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December 5: Flash Fiction Challenge

My walls are a color between lemon meringue and key lime pies. If you’ve ever eaten a Key Lime yogurt, you know the phosphorescent glow of the paint I slathered to bring cheer to my home. The Hub says he feels like he’s a frog, living on a lily pad. I like frogs, and I like key lime pie. Looking at my walls makes me simultaneously happy and hungry.

Painting was not on the plan. I’m plowing through grad studies eyebrows deep in plots. For a plantser (a writer who writes by the seat of her pants), plotting can feel awkward and frustrating. Yet it’s become apparent that plotting is my weak point, and if I want to get stronger as a writer, I have to work that muscle. Evidently, I needed to paint to plot. Last time I was in school, I had a clean house from baseboards to ceiling. Now, I’m destined to have a colorful one.

Recently, I wrote a 1000-word romance, which my professor critiqued after peer review. It’s interesting, how much harsher peers are with one another. Not that my professor goes easy on us, but she points out the strengths of a piece and makes suggestions for improvement. Peers, like me, are learning. It’s not easy to give productive criticism. It’s much easier to criticize through opinion. That’s a start, but incomplete. The difference, as an example, is that one of my peers flagged my heroine as a dumb country chick. That left me struggling — was it my ability to craft a character or a difference of opinion?

My professor, on the other hand, praised my ability to develop characters, although my heroine didn’t resonate as strongly with her because of a lack of detail in what the character was thinking. The praise gave me enough confidence not to think I went off the rails, and her criticism was specific. Instead of telling me my character was “dumb,” she said my character did not resonate with her, and she offered a fix. In fact, she flagged three places to show me exactly where and offered examples, so I knew what to do.

While I’m working on my MFA to publish, I’m also earning an additional certificate to teach creative writing online. I’m focused on mastering the ability to read novels with x-ray vision (to see the underpinnings of how authors construct books) and critiquing writers to help them improve their manuscripts without slaying their vulnerabilities. I want to tear apart books and build up writers. And I’m practicing as I go.

I’ve painted myself into a corner, though. The dining room is perfectly smooth and ready to eat. The living room needs a touch-up and curtains hung. But, alas, the kitchen has odd angles. I’ve painted the walls I can reach, but there are corners I cannot. That’s where I’m at with my writing. How to fix my corners and beyond my reach? It’s going to look amazing once I figure it out. The upper ledge above the cabinets will be a dark blue-purple, the backboards behind sink, counters, and stove will be dark green, and the remaining walls will be key lime pie. I can see it.

Just like I can see my finished novel. I know Danni’s journey, I know what’s at stake for her. But I’m at the point where I can’t reach all the spaces between draft and finished manuscript.

At times like these, it’s easy to freeze up as a writer. I feel like I have nothing more to type! But I also know that is not true. The brain shuts down with anxiety, but I have a tool for creativity. It’s called 99-words. All this play, practice, and craft we do at Carrot Ranch train our brains to respond to problems with 99-words. This week, I’m writing another 1000-word microburst, and this time, it is in a less familiar genre to me — speculative fiction. I have several ideas, so I’m taking them to 99-words to explore.

The idea I like best is based on a weird dream I had after painting. Maybe the new color induced the strangeness, and yet it was not a nightmare. It felt curious. In the dream, I found hand-made crafts left like gifts in my cleaning cupboard. Among the artistic and woven items were a pair of slippers or moccasins. I had seen a group of strange people of various heights walking confidently beneath the tall branches of a winter tree. One bald man in a full gray cloak turned to look at me, and his face was blurry. I thought it looked like a face seen through a rain-washed window; only the window was clear. It wasn’t scary. It was like seeing water take human form. But why the shoes?

I still do not know why, and I wrote a 99-word story! I’ll TUFF it out and see if there’s a heart or a kernel or a punch to be found. I’ll rewrite it and (surprise, surprise) I’ll plot it out, using a flow chart that I’m building in Canva. I appreciate visual aids, and they make more sense if I create them, thinking about their use. If you are interested in flowcharts, check out Flowchart or Venngage. You can use the flow charts to map your story arc, plot, or show a protagonist’s (former hero) journey. A great model for plotting a story is something you might have encountered, but this is the original Story Spine.

This Saturday, I’ll be at the Rozsa Center listening to a live performance of Selected Shorts. I led a couple of workshops locally to prepare local writers to enter a contest to have a local story read on stage. We don’t know who won, but all the entrants will have their stories displayed at the Rozsa. I’m going early to join other writers for this exciting literary event. I also submitted a story to a contest to win a writing scholarship. I did not get picked as a finalist, but I’ll be studying the stories that did, and I’ll have another chance to enter next year. I also submitted two pieces to a regional journal and wait to find out if my pieces were selected.

I find that I don’t fret after I enter. No, fretting, just forgetting!

One of our Ranchers has met with lit journal success. D. Avery submitted a story that’s now published with Enchanted Conversation, a bi-monthly webzine that publishes original stories using fairy tale, folktale, and mythic themes. It’s more than 99-words and is paired with gorgeous cover art. Check out Wolf at the Door.

Incubation is powerful. I used to read our flash fiction collections at a poetry night in Sandpoint. The Poet Laureate taught me the power of incubating works with a live audience. Poets do it all the time. Musicians jam and come up with new ideas for songs. And we fiction and memoir writers? We write 99 words at a time — exploring, creating, and incubating literary art. Think of all the seeds you plant here! A mighty oak grows from an acorn.

December 5, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that includes a key lime pie. How can you use it in a story? Is it about the pie? Or about characters making, eating, or otherwise engaging with one? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by December 10, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

 

Curious Shoes by Charli Mills

Jena Warbeck found new shoes in the cupboard under the sink with her cleaning supplies – organic sage scents and purple dust-cloths. The shoes sat in a wreath of woven willow, soft brown leather and handstitched. She stood up and saw the beings with smeared features watching her from underneath the leaf-barren maple. They wavered like a wet mirage. Jena felt no fear. Only peace like when she relaxed with a cup of peppermint tea. Had they left the curious gift in exchange for nabbing her key lime pie? When they evaporated, a raven flew off with the pie tin.

November 28: Flash Fiction Challenge

For those who rode in last month’s 2019 Flash Fiction Rodeo, this is the date you’ve anxiously awaited. I use the adverb with understanding. This past month, I’ve entered my writing in two contests and submitted it to two literary journals. Waiting for notification can induce anxiety, angst, and doubt. Know that every writer experiences the rollercoaster ride of doubt. Artists combat resistance. Maybe you didn’t participate in the Rodeo because the word contest unnerved you. This is Carrot Ranch, a safe place to write, a fun literary community where you can find kindred spirits, a weekly challenge that displays 99-word stories. A contest invites danger; it sparks resistance.

If you haven’t yet read Stephen Pressfield’s War of Art, it’s worth the read. Some of it will make you cringe. Some of it will make you determined. He’s an author who understands the artistic battlefield. He writes:

“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance…Resistance by definition is self-sabatoge.”

(Pressfield, Steven. The War of Art. Black Irish Entertainment LLC. Kindle Edition.)

It is not easy to overcome resistance. Each and every one of you who finds your way to the Ranch to read, write, or join a discussion is participating in the three pillars of literary art. It matters not that you are here every week, but as the host, I can attest to the growth of those who are regular participants. When writers are new to the weekly challenges, I hope they stick around long enough to experience the magic of writing to a constraint within the bounds of a safe space. The Rodeo is a series of contests meant to challenge you to overcome your resistance.

My hat is off to each contestant. Take a moment to congratulate yourself for overcoming, for resisting, for showing up, and for delaying gratification. The challenges are fun — we get to see our work in concert with others. However, contests select and eliminate. We may not be gratified this time. Even if we win, doubt will still try to whisper in our ear. Winning or losing never offers comfort. So why seek out contests and selective submissions? To overcome the impulses of resistance and to learn. Growth requires an awareness of how our writing compares to others.

Comparison can be the ultimate discomfort for any artist. It produces a host of nagging emotions that range from inferiority to full-blown jealousy. A winner can feel like an imposter. In fact, in the first term of my MFA, we discussed the imposter syndrome as a common affliction of graduate students. Understand that this mindset shows up for contests, too. However, comparison can be productive. Let’s discuss how because it’s important to growth as a writer.

First, acknowledge any negative emotions. Practice kindness. Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book Big Magic, tells us that fear will come along for the ride of everything creative we attempt. Consider her mega-success (she wrote Eat, Pray Love), and yet she still feels fear. Resistance. Her advice is to invite fear along for the ride but never allow fear to take the driver’s seat. You can practice this every time you enter a contest, submit to a journal, or seek an agent or publisher. Invite fear along, recognize its emotional presence, but do the driving yourself.

From this frame of mind, accept any bludgeoning thoughts that tell you, “Hers is much better than mine,” or “His sucked; how could the judges be so blind?” Accept them as signals for comparison. Pause. Compare in a productive (and kind) way. Take a deep breath and ask, “How does her story differ from mine?” This exercise will teach you to learn how to compare and contrast in such a way that you begin to notice how craft skills are used. There is no right or wrong between your writing and someone else’s. The better you can get at identifying craft skills in other writing, the better you can adapt those skills to your own toolkit as a writer. Try to go a step farther and see what the judges selected. Instead of feeling hurt, set that real emotion aside and go deeper to identify one new writing attribute to try.

Originality will always be your ace card. No one has experienced the life you have. How can you express your sensations, experiences, concepts, and observations in your writing? That’s your voice. Cultivate your voice and you will cultivate originality. I see this truth played out week after week at Carrot Ranch. You go where the prompt leads because it will lead you to your voice. That intuition is what you learn to follow. You can always revise, but let originality lead the way.

The most original stories are not always the most sensational. I think mainstream media tricks us into believing that hooks have to be startling. What surprised me most about the entries to the 2019 Flash Fiction Rodeo was how prompts lead to greater originality. One of our contests was unprompted (Three-Act Stories) and instead of broadening originality, many writers resorted to sensational ideas for stories. Funny thing is, this diminished the impact because what was meant to be shocking risked becoming cliche. Let that sink in a moment. Writing about a hard social issue or injustice is not necessarily brave; writing about it from your own point of vulnerability is.

Your voice matters. Dare to follow that sensational (or common) lead into your own swath of experiences, blow past the tropes with something only you could write. If you take on a shocking topic, use it in an original way or say something new about humanity.

The most fun we all seemed to have with the Rodeo (judges and contestants combined) was with the Pro-Bull Mashup. Using three words from the source of pro-rodeo bull names and two niche genres (pirates and game shows) created a tight constraint and yet yielded much playfulness. In opposition to no prompt, multiple prompts pushed creativity. That’s an interesting consideration. Currently, I’m working with a 94-year-old WWII veteran in a writing group and he told me that as a child he read the entire dictionary. If he gets stuck writing, he turns to a page in his dictionary and uses a word to prompt an idea.

A standing ovation to ALL of you who entered TUFF Beans.

TUFF does its job and that is to force a writer to revise. I’ve known that my greatest weakness as a writer is revision. One of my best professors from undergrad days used to say, “Your manuscript doesn’t begin to sing until the thirteenth time.” Reality as a career writer was that I wrote to deadlines. I had to learn to write and edit simultaneously, gather momentum from interview transcripts, find original ways to include research with relatable analogies and write to my audiences for specific publications. As a marketing communicator and a freelance profilist, I got good at my work.

However, as a literary artist, I have had a tough time breaking those habits of simultaneously editing and drafting. I can write fast, and come up with original angles. But the more I pushed into my literary art and the more I grappled with manuscript revision, I felt like I had gaps in knowledge. Part of going back to get my MFA is to identify what it is I don’t know. What am I supposed to do each subsequent revision? Thirteen — how do I get to a singing manuscript when I can’t get past five revisions? I’ve developed tools like my storyboard. And I came up with TUFF to help me identify my blind spots in revision. I admit that I fear to make changes — what if I screw up the original thrust of creativity? How do I plot when my stories are character-driven and landscape-oriented?

TUFF and 99-word stories are tools as much as they are works of art. Many in my community use TUFF to craft business statements, explore narrative therapy, or generate manuscript revisions. Other organizations use it in ways I hadn’t considered. Offering it as a Rodeo contest is bringing it home to where it all began. When I see writers use the constraints to shift their stories and revise their original drafts, I feel giddy with excitement. TUFF provides its own lessons through the process. Our TUFF judge is a local life coach who loves using the tool with clients and business teams.

This year, I worked locally with our team of judges as I build up our Carrot Ranch literary presence in the Keweenaw. Here’s a bit about me and my home crew.

Charli Mills came to the Keweenaw from everywhere out West. As lead buckaroo at Carrot Ranch, she makes literary art accessible 99 words at a time and writes stories about the veteran experience and those marginalized by history. The Rodeo is a chance for her to encourage writers to push through creativity with courage.

Cynthia May Drake lives at the Ripley Falls Home of Healing, having lived in the UP for 30 years. She creates retreats and coaches clients to reach their spectacular potential. She regularly practices the 99-word and TUFF formats to resolve life conundrums, which has her fired up to be a literary judge for the Rodeo’s TUFF contest.

Marie Bertineau, born amidst the copper mining ruins of northern Michigan, is the daughter of an Ojibwe mother and a French Canadian and Cornish father. Her memoir, The Mason House, is set for release in September 2020 by Lanternfish Press of Philadelphia. She enjoyed the opportunity to work with Carrot Ranch on the Rodeo contest.

Tammy Toj Gajewski is an educated artist who recently retired from 24 years in prison where her nickname was Sgt. Carebear. She has written poetry and stories her whole life and is working on her book. She moved to the UP over 25 years ago and loves rock hunting, foster parenting, and dogs.

Bonnie Brandt came to the UP for MTU education and never left. As the daughter of a math teacher, she reads voraciously and belongs to a book club. She lives for the pun. She loves kayaking and cooking. She often will be reading even in summer!

Paula Sahin visited Carrot Ranch Headquarters during judging and joined in a session at the Continental Fire Company. She is a leadership development consultant trained by Brené Brown and manages Inner Wisdom Coaching and Consulting. She has a serious passion for learning and development.

Donna Armistead is a native of Florida and has taught dance and theatre in the Copper Country for over 30 years. Finally emerging from research mode to write a novel inspired by the lives of her Georgia ancestors, she is honored to have been invited to assist as a judge for the Rodeo.

Word Press allowed me to capture each entry and save according to IP address so that I could initially judge blind. I screened entries according to the rules and selected ten finalists in each category. I was looking for entries that met the criteria according to my perspective. I then shared criteria with my judges and let them use their own perspectives. None of the contests were purely technical. A few were more technical than others, but there remains an area of subjectivity. Judges do not all initially agree but everyone is allowed to voice their reasoning. Consensus was reached and three top places were awarded in each contest.

Each of the ten finalists will receive a submission critique. When I used to work with Paula Sahin, she coached me in ways to build strong teams. Together, we worked in senior management and helped our organization develop feedback loops that contributed to the productive growth of employees. As Carrot Ranch has grown, I’ve applied much of my previous career to our literary community, focusing on writers’ strengths and appreciating their use of originality and craft skills. With entry to my MFA program, I wondered if I could meld my positive feedback preferences with that of writing workshop critique.

One of my professors told me after a workshop exercise that I was one of the best line editors he had encountered. Editing is not my natural inclination (remember, I said my weakness is revision). What I realized is that by mindfully practicing positive feedback every week at Carrot Ranch, I had grown my skills. And yes, I’m working toward a brand of productive critique techniques to teach and use with others. I’m in my baby-steps phase, but by offering critique on contest entries where criteria are stated, I get to practice. Those receiving feedback get useful insights.

Be patient with me, though! Today is Thanksgiving in the US and it’s my second dinner, meaning I went to Wisconsin last weekend to fix Thanksgiving for my son at his request (Mama Bear can’t refuse an offer to feed people), then returned to the Keweenaw to fix dinner for my daughter, SIL, Hub, and friends. When on terms with an MFA, there is no such thing as a break. And somehow I thought it was a good idea (back in September) to announce winners today! I will not be immediately responsive, but I’ll be back at it on Friday when I’ll send email winner announcements.

Over the next four weeks, I will email a batch of critiques according to the order of contests. By the end of December, all 40 critiques will be delivered, just in time for my term finals.

I’d like to thank the Patrons of Carrot Ranch — your contributions maintain a dynamic community making literary art accessible. I have no staff. I have a small team of Ranchers who contribute as patrons. The work behind the scenes is my privilege. I’m grateful for all of you at Carrot Ranch Literary Community. It’s my life’s work to encourage others to write, read, and heartily discuss creative writing. It helps us all overcome resistance to our art and pursuit of it. I love what I do.

Thank you for your support of the Flash Fiction Rodeo. I hope you found it scary, fun, enlightening, and anything else you need to keep you on your writing path. Please take the time to read the 2019 Winners Page where all contest finalists, their entries and awarded top three places are displayed. Last year’s Rodeo Pages are all compiled into one 2018 Flash Fiction Rodeo. To celebrate or commiserate winning, our prompt challenge follows.

November 28, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about winners. Who are they, what’s the mood, and what did they win? Express emotion or subdue it. Go where the prompt leads!

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

NOTE: Contest winners from all the flash fiction contests are located at 2019 Flash Fiction Rodeo.

Challenge submissions closed. Find our latest Flash Fiction Challenge.

Keep Trying Until You Win by Charli Mills

Martha posed her best winning grin to the reporter, spitting dirt as she smiled. The bulb flashed so brightly it turned everything to white blotches. Blinking, and wiping at the mouthful of arena dirt she received after the goat clocked her a second time, she looked for Auntie Bess. The old woman was leaning against the railing beyond the chatter of family and fans. Ducking the swipe of a hankie, Martha joined her Aunt.

“Why’d ya win kiddo?”

“Cause no one else would go after that stinkin’ goat three times. Figured, I keep trying ‘til I got him tied!”

November 21: Flash Fiction Challenge

It was outrageous — Erienne Fleming’s father had no regard for his daughter and married her off to the highest bidder. She had flirted with the Yank who’d come to her father’s village, but it was the mysterious and disfigured Lord Saxton who won the prize. He wasn’t the monster Erienne feared he’d be, and soon, her heart was torn between the husband she married and the dashing young man who pursued her. The climax to this tale is fraught with danger, unmaskings, and end — of course — with true love conquering all. Why? Because this is the story of a romance novel.

Kathleen Woodiwiss wrote A Rose in Winter the year I entered high school. By then, her career as a novelist neared a decade. Agents and publishers rejected her first novel, The Flame and the Flower, because it was too long. But it was detailed, building a historical world with accuracy and creating strong-willed characters. When her book published in 1972, it paved the way for what we recognize as the modern romance novel, and her book was the first to follow the protagonist and love interest into the bedroom.

My sister-in-law loaned me a copy of A Rose in Winter, promising me it would be the best love story I had ever read. It was. And it remains the number one romance novel in my heart. “Serious” writing cured me of my crush on romance novels. By the time I graduated with an undergrad degree, I was burned out on reading heavy literature — medieval books, Chaucer, literature with social justice themes, and thick historical novels. I slipped back into reading a romance novel, but the genre had changed. The bodice-rippers had grown up, and contemporary romances had taken their place. Two of my favorite authors had quit romance and were penning modern crime thrillers. I found old copies of Janet Dailey and re-read the Calder series about the Montana family of cowboys over five generations.

Then I quit romance for good.

It’s not so much that the genre changed, but that I had. My heart wanted a good read, and so did my brain. I wanted to feel connected to characters, their relationships, and their world. Oddly enough, fantasy filled the void. After I plowed through my kids’ Harry Potter books, I discovered the works of Robert Jordan and read the entire Wheel of Time series. This led me to read the hefty tomes of Brandon Sanderson, and I eagerly await his next 1,000-page Stormlight series installment. But you see, Kathleen Woodiwiss started my interest in long novels.

Tony Hillerman is my brain candy. His Navajo police stories go as fast as a bag of red licorice. I love his books for the authentic Navajo world-building and for a series that returns familiar characters. But they go fast. To slow down, I’ll read a contemporary work of fiction. Anne Goodwin over at Annectdotal has been my book pusher for recent scores of literary fiction. If you don’t follow her reviews, I suggest you do so as a writer. I’m shifting my own reading practices to read more books as a writer. That means reading books I might not connect with or find entertaining.

Why do we read?

What a massive and complex question. If we had an inkling, book marketers would hustle us off to better understand the reading habits of modern readers. Some like to stimulate their intellect, others their emotions. I like a good book that draws me into a sense of place — it’s why I read Brandon Sanderson, Tony Hillerman, and Janet Daley. Book marketers struggle to make sense of that because I read across such divergent genres. And to mess up the matter more, I write women’s and historical fiction with a commercial style. What is going on?

Librarians better understand that most of their patrons are like me — a hot mess when it comes to “what I like to read.” Book marketers are so hung up on genre that they think I’d only read one genre. Tony Hillerman is the only crime books I read. Outside the Navajo reservation, I’m not interested in mysteries. I don’t like thrillers. Oh, but wait, I read all of Ian Fleming, and I like some of Ken Follette and Clive Cussler. I read everything Kathleen Woodiwiss ever wrote, but I can’t stand anything Nora Roberts writes. I dislike fantasy, but I love Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan. YA is not my thing except for Harry Potter. I read lots of western writers like Louis L’Amour, Edward Abbey, Jim Harrison, Ivan Doig, Wallace Stegner, and non-fiction by Terry Tempest Williams and important cultural literature by Sherman Alexie and Tony Morrison.

The Reader’s Advisory group that helps librarians understand readers like me look at genre to recognize the factors that influence readers and have published a powerfully informative book, The Reader’s Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction. If you are serious about publishing (independently, small press, or traditionally), this is the book that will help you understand readers better. And why do you want to do that as a writer? Because readers buy books. Libraries and book stores buy books for readers. The better you can understand who is your target reader, the better you will be at marketability. Publishers want a well-crafted book, yes, but they also want one they think they can sell.

According to the Reader’s Advisory, genres can be arranged according to four factors:

  1. Adrenaline Genres (Adventure, Romance Suspense, Suspense, Thrillers)
  2. Emotion Genres (Gentle Reads, Horror, Romance, Women’s Lives & Relationships)
  3. Intellect Genres (Literary Fiction, Mysteries, Psychological Suspense, Science Fiction)
  4. Landscape Genres (Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Westerns)

This blew my mind for a couple of reasons. First, who would have thought that horror and romance had anything in common? Second, what I like to read (fantasy) is compatible with what I want to write (historical fiction). I’ve been saying, I love a book that draws me into a sense of place. Well, that would be landscape! This rearranging of genre by factors helped me better understand my target audience, too. Miracle of Ducks has perplexed me as to where it fits. It’s contemporary, but what is it from there? I had dismissed women’s literature and thought it fit more into literary fiction. But I was wrong! My story is about relationships and women’s voices that go unheard from within the veteran community. It’s emotional, not intellectual. My target audience reads books to feel.

The book breaks down each of these genre groups and delves into deeper factors. It’s intended audience is librarians, but one of my professors introduced me to the guide (buy used because this is a pricey reference book). My other professor has me writing romance this week. They are both teaching me that as a writer, I have something to learn from all the genres.

So, what can we learn from the romance genre? Romance places priority on the relationship between two people — romance, bromance, girl meets girl; the story is all about them. I learned that the genre has niche’s I never knew about (yes, werewolves and women are a thing!). It’s a rich genre, often focusing on details of place like the historical romances Woodiwiss wrote. Just because it has a recognizable framework of they meet they, they come into conflict, more conflict, and near disaster, they reunite and live HEA. HEA meaning, happily ever after. Although modern romance allows for more ambiguity — happy for now. It must end on an upswing.

Romances vary as much as our weekly stories. We are all writing to the same prompt within the same constraint, and yet our stories each week remain creative, original, and unexpected. Romance novels can be just as varied. For me, the take-away is to study relationships and the emotional tension that builds conflict. Whereas romance solves the tension with sex, I’m aiming for an elixir of growth. I’m more interested in personal development and social justice.

Yes, we are going to get our love groove going this week. First, a little mood music. Robert Mirabal is one of my favorite Native American musicians. He introduces why he wrote the song, Medicine Man. It doesn’t have an HEA ending, but it is a story of a man who overcame his unrequited love by marrying his people. What a deep concept — he could not have the romantic love he yearned for, so instead, he loved everyone, serving them as a holy man. That is a relationship story with, personal growth.

November 21, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a romance. Focus on the relationship between two people. Build tension and end on a happy(ish) note. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by November 26, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

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

Challenge submissions closed. Find our latest Flash Fiction Challenge.

Cupid’s Call on the Range by Charli Mills

A cow caused it all. Maria Sanchez lived on the backside of Hope Valley, watching her father’s herd of Angus, selling steaks to silver miners. Garett Meadows owned the mine. He spotted Maria one day, lifting her skirts to chase a cow, exposing curvy brown calves. A range cow charged the encroaching horse, and Garret struck his head in the fall. Worried that her father would be blamed, Maria hid the injured man in a trapper’s cabin to tend to him alone. Garett was only playing injured. A month later, at their wedding, he blamed love on the cow.

November 14: Flash Fiction Challenge

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

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

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

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

~ Alan Rickman

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

~ Douglas Adams

“My favorite journey is looking out the window.”

~ Edward Gorey

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

~ Edith Wharton

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

~ Mehmet Murat ildan

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

~ J. K. Rowling

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

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

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

~ Brené Brown

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

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

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

Entrepreneurs are like artists. Or artists are like entrepreneurs.

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

~ Jackson Pollock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Respond by November 19, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

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

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

November 7: Flash Fiction Challenge

Water is life.

It’s 4 a.m., and I’m brewing a pot of coffee in the Hub’s stainless steel pot. I pour the water into the reservoir, scoop coffee grounds dark as dirt into a filter, and hit brew. Back upstairs, I shower beneath hot water, letting the flow ease the stiffness from my body and revive my senses. I dress in layers to prepare for the biting cold of Gichigami — the Big Sea called Lake Superior. It’s October, and I have no plans to dip a toe in the sea, but I will be spending much of the day along her frigid fall shores. In a skirt.

Skirts feel like a foreign language to me; I’m never sure if I’m wearing one correctly. But I’m part of something sacred, and protocols state that kwe wear skirts so the earth can recognize that we are women. Fortunately, protocols also allow for pants underneath (translation for Brits in case you thought I might go commando, pants as in trousers). I’ve packed extra socks, a first-aid kit, communal drinking water in a 10-gallon cooler, snacks baked or donated by my Warrior Sisters, food for tonight’s feast in a small church basement, and the steel coffee pot.

Forty-five minutes later, I’ve avoided the deer hanging out alongside the road and drive in the pitch dark past Copper Harbor. It’s 5:30 a.m., and I park my car at Astor Shipwreck Park across the road from Fort Wilkins, which is shuttered until next spring. My car companion is going to drive a truck behind two senior citizens who will ride behind a group of women who are gathering this early morning to walk the water from Copper Harbor to Sandpoint Lighthouse in Keweenaw Bay, home of the Anishinaabe. They are meeting us here in the dark, teaching us their protocols so we might unite all peoples to do the work of the water. The Anishinaabekwe — the women — all wear traditional ribbon skirts and good walking boots or tennies.

It’s so dark, we don’t know each other and laugh as we begin to figure out voices. The air is cold, and the weather forecasters predict mixed precipitation. The Water Walkers of the tribe plan to make the 90 mile trip in three days. I’ve been helping with logistics — social media, communications, securing food and shelter. No one is in charge, but without a doubt, the Anishinaabekwe lead us. They hope to break down cultural barriers and teach us to protect the water according to their traditions. Gichigami is their Big Sea. The lands we walk across are ceded territories. To do the work of the water is to take a spiritual journey.

A small motor put-puts in the dark, heralding the arrival of two elderly women in a golf cart. People move and shift in shadows. Terri has the copper pot with Nibi (water), and another person carries the Eagle Staff. I can’t see, but I hear the pitch of excitement in her voice. The walk has begun. We are all asked to place acema (tobacco) in our left hand, the hand closest to our hearts, and say a prayer for the water as we cross over Fannie Hooe Creek and follow the kwe carrying Nibi in a copper vessel. Once the water is in motion, it cannot stop. Kwe take turns conveying the water, and any gender or non-binary can hold the staff. Several young and robust women from the Copper Harbor area will take turns with the Anishinaabekwe.

My friends are among those who have gathered — Cynthia and Laura (rodeo judges, they are, too). I set out with them at a brisk speed. It’s so dark and silent as we walk to Copper Harbor. We chatter and laugh. I start to worry that the pace is faster than I anticipated. My friend, Bon, is waiting at her house along the lake route with breakfast for the walkers. I plan to walk and catch a ride back to my car, but no one seems to know how far ahead the relay van is. So, I turn back and walk alone to my car, my thoughts on my role to support the Water Walkers. I feel like a contrary clown, walking backward.

That was October 19.

I had planned to offer snacks and water. Bon gifted me with the use of her air-pots for coffee and a recipe for omelets on the go. The ones she made for the walkers were a huge hit. I had set up the feast at Bethany Church in Mohawk. I would feed people. The next day, I might fill in where I could, but I knew another person was managing that night’s feast, and the following day, I’d touch base. The Tribal Council was in charge of that feast. I felt like the event was going smoothly, and I’d be needed less and less.

Well, you know what they say about the best-laid plans? Nibi had other intentions.

Fourteen years ago, my daughter was a junior in high school. I had hoped she would attend secondary school at my alma mater — Carrol College in Montana. But she was also interested in another liberal arts college — Northland in northern Wisconsin. We made trips to both places, and the first time I saw Bayfield, Wisconsin, I fell in love with the Chequamegon Bay. For years, we had camped in northern Minnesota, and the North Shore of Lake Superior captivated me. The cliffs and waves of the North Shore are terrifying and majestic. Along Chequamegon Bay, the Apostle Islands buffer the inland sea.

When I first wrote Miracle of Ducks, I set it in Bayfield. I knew that Ike’s best friend, Michael Robineaux, would be from the band of Red Cliff Ojibwa. That’s how he came to me, in the way characters do.

What I didn’t know, until after the walk, is that Bayfield is ceded Anishinaabe lands. Madeline Island, where I studied the W-story structure at MISA, is a spiritual place for the tribe. It’s a sacred water place. In 2012, I seriously contemplated making it my home, the draw of the water had been so strong that summer I had lived there, writing and bobbing in the bay. Instead, I went to Idaho to be with the Hub. My eldest and her husband moved to Missoula, Montana. Our middle daughter moved out west, and we joked that our son would come next. But the water called us back. Gichigami called me home — Lady Lake Superior.

Day two of the Water Walk I learned that it is not about the walk. People peeled off, leaving a small core group. We had to strategize relaying the water, keeping it flowing forward. My focus shifted to the Grandmothers — the two in the golf cart. I felt drawn to carry Nibi and asked the Hub if he’d carry the Eagle Staff. He said no, citing his other knee, which will need surgery. That deflated me. I’ve had three back surgeries, and I’m fit to run a desk. I realized I was not one to walk the water. And I had a role to play. I was doing the work of the water, too. When the Water Walkers crossed the Houghton Bridge, more people joined. I wanted to walk across the bridge, too, but someone needed to drive the Tribal van.

Kwe in skirts with Nibi.

Arranging for police escort was tricky. They wanted to meet the walkers at a certain point and time, but the water doesn’t stop or wear a watch. Neither does the woman carrying Nibi. I stayed in contact with our officer as another woman, and I scouted the route and where we could cross. By the time the Water Walkers caught up, the group had grown to twenty. At that point, I took over the van (“Look Native,” Kathy told me). I parked on the other side of the Keweenaw Waterway, the great canal large enough for lake freighters, and hoofed it back up to the bridge, camera in hand.

The video catches an awkward cultural miscommunication — the Water Walkers recognized me and shouted oo-waa! I did not shout back. Sometimes I’m slow to understand social cues. Later, when I learned more about this vocalization, Kathy told me she likes to go into the woods and shout. Sometimes she gets a call back. It’s the early communication system of the Anishinaabe: “I’m here, I see you, where are you.” But I knew I was seen, I was called to merge with the walkers as they passed me on the bridge followed by the flashing lights of the Hancock Police.

People asked what we were protesting. The police asked if we were carrying signs, and what did they read? One of my roles was to educate people, and I made small handouts to explain the Water Walk. Our message joins all colors, philosophies, faiths, and beliefs — no matter our differences, no matter our political standings, no matter our knowledge of science, one simple truth binds us all — Water is life. Cutting through the bike trails to avoid traffic in Houghton, our Water Walkers passed homeowners mowing lawns and raking leaves. One man dismounted his riding mower and salutes the procession with his hand on his heart. The Grandmothers teared up, touched by the simple recognition.

Our mixed group is called People of the Heart. Kathy and Terri come from the same Lodge where they practice traditional healing. Their teachings clearly state that they are for “all people.” In fact, 500 years ago, the Anishinaabe left their eastern lands to adhere to prophecy. They were to go where the food grows on the water (wild rice, manoomin) — the Northland (north Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, and the upper peninsula of Michigan). There would come a time when the world would need the teachings of the Anishinaabe. The time has come for us to protect our water

Water is life.

Not oil, not money, not the latest iPhone or Unicode emoji. Kathy is not only a Water Walker, but she is also a biologist for the Tribe. For many years, she fought wildfires out west, leading a Native crew. Terri is an early childhood educator for the Tribe. The Grandmothers both serve on Tribal Council and sew. Sewing includes traditional skirts, shirts, and vests with ribbons, embroidery, and beading. The Anishinaabe traditions co-exist with the modern world, and it’s a gift packed with wisdom and experience and wonder. It’s teaching based on responsible use, respect, gratitude, and protection. Water is life, and we are to protect it not only for our generation but for the next seven.

How will decisions made today impact the future? Does policy or pollution threaten those seven generations from now? If we do this today, what happens tomorrow? Imagine if seven generations ago, those in power thought this way. We have become short-sighted. Doing the work of the water means taking time to contemplate its future, our future, a future we won’t live to see, but one we impact right now. Water has no voice. Corporations have personhood, but water does not. Kwe speak for the sovereignty of water, we are the life-bringers, the women with the capacity to carry a baby to term in a sac of water. Corporations have legal rights, but water is life.

Day three dawned long after I had. Three mornings in a row, I rose at 4 a.m. to fix four pots of coffee, refill the water jug, pack snacks, and fix breakfast on the go for the Water Walkers. I have relaying down by day three. Our support vehicles leap-frog ahead half a mile. My warm car is ready for walkers to take a break. We are operating lean — one kwe to carry Nibi, one person to carry the Eagle Staff. Once the sun comes up, several other women walk in support, and we continue the half-mile to a mile relay. The water moves forward, not stopping

The Grandmothers have accepted me, and they laugh and joke, waving their mugs my direction for more coffee. They take my succession of snacks, loving bologna sandwiches the best. Kathy calls it “Indian steak.” In America, it’s the comfort food of the poor. I know bologna well. When we were broke down and homeless in Gallup, we shared all the poor food I knew growing up with the Natives in New Mexico. Never had pinto beans tasted so good as when shared by others who know life’s struggles and yet still smile and give all they have to give. At feast the night before, the Grandmothers claimed me, and the Hub says the Navajo wanted me, too. Kathy says, “The Dine can not have her,” and we all laugh.

It’s a wonder to me, a moment of serendipity, that Michael Robineaux came to me as an imaginary character for a novel years before I’d come to be known to his people. When I felt the draw to Lake Superior, I was called by Gichigami to know her fully, to know all nations touching her shores. Oo-wa! I am seen. This time I understand enough to call back. Oo-wa! I see your humanity, too. We are one. The water unites us.

At dawn on the third day, I found a snowmobile bar open and willing to let us use the restrooms. By then, the whole UP had heard of the Water Walkers with news coverage. All the kwe used community connections and news media to get the word out. Somehow, an officer with the State Troopers missed all that. He pulled over Terri’s truck that drove behind the Grandmothers like an honor guard. In her absence, I slid in. The Grandmothers are all-seeing from behind. They watch the walkers, the water, the staff, the land, and the sky. They speak up when they need to and stay silent to let the younger ones experience for themselves. We need all generations in unity.

We need all peoples, all nations. Water is life.

One of the walkers asked me to walk Nibi. I didn’t think I could. But I tried. She said she’d walk with me, carrying the Eagle Staff. This kwe, whose dog was dying as we walked, focused on life, not death. This strong woman wanted all of us kwe to spend time in contemplation, carrying Nibi no matter our levels of strength. As I faced the Water Walker coming my way, I confessed my fear — it’s the same one that hits me when I submit my writing — it’s not enough, I’m not enough. Old recordings, debilitating doubt, lies we believed. I focused on the truth. Water is life. I grabbed the copper bucket, I did not look to the left, I did not look to the right, I walked forward. At my own pace.

I’m surrounded by women dancing circles around me in skirts and shawls. Why was I ever averse to skirts? They flow like water, skirts to skirts, shawls to shawls, women encircle the work, doing the work of water. I carry Nibi in me. Gitchigami rises overhead in a thick bank of clouds pushing away the storm that was supposed to hit us during the walk. Water kept us dry. Eleven eagles greeted us at the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community border. We walked the Anishinaabekwe home. I walked the water. I am a Water Walker. I am kwe. This time the story caught the story-catcher.

Lead Buckaroo walks the water.

November 7, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes Water Walkers. It does not have to be in the Anishinaabe tradition; in fact, it would be more interesting to see interpretations from across all nations and walks. It can be a title or used as a phrase. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by November 12, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

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

SUBMISSIONS CLOSED. SEE OUR LATEST CHALLENGE.

Water Walkers by Charli Mills

My Nakomis shields my body with hers when they pelt us with rubber bullets. They don’t understand why we don’t die like all the others around the globe. They think we hoard a stash of stolen science. We are the Water Walkers, and we speak on behalf of the world’s poisoned water. Scientists can now alter the DNA code of entire families to survive the hydro-toxicity crisis. Only select families, though. They want to know why we aren’t altered or dead. Threatened us to give up our secret. Nakomis says we never held back. We tried to teach them.

October 31: Flash Fiction Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Respond by November 5, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

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

Submission closed. Join us for the next prompt.

Bridging Culture by Charli Mills

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

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.