clinic two hours away was offering to give Covid vaccines to veterans and their spouses, I was over the moon. But when I realized the press propaganda failed to list the correct phone number, I tore through the Michigan Department of Veteran Affairs like a raging, spring-hungry grizzly.

The first time I called, pressed the listed extension, the person on the other line knew nothing of such a clinic. I read her the post from our local VSO, instructing veterans and caregivers to register. I wanted to sign up. Nope, she said. Wrong number. I tried to contact our VSO. Since Covid, getting a live person over the phone is like trying to call hell. I did an internet search and found countless news releases, congratulating MI for taking care of its vets. They all listed the same number and extension. I called the city where the clinic was to be held and they knew nothing and told me to contact my county. I called the Michigan governmental offices who gave me another number to call who directed me to the Michigan Department of Veteran Affairs. Finally a live person claimed to know about the clinic and happily connected me to registration.

The original wrong-number operator answered. I told her how dehumanizing the whole system is. I have fallen through ever crack to qualify for a jab. Our local CBOC (rural VA clinic) will only jab veterans. I’m the wrong age, unessential, and without healthcare. She tells me her dad was a vet and the place she most hated to go with him was to the VA. She got it. But she didn’t know about the clinic I sought. But she researched and found the registration portal. She said none at her call center had been advised of it and she’d make sure her supervisor knew. That’s what it took to get registered.

To get jabbed required a car rental, puppy sitter and a four-hour drive. Not only was the phone number wrong, so was the address. We spent an hour walking the Northern Michigan University campus, asking at various buildings. No one knew. Finally, a student said the Army was in a building across the street. We found the building, and by the time we were both ready to give up, I spotted desert camo fatigues. Relief rushed through me. I could see the cogs in the wheel.

The Army needs to be in charge of vaccinations. Once we reached the soldiers everything was efficient. Everyone had a role. If someone didn’t have an answer, they directed us to the right person. Everyone was calm. Some were even funny. The Hub slipped back in time, talking about former duties, recalling patches, making the right jokes to the right people. Maybe he’s just a lost cog, my time traveler. He had refused to get jabbed until he saw the sea of uniforms. Then it became his mission. I was twice relieved — we both got our first Moderna shot and go back for our second on April 19.

Some days we want to escape. Be a mallard in a pond, free to fly away. But here we are. This is life and beauty is waiting to be revealed. Don’t give up hope.

The truest, most beautiful life never promises to be an easy one. We need to let go of the lie that it’s supposed to be.

Glennon Doyle

March 25 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write an escape. It can be daring or subtle. Who is escaping from what and why? Go where the prompt leads!

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

Wish to Escape by Charli Mills

Soothing and stirring, a rush of water tumbles over Hungarian Falls, carrying Beryl’s life. Not her body or soul, which remained firmly planted in her boots at the water’s edge. She didn’t scream, gasp or lunge for her cell phone when it slipped from her fingers. My life, she thought. The roar covered the sound of cracking. She imagined the screen with her fingerprints smashed to bits on rocks. Who was she without a phone? The water churned. Her thoughts lifted. Her soul escaped the hold of technology. Had she really tossed it to make a wish? She had.

🥕🥕🥕

March 18: Flash Fiction Challenge

A year later, and I have enough toilet paper. I remember my last night of normal, edgy about an encroaching virus and yet disbelieving a global pandemic would reach the outer rims of civilization. We have the opposite of population density. That didn’t prevent our stores from going dry with the dry goods, namely toilet paper. Who knew around the world we’d sail into the unknown, clinging to hoards of TP?

A year later and my social skills are rusty. The social refrain I don’t want to adult today has morphed into I don’t know how to people anymore. It unsettles me to think that I’ve not had anyone in my house besides my daughter and son-in-law. Except for the two weeks I broke protocol and took in two veterans who would have been homeless. Stranger yet is how quickly they disappeared from my life after they found a place to live.

In 2020, I made two trips both to Wisconsin. My son’s wedding and to pick up a puppy.

There’s something about a one-year mile-marker. You can’t help but stop, turn around, and consider the journey from then until now. A year ago I needed toilet paper. It was a legit item on my grocery list. I’m not one for stocking or buying goods in bulk and often I wait until the last roll until I feel compelled to buy more. We had two partial rolls of TP and laughed at the news reporting a shortage. Not in the UP. We don’t have population density. Yet, here we were in the rural sticks with shelves as empty as an urban center. Eventually, I bought a case of toilet paper from Who Gives a Crap.

That last night of Normal, we celebrated a friend’s birthday. We watched the waves crest over the ice heaves, assured spring would follow the melt. We drank beer in the kitchen past midnight. To be in the house of another! We ate dinner out in a full restaurant. Last night I dreamt I was in a city and I walked from restaurant to restaurant trying to define that sound. What was that sound? Glasses clinked. Forks tapped plates. Chairs scooted across floors. Heels of shoes clacked. Waitstaff asked for orders. Doors opened and shut. That sound murmured beneath it all from place to place.

The sound of voices in crowded places.

Did you ever think you wouldn’t hear that? I’m someone who appreciates the song of a bird, the buzz of a bee. I’m not a crowd-loving person but there it was in my dream — a longing for murmurs.

Spring murmurs differently. Starlings return to the neighborhood. Woodpeckers hit the trees. Snow turns to grit. Dead Lemon Queens crisp from winter hold seeds the nuthatches left. Mause discovers the stalks as the snow piles recede. She prances atop three feet of snow with a foot-long stalk and dried head. She doesn’t miss a stray stick on our evening walks and the snow banks shrink, more sticks emerge. I’m waiting for the crocus and glories of the snow. Some things have not changed.

Will we remember how to people in person? Maybe we will care less about the superficial and more about hugs and deep conversations. Will we get to smile or remained masked? I don’t know the new rules moving forward. I hope we get to keep curbside service. I also long for the time we can crowd a place and share a show or meal.

And so it passes. A year. We did not lose the things we feared. TP remains accessible. But I fear we have lost less tangible things. We have gained, too. We’ve connected more broadly, reached out in unexpected ways. Humanity and toilet paper have survived.

March 18, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that takes place a year later. It can be any year. Explore the past year or another significant passing of time to a character. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by March 23, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.

A Year Later by Charli Mills

Hazelnut creamer, your favorite, expired months ago but I couldn’t throw it out. We bought groceries like it was end times. Panicked when the shelves remained bare of pasta and dried beans. Flour disappeared and pictures of “first time” bread-bakers emerged online. We bought sliced rye. At first, I enjoyed the solitude. You loathed it, seeking excuses to venture out. Creamer. Always short on hazelnut creamer, willing to search for it. That’s how you found the last ten-pound bag of Montana Flour. I wept. Not as hard as the day you died. Did Covid take the extroverts like you?

🥕🥕🥕

March 11 Flash Fiction Challenge

Since Mause came to live with us, I keep the Unicorn Room closed. She likes to beleaguer the unicorns. When I open the door, the smell of smoked herbs releases endorphins; my mind readies to meditate. I’ve learned to establish daily rituals around my creativity, writing, and self-care. Ritual can be anything from sitting with a devotional and mug of hot coffee to smudging the four directions to walking with the rising sun. It’s simply any process you repeat to connect inward before going outward into your day. The seasons change our rituals, as do the days of the week.

We writers are multidimensional beings.

The Unicorn Room is sacred space. The kind any seven-year-old girl would love and feel safe. When I was a child and didn’t feel safe, I often hid in closets. Even today, I love to hunker into a down sleeping bag and tuck my head inside. As an adult, I’ve craved my own space which I carved out in strange ways, sharing space with family and critters — my end of the couch next to a bookshelf where I could set a cup of tea and store my writing journals; my side of the bedroom kept neat and tidy with inspirational art; the kitchen where food becomes art and love.

My home on Roberts Street has a room for me. The walls are shell-pink, a lavender shag rug covers the hardwood floor, purple script encourages me to “Read, Dream, Write, Breathe, and Play,” and a bookshelf holds my collection of rocks. One wall is dedicated to planning novels, and tapestries and a unicorn quilt decorate the remainder. I like to smudge, play meditative music, and sit on my purple meditation pillow. I use the Calm app to meditate. From where I sit and breathe, I can contemplate my W-story board with goals and progress and my giant vision board that shows character arc and plot. A single tall window with a gauze turquoise curtain allows light and air. Best of all, I can close the door.

Mause joins me in meditating. Every morning, when I rise I set the kettle to boil. I prepare a cup of hot lemon water with a pinch of chipotle, a dab of honey, and a teaspoon of dried elderberry. It’s my morning anti-Covid cocktail based on an anti-viral health tonic. I have no proof it works, but it cleans my kidneys and offers a dose of immunity support. Not to mention, it’s tasty. At the same time, I brew a press pot of coffee and let it steep while I go to the Unicorn Room with a puppy fast on my heels.

Usually, said puppy barks at me when I smudge. When I last walked with the People of the Heart Water Walkers, we took turns smudging each other. If someone felt frustrated, another would say, “Burn the sage!” The smell reminds me of the West where I rode my horse as a kid. Sagebrush is a part of me. But I’m also aware that the popularity of sage smudging raises ethical issues of use. I only burn that which is gifted to me from those who grow it or traditionally harvest it as medicine. This year I will grow my own smudge sticks from garden herbs. No matter the smoke, Mause barks. She’d be a pain if I chain-smoked!

My latest meditation essentials include a jar of chewy puppy treats, a clicker, a small puppy chew, and a rope carrot. If you want to test your ability to relax under any conditions, meditate with a puppy. With the treats and clicker, I’ve taught Mause, “Downward Dog.” She collapses across my legs or lap. I make her “Wait… wait… wait…,” taking deep breaths each command. Eventually, she settles down and by the time I get to my Daily Calm, she’s either out like a light or out the door.

My writing rituals include clearing my desk, filling my water bottle with cold tap, and looking at my weekly calendar with tasks, goals, and small steps. By the time I turn on my computer, I’m sucked into a vortex like a portal to another world. Mause is my anchor to the real world. Puppies don’t let you venture far without them. But she does like to curl up on my chest — a difficult feat as she now weighs 25 pounds and stretches out three feet — and listen to my heart. In a Covid world, I’m grateful for the warm snuggle.

A friend of mine makes ritual of coffee every morning. Another sits with her prayer list. My next door neighbor used to be a postal carrier, and he follows the ritual of a morning walk. Rituals can form habits. And writers need habits to create, process, draft and revise. It’s too easy to put off writing when our brains feel like pea soup. We cultivate small increments and squirrel away safe spaces so that we can come to it every day. We make it a ritual so we easily fall into the pattern of use.

On my way out of the Unicorn Room this morning, I tinkered with my poetry board, words on magnets. One phrase caught me — “deep wishes.” I an instant I followed a storm of dandelion seeds and swooshed below the earth’s crust in an ore cart to a crystalline cave. I thought I’d see where writers would dive with the phrase.

March 11, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about deep wishes. Where is the deep — in the sky, the ground, or outer space? What kind of wishes reside there for whom and why? Go where the prompt leads!

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

Waiting to Rise by Charli Mills

Lake Superior doesn’t freeze flat like a pond. She’s a non-conformist to the ways of domesticated bodies of water. Into the night, she goes screaming, waves punching with each yell. She thrashes, her hips undulating with deep wishes unfulfilled. When they force her into cold compliance, she fights back. The shock of winter marriage doesn’t smooth her wild edges. Ice grabs hold, insistent, freezing her shoreline, paralyzing her economy. She plunges deep and draws her strength, cracking the façade they give her. Ice fractures over and over. Wishes caught and released, shared among women waiting their turn to rise.

🥕🥕🥕

March 4: Flash Fiction Challenge

Sweet potatoes arrived in the mail this morning. Two packages of dehydrated fries for Mause, my three-month-old German Short-haired Pointer. It takes her ten minutes to eat one and she gets two a day. This buys me twenty minutes of time. Such is life with an energetic puppy.

The Hub fancies he’ll train her for quail hunting and who am I — an artist of stories who fancies she’ll publish novels — to say how unlikely that is. It’s not because we have no quail in Upper Michigan. He can travel to his family’s ranches in Nevada. He struggles to train her at all. His brain trauma has robbed him of patience and reasoning. Not that a former Airborne Ranger was ever the patient sort, but it’s become comical how I have to clicker train him to clicker train his dog. Of the three of us, the GSP remains the most competent.

We are all allowed our dreams. I’ll kick anyone in the shins who dampens the dreams of another, especially the dreams of the vulnerable. I’m not a violent person but I feel locked in a strange battle where I have to fight the VA system to get the healthcare my warrior needs and I have to fight my warrior to get the healthcare he needs and I have to fight myself to carry on because none of this is normal. But maybe the concept of normal is derived from the same fluff of dreams and cotton candy. Sweet on the tongue but ephemeral. Not real.

I write fiction. I craft stories that are not real. It’s called verisimilitude — the appearance of being real or true.

My life feels not real at times. Like when he badgers me to go outside in the snow at 11 pm because Mars is visible in the sky. He’s obsessed with Mars and can point out all the planetary alignments. That part feels authentic. But when I try to capture a real moment, try to connect, try to remember who he used to be, a car turns down Roberts Street and I remind him to step out of the road with the puppy and he rages at the car for driving fast and reckless. They are not. But I can’t say so.

He continues like nothing abnormal happened and points to Taurus’s eye — “That’s your sign,” he tells me. It is not. A knee-jerk reflex and I protest, forgetting my place of accepting what is not real. “I’m a Gemini,” I say. “No you’re not,” and he continues telling me about the night sky. Sometimes I laugh. But sometimes I cry. He’s my husband and does not know me.

I’ve become the villain in his mind, the person who has trapped him in this God-awful snowy prison. He slips on the ice, walking the dog and it’s as if I’ve deliberately swung a sledgehammer to bash both knees. It takes a week before his counselor can convince him to go see his primary care physician, and it’ll take me days to help him remember he agreed to do it. I’m not too concerned. He’s not limping. Just grumbling. He needs a bad story to chew on and anything that makes me the bad guy is his favorite fairytale.

Remember, it not real, it’s the verisimilitude of an altered mind.

So, here I am, writing fiction about a veteran spouse. She is not me. I couldn’t bear to give her my burden. Instead, I wanted to explore how long-haul veteran spouses come to carry the weight of wounded warriors. I wanted to give a definition of the invisibility of veteran spouses. We are real and so are our loyalty and our brokenness. We get crushed beneath the packs of what they bring home from combat training and war zones.

Forget eggshells. Some of us walk on broken glass.

I wanted to write a beautiful novel. An uplifting story. One that faces death, dismemberment, and dementia. One that shows the struggle to understand what PTSD is and how many soldiers overcome it.

My husband did. He used his combat dive training to manage night terrors. He remained, and remains, fearless. He knew something was wrong with his thinking years ago and back then, he trusted me to find out why. We were still a team. I have much admiration and respect for him in confronting the debilitation of multiple conditions. At what point do I say enough? He doesn’t get to. Why should I?

And so I stand before you a Taurus prison guard (aka a Gemini veteran spouse) and I think of sweet potatoes.

Sweet potatoes fries (not the dehydrated ones for puppies to gnaw). Twice-baked sweet potatoes. Roasted sweet potatoes. Sweet potato pie. From savory to sweet, these tubers can become many things. Sort of like veteran spouses.

Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.

Myrtle’s Basket by Charli Mills

Myrtle dug the tubers. Her spade cut the loam, missing the sweet potatoes with garnet skins. She shook them free of California soil, cut their vines, and placed each in a basket her mother wove of old clothes. Myrtle fingered a faded blue cloth, remembering the dress her sister used to wear when she gardened. Before the Spanish Flu robbed them of Althea and Papa. Dirt was harder back then. The graves difficult to hack into the drought-toughen soil. That was the only year they didn’t grow sweet potatoes. Myrtle carried fresh tubers and old memories to her kitchen.

🥕🥕🥕

February 25: Flash Fiction Challenge

I feel like I’ve belly-crawled out of the frozen tundra, my jeans and flannel shirt shredded, my fingers stiff and calloused. Grilled cheese sandwiches and Girl Scout Cookies have sustained me. I left for the wilderness beyond the lights of friendly campfires and the warmth of humanity. I’ve been away on a long journey, herding 71,625 words into a publishable novel. I’ve had to ride alone.

Todavía estoy aquí. I am still here.

It began in seventh grade when Mr. Price encouraged me to write longer spelling stories, inviting me to read them weekly to my classmates. He gave me a purpose, a way to process the wealth of stories that filtered through my soul. He gave me connection, the opportunity to step out of my shyness. He gave me a glimpse of what it means to write for an audience.

Fast-forward through a life dancing with a love of writing. An undergrad degree in 1998. A dream to finish a novel started as an independent project. Twenty years waiting, waffling, denying until the decision to pursue an MFA. A career behind me. A career before me. Sinking into the minutiae of writing a novel that’s been a haggard WIP since conception in 2008 when I grieved a dog, before I lost my home, before his dementia, when I could still connect the dots to retirement when I would write novels.

Displacement. Homelessness. Cognitive malfunction. It may as well be mine the way it colors everything in my life. Even in the wilderness I have to answer its call, be the reminder, be the constant. I wanted a full hermitage but it’s not possible. I weep for what I have and I weep for what I’ve lost, and still I plow through, refusing to let circumstances freeze my dreams to ice.

I could have chosen an easier task. But Mr. Price lit the fires I had built. How can I be anybody else but me?

That’s the thing about writing. It is a Process. Capital P. No skimming the surface. And when you think you’ve plunged the depths of humanity, you have to go deeper within yourself. The minutiae. Always the details. In the details we are unique. We all have mothers and fathers. We all breathe. We all drink water and sleep. We have interests and dislikes. Oh, but the details, the perspectives, the actions, the words and the stories. So much color and diversity.

We process all those details when we write. We are filters as writers. Miners.

Let me explain Process as I’ve come to know it. It comes under different headings. There is Creative Process — the way we catch and express literary art (for words are our medium). There are Mental and Emotional Processes — how we use thoughts and feelings in our art. There’s Structural Process — the forms we give our writing (99-words stories or 28 chapter novels). There’s Craft Process — the elements we use to express literary art. There’s a Drafting Process (pants or no pants), a Revision Process, an Editing Process and each can be separated into layers that must come before others (you don’t proof words you will cut in revision, therefore you revise before you proof). There’s Personal Process — how we discover ourselves in the world through writing.

It’s no joke that writing a novel can be compared to brain surgery or rocket science. You can draft a novel-length work in a relatively short time. How long it takes you is relative to how much Processing you are willing to do. The more Processing, the deeper the work. Notice I did not say “better.” That’s a false comparison. Writing is not a competition, unless, well, you enter one. Then you must heed the Processes asked of you as an entrant.

My MFA Program at SNHU began Process on day one. It will continue until May 1. At least for me. It has challenged me to dig deep into all the Processes. I discovered weakness in my strengths, strengths in my weaknesses. I formalized Processes to be able to repeat them and write more novels. I blew my own mind with discoveries. For example — writing elements. Did you know you can apply them differently in different processes? “Show Don’t Tell” needs to be “Show or Tell But Know The Difference.” You can apply the Show/Tell element differently at the Structural Process, differently at Drafting Process, differently at the syntax level of the Revision Process.

I went into the frozen wilderness to sort it out into what they call our thesis — a publishable novel. That means we have to tick the boxes for industry standards. As of 5 am this morning (or “last night” to my perspective) I completed my novel according to industry standards. I fell behind my schedule. I worked earnestly at my thesis, not even taking a break. In September, I knew I would not make the deadline AND tick all the boxes. I chose to write to standards.

Early in January, I freaked out because I couldn’t execute the revision process to standard. It wasn’t until I realized the separation and integration of the Processes that I began to make sense of it all. I have, since seventh-grade, struggled most with the syntax level of literary art. I broke free. Free at last! When I saw how elements work different at each Process level, I began to understand how to use them

As of this afternoon, 18 days late, I officially had my thesis approved. My knees are wiggly, my head dizzy, and I’m tired of grilled cheese sandwiches. I looked yo from my crawling out of the wilderness to see an oasis. All of you at Carrot Ranch.

D. Avery, Kid, Pal, and Friends have managed the reins in my absence. H.R.R. Gorman has united us all in surrounding and celebrating a fellow among us. Hugh Roberts plunged into his column, as did Colleen Chesebro with a new poetry feature at the Saddle Up Saloon. This is an amazing community of people who happen to read, write and make literary art. You are water to my parched throat.

It is good to be back!

NOTE: This weeks photo is courtesy of 47th North Belly Dance on a frozen Lake Superior off the Keweenaw Peninsula 2021.

February 25 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story using the word frozen. It can be descriptive, character focused, action driven. Go out onto the ice and find a frozen story. Go where the prompt leads!

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

I’m going to do something different just for this week. I’m going to share a 500-word excerpt from Miracle of Ducks. It’s a nod to what I’ve been working on in my absence and I wanted to share a small bite:

SNEAK PEAK: MOD by Charli Mills

Campbell left after he instructed Danni to retrieve their archaeological field camp beyond the safe zone the next morning. They expected the fire to move west. Despite borate bombers, the Cary Canyon Fire mushroomed.
Her cell phone buzzed, and she recognized the earlier unknown caller. “Hello, this is Dr. Danni Gordon.”
“Dr. Gordon, this is Sheila McLeod, public liaison for SandStorm Security.”
“Yes? Is this about my husband, Ike? He’s coming home.”
“There was an incident. In Iraq.”
Danni’s body tingled. The radio report. “I heard three servicemen were killed.”
“Yes, Ma’am. US Army. A joint operation with SandStorm. Your husband remains unaccountable. We’ve monitored communications. No ransoms, no forced statements, no recent… beheadings. His body has not turned up. We’ve listed him presumed dead.”
Danni sank to her knees. “Presumed?”
“We’ll follow protocol. If we have news, we’ll call.”
How long she sat on her knees, she didn’t know. Her deadened legs stumbled to rise. She staggered to the arena and horse stalls. Several Apache Hot Shots leaned on the fence. Their yellow fire retardant shirts clean. They hadn’t gone to the line. Everyone waited for the fire to explode.
“Yá’át’ééh,” one woman said.
Robotic, Danni returned the familiar greeting from undergrad summers among the Dine. Not Apache, she thought. “Yá’át’ééh.”
The group laughed. “So. The bilagaana speaks Navajo.”
Danni needed Blackjack. She ignored the women idled at his stall and climbed the fence.
Another said, “Hey. That horse is blind.”
Blackjack nickered and Danni opened his stall to the arena. Without tack, she guided him to the fence with sounds and firm touches. Using the wooden slats, she mounted her horse. He pranced.
Soft clods cushioned his steps. Freshly turned earth smelled like a womb. No gopher holes, rocks or blow downs impeded his stride. She wrapped her hands in his mane, guided his direction with her knees, and let Blackjack fly. The black and white pinto swooped, a magpie on hooves. Winter races with Ginnie and Cricket had restored his confidence. Throughout summer, Danni coached Ginnie to maneuver a cutting horse, and Ginnie taught Danni to barrel race a blind gelding. Two women waiting for husbands to return from a war zone. Blackjack knew the drill. Danni galloped and released her soul from the confines of panic. She fled beyond thoughts and emotions. Only her and a horse and the thunder of earth beneath them. They rode as one in figure eights. They spun. He reared, and they danced. Numb, she loped to the stall, startled to see a crowd of fire fighters gathered. She heard someone ask, “Who is that?”
The District Supervisor said, “She’s our archaeologist.”
“Dang,” one of the Apache Hotshots said, “That bone digger can ride.”
People chattered about the horse, the moves, the rider. A distraction from the grueling battle against flames. Danni rubbed Blackjack, checked his hooves.
Freya pushed through the gathering and scrambled over the fence. She said, “Rangers’ wives never quit.” Freya had heard the news.

February 18: Flash Fiction Challenge

It’s Thursday again, time for the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge. Once again we will all fill in so that our friend Charli can focus on that thesis of hers. As I alluded to last week, Charli has set this community up to be successful and to manage even with her not directly at the helm. We know what to do to keep the Ranch running— read, write, comment. A foolproof formula!

All we need is a post and a prompt.

Who’s the fool now? I have nothing to say and a gazillion things I could say. Once upon a time… no. This time, maybe today’s date is a place to start.

Maybe today, February 18, isn’t a special day for you. But it could be. Today is the birth date of both my husband and my sister-in-law’s mother. Birthdays…

I never had children so have never hosted a children’s birthday party, never had to be the one either fulfilling wishes or causing disappointment. I remember many of my own birthdays as a child. One of the best was when I turned ten. First of all— ten! Double digits; a roll over number; a whole decade old; it was a big one. But I remember it for getting what I wanted as a gift from my parents— a hammer. Maybe after ten years I had simply worn my mother down, but my request was not ignored, it wasn’t replaced with a more “appropriate” gift, with what she felt I should really want or need. And it was a nice hammer, with a sleek red wooden shaft and a rubber grip. It was real and it was mine. More important, I had been heard and acknowledged. It was a good birthday, with even better days to follow as I dragged slabs into the woods and hammered together a fort.

As an adult I sometimes ignore my own birthday as best I can, other times I take the day into my own hands. When I was crazy busy during summers with my one-woman landscaping business I would give myself the day off to spend time making the cake I wanted, homemade carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. I’m not much of a baker, so this cake making took time and that time was my gift to myself, a time of meditation and reflection.

When I changed careers and had summers off I sometimes chose to spend my birthday making a nice meal for friends and family to enjoy together with me after their workday. Again, it was a meditative way to spend the day and was a way to show gratitude for those people who were going to acknowledge the day whether I wanted them to or not.

A memorable day that happens to have also been my birthday was the one when my sister-in-law took the day off from work just to hang out with me. With no planning we ended up kayaking four ponds, having to portage only small distances, needing no vehicle. We lunched on delicious sandwiches out on the water. We were joined by the local bald eagle for a bit as well as other wildlife. It was a fine adventure, our Four Pond Day.

I’ve had so many fine adventures and memorable days, some with friends and family, many spent all alone. I’m reminded of and just reread a picture book written by Byrd Baylor and illustrated by Peter Parnall, I’m In Charge of Celebrations.How could I be lonely?” the narrator asks. “I’m the one in charge of celebrations.” The setting is the American Southwest, but the narrator’s outdoor wanderings and recognition of amazing sights and events to celebrate resonate with me here in my wooded northeast. With lyrical language, set upon the page as poetry instead of paragraphs, we are told about some of the narrator’s findings and reactions.

And then all day

you think

how

lucky

you were

to be there.

Some of my best

celebrations

are sudden surprises

like that.

If you weren’t outside

at that

exact

moment,

you’d miss them.”

Her New Year celebration has to be “a day that is exactly right…. Usually it’s a Saturday around the end of April.) … I spend the day admiring things…

I celebrate

with horned toads

and ravens

and lizards

and quail…

And Friend,

it’s not

a bad

party. ”

Celebrating New Year’s at the return of spring makes sense to me. I had always thought of the first day of a new school year to be New Year’s Day but this past September was different, as I had left that career for who-knows-what adventures. This year the first day of school away from school was a birth day, a new beginning. While my former colleagues did all that first day stuff I hiked the mountain with no agenda. The barred owl was as surprised to see me as I it. It is quite something to see an owl slipping silently through the trees. How lucky I was to be there.

Today is the birthday of at least two people that I know of and I will let them both know that I appreciate their being in the world. But today could be your special day too, for any number of reasons.

In Byrd Baylor’s book dust devils, rainbows (and the rabbit that also saw the rainbow), a green parrot-shaped cloud, a coyote, falling stars, and the new year are celebrated. The narrator says that she is very choosy about what goes into her celebration notebook.

It has to be something

I plan to remember

the rest of my life.

You can tell

what’s worth

 a celebration

because

your heart will

POUND

and

you’ll feel

like you’re standing

on top of a mountain

and you’ll

catch your breath

like you were

breathing

some new kind of air.

Otherwise,

I count it just

an average day.

(I told you

I was

choosy.)

Life is the present. And you are the one in charge of celebrations.

~D. Avery

February 18, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story where a character is in the right place at the right time. It may be cause for celebration! Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by February 23, 2021, to be included in the compilation. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

A Fish Story by D. Avery

“Luckiest fishing day ever!”

“Hope! You and Cousin Bobby caught enough for a meal?”

He groaned when the children showed him their sleds loaded with pails of fresh perch along with the ice-fishing gear. “That’s a lot of perch to dress.”

“We found a hotspot, Daddy!”

Laughing, Hope’s mother headed back inside.

“Hey! Help skin.”

“After some phone calls.”

Throughout the afternoon people started dropping by, some chatting while peeling perch out of their scaly skins, some cooking fish over an outside fire. Fish stories old and new were told.

Hope beamed.

“This is the best perch dinner ever!”

🥕🥕🥕

February 4: Flash Fiction Challenge

Once upon a time…

No…. that’s not right for an essay… 

Sometimes when I am stuck for a response to a prompt I just put pen to paper with those words, once upon a time, and that gets something started. So you can tell that I am stuck. Some guest host! But I have learned from experience that those words might get me unstuck. I learned it through writing experiences here. I learned by doing.

Once upon a time I often gave attention to learning because once upon a time I was an educator, a teacher of children. I found that I was always studying teaching and learning, well after the formal training. The best opportunities to learn more about teaching and learning were those times when I was a student myself and reflected on the experience. Many of us have to (or choose to) take continuing course work for our careers, but we might also take courses for other interests. When you do, if you’re lucky, you’ll see that great teachers are everywhere.

The instructor for the motorcycle licensing course I took years ago was a natural born teacher. The course could have been used as an exemplar for primary school teachers. The men in the group seemed embarrassed at first to pretend to be applying brakes and clutch at our seats but I appreciated the development of muscle memory and safe supervised practice before hitting the track. On the track, skills were scaffolded, riders were coached, privately corrected, and openly encouraged and applauded by the instructor. People felt safe and successful. We all encouraged and applauded one another, even as we watched and learned from one another.

Once upon a time I sat right seat fairly often, beside my husband who pilots a Cessna Skyhawk. I didn’t presume that I could fly the plane but I learned enough about navigation and how the instruments worked that I became comfortable with flying, and helpful at times. I know enough to recognize good piloting. I recognized a good pilot and teacher when I had occasion to fly daily in a larger plane. I would always move to the front of the nine-passenger plane and sit in the co-pilot seat. The pilot recognized that I was familiar with flying. If there was no one else on board that morning I got to learn more about flying, by doing. The pilot met me where I was at, and my capability and confidence grew.

Both these teachers I mention had experience and expertise but not ego. They were calm and confident and loved what they did so much that they were eager to share and teach others.  They reveled in their students’ successes.

I don’t want to race motorcycles or do stunts. I don’t want to fly a plane, not as the pilot in command. And I certainly don’t want to do what Charli does here every week. But I’m sitting right seat this week with a hand on the controls so that our friend can focus on her thesis and other course work. Hang on. Let’s see if I can land this thing.

Once upon a time, before I became a teacher, I substituted in others’ classrooms. Some classrooms were a joy to be in. In those classrooms students followed known routines and were engaged in relevant, meaningful tasks. I was the nominal adult in charge but was learning more than anyone. I learned about the power of classroom community. I saw that the successful classes, the ones that gave energy rather than drained it, were communities of learners that respected and encouraged one another. Building a solid, safe classroom community is what I aspired to when I answered the call to teach, for it’s the foundation for learning. When I did become a teacher with my own classroom, I was rarely out. I didn’t want to miss anything! But there were times when I had to be away and have a guest teacher come in. And I was so proud of my students (and myself) when the guest teacher reported that they learned something, that they had fun, that the class seemed to run itself.

Once upon a time I found this place, Carrot Ranch, and as I tend to do, I watched and learned even while examining that process. I saw a community of writers that are at the same time a community of learners and teachers. I learned by doing, and I was bold enough to do, to write, because I was in a safe place. Besides, all the other kids were doing it! I was fortunate to have walked into one of those classrooms that hums with engagement and laughter; where the teacher models and encourages creativity; where she is also a learner, honing her craft as both writer and teacher.

This is what Charli is doing now. In addition to working on her novel for her MFA, she is also taking courses to become a teacher of writing. Mere certification! She is already a teacher. Charli has provided a safe space where a community of writers comes together to practice and to learn from one another. People of all levels leave their ego outside the gate but share their experience and experiments with writing. We know that learning requires risk and also that learning is fun and rewarding. In this classroom there is empathy and there is laughter. In this classroom all are welcome.

One level of learning is imitation, valid even when that imitation falls short of the example. This week at the Ranch things look the same but are not the same. But we know the routine and will follow the model as best we can. A prompt will be provided and I will even attempt to present the responses in collected form next Wednesday. This is a learning experience for me. I thank you in advance for your patience and indulgence and your participation.

Once upon a time” is a phrase that readies the reader/listener to be transported to a magical time and place. The phrase sparks anticipation and also soothes with its predictability. Carrot Ranch is a magical place. I look forward to Charli’s posts every week, like the child who finds refuge and resources for hope and growth within the classroom. Despite the happenings of the outside world, despite more immediate concerns in our lives, we can come here every week and be sustained and uplifted by this community, a community that we can count on and learn from.

And no, the photo has nothing to do with this post or prompt, but Ms. Mills is out for PD and that one from 2015 has the correct date so it’ll do.

~D. Avery

February 4, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that features a substitution. How might a character or situation be impacted by a stand-in? Bonus points for fairy tale elements. Go where the prompt leads.

Respond by February 9, 2021, to be included in the compilation (published February 10). 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.

American Boarding School by D. Avery

My black hair flutters to the hard plank floor, dead crows windrowed around the stiff boots that bind my feet.

They point at me, repeat a sound.

I tell them my name. Pointing at myself I repeat my name. They beat me.

They point at me, call me that sound, make me say it. The sound is sand in my mouth.

I point at myself. I speak my name. They beat me again.

I say that other name. They smile.

I learn to keep my real name close. I will run with it, will leave their chafing boots behind.

🥕🥕🥕

January 21: Flash Fiction Challenge

The old cliche goes like this — there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. My response is, I hope it’s not a train! We all get the concept, which is why cliches are well-used like a favorite pair of driving gloves in winter. Whenever we hop into the car to drive we put them on, overlooking their frayed edges. They do their job.

So, why are writers encouraged to purge cliches from their writing? The well-worn phrases become mindless substitutions and fail to create imagery in the mind of the reader.

Take the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. If I tell you that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, most will understand that I see an end to a period of darkness. But what does that really mean? What is my period of darkness, or more to the point, what is your character experiencing?

Sally the tightrope walker suffers an illness that left her temporarily blind. Her light at the end of the tunnel could be the return of the spotlight on her rope. Beyond her emerging vision she could see hemp.

Betty Jo the Boston Terrier wandered off from her family on a camping trip. She walked 200 miles to get home. When the little dog turned down her street and saw an end to her arduous journey, she could see the kitchen light illuminating her dog door.

Miss Jernegon taught school on the alkali flats between ranches, wishing her life were more sophisticated. When she received a letter from a boarding school out east, she could hear the train that would carry her away from dust storms and starved cattle.

It’s late, and my examples aren’t stellar, but you get the idea. Instead of saying each character had come to the point in their story where they could see the light at the end of the tunnel, I looked for a way to express the idea of hopeful endings to difficult circumstances. You can search your characters’ setting or personality traits to inform a cliche.

Don’t worry about cliches in your first draft. They show up because they come to mind easily. When you revise, look for metaphors, similes, and familiar phrases in your work, and then think of how you can rebuild the concept.

At the crack of dawn becomes:

  • when the solar inferno crests the horizon
  • at the border between night and day
  • when robins summon the sun

Back-stabber becomes:

  • fake friend
  • the boss’s informant
  • cut worm

Flat as a pancake becomes:

  • flat as new iPhone
  • flat as a fat tire on a wilderness bike trail
  • flat as a dead heartbeat

When it comes to cliches, you can think outside the box…I mean, you can let your mind wander the fence-less prairie beyond the ranch. For fun and practice, we are going to tackle cliches periodically. Grab the bull by the…wait…grab the carrot by the top and pull. You know, roll up our sleeves…I mean, put on our work jeans and calf-poop encrusted boots and get to work on rewriting the light at the end of the tunnel in a story.

Quick update — the puppy is growing (teeth) and learning to beg for naps. I’m an easy target, willing to snuggle for naps on the couch. My thesis is in jeopardy. Time is flying…I mean time is slipping through…time is a back-stabber, a pizza parlor robber, a fickle cat at the back door.

January 21, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that rephrases “light at the end of the tunnel.” Think of how the cliche replacement communicates a hopeful ending and aligns with your character or story. Go where the prompt leads!

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

The Promised Light by Charli Mills

Copper reminded Jess of Christmas caramels, all smooshed and clinging to the bedrock. After Pa died, the mine captain told Ma, “Send a son or get out of the company’s house.” Jess was built stronger than her brother with weak lungs. When she chopped her hair and changed clothes, no one said a word. Not even Ma.

Mostly, Jess fetched for the men or hauled buckets of copper caramels to the ore carts. Not much longer. Ma was cooking a plan to remarry another miner. Climbing nineteen stories of ladders, Jess thought the sun was the Star of Bethlehem.

🥕🥕🥕