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In my mind, my Aunt Mary McCanles is as stoic as the women painted in pioneer portraits. Grim smile, bun puled taut, knuckles gnarled from the hard work of homesteading folded passively on her lap as she sits in her rocking chair for the camera. The romantic notion that wagons west was the adventure we modern descendants missed, that times were once simpler and more decent is among the big western myths. It’s true, Mary had courage and the wit to survive. She worked hard to raise four sons and an invalid daughter on the vast prairie of Nebraska Territory as a widow.
Maybe it’s because of the romance of the west, or maybe because she was my kin, I find it difficult to access her complexity. She’s human and must have been a woman of dichotomies. Aren’t we all? Life isn’t just about our personalities and the places we live, but it’s the intersection between our worst and best traits on our worst and best days. Add to the mix a harsh land and the reality of migration, and Mary had no chance to be a paper doll from a children’s American West set. She was a flesh and blood, heart and mind, physical and soulful woman.
When I think of stories, I think in terms of what if. To me, that’s where the action unfolds. What if a woman followed her husband and his former mistress out west, migrating to a frontier? What if she left behind a home and family she’d never see again? What if her husband was gunned down one afternoon? What if is the blueprint for the external story.
Internally, motivation becomes a driver. Why would she follow her husband and his former mistress to such a place? How did she cope in a new community? Did his death change her? What about love? Did she love her husband because he was the father of her five children or did she marry out of a sense of duty? The internal story shapes the human triumph or tragedy.
For a work of historical fiction, research collects the facts that detail the story. These details include every day occurrences, such as the life of a pioneer homesteader. They can also give clues to personality through eye-witness accounts or remembrances. Newspaper clippings give tone to decipher attitudes and culture. For example, slavery in the US is unavoidable, reading a southern newspaper from the 1850s. The attitudes of the culture emerge in ads advertising poultry and slave auctions like normal events. They were, for the times.
I’ve talked about the story structure I use to write novels — a W that outlines the hero’s journey. Recently, I heard Matt Damon give an interview about an upcoming movie about the Great Wall in China. He called it a classic hero’s journey. Yet, I think even the tale of a woman on the prairie, sweeping a cracked mud floor and boiling laundry can be a hero’s journey, too. Rock Creek, my historical novel in progress, has five heroes. Two are historically accounted as one hero and one villain. I retell their story through the three perspectives of the women who knew them both and experienced the infamous event at Rock Creek one hot July day in 1861.
Only one character has the full hero’s arc — Sarah Shull. The remaining characters fill in the external or internal stories.
Motives for the two men have been debated over 150 years. I have new ideas on plausible motives to expand the narrow thinking of the men who have written the histories. I also have motives for the women. But Mary’s domestic motive has seemed bland to me — I don’t want to paint her as just another stoic prairie wife. And Sarah Shull, as former mistress, has been given several titillating motives and I didn’t want her to be a mythological soiled dove of the West. Nancy Jane has been vibrant to me because she is what any woman unfettered could have been — capable and feisty.
Writing into Mary’s dark intentions one flash a few weeks ago, I hit on an important plausible motive behind her pursuit of Cobb. It continued to worm its way into my imagination to give more fertile ground to consider motives of Sarah. How might Sarah’s knowledge of Mary’s motives shadow her own? That led to me thinking about Sarah’s friendship with Nancy Jane. After spending a weekend with a McCanles cousin whose research and opinion I respect, I was in a brain churning process. Do you know that feeling? That mind-space where you go over your internal and external stories trying to dig deeper for that coveted surprise you know is there, somewhere between the details?
Then a conversation with a trusted friend who knows the full story (something I protect from historians because it is a bombshell and will rock the Wild Bill World) led to a moment of inspiration. You might say, I had a perfect storm this week. When I sat down to tap out that inspired idea, 5,443 words later I actually had my motives emerge fully and I had my ending. That might sound odd — to find an ending to a historical story where we know how it ends. But of course, who would read it if I told the story from start to finish? That’s why novels are never a straight forward telling of the external story.
My W has been mapped out for Rock Creek. I have worked hard to fill in historical gaps; I scrapped the first half of the book; expanded the Nebraska accounts; and wrote Sarah Shull later in life. However, I’ve been stumped as to how to weave the three women’s perspectives to show the men in action and use Sarah’s reflections in old age. It all came together in this new ending I wrote. What blew me away is that Sarah had one last secret for me — a motive of her own I had never considered. And it would not have come to me if I hadn’t allowed myself to think of Aunt Mary in a darker way.
While breakthroughs seem to abound this month for both my novels in progress, I hoping for a breakthrough in my homeless situation. I have come to enjoy my RV with my little office, couch, kitchen, bedroom, shower and toilet. I don’t feel so “homeless” with such basic needs met, yet we are displaced and have to move on by April because the tourist season at Zion begins in earnest and rates go up beyond my earnings as a writer. The Hub was accepted into a VA vocational program and we continue to battle the stress of his PTSD, he being more stressed than me. Progress is slower than our timeline to move. And we have no way to move our big RV, something we said we’d figure out. Well, we’re still figuring! I’ll hope for some perfect storm of inspiration.
The first anthology is making its way back to our capable and talented Trail Boss & Editor, Sarah Brentyn next week. She and all the Rough Writers have been patient and I appreciate that. The Raw Fiction series is meant to be a platform for our anthologies, expanding the literary community here as one that discusses as well as performs feats of raw literary art. The synergy is evident in what we write individually and collectively among such diverse writers. Once we have Volume 1 under our belts, we’ll invite new Rough Writers to join our core of ranch hands and continue to grow.
With all this movement and wandering (imaginatively) across the plains of Nebraska Territory, I can’t help but think of migration. Immigration dominates world news as refugees seek asylum, countries ponder how to balance humanitarian efforts with safety protocols, and the US slams shut its borders and evicts “illegal” immigrants from our neighbor, Mexico. The announcement of 15,000 new jobs for border control is not one that has many cheering new jobs in America. What would we have done had Trump lived 150 years ago and was chief of the Plains Indians? Would the west have known such a migration as the pioneers? Would we have an Indigenous west, open to Mexico, closed to Americans? And we just discovered 7 new earth-like planets only 39 light years away! What will future global migrations look like?
February 23, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a migration story. It can imagine the dusty or arctic trails of the frontiers past or look to the travel across the galaxy. What issue about modern migration bans might influence an artistic expression in a flash? Migrate where the prompt leads you.
Respond by February 28, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published March 1). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Leaving for the West (from Rock Creek) by Charli
“Pa? Are you leaving us?”
Mary glared at her husband. To avoid the new administration’s secession policies, Cobb was leaving his sheriff’s post. Her family and friends no longer visited, political beliefs dividing neighbors and kin. “Answer the boy, Cobb. He’s your son. He deserves your words, not the gossip to come.”
“Monroe, anyone asks, tell them I’m seeking gold with the Georgians.”
“What about our farm, Pa?”
“Sold, son. We’ll have a new farm out west. Uncle Leroy will bring you all out once it’s settled.”
“Out west? Where they sent the Cherokee?”
“Further west, son. The frontier.”
There’s a juniper tree on the slope of scree between my view outside the library window and the cliffs of Zion Canyon. The juniper is the size of a person, and each time I glance out I think someone is there, watching me. I’m torn between my inside world of words and my outside world of nature. A person on the periphery of both is startling. As if this Juniper Tree Watcher can see through to me.
I’m not paranoid. I use aluminum foil for BBQing, not blocking nefarious satellite spying. Honestly, I don’t feel watched in that sense. I don’t feel the need to wear hats in public to hide my face from Big Brother cameras or apply duct tape to the video cam on my lap top. Seriously, if anyone is watching me as I write, they have weird clips of me contorting my expression in frustrated pain when internet feeds are slow, deep breathing, arm/shoulders/neck exercising, or drooling when in a daze to flow thoughts from the head to tapping fingers.
The worst Big Brother can nail me for is one-handed keyboarding and scratching my nose (it was just a scratch).
I’ve long known the NSA is watching my email and blogs and bank accounts. The NSA alerts come from Idaho neighbors who’d come over for coffee and the latest conspiracies. I don’t doubt the government is watching, but doing something with that data is beyond their abilities. Try getting VA care. They have tons of data. They lack resources.
Once, when I was 12, a Native American elder warned me about water babies and watchers. He described a place where the Washo knew the watchers to be. It was a spot I avoided because my horse snorted every time I rode past this low bit of land along a creek. My friend said my horse recognized the watchers. I began to think about other places I felt watched, yet another correlation emerged: history.
Feeling watched became a clue for me to look for historic or even pre-historic evidence of habitation. I got so good at it that I recorded 11 archeological sites around the town where I grew up, including the spot I had been warned about. Of course I learned to identify features and clues, but that sense I feel, like a hunch, also feels like being watched.
The top of Dalton Wash felt like a hunch the first time we crested the mesa. It didn’t take long before I found chippings and tools, indicative of an encampment. Subsequent times I’ve been back, I’ve brought loose tobacco to share, a gift to the ancients my Native friends taught me. The first time I brought tobacco, I had the hair on the back of my neck stand up at a certain point. I felt I should not go past and I left my gift there on the wind.
I’ve been asking around, to fill in the gap between knowing this place was once inhabited and wanting discover their story. Some of the rock shops had said the Shoshone and Paiute lived and hunted here. It didn’t feel like my watcher, though. Then I discovered a small warning to hikers on the Zion side of the mesa above Dalton Wash — leave rocks, petrified wood and artifacts behind for others to enjoy; do not climb or disturb the rock dwellings.
Rock dwellings would mean Pueblo or even the mysterious Anasazi. I began asking outfitters and all were reluctant to say anything more than the park doesn’t want people to know in order to protect the ruins. In a round about way they confirmed the existence of ancient ruins in the vicinity where I felt watched and compelled to leave tobacco.
Whatever the feeling is, it taps into my imagination. Of course, a logical explanation would be my mind attempting to fill in the gaps it doesn’t know. I could agree with that. When I was younger I thought an archaeological career would be the greatest ever. I had always wanted to write historical novels and I saw the possibility of being an archaeologist/historical fiction novelist. It was beyond what I could do at the time, and college was not part of my family dynamic. By the time I got to college, I was a mother of three. Practicality dictated a teaching profession, but history and creative writing called my name. Creative writing called the loudest.
When I started writing Miracle of Ducks, Danni came to me as Dr. Danni Gordon, an historical archaeologist. She disdains dogs until her husband Ike abruptly decides to serve a private military company in Iraq. She has to overcome her dislike of dogs and Ike’s best friend to hold her life together in Ike’s absence. She ends up finding a friendship and a pup, and eventually she even finds her community after believing she never needed to be part of one.
The friend, Michael Robineaux, is the perfect foil for Danni’s career — he’s Ojibewe. He frequently challenges both her profession and disbelief in the supernatural. While the plot doesn’t get too “far out there” there is a thread of supernatural regarding the pup, Bubbie. Most of it is easily explained away like my sense of feeling watched by those who’ve gone before, but there’s several incidents that are left to the reader to decide.
The community element was something I originally set up to contrast Ike’s commitment to duty and Danni’s need for solitude. Community is a dynamic force, and complex. Miracle of Ducks drills down through the layers until Danni can finally see her own placement and come to understand why Ike would feel the need to put himself in harm’s way.
Last week I had a huge breakthrough in revising. I’ve mentioned before that I’m changing the setting from northern Wisconsin to north Idaho. One chunk of story that I wasn’t sure how to transfer involves Bubbie getting lost on Madeline Island. There is no such place in north Idaho, although several peninsulas on Lake Pend Oreille might work. Last week, I responded to the prompt and was thinking about Danni’s angst over her missing pup. In my original scene, Danni and Michael spend days searching for Bubbie, following up on sightings including a farmer who finds the pup in his hen-house.
Without thinking, I wrote Bubbie was lost on the Pack River and a group of rednecks shot at him for sport. Suddenly, the transfer was complete in my imagination. I could see Bubbie getting lost on the Pack (many dogs do each year) and the dangers became real and unfolded. I’m biting at the bit to get this scene rewritten now, thanks to the insight from that flash. Sometimes, my own responses to the prompt are like a flash light showing the path in the darkness!
I hope to find that ruin above Dalton Wash before we leave Mars. We don’t know where we are going next, or how we are going to move our RV, but I hope we get a flash of insight before the snowbird season ends, early April. Like a good story, I know something is up on Dalton Wash. It interesting to note, it’s not the only Anasazi ruin in the area.
The other is beyond the slope where the Juniper Tree Watcher stands.
February 16, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a watcher. It can be a sentinel like the Watchman formation that overlooks Zion Canyon, or a Big Brother conspiracy theory. How can you use a watcher to set a tone or present a twist?
Respond by February 21, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published February 22). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Falling Shadows (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
The Beehive was where granite met duff and towering larch. Hikers said they saw a dog like Bubbie run up the trail. She swore she saw dog-prints by the spring. Nothing. No Bubbie. Just a warm breeze through the pines.
Looking up, high on the granite mound considered sacred to the Salish, and called the Beehive for its shape, Danni could see the shadow of a dog. How did Bubbie get up there? She’d need a rope to ascend.
Her breath left her as the shadow fell. Before impact, it spread wings and an eagle flew away.
Mud is murky. It gets a bad wrap as dirty — it’s the stuff that clings to soles, tracking across clean surfaces. Dogs are notorious for muddy paws and children are often chided for playing in it. Politicians perfect the art of slinging it. Yet, there’s an allure to mud. It’s become the stuff to haunt me, fearing it’s slickness to slide a full-sized truck geared down into 4-low slowly over the rim of a snaking canyon road. So focused has my mind been on mud, I began to see it had lessons for me.
First, I have to admit I ventured up the mesas too soon. The sun came out after overcast and rainy days, after snow on the mesas and flash floods in the canyons. The sky spread out like a blue tablecloth inviting me to picnic beneath the warm sun. We waited a week. The Hub says, “It’ll be okay.” The dirt road that winds up Dalton Wash certainly looked dry when we turned up it.
“See, it’s dry,” says the Hub.
I watched the brush, the boulders, the small crevice of a creek. “Look! Deer.” Two mulie does with yearlings trot along side the truck like an escort welcoming us back to the mesas.
“See, it’s dry,” says the Hub.
Spindly apple trees stand like dead sticks in fields of mud on the first mesa level. It appears dry…on the surface. “I don’t know,” I say.
The road turns sharply right before climbing several thousand feet through a boulder-strewn canyon — the deeper crevice of Dalton Wash, cutting through layers of time. “It’s fine,” says the Hub.
I suck air hard and grab the steel frame between my lowered window and open wing.The canyon shrouded in shadow, the road cut deep with ruts begins to twist and rise. “Four-wheel drive!” I shout this like making the sign of the cross in reaction to danger. Salvation of trucks, entering unknown terrain. Holy 4WD.
“We don’t need it,” says the Hub. The truck lugs and if it stops we’ll spin tires; if we spin tires we might get stuck of slide off the road. Off the road to the left is gnarly debris, the scree of mesas. Off the road to the right is a rocky shelf, a wall of layered clay.
We need it. The Hub stops when the road flattens before a churning river of mud. Each current carved by a truck before us. That’s hopeful; Other Trucks have made it. He steps out into the road/mud-river and turns the hubs of each front wheel.
NOTE: Hubs engage or disengage the front wheel axles, thus engaging the hubs is to put both axles to work for climbing mountains or navigating spring mud. I have one Hub as in Husband and two manual locking hubs on my truck which requires the Hub to get out and turn. Although I live in Utah, I do not practice polygamy. One Hub is enough.
Hubs engage and Hub settles behind the wheel, we lurch forward and take on the incline the same time a truck above descends. There’s not enough room to pass and the descending truck can’t stop. Can’t. Stop. We call dibs on the wall and the other driver slides between us and the drop off to the canyon bottom below.
“Are we stuck?” I ask when my breath returns. The other truck slides to a stop behind us.
“We’re fine,” says the Hub and indeed we begin to churn mud like brown butter beneath the wheels and bit by bit we edge forward. Until the rock. It stops us and we slide back to where we went off the road.
“You folks stuck?” asks the driver of the other truck. He greets the Hub with a handshake and shovel.
“Just a rock,” says the Hub who proceeds to pick up a rock big enough to stop a truck. Like a shot put he heaves it over the edge. The other driver shovels a patch and we gun it so hard we fish tail out of the rut and up the road. We cant’s stop and the driver understands we aren’t being rude to stop and says thanks. We are entering the steepest grade and the mud actually lessens, but another truck is facing down at us. The driver is slow to understand he needs to hit reverse and hit it fast. We can’t stop or else we’ll slide backwards and off the road, into Dalton Wash.
The nose of our truck is inches from the nose of his and we drive this way the last stretch and then we pass waving, and telling them “Good Luck!” For a while, I’m happy to be in the sun walking through the litter of petrified wood, cherry-picking chunks of jasper. A wet winter has revealed previously buried treasure. By foot I make it to the edge of the Zion Wilderness and I pass through the gate. There’s something I want to find…
…Not today. The Hub catches up with me, the dog dodging between us on shaky legs, howling after rabbits like a banshee. We have to leave before the sun sets.
The sun glows like a distant apocalypse on the far horizon of another mesa. We don’t want to go down in the dark, yet we can’t see with the last rays of sun burning away our sight. We sit at the top of the mesa until the bright orb dips and we go down in dusk.
Sliding in mud.
There’s no stopping the truck. The Hub turns into each skid as the back end of the truck whips around. The back end slides right, he turns left. The back end slides left, he turns right. All I can do is focus on my breath. I think “breathe in” as I breathe out. Halfway down the mesa I realize I’ve focused the wrong words to each inhale and exhale. I calm the rising panic with the thought, it doesn’t matter; just breathe.
We get to the bottom and the Hub says, “See, it was fine.”
What I have learned…
Mud is still. It’s motion that causes the friction. Steady and slow is best
Mud is murky. It teaches me I don’t have to see to get through. It’s okay not to know all the details.
Mud is sticky. Persistence is the lesson here — stick-to-it-ness. Stick like mud to what needs doing.
Mud is mild. As scared as it might make me to drive on it, mud is not a torrent.
Mud has benefits. It has minerals, water and reflections of sky above. It calls me to look for what’s good.
My take away as a writer, is that writing is often messy and murky. It can be like mud. Sometimes, I think I’m flinging mud at the blank page, looking for what sticks. And revising feels like sliding down a mesa, and I feel uncertain how to control the weight of my words upon the flow. No one teaches you how to navigate mud and when it comes to the process no one can teach you to write your stories in your voice. Certainly we can learn to drive, and we can learn the craft of writing, but mud is the original material.
If you haven’t yet read, Carrot Ranch has launched a new guest series that gets muddy, exploring the idea Raw Literature. It’s meant to be an ongoing conversation from different perspectives, and a look at the lives of writers behind the screen. These are the essays so far, and I hope you take time to read, ponder and even submit an essay of your own:
- Memoir & What Lies Beneath by Sherri Matthews
- Rough Writer for Congress profile of Sarah Unsicker
- Natural or Explicit by Geoff Le Pard
- From Raw to Ready by Anne Goodwin
- Jewels on the Page by Jules Paige
With all that seems to be unfolding in the world, it can feel muddy. The challenge is to find something worthwhile — a piece of land worth preserving; a civic duty worth taking on; a cause you can contribute to; a way to bring art to the artless. Certainly we can create from the clay we are given.
February 9, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a rainbow in a puddle. Is it a silver lining of sorts or a false reflection? Think about what it might mean or convey. Simple science? Hope? Or the doom of humankind? Create action or character reflection. Go where the prompt leads you.
Respond by February 14, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published February 15). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Faith (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
“A rainbow in a puddle. We’ll have good luck in our search today,” Michael said.
All Danni could see was a biohazard in mud. She climbed into Michael’s truck and they left to follow leads on Bubbie, missing along the Pack River for a week.
“Did you see it?”
Michael was as bad as Ike, Danni thought. Signs, wonders, miracles. “Yes I saw the oil slick.”
“Ever the scientist. Today, have faith.”
Their first encounter with campers reminded Danni why she had none. The rednecks with AR-15s claimed they peppered a dog fitting Bubbie’s description. For fun, they said.
Hills old as dirt. Rocks ancient as time. Mesas drawn from memories of dinosaurs. It’s old around here. Solid as a rock.
Hillsides mess with our sense of time and solidity. Geologically speaking, the wrinkled hills of debris at the foot of mesas and canyons in Zion National Park are newborns. Water carves rivulets into canyons so deep and serpentine that many of these winding features miles long went unnoticed by surveyors for years. If you believe the canyons rock-solid, I have some alternative facts for you. But before we get to fiction, let examine a few facts from science:
- Zion’s geological features are indeed old: 250 million years old.
- The sandstone features with cliffs over 3/4 of a mile high were once sand dunes. Sand dunes!
- Water shapes the area’s stunning geology, including hidden canyons and the winding Virgin River.
- Water is also trapped in sandstone, forming a weeping feature that takes water 1,000 years to emerge.
- The park’s 229 square miles includes wide mesas, narrow sandstone canyons, seeps, springs and waterfalls.
The Zion features are not alive with music; instead they pulse with mud-pushed rocks, reshaping debris heaps. The process accelerates any time water joins the mix. Mud becomes a powerful sludge, and sometimes entire hillsides calve like a glacier. Other times a trickle of rocks tumble across trails and roads.
And some times there’s a rock big and brown in the middle of the road.
Geology reminds me that life is not static. We never have the same day. We never truly have an ideal image of ourselves in the mirror. We never fix the meatloaf exactly the same way as last year. Even the institutions we believe unshakeable are not the same from year to year. Everything shifts and sheds like Zion rubble.
Mostly the process equates to the movement of sand. It’s over the years we notice the ravages of grain — the days’ activities are noticeably different; the face in the mirror has aged; meatloaf had a makeover; governments erode. Sometimes, though, the rock crashes down in an instant and we are shaken by the change. We prefer the illusion displaced sand gives us. Sand seems easier to sweep away. And we do. But that rock — that rock in the road cannot be ignored. It calls us to change or be changed.
Rocks always take us by surprise. We know they exist in the sludge of life, but we always believe we can dodge the big ones. We do what we can to avoid the dangerous slopes where we know rocks lurk. One might acknowledge vulnerability. How often I’ve heard many people say, “I know, I know, we’re all just one paycheck away from being homeless.” But that’s just a fear many use to stay in an unsatisfactory job, town or relationship. We settle and take our chances with the sand, avoiding rocks.
When it does happen to someone — that rock of homelessness — we shore up our own crumbling edges with notions that the person struck by the rock of unexpected change must have done something. “That’s right, they asked for it. They were digging where they shouldn’t have dug.” People say those things to justify walking past a panhandler on the street. They justify not giving money because it would be spent on drugs or drink, without thinking to buy a meal or a blanket. They justify dehumanizing the homeless.
Let me introduce you to a few faces besides mine. There’s the divorced woman whose husband hid the assets and at 62 she has no employability. There’s the man and his wife and their two sons who can’t come up with first, last and deposit on a rental so they camp while raising the money that never seems to be enough. There’s the woman kicked out of a motel room after the landlord beat her. He. Beat. Her. She lost her room and now sleeps in a tent a church gave her. There’s the veterans in their trucks, belongings piled in the passenger seat and a bed in the back beneath a camper shell.
And the boy with the big grin blowing out seven candles on two cupcakes for his birthday. He’s in his third shelter, or transitional motel room. The rock that hit his parents was an unrenewed lease. The apartment complex preferred adults to seven-year-old boys with no where else to go. Once you have no where else to go, the complex web of family homelessness awaits like Shelob’s lair. More rocks dislodge — most shelters separate men from women and children; shelters have rigid rules that interfere with jobs; some shelters have a lottery system. There’s long-term motels with their own set of dangers and frustrations.
This boy’s mama dreamed of a kitchen. She dreamed of cooking. I know, Sweet One, I know. I miss my kitchen most. I miss everything that a woman creates in a kitchen — meals and memories. Sweet One is a daughter to me. I’ve known her for nine years, ever since she was a teen working where I worked. I respect her privacy, but I want you to know this is a good woman, a good mama. She and her family got hit hard by one rock after another and they do not have the normal familial safety net. Adult orphans.
That can be hardest, which is why I asked her if the Hub and I could be Nana and Papa to her boy, Our Boy.
After six months, Our Boy, his Dad and Sweet One got an apartment. Our Boy has been doing well in school, although he had some scary days when he was taking public transportation to school, arrived late and got locked out. A seven-year-old alone in the city! Sweet One nearly lost her mind over that one and the school worked with her to make Our Boy safer in his transitions. Think about the dedication of these working parents to get their son to school every day. Together we believe in him going to college.
Carrot Ranch is hosting a Welcome Home J-Family house-warming for Sweet One and her family. Between now and February 28, there will be a Wish List on Amazon for the family. When families become homeless, they often lose most their possessions. I’ve heard people say, “It’s good to purge.” But unless you’ve had to get rid of your personal and household belongings, you couldn’t know the sorrow. Or the frustration when you want to cook after getting re-homed and are missing what’s needed.
At first Sweet One was modest and asked for three items: microwave, muffin pan and a crock-pot. After some nudging she got into the spirit of dreaming! She and Our Boy dreamed of waffles, zucchini zoodles and omelettes shaped like hearts. Then she thought out how to set up her kitchen, and I added cookbooks. Could I ask you to share this house-warming far and wide? If you can, and are moved to help one who got hit by the homelessness rock, consider buying her an item on her list. Her son is seven if you want to send him books, too. Let’s give them a landslide of a house-warming!
It was hard for me to think about my character’s homeless event this past summer even though I knew I wanted to hit Danni with that rock. I had already written a scene where she is unable to access Ike’s account right after he leaves for Iraq. Often these banking issues arise and when the spouse is deployed, they can be tricky to sort out. Using my own experiences and understanding of how easy it was for banks to foreclose on military families, that becomes Danni’s event.
Seeing what is happening in our government seems like a catastrophic event in the US, but some of us had earlier hits to know the whole thing had become unstable for those not billionaires many years before the orange rock hit DC. Although why those hardest hit would elect a demolition man to office seems counter-productive. Maybe they just wanted to see a rock-slide hit everybody else, too.
February 2, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a rock in the road. It can be physical, adding to a plot twist, or it can be metaphorical for a barrier or hardship. Go where you find the rock.
Respond by February 7, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published February 8). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Midnight Rock (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Michael knelt at the bumper, shining his flashlight. “Hell of rock you hit, Danni.”
“It was an easy target, squatting there in the middle of the road like a legless grizzly.”
Michael shined the powerful light up the canyon wall. “Can’t see anything else unstable.”
“A rock just for me.” She slumped her head on the hood. “Ike loved this truck.”
“He still does.”
“Yeah, Ike’s in some hell-hole, pining for his truck!”
“He’s enduring because of what he has back home, Danni. You, the truck, the dogs.”
“Too bad he won’t have a home to come home to.”
The mail arrived with two cases of Give a Crap. It’s environmentally-friendly recycled toilet paper from Australia (with a US division in California). The boxes boldly ask, “Who Gives a Crap” and considering global dissension, I’m proud to answer, “Me! I give a crap!” Trouble is, at the root of dissension, others don’t necessarily give a crap about what I do, and it’s questionable if I give a crap about their complaints in return. Often our concerns are what polarizes us.
Many of my Minnesota friends give a crap about the environment. My two daughters graduated from the School of Environmental Studies in Minnesota, and I served on the school’s foundation board for several years. Educating youth about the environment is important because it is their future. Will Steger, Minnesota native and arctic explorer, gave a crap about Global Warming long before we decided Climate Change was the appropriate phrase to use. He’s one of my living heroes for traversing Baffin Island in 2008 to bring awareness to the plight of the Inuit who live in places others rarely see. My eldest was a student on the expedition and you can see her at frame 2:20 (girl in the gray sweatshirt on the couch with Will Steger).
If you notice the photos and natural references in my writing, you know I give a crap about nature. But many others do not. Many of my Idaho friends give a crap about living in Idaho, and in order to live in such a beautiful and remote area often they have to work jobs at odds with environmental concerns. Many work in the Bakken Oil Fields; many more were laid off when oil prices dropped; and many voted for the only presidential candidate to speak of jobs in America. Often those who give a crap for the environment forget to give a crap about the hardworking Americans who dig ditches, tip trees and mine resources. Here’s where things get messier than toilet paper can handle.
For every concern, I can cite a counter concern. Environment versus labor. Solar energy versus existing infrastructures. Police brutality versus racial disparity in inner cities. Firearm rights versus gun control for safer communities. Food safety versus access to healthier food. Farm industry versus community food deserts. Privatized healthcare versus social medicine. It goes on and on, around and around the tables of coffee klatches and yoga classes. Who is right? Who is wrong? Fight, fight, fight.
Standing up in the toilet bowl of what dissension in the US has become, is the most underqualified, unprepared, unfit person for the position of US leadership. Now the fight is really on — his right to grab women’s genitalia versus a women’s right to not be grabbed; white privilege versus black lives matters; populism versus humanity. Add to this all the other swipes of wanting jobs, wanting healthcare that’s not socialism but affordable, wanting personal rights; and it’s no wonder I feel like I just want to flush it all away. I give a crap, but I have whiplash trying to contemplate all sides.
We are forgetting something important. Fighting is about winning; about sides. That means we want a loser. Not only do we want a loser, but we feel like we want someone to be punished. That’s the rage behind, “Jail Hillary!” Sometimes, I can see the person shouting this battle cry, see the contorted face, and I imagine the job loss this person might have endured, or the pile of unpaid medical bills on the kitchen counter. I care about another’s loss, but why the fight, why the sides? When did we start thinking that only our crap matters and stop giving a crap about others? In the fight, we forgot about middle ground, about the idea that conflict management is win-win.
Holy crap, folks, I’m just a writer living in an RV down by the river, and I don’t know how many weeks I can take like this one. It started with an emotional farewell to President Obama. I did not agree with all his policies and I was disappointed enough by his first term that I did not vote for his second. Yet, I have greatly admired his family dynamics, his poise as an orator, his many outreaches to bridge gaps in America to bring equality of rights to every citizen, his wife’s initiatives as First Lady (including outreach to homeless veterans), and his classiness as a principled man. It was hard to say goodbye, knowing his replacement couldn’t be more different.
This week the PEOTUS (president-elect of the US) held a “press conference” that gives many of us in the writing industry chills, calling out a CNN journalist as Fake News. Seriously? This from the very person who says the most outrageous lies. His attacks on the press and his continuing lies which confuse and conflict many threatens freedom of speech and destabilizes truth. His gaslighting triggers my PTSD and I’ve had to employ many coping skills. I’m unable to overlook the man’s behavior. His billionaire cabinet in the making gives me less confidence. His resistance to divest himself of his businesses, his continuing obsession with telling us “He won!” and his lack of concern for Russian interference unnerves me.
Yet, I’m not wanting to fight my fellow citizens. I give a crap about conflict resolution.
Conflict resolution is finding a peaceful solution to a disagreement. It’s drawing back my hand from the urge to smack. It’s letting go of a need to punish. It’s hearing both sides of the concerns and working toward a way to save our environment and jobs. It means acknowledging the rights or privileges of all. It means agreeing to disagree with compassion for the other. It means uplifting the lowest in our midst instead of only seeking to better our own. It also means checking our words and behavior. It doesn’t mean giving a pass to the PEOTUS because of his office; rather it means we all hold him accountable to the respectability and credibility of his office.
As a literary artist I have a civic duty to explore the experiences of others, unlike me.
I honor the diversity at Carrot Ranch. That’s why it is a literary community and not a historical writers club, or a fiction writers group, or a writing outlet for Libertarians-Only, women-only, Gen-Xers-only, college degree holders only, published writers only or any other only of exclusivity. Look at how diverse the perspectives are each week in constrained responses to a single prompt! Raw Literature, as we are exploring in a new series at Carrot Ranch, is a truth-seeking exercise. The closer to a universal truth, the more fiction resonates with readers. I give a crap about literature and its role in society. You might think you are “just a writer” but you are a truth-seeker. Do not be afraid to seek your own truth. It’s a lifetime pursuit.
What do you give a crap about? Write about it, write into it, write about its enemies as friends, write about its friends as enemies. As a literary artist, how can you be a truth-seeker? How can you be an agitator for good? How can you be brave? How can you be part of conflict resolution?
January 12, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that expresses a strong concern, something to give a crap about. Something that brings out the feeling to stand up. How can you use it to show tension or reveal attitudes?
Respond by January 17, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published January 18). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Serving All (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
“Officer Roubineaux, explain why you were in Naples that day,” said the judge.
“Yes. I made a promise to a friend who is serving in Iraq to look out for his wife.”
“Which branch of service,” the judge asked.
“He’s a contractor for private security,” answered Michael.
“That’s not service. That’s a cover for meaningless acts of mercenary.” The judge made the comment as casually as if stating a fish has scales.
Danni resisted the urge to throw her shoe at the judge. He had no idea how much Ike gave a crap about serving his country, even jerks.
Balls of ice the size of frozen peas pelt my RV, and I know what it is to live inside a rattle.Winter on Mars is not what I expected. The red desert of southern Utah, dominated by the sandstone pillars of Zion and mesas of clay is a region carved by water and baked hard in the hot sun. Winter as I know it something white and gray. Winter in Virgin, Utah is colorful — vegetation turns green, white snow caps and stripes the mesas, skies display different shades of blue, and the clay darkens when wet. It’s wet more than I expected. And the rattling hail is the noisemaker of January.
These days, in the US, conversations between divided political alignments clamor over one another to be heard, but it only sounds like discordant hail on a fiberglass roof. We prepare for the transfer of leadership this month, and so much doubt has been cast upon what is true that everyone thinks their neighbor is a liar. Journalists scramble to uphold their profession in a hostile climate. No one trusts the media. Fake news has become a buzzword. Critical thinking and courtesy ran away with the dish and the spoon. And everyone tweets, including our incoming president.
Like my character Danni in Miracle of Ducks, I want to hide out in the basement of a research library as if it were a bunker and society has become dangerously zombie-like. I don’t want my brains eaten. I still use them. History, my haven of sorts, only mocks my desire to retreat by reflecting back to me the same noisy division happening right here, right now. My other WIP, Rock Creek, takes place at the cusp of the US Civil War (or War of Norther Aggression, depending upon which side you read, and read both). North Carolina featured then, and now.
David Colbert “Cobb” McCanles was a real person in history, and he was born in North Carolina. It’s a state marked by distinct boundary lines of class division. Plantations fueled by the institution of slavery stretched across the rich coastal plains. In the Appalachian mountains to the west, descendants of the Scots-Irish carved out a tough living growing grain and hogs, proud of their subsistence-living. Another class was emerging, educated and of minor means, seeking to participate in an economy that was heavily divided between ballrooms and backwoods. Cobb was from that emerging class.
History has not been kind to Cobb. Historians from North Carolina to Kansas have vilified his name, intentions and memory. James Butler Hickok, Wild Bill, was similarly muddied in history, but he had a champion who took to research as diligently as my character Danni. Biographer, Joseph Rosa, sifted through the opinions, examined as many facts as he could find, and applied careful consideration to his interpretations. When it came to Cobb, Rosa accepted the very opinions he dismissed for Hickok. Not exactly an even playing field. But Rosa taught me the value of diligent research.
While combing through North Carolina newspapers to find any mention of Cobb to corroborate or refute claims regarding crimes and career, I noticed a huge introduction of laws in January 1859, a month before Cobb left North Carolina. Other than finding it mildly interesting that the new state governance passed more laws than previous election years, I pushed past to find mention of sheriff activities. I thought back to this outline of law changes recently when I read the modern headline: “North Carolina is no Longer a Democracy.” I thought, North Carolina is experienced at this. It is almost as if the pre-Civil War politics is repeating.
As a fiction writer, I can imagine how Cobb must have felt after the November 1858 election. I believe he did not intend to get elected, but elected (for a fourth term) he was. By this time, he had moved his parents to Tennessee across the mountain pass where two of his sisters lived with their husbands who were twin brothers to Cobb’s wife Mary. He and his brother Leroy had already scouted the Colorado gold fields which were not producing much, and that’s most likely when Cobb first eyed the potential of the road ranch at Rock Creek, Nebraska Territory. Cobb wanted economic opportunity and the elected North Carolina body supported the slave industry and sought succession.
Reading over those law changes in North Carolina in January 1859, many required sheriff’s to take action Cobb must have felt was wrong. What do you do when your state is no longer “a democracy”? One option, the one I believe Cobb took, is that you leave. Today, I doubt people are going to leave North Carolina as the outgoing state government attempts to cripple the incoming leadership. After all, there really is no settlement on the next frontier. I may call southern Utah Mars, but fleeing to Mars for better opportunities is not an option.
So, I’m stuck here in an icy winter storm contemplating what to do next. Like Danni, I think I’m going to bury myself in quiet research, but like the women who followed Cobb, I’m also going to stand strong wherever it is I find myself standing. The sabers are rattling, but I don’t yet know if its an echo from the past or a vision of the future.
According to Chilean history, saber-rattling comes from an incident that took place on September 3, 1924, when a group of young military officers protested against the political class and the postponement of social measures by rattling their sabers within their scabbards. In case you might want to use this phrase in the prompt.
January 5, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a rattling sound. It can be an intimidating sound of protest, a disorienting loud sound, a musical expression or a gentle baby’s toy. Go where the prompt leads you.
Respond by January 10, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published January 11). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Unexpected Help (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli MIlls
Coins in a coffee can rattled as the boy ran across the parking lot. “Dr. Danni Gordon!” He yelled.
Danni and Michael turned. She recognized the boy from the class she had toured with Bubbie.
“For you. To find Bubbie.” He thrust the makeshift rattle at her. She peeled back the lid to see dollars among coins.
“To find Bubbie?”
“I heard Bubbie the Archaeology dog was AWOL. I took up a collection for a reward.”
Despite her panic, she forced a smile. Michael joined her and asked, “AWOL?”
“My Dad’s gone to Iraq. He’s a soldier, not AWOL.”
NOTE: AWOL is a military term for “absence without leave.”
With the New Year reflections, I’ve decided to alternate working on my two WIPs. I’ll write from the one I’m working on for the week.
He told me he rode in wagons. Whatever faults I find in memory, that one has long held certainty for me. My Bumpa rode in wagons!
I can’t remember how old I was when my mother’s mother’s mother died of a final stroke. She was Mayme Ferreira Bundeson, born in 1888 Honolulu, Hawaii, and the wife of my Bumpa. He was born Marcus Bundeson in 1884 in Hollister, California where I was born. She was the daughter of a red-haired and green-eyed Flanders Portagee cast off from her home of Medaria, and married to a Brazilian ship’s interpreter. He was the son of poor Danish immigrants who planted apricot trees in California.
Bumpa went to the old folks home after his wife died. I don’t remember her at all. But I remember Bumpa at the home. Often, my mother dropped me off to visit with him while she went elsewhere. We played bingo with the other residents, and he told me about farming apricots and riding in a wagon. Maybe that’s why I felt a kinship later in childhood when I discovered the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder who also rode in wagons as a pioneer girl. Wagons were my entry point to a lifelong fascination with history. Bingo, Bumpa and wagons are all I know of my Danish heritage.
Until I read a curious article in the New York Times about Hygge.
Hygge is Danish for getting cozy. Evidently my predilection for cake, curling up with a blanket and a drink, and watching crime dramas (Peaky Blinders, Sherlock, Longmire) is part of my DNA. While Bumpa failed to mention this lovely Danish tradition, I’ve naturally been drawn to it, especially over the December holidays when winter is darkest and cold. Oh, yes, I’ve been in hygge-mode all week and plan to add Prosecco to my cozy nook to mark the New Year. After that, I’ll disrobe the fleece blanket and get to work on the ranch.
I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions. However, I believe in the power of written goals and taking time to reflect on where you’ve been and where you plan to go. As a writer and literary buckaroo, goals are important to me. Whether you experience set-backs or success, you can learn from examining and adjusting your goals. My long-term goal is to publish fiction about women of the west and build a synergistic writer’s platform. My short-term goals are the steps to get there. Those are the ones I examine and adjust.
One benefit to setting goals annually is that you can reflect on what you expected and compare it to what happened. 2016 has not been an easy year, and I’ve had to confront a personal crisis that continues to rock my goals. I can reflect with disappointment on the short-term goals that didn’t fruit. I can reflect with gratitude on the solidity of community at Carrot Ranch. I can reflect on breakthroughs I’ve had in understanding my own long-project writing process. With much reflection these past two months (November was a NaNoRanCho) I’m eager to move forward.
My writing completely shifted and now I’m revising two WIPs at once. Flash fiction has helped me find my way through bothprojects. I also wrote personal essays about military PTSD and homelessness — two subjects that now feature in one of my WIPs. When I do publish Miracle of Ducks, I’ll have a list of pitches on those subjects to write articles in vetted publications to reach my target readers. That’s the goal. And it’s a big one. The short-term goals are to maintain that pitch list, better define who is reading those topics, finish the revisions, work with beta readers, complete final edits with an editor, and find a publisher or outlet.
That’s another adjustment I’ve made — I’m more open to independent publishing. I better understand the benefits of different publishing paths and can make final decisions later. This year I have two publishing goals, including our Anthology Vol. 1. While the delay was unintended, it did give me time to reconsider publishing options. I’ve gained a greater respect for flash fiction in the development of raw literature. Next week, I will introduce a new guest series to explore what raw literature is, how we are participating in literary arts at Carrot Ranch, and how writers can participate in this greater discussion of what the writing process is.
This year, I’m cautious. Instead of wrapping my arms around all the opportunities that pop up, I’m focusing on specific short-term goals, and I’m writing them down and plugging them into a greater business plan. It’s my map. I will refine my vision, too. A vision is the northern star by which I’ll plot my map. Instead of expanding my schedule at once, I’m adding incrementally, and waiting until it’s solid before executing the next goal. Already I prepared the way by changing the challenge date, deadline and compilation publication. Tuesdays will be the raw literature guest series. The intended marketing series will follow after raw literature is established.
So what is Carrot Ranch? “Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community online for those practicing craft, reading stories and discussing process.” The flash fiction challenges are the entry point, much like my Bumpa getting me excited about wagons, thus history. This is a place to get excited about writing. Your writing. And this post is to get you thinking about goals. Your goals. What you do matters to me, too. Together, we unite on the common ground where we are actively engaged in the literary arts. We create with words and craft with language. Whether we write YA, modern lit, historical fiction, humor, romance, children’s books or lessons, memoir, creative non-fiction, fusion rap, poetry, westerns or sci-fi we are all artists. Literary artists.
Take time to reflect. Even if it’s a hand written page or a post on your blog, write down your long-term goals and your short-term goals for 2017. But for now, it’s time to extend a bit more hygge with another holiday weekend approaching and a new year looming. Will you join me in a toast with something bubbly? Then get cozy.
December 29, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a cozy story. What is it to be cozy, to experience Danish hygge? It doesn’t need to be culture-specific, but it can be an interesting point of comparison or contrast. A character might long to feel cozy, or you might describe the perfect cozy scene. It may or may not include Prosecco.
Respond by January 3, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published January 4). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Homecoming (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
Mary swept the hard-packed earthen floor. “Cobb, put my rocker by the hearth.”
“And the trunks, Wife?”
“Porch.” Her skirts flared as if she was dancing across a southern plantation ballroom. Children darted in and out the door, stew simmered on the hearth and Mary unpacked. She hung fresh calico curtains and made beds. By dark, tallow candles and stew in wooden bowls ended the day. It smelled like home. After three months of camping out of a creaking wagon, Mary felt a renewal of hope in her heart.
“Mary! Cobb! The new boys in the barn. They’re sick.”
Night Battle (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli MIlls
Danni sloshed her Prosecco the night they set off the M-80s.
Before the first explosion echoed through the river canyon, Ike rose from his sportsman’s chair. He set down his glass, poised for battle. He’d later say this was why he disliked bonfires — he needed night vision. Danni’s desire for marshmallows and warmth wouldn’t persuade Ike to risk night blindness. Her idea of cozy-camping never meshed with his need to stand guard between life and death.
He slipped into the dark. Danni almost felt sorry for the jerks who lit off fireworks near a former Army Ranger’s campsite.