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September 26: Flash Fiction Challenge

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

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

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

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

But that is not the end.

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

That’s not the end, either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Respond by October 1, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

 

The Night After Lake Superior Swallowed the Hudson by Charli Mills

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

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

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

September 19: Flash Fiction Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Respond by September 24, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

SUBMISSIONS FOR PUBLICATION CLOSED

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

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

September 12: Flash Fiction Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Respond by September 17, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

SUBMISSIONS FOR PUBLICATION CLOSED

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

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

August 29: Flash Fiction Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Respond by September 3, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

 

Thelma on Roberts Street by Charli Mills

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

August 22: Flash Fiction Challenge

Pasty Fest holds all the old world charm: Finnish dancers in traditional dress, street-side vendors in the shadow of copper-mining era buildings, and — of course — pasties. Hearty dough enfolds savory meats and vegetables, and old-world debates rage across the Keweenaw to declare who first brought pasties to the region.

Pronounced pass-tee (like from the past, not pastey glue), the etymology is British. Tradition holds that Cornish miners from England introduced expertise, technology, and pasties to the Keweenaw when copper mining began during the 1840s. However, a contender for origination comes from Finland. During ethnic events like Pasty Fest, the Finns of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan declare the food a Finnish specialty.

The dispute doesn’t end with who brought pasties from the old world to the new.

Another debate contends which filling is best — sliced or diced. Those in the veggies-must-be-diced corner claim the “grandma says” rule of filling pasties. Families heatedly argue the issue, though, when one grandmother dices and the other slices. Knife skills aside, modern observation notes that pasties made with sliced ingredients stay hotter for a longer period. Amy J’s Pasties in Hancock (world headquarters to Carrot Ranch) slices. Roy’s Bakery across the Keweenaw waterway, dices. I have taken both to the beach to hunt rocks on Lake Superior, and I can tell you that Amy J’s pasties stay hotter much longer.

What does this tell us? The Cornish miners probably understood that slicing created thermal layers.

The next argument has led to Copper Country divorces and involves veg. To carrot or not to carrot? Well, you can guess my opinion on that subject. Fortunately, the Hub agrees (no divorce lawyers needed). We like carrots in our pasties. The other questionable veg is parsnip. It’s a root vegetable similar to carrots, and likely has old-world connections to Finland. Amy J’s adds both carrots and parsnips to their pasties, and Roy’s omits parsnips. Some add gravy to the filling, other ketchup. I like my veg naked and in harmony with the meat.

Shape creates more consternation. The final shape of a pasty that is. Suomi’s, a local diner that serves pannukakku and remains a place where you can still hear the Finnish accent, mounds their pasties into softballs. Amy J’s conforms to a more traditional (Cornish) half-moon pie. Roy’s fills a pastie that is in between the two shapes. And some, frankly, have no shape at all. If pasty-makers were to be on the Great British Bakeoff, the judges would question the efficiency and aesthetic of their shapes. Does the dough hold the liquid of the filling? Is it appealing?

A more current debate has less to do with pasties and more with land, as in, who claims the Keweenaw. Yes, Canada, sometimes we wish it was you. I’m fond of describing my home as “that thumb of land that juts into the belly of Lake Superior.” It’s part of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, an unwanted mass of land that came with the old world land deals. No one wanted the remote region, but after the Toledo War of 1835, Michigan and Ohio fought over “downstate land” because of erroneous geographical maps from 1787. In the end, Michigan was given the Upper Peninsula. Better historians than me can understand the land dispute, but I get that the Keweenaw was a consolation prize that paid dividends to Michigan when geologists discovered copper.

But Wisconsin is the state to cry sour grapes. Even today, the UP is referred to as “that land Michigan stole” from the neighboring cheese state. It would make more sense for the UP to be Upper Wisconsin (or Lower Canada). Water does not divide us like it does from downstate Michigan. To go to our state capital (and all major cities), we have to cross the Mighty Mac. Recently, a Mountain Dew marketing campaign mislabeled the UP of MI as the UP of WI. The cheese-heads laughed, and Mountain Dew had to apologize. Everyone in the UP got free sodas.

Despite our old world squabbles, we get along well in the UP. We gather for Pasty Fest in Calumet to celebrate tradition as we each best experience it. The city that once boasted a population over 30,000 is now a National Historic Park with 727 remaining residents. The streets feel wide, and the buildings loom tall because it was once a booming epicenter of copper mining full of migrant workers and millionaires. The oldest cobblestone street in Michigan is open to vehicles, though it’s advisable to avoid the jarring drive, especially if you are eating a pasty.

The first Pasty Fest I attended was in 2017. The Hub and I finally limped to our destination the night before. Although we had arrived, I felt defeated. My daughter and her troupe were dancing at the community celebration, and on our way to the performance, I saw the Vet Center Mobile. It’s a mobile unit dispatched to meet veterans in need where they are at. I bum-rushed the staff, pleading our case — my husband needed help, we were homeless, and I was desperate. No pasty could soothe me that day. I didn’t even eat one.

Two years later and I attended Pasty Fest as a guest author in the local author’s booth. I hawked 99-word stories, handed out Carrot Ranch bookmarks, and sold anthologies. I earned enough to eat pasties and drink a thimbleberry margarita. What a difference two years, a ton of advocacy for the Hub, and hard work make. I feel as much a part of this community as I have ever felt anywhere. It’s welcoming, vibrant, and full of history. The Keweenaw has old world charm, and I’m smitten no matter who invented pasties, sliced or diced.

This week, my coursework includes discussion of genre — what it is and how it informs our writing. Even the experts struggle to define genre beyond the obvious ones of romance and cozy mystery. Marketers stretch genre to use them as labels to sell books to audiences defined by reading preferences. Ursula K. Le Guin protested the value judgment critics past on genre writers as if such writing was of lesser quality than literary fiction. Authors often have no idea what genre they are writing. If you want to add your thoughts, give this article a read (keep in mind that it was written in 2011, but it remains relevant).

August 22, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about old world charm. It can be nostalgic or irreverent. You can invent an “old world,” return to migrant roots or recall ancient times. Go where the prompt leads you!

Respond by August 27, 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.

 

Suomi Dancing by Charli Mills

A blonde quartet of girls dressed in blue dances. They twirl, holding hands. Singing, they remake the lyrics of Finland’s midsummer. No longer homeland, home is here, Finlandia, USA. With old world charm, they brighten the backyard of a house owned by the Calumet Mining Company. New life for Finns.

Aunt Jo kneads the dough until it stretches smooth. She slices parsnips and carrots thin the way her neighbor instructed. “Thin layers keep ‘em hot longer in the mines,” she told Jo.

Jo smiles at the children Suomi dancing under maples trees. “Supper,” she calls. “Time for pasties, hey!”

August 15: Flash Fiction Challenge

Raspberries, plump, and red hang from canes my daughter planted. It’s my patch now, and I savor the connection. Reminders fill my home, memories of my daughter’s love for this grand old copper-mining house on Roberts Street. The walls she painted yellow, russet, and teal. The worn patches on the maple hardwood floor mark where her two huskies slept. The kitchen holds warmth where we shared meals.

Paint cans wait for me to dip a brush in Easter Grass yellow-green and Inspire purple-blue. I’m not covering up the memories but adding layers of my own. I’m plucking the fruit my daughter planted, and I’m making sweet jam. The peace of home fills my every fiber. When you have not had a home of your own, you appreciate how luxurious space can be. I’m in no hurry to claim and decorate and fill. I’m enjoying the space to just be.

A new desk also waits for me. It’s a Flexsteel, marbled-wood beauty with matching bookcase and filing cabinet. Already, I’m setting up my files in both desk and bookcase drawers. I ordered dark purple hanging folders and beautiful files with realist paintings of botany on parchment. It matters what surrounds me. I’m slow to bring in new belongings, quick to say no to household purgings of friends, and satisfied to make do with much less. What I take in must have function, joy, and meaning.

Much that we have in storage in North Idaho will not see the Keweenaw. My purge list is longer than my keepers. We fixed the truck, including the death wobble, but then the Hub decided he didn’t have enough funds for the trip. Thankfully, we got him to listen, to look at the paper with costs. He did make a few calls to get quotes on delivery, and it could be within our range to do if we save up by next spring. I feel no urgency, though there are boxes and items I’d want as soon as possible.

Having a home has mattered more than belongings, so I feel content with a sparsely filled house. It feels like potential.

Right now, I’m all about potential. I’m a grad student. This week, I started my online MFA at SNHU, and every course I take adds to the ascension of my novel. I’ve written four manuscripts, hoping that I’d learn from one to the other. And I have! But I felt stuck, not knowing where to turn my attention to improve my craft skills. I can distinguish misinformation from quality sources, but even good information gets buried. Where to start?

And I want quality feedback to grow my skills and discipline as an author. One way or the other, you have to pay for that standard — hire a top-notch editor in the publishing industry of your choice; pay to attend national writing conferences; sign up for online or in-person workshops; hire a writing coach with credentials; go back to school.

When I worked for wages, I took time every year to attend writing workshops. It furthered my motivation, and I always learned something new to apply to my craft skills. When I left my career to write full-time self-employed, I paid for an expensive ($2,000) multi-day workshop. Like many writers, I’m a self-learner capable of finding the information I need.

Eventually, I won a scholarship to a writing conference and laid out the groundwork for building a literary community. And I wrote four complete manuscripts. What I mean by complete is that they started and ended with lots of wordcount and self-editing in between. I even hired an editor from NYC for several revisions of one manuscript.

Then I scrapped it when life got hairier than Sasquatch’s feet. I rewrote it, mid-crisis. Shopped out the new beginning to trusted alpha-readers, received encouragement, and honest assessment.

One reader reminded me that our first novel isn’t always the book that makes it to print.

Remember, I used alpha-readers. These are readers I trust. These are people who are more than friends; they are also qualified to give feedback I  trust. Beta-readers differ in that they are people you often don’t know but who read the genre you write and offer feedback on how well your manuscript would be received in that genre.

Trusted opinions don’t mean they are my thoughts, too, but I agree that our first novel isn’t always going to be the one that makes it.

We live (and publish) in interesting times. Independent publishing gives second life to first novels. Some might argue that a green manuscript should stay in the desk drawer. Others believe you have to start somewhere. I actually enjoy reading the progress of an author. And I’ve gone back to the first novels of some of my favorite authors and recognized even the masters were once green.

The point is — don’t stop, but publish according to your goals.

My goal is lofty, I know. I want to traditionally publish. I’ve waxed and waned on that idea and even came to the conclusion that hybrid authors are successful (those who publish both traditionally and independently).  My dilemma was, though, how do I get better? I knew it was investment time.

You can invest sweat equity, but without paid feedback, the return will be hit and miss. I had sweated enough. It was time to write novels smarter. When the opportunity came up to pursue an MFA, I snapped like a hungry trout. But I thought carefully about it, too. Were there online programs I could invest in, and would I have the motivation to go at my own pace without instructor feedback? If I’m going to get an MFA, do I go back to college, do a low-residency, or go online?

Just for giggles, I wrote to Brigham Young University because I know that Brandon Sanderson teaches creative writing there. I also checked out grad schools with MFA programs across the country. And I looked online. I like the SNHU online MFA best, but I kept looking. In the end, I simply liked the program and the support they offer to students.

I didn’t want to go back to college on campus and disrupt my life after finally coming home. I don’t need the in-person connection of a low-residency because I get that through my own workshops and literary community. So online it was.

Let me tell you, four days into my journey, and I’m walking on clouds of whipped cream sweetened with apricot jam. This structured learning is precisely what I needed, and it tastes like mana! I didn’t even realize how much I was struggling to articulate some of my needs as a writer until I began interacting with my instructor, peers, and course material.

I’m in awe of how much technology has improved the overall experience of online schooling. And both my professors this term rock — experienced, eager to be part of the learning environment, and committed to the hard work and thrill of being a professional writer.

This week, we are studying genre and how it predicts craft skills. We are comparing craft to writing skills, and reading the opinions of greats, such as Ursula K. Le Guin. I’m reading Wallace Stegner’s thoughts in his book, On Teaching and Writing Fiction. I have two video discussions to write and record tonight, and three books to read in addition to weekly assignments. All coursework informs how I will advance my novel (my thesis).

Learning is looking a lot like rebuilding a home — what I take in must have function, joy, and meaning.

August 15, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a sweet jam. It can take you to the kitchen or the smokey room of a back-alley bar. What makes it sweet? Go where the prompt leads you!

Respond by August 20, 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.

 

Not a Typical Sweet Jam (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

Boiling quinces filled Danni’s kitchen with a lively scent, something between citrus and pears. Something remembered. In the canner, she prepped a hot bath to disinfect her jars and lids. She opened the sack of white sugar, ready to make sweet jam. Michael raised an eyebrow, continuing to look as skeptical as he did when he helped her pick the lumpy fruit.

“How’d you hear about these quince things?”

“The joy of being a historical archeologist. I read old books and journals.”

“Huh. Nothing from my Anishinaabe roots.”

Later, spread thickly across slabs of sourdough, Michael updated his history.

August 8: Flash Fiction Challenge

My heart is heavy, so I pick tomatoes. Not big slicers or heirlooms, but round dark globes black as cherries on a tree. Indeed, they are cherry tomatoes. Black cherry tomatoes. My fingers carry the lingering scent, a distinct aroma that can only be described as tomato, sharp like poison.

From the time I was a child, I called tomatoes poisonous. I can’t tell you why. I didn’t like them. Maybe I thought they muted the tang of a sandwich, or rendered a salad bland. Maybe someone tried to feed me watered down spaghetti, and I thought it tasted awful without proper spices.

As a kid, I favored spice — I appreciated garlic, herbs, black pepper, and spoonfuls of vinegar. Vinegar lessens the poison of tomatoes. It spruced up the blandness. Because of vinegar, I love tomatoes in ketchup, salsa, and Caprese. I grow cherry tomatoes for bite-sized snacks constructed of one cherry tomato, one fresh leaf of Thai basil, one small fresh Mozza-ball, and a good dousing of balsamic vinegar.

I eat two Capreses, sit in the canopy my maples, and contemplate the toxicity of the world.

We need less poison. Today’s headlines (and I’m referring to responsible journalistic sources) offer a range of trends from someone airing grievances to others demanding justice to a young person blasting and organization to families scrambling after a raid. And none of these stories relate to the loss of life from mass shooters over the weekend. It’s apparent people feel angry. Understandable. People also feel scared and unheard.

Voice is something I encourage writers to develop. You can think of voice as a person’s style of writing, an imprint on the page as unique as a thumbprint. The process of writing can also help people find their voice. It’s not a technique you can learn or imitate from another. You can’t take on someone else’s set of fingerprints. Voice is your core authenticity and something for you to explore and discover.

The late Toni Morrison — a mentor I read from afar but held close to my heart — has this to say about writing:

“Make up a story. For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.”

The origin of voice comes from our bank of experiences. Where we have invested our energies, passions, and actions gives back dividends unique to each of us. Consider that every week, a group of writers set out to craft 99 words about the same theme or topic. Individually, we submit stories as unique as our own lives and personalities. Even when we share similar backgrounds or hit upon the same idea, each story carries a unique voice.

And the more authentic you can be to your own voice, the more it will stand out. The better we are at articulating our deep places — the dark recesses and the breaks that let the light shine in — the stronger our voices will be. Toni would agree to go where the prompt leads you! She said,

“Writing is really a way of thinking, not just feeling but thinking about things that are disparate, unresolved, mysterious, problematic or just sweet.”

Today, I’m thinking about the toxicity of words, not just what we say but how we say it. Yes, writing can help us poke into those painful areas where injustice is unresolved and equality not yet achieved. Writing explores our scariest what-ifs and most cavernous mysteries of the human psyche. But when we write about our darkest hours, fears, and observations, it is a clear voice of authenticity that resonates the most. In other words, scathing rhetoric does not justify the problems delved.

The world is losing the humanity of its voice. Those who want to air their grievances are doing so by stepping on the heads of others. Language of politicians — spin and bias — permeate mainstream media and choke the social media networks with soundbites that lose meaning with regurgitation. Language has become a battlefield, and not everyone fully understands they are speaking with grenades in their mouths.

On Sunday, I read more articles than normal, trying — once again — to get a handle on where all this toxicity is coming from and why my nation is killing itself with an icon of its democratic freedom. I read everything from how mass shooters have domestic violence in common to the accessibility to weapons of war. Take away the guns seems a simple solution, but how do you remove the hate?

Consider these recent acts: a week ago, three Michigan men (mid-20s) were run down by a neighbor when they shouted for him to slow down on their shared access road. After killing one man, and maiming another for life, the neighbor drove back to the scene and continued to shout at them. Over the weekend, two local friends had a dispute, and one got in his SUV and ran over his friend twice. In Montana, a man cracked the skull of a 13-year-old-boy for not removing his hat during the national anthem at the start of a rodeo.

I mention these three acts because they are people within my known circles, not removed mass shooters. Yet, all senseless acts of violence are rooted in hatred, in the toxicity of I’m-right-you’re-wrong. And this poison begins with language. Light bulbs went off after I read this article in The Atlantic about Language in the Trump Era. It addresses the clarity of Trump’s simple language and what many hear as truth-speaking. But it also addresses how the more articulate opposition also creates a hierarchy and sense of superiority with its language.

The more individuals shout for their voices to be heard, the more shouting. The more shouting, the more emotion rises without thought. The more shouting, the more intellect rises without emotion. Toxic shouting erases our common ground of shared humanity. Yes, I’m tempted to shout, “Stop shouting — and listen!”

Toni Morrison also had this to say:

“I feel totally curious and alive and in control. And almost … magnificent, when I write.”

Why? Think about your answer for a moment. Make that your next private journal prompt or public post. Why do you feel curious, alive, in control, magnificent when you write? Because you are exploring and discovering what is most authentic to you — your voice. All that shouting comes from people either desperate for their voice to be heard or manipulated by that desperation. And because it is not authentic (yes, you supposed truth-speakers are not speaking from your truth; you are voicing opinions because you are afraid to discover your own true voice).

It’s easy to tune out the shouting, to post memes of peace, and disengage from seeking justice. But apathy is as dangerous as agitation. Can I make the world write in 99 words what is really at the heart of their fear? Can I get them to write 99 words about what they love most and set it in a collection to show the world we are more alike than our othering makes us? If I had a hammer…I’d hammer out 99 words of love between my brothers and my sisters, all over this land.

I’d say love is the answer, but Toni Morrison wisely cautioned:

“Love is divine only and difficult always. If you think it is easy you are a fool. If you think it is natural you are blind.”

It’s daunting enough to send us all into hiding. Writer, Cheryl Oreglia, shared a post exploring her own experience with what it is to feel like hiding away from the toxic world events: Fill the Potholes.

Writing has a place in this world. You are called to not only tell stories but to use your voice in the telling. We can spend a lifetime — and I hope I do — exploring who we are and what our voices have to say. We can easily tear down. Toxicity does that — it destroys. But think about how we can build up with our words. What can we construct with our authenticity?

A final thought from Toni Morrison:

“I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge – even wisdom. Like art.”

August 8, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a poisoned apple. Let’s explore dark myth. Deconstruct the original or invent something new. Negotiate the shadows, shed light, but go where the prompt leads you!

Respond by August 13, 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.

 

Like a Poisoned Apple (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

Danni wrinkled her nose at Ramona’s offering. A tomato, freshly plucked. A Kellogg, an heirloom bright as carnelian and hard to grow in North Idaho. But Ike’s grandmother had forgotten that Danni gagged at the taste of any tomato.

“Thank you, Grandma. I’ll take it home.”

Ramona glared.

Danni sighed. “How about we share it?” Maybe Ramona would forget by the time they hauled veggies into the house.

The old woman continued to scowl. “I’m not your grandmother.” Dementia worsened when Ramona tired. It was like a poisoned apple.

Maybe Ramona would remember her if Danni took a bite.

August 1: Flash Fiction Challenge

The merlins chatter in the rain, impatient to hunt. As far as I can tell, they only have one beak to feed, and it attached to noisy vocals. Further down Quincy Hill at the lift bridge, the peregrine falcons fledged four hungry beaks. Birds of prey must be this year’s winged rock stars.

How easily rhythms of home return to me. It’s the first of the month, and I’m cheerfully paying bills. Electricity, natural gas, sewer, water, and garbage indicate that I have a fully functioning human nest. I’ve washed my dishes, swept the floors, and watered my veg. Last night I cut my own red-leaf lettuce with my own kitchen scissors.

But it gets even better.

The past two days, I’ve reviewed my upcoming creative writing courses with my academic advisor. I have an attentive academic advisor, not some loon too busy for a chick. Twenty years ago, I waited by the closed door of another academic advisor who never showed up the first two days of college, leaving me in a lurch. As an “older than average” freshman, I needed her signature for a class change.

Another student also waited, one who would have been old enough to babysit me as a kid, but age differences didn’t matter. We became fast friends. She advised me on what course to take, questioned my logic to pursue teaching English, and convinced me I’d be happier with a creative writing degree. By the time our absentee advisor showed up, my future was set.

It also led to an embarrassing moment. My advisor signed off on the course my friend recommended and just in time — the class was already in session, and I had missed the first day due to my advisor’s absence. I nervously walked into the class, interrupting the lecture. All heads turned to me, and I flushed. Stammering, I didn’t know how to address the instructor.

You see, I got my undergrad degree at a Catholic liberal arts college. I knew enough back then about Catholicism to address men like Father, and women as Mother — or, wait — was that men as Brother, and women as Sister, or Father and Sister, Brother and Mother. Lord, help me. I was confused! Professor would be a proper term, too, but I felt the flames of hell burnishing my cheeks, and I blurted out, “Father Downs, forgive me, I’m late.”

The class erupted into laughter. John Downs, as I would come to know him on first-name basis as one of my honors thesis advisors, laughed the hardest. He said, “I am indeed a father to my children.”

We feel vulnerable when we do something new and far beyond our comfort zone. We don’t want to become the butt of a joke or held up as an example of what not to do. It’s hard to breathe sometimes when you don’t know which foot to step forward first and everyone else seems to know the hokey-pokey. But we step out anyways.

I’m grateful to have the support of my current academic advisor. She has walked me through the entire online process of my first three courses. One doesn’t count, or as she said, “You can’t screw it up.” It’s an introduction to the technology for taking graduate-level courses online. Amazing, really. I get to study without leaving the Keweenaw, and in winter, I’ll sip hot tea while Tech and Finlandia students bundle up for an Arctic walk to class.

My first two classes at Southern New Hampshire University are 505: Introduction to the Online MFA and 507: Advanced Studies in Literature. The first one explores the culture and approach to writing fiction at SNHU. We each have to pick a book to discover the habits and behaviors of the creative process and begin to forge ties with our peer and faculty community. My book is On Teaching and Writing Fiction by Wallace Stegner. The course is all about the importance of the writing community for literary citizenship.

Be still my fluttering heart! I’m like a rock star on stage, acknowledging that this is where I want to be!

And the second course immerses me in the contemporary fiction genre by reading and comparing two books. The pairs are interesting — one classic (like Willa Cather), and one modern (like Sue Monk Kidd). The purpose of this advanced study of literature is to analyze storytelling craft elements in the genre we will be writing (my manuscript will be contemporary fiction). From our analysis, we are to develop a writer’s toolkit to advance our own careers as creative writers.

It’s school, but it is the Big Times for me. I’ve longed for an MFA even after I had decided I would not pursue one. I recognize the sparking joy as excitement fills me for this two-year journey. And how tidy everything has cleaned up in my life — the Hub has good care, we now have a groovy nest, I’m blessed with a strong and inspiring writing community at Carrot Ranch, and all the pursuits that failed have merely cleared the way for this. And I am ready.

Birds yet fly in the Keweenaw. No snow, yet. We will, therefore, attempt a run to Idaho to get what we can salvage of belongings. It’s a daunting task, but we have a plan. First, we fix our truck (the death wobble and bumper), then we head west for three days. Our budget is small, but we’ve priced all the expenses, found the best routes and stops, and we will rent a Uhaul trailer. It’s not much room, but I will rescue research and family photos, maybe some books. The only furniture we will bring back is my oak glider, a small desk, and our bed frame.

I’m far more anxious about this last leg of our journey, but I know it will be okay. It will be the final closure, the last chapter. This — merlins chirping outside, walls ready to paint, new desk for new writing, sourdough starter, a new king-sized mattress, rooms ready to fill, veggies growing on the vine, raspberries ripe for jam — this is home. My nest, my stage. Cue the guitars.

August 1, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a rock star. You can feature a central character or write about the feeling like a rock star. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by August 6, 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.

Rock Star in a Barn (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

“Jukebox Hero” blasted from Danni’s speakers. She structured her barn to be her lab – a place to clean, catalog, and store artifacts. It was no University sanctum. Even the small budget she once had as a grad student in Pullman, Washington dwarfed her western set-up. But she used the space efficiently. She trained Ike’s family to save meat trays for her, and she scoured yard sales and free piles for anything useful. Like the bathroom cupboards some homeowner was throwing away. It formed a washing station. The freedom her own space produced made Danni feel like a rock star.

July 25: Flash Fiction Challenge

For one day, I held space for a loon chick. Not at a distance, but so close that I could gently blow her downy feathers like making a wish to black dandelion seeds. Her tiny body could fit in my cupped hands while her father’s penguin-like body could race across water with wings firm as a bodybuilder’s biceps. For one day, I stepped through a rent in nature and swam with a baby loon.

My second home in Vermont, my newly adopted state of steep rolling hills and backroads that wind through valleys and across clear rocky creeks, welcomes loons. History hides in abandoned stone fences and old cemeteries. Soldiers once fought in New World wars and later marched south for the Grand Army of the Republic. Vermonters think their own minds, though. At least one marched south to fight on the side of the Confederacy.

The place had me at loon lakes and Green Mountains, dirt roads and backwater bars, Cabot cheese, and Citizen Cider, but the sweetest slice of life served in Vermont comes with a side of words. Vermonters read. Literary art still matters, and I did not meet people who said, “I’m busy.” I met folks who swam in the lake after work and went home to read books. At every general store, locals swapped books. This came as a delightful surprise.

Some Day is now Next Time.

Next Time Carrot Ranch has a Nature Writing Refuge on Greenwood Lake in Vermont, I’ll include literary events. The libraries promoted Wrangling Words and offered a table at the farmers market. D. Avery packed the Galaxy Bookstore for a reading, and we joined local musicians at open mic night at the Whammy Bar. We also had several private readings, impromptu readings, and even sold a book or two on the fly.

Last night, D. and I rolled into Hancock, Michigan, World Headquarters of Carrot Ranch. We left Vermont two days earlier and crossed Quebec and Ontario in her truck. Once in Michigan on the Upper Peninsula, we drove and drove. D. began to doubt there was civilization. But we arrived, and today she got hooked on picking rocks and got to see the Continental Fire Company. Tomorrow we read from the History Meets Literary Art collection at Fort Wilkins where Fannie Hooe once went missing.

Sitting by the campfire over Greenwood lake, reading stories with Sue Sleggs, Ann Edall-Robson and JulesPaige remains a shining star of the whole trip. Sharing kayak time and waterfalls with them will shape all our writing to come as such experiences do. That is the long-burning fuel of a nature writing retreat.

What stays with me most is the One Day. For one day, I swam with a baby loon.

A nesting pair of loons live and breed on Greenwood Lake. Throughout the Nature Writing Refuge, we heard the calls and hoots of loons and frequently saw the big waterbirds on the lake. We even got to kayak up to the boundary of the nesting loons in Turtle Cove where author Sean Prentiss lives with his family. Yet, D. noticed odd loon behavior.

Every day, a trio of loons landed on the lake and circled like synchronized swimmers. The male of the nesting pair often joined in, and the routine looked cooperative, not aggressive. We thought Big Daddy might be swinging on the side. When the Loon Day Survey arrived, D. was going to observe the nest with its overdue egg, and I was going to report on any loon hook-ups. In kayaks, we split up and listened for the calls. When the trio arrived, Big Daddy showed up. And oddly enough, so did Mama.

Meanwhile, D. and another kayaker approached the abandoned nest, finding what was likely an infertile egg. To their surprise, a bobbing black puff appeared on the water — a newly hatched loon chick! But no adults in sight. While we were merely citizen scientists for the survey, we knew it highly strange for loon parents to leave a chick. I’ve found an article that might explain the behavior at The Loon Project. Chicks need more than hiding. They need warmth, food, and nurturing through constant vocalizations. This baby was shivering and stabbing her tiny beak at D.’s kayak straps.

Soon, the Prentiss family joined us on the water as we all tried to decide the best course of action, mystified by the absent parents. We got the baby back on the nest, but it wouldn’t stay, insisting on floating next to Mama D. We discussed calling the Vermont Loon Biologist, knowing it was Loon Day and he was likely out of cell service. We looked up the number for loon wildlife rescue, and it was the same number. We called, left a message, and waited.

During six hours — that’s how long the parents swam with the intruders — we caught a minnow, fed a baby chick, and D. gave her belly-time when she insisted on seeking a warm spot on her new human to rest. Finally, we decided the chick was abandoned, and we would keep her safe until we could hand her over for rescue. That’s when I got to swim and be eye-to-eye with a baby loon. Eventually, the parents returned, and we reunited the chick with them.

However, the territorial take-over turned violent while the baby slept at the edge of the nest. The loons in this video are not the ones we observed, but we did witness this level of violence. Who knew loons could punch? We watched one loon hold another under the water.

That night, we were relieved to hear the cheerful calls and hoots of the parents, as if all had returned to normal. I even woke up, certain I could hear the baby chirping. I fell back asleep, hopeful. In the morning we learned that the calls stopped and no one had seen the baby. I still hold out hope that the parents got better at successfully hiding their chick.
The following flash fiction is based on this true story (BOTS).

Citizen Science Checklist

July 20, 2019 and a kayak slips into the water carrying gear poised to document activity for the Vermont Loon Survey. 8:11 a.m. The lake spreads flat beneath a sun rising to Vermont hot. Composition notebook, turquoise pen and a homemade cider donut ride in a Ziplock bag. Coffee in a travel mug slops dark brew. Binoculars and Nikon D80 with telephoto lens hang at the ready from straps. A life-vest within reach concludes the checklist required to count loons on Greenwood Lake for an hour. Ready and backed into the shadows of the eastside three loons glide by.

 

Celtic Knots

Below camp, three loons circle. Water ripples like lines of an inked Celtic knot. The loons, black and white like the written word extend long black beaks forward poised to write on water. Circling slender dragon-head quills. If one periscopes red loon eyes to scan beneath the surface, the other two follow. What do they see? Fish for dinner or foe to challenge? They all submerge in unison. Thirty seconds later they bob to the surface and write their saga in circles. Territorial posturing distracts the nesting pair and the Celtic knot erases the idea of mating for life.

 

How It Happened

Nothing more than a puffball of black down, the newly hatched loon enters the water without parents. Hearing the swish of a kayaker who is examining the abandoned nest during loon survey, the hatchling follows. The volunteer nudges her back to the nest and departs to find the parents. When the volunteers converge without loon parents, the hatchling boldly swims among the kayaks oblivious to the lurking dangers below and above ready to make a meal of her. She tires, hungrily pecking her beak at kayak straps. That’s how it happened – a baby loon spent a day among humans.

 

Stay Objective

While calls go out to the state loon biologist, I stay objective, photographing the puff of black feathers that is the loon chick. We understand she’s doomed without the care of her adults, and in those long stretches of waiting for direction, I feel my own human instinct to nurture intensify. I watch as the tired chick is placed in the safety of a kayak-well. I watch as she struggles to clamber out, seeking the warmth of the kayaker. I watch the inadvertent bonding. I stay objective until it is my turn to feed, swim and warm the chick.

 

Sunburn

I once swam with a loon chick. Five hours old and already diving. She hears me laugh and paddles tiny webbed feet to me, searching for a wing. It’s Vermont hot, and I sizzle under the sun. I create a makeshift wing from my bandana to protect her. She snuggles to my chest, peeping softly as she sleeps. My heart swells for this tiny wonder, thumping in awe to witness her existence, this ephemeral dandelion wish. From volunteer citizen scientist to impromptu parent in half a day, I know nature’s course wins in the end. My sunburn outlives her.

 

July 25, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes the phrase “for one day.” The words single out a special occurrence. What is the emotion and vibe, where does it take place and why? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by July 30, 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.

 

Fire and False Hope (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

For one day, the crew held back the advancing fire. Danni dropped onto her sleeping bag, boots still on her feet, proud that she had shoveled in a way archeologists seldom do. They worked hard and deterred the fire with their break. Sometime during the night, the wind kicked up, and a chill woke Danni. Stretching, she groggily left the tent to refill her water bottle. The skyline glowed with orange flames, trees exploded, shooting embers the wind carried across the break. For one day, they saved their community from burning in hell. Now it was time to evacuate.

July 11: Flash Fiction Challenge

The Ranch is open, but I’m on hiatus at the southern edge of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. The unpaved backroads, hilly terrain, links of lakes and ponds, woods, and the Green Mountains disorient me and yet feel familiar. Several times, going around a bend or glimpsing the humps of ancient wooded mountains, I have anticipated a memory, experienced the feeling of recall only to remember I’ve never been here before.

As if that’s not surreal enough, I’m driving around in D. Avery’s truck. I’ve met her mom at the Juedevine Library where we introduced Wrangling Words in 99 words to Vermonters. I had a beer with her brother at the local American Legion where he’s a big mucky-muck very important person. I fed her dad’s chickens and survived a jaunt through the woods when her friend, a local librarian at the Craftsbury Library, said the trail was how to get there. I’ve never hiked through the woods across a mountain ridge to get to a literary event but, hey, I’m game!

Right now, D. has Vermont beans in a crockpot and is visiting with JulesPaige across camp on Greenwood Lake. She baked sourdough buns, and I made a green salad with tarragon dressing, using honey Jules brought from Pennsylvania. We are waiting for Ann Edall-Robson to arrive from Canada and Susan Sleggs from New York.

Pinch me. I’m living the dream of Some Day.

Some Day I was going to lead a nature writing retreat, call it a refuge because it would be a place to rest the writer’s soul and fill up the creative mind. The Refuge, like the Ranch, would be a safe space to explore Writing Dreams, and further craft, platform, and publishing while learning from the Nature Writing Greats who have influenced me over the years. I wanted to be like Annie Dillard or Wallace Stegner and have a special place from where I could write and inspire others to do so, too.

Greenwood Lake is D.’s special place, and she’s sharing. We had a day of getting to know each other, a day to build trust. The next day we played out loud going to the center of a waterfall, witnessing loon choreography, chasing loons and herons in kayaks, chatting up lake neighbors, and discovering mysteries in old cemeteries. I can imagine a young D. accompanying an uncle as he researched their old family ties here, running off and finding a curious obelisk. I can picture her opening the metal cover on the side, surprised to find a mirror inside. The mirror is gone but not the memory.

Lots of things did not happen before I stepped onto the plane to come here — I’m still waiting on final word with home and MFA. But never mind. I’ve come to the Kingdom, and it’s time to focus on that Some Day and share this Refuge, get it going to become an annual event. We welcome Ranchers tonight, including as koala proxy standing in for Norah Colvin. She also sent us treats and sparkling notebooks. Perfect for the realm.

Collections are going to back up as I’m on hiatus, but I will return to “home” by the 24th when D. and I are reading from last week’s responses to the microhistories. Thank you for joining us in that activity! I’ll return after that with good news and catch up with each of you and publish the collections (last week and this one). Because of my time away, I’m setting up the July 11 prompt to have an extended two-week deadline. I hope you have fun with it!

July 11, 2019, prompt: “My kingdom for a koala!” In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a koala in a kingdom. You can create a character out of Norah’s koala and give it a Vermont adventure. Or you can make up a story however you want! Can you pull off a BOTS (based on a true story)? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by July 23, 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.

Koala in the Kingdom by Charli Mills

Koala jangled plastic hips when the morning sun hit her solar panels. She danced with a big grin while three loons circled in a pattern like a watery Celtic knot. She guarded the birding binoculars from her book perch beneath wildflowers. Koala stood in a mound of chocolate covered macadamia nuts, watching the Lead Buckaroo sneak bites when she was supposed to be fixing dinner. Koala smiled when the card from her Australian writer connected the gathered Ranchers from the Kingdom to Down Under. In 99-words, no more, no less, Koala bore witness to literary art and writerly friendships.