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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.”
Walking across the Higgins Street bridge, I see a gathering of human crows in hooded dry-suits lined up along a small strip of rocks and willows. In Missoula, Montana where the Clark Fork River runs through it, the group looks like Navy Seals on a mission. These are not soldiers, but adventurers with surf boards in hand.
Yes, they surf in Montana.
Landlocked by other western states, it matters not that Montana has no ocean. The Clark Fork pounds over rocks beneath the Higgins Street bridge and a perfect surf of sorts forms at Brennan’s Wave. Conveniently located near a park, below a bridge and just blocks from the University of Montana, this phenomenon attracts the adventurous.
My adventure is to watch from the bridge above.
I’ve had enough adrenaline and drama in my life to feel satisfied to watch others dip into killer waves. Adventure doesn’t always mean having to do the deed oneself. I don’t have to squeeze into a dry-suit, buy a board and a personal flotation device, or listen to the horror stories of others who forgot to wear a helmet. I don’t have to plunge into cold mountain water, experience roiling rapids over my head or wonder how long I can hold my breath. Being witness is an adventure of its own.
This thought has been with me long enough it feels like wisdom. I’ll let others scale the rock cliffs or dangle in acrobatic silks from iron bridges. I’m a witness to adventure. I snap photos and soak up sunshine from my perch. Has this been the way of others before me?
When I was younger and unafraid to tumble off the back of a gelded beast 17 hands tall, I galloped. I was, and remain, terrified of water, yet I river-rafted, sucking in air to my rhythmic hyperventilation until I could control my breathing and not show my fear. I’ve jumped sand dunes on a three-wheeler, plunged skis over a cornice, and gave birth at home in defiance of doctors. Younger Me had an edge of cowboys & Frank Sinatra singing, I Did It My Way.
More Mature Me savors mountain bluebirds on a fence wire, reads books alongside rivers and waves at the surfers. I don’t need to explain my soul or my retirement from adventure to anyone. I witness the adventure of others. It still counts.
In history, I think it’s overlooked that women are as adventurous as men. Women tend to settle into maturity quicker because of maternal instincts, perhaps. Roles dictated by generations of culture and society create a framework that’s difficult to break. Or is it? What if women have always had the capacity to experience extreme sports or elite adventures, but that capacity is hidden within the interior of the imagination?
I think of Sarah Shull, Mary McCanles and Nancy Jane Holmes as I stand on the Higgins Street bridge and watch surfer after surfer take on Brennan’s Wave. Did they find satisfaction in witnessing, as I do? Did they feel the thrill of the Pony Express ride when horse and rider pounded hooves across the hard-packed prairie sod of summer? Could they imagine themselves as part of the great western frontier adventure without having to bare-arm wrestle other men or saddle a snorting bronc?
It’s an omission of the woman’s experience to count her present in the Wild West simply as mother, daughter, wife or whore. Women tend to play supporting roles to every lead man. Thus it was a challenge to take on the story of two swarthy frontiersmen and their highly debated gun battle through the filter of the three women who knew them. It sounds a bit like adding lace to iron. But that’s unfair. Women have capacity for adventure, too. Even if they stand as witness. They watched, engaged and could demonstrate prowess, too
Sarah Shull became a memory box for an important incident; Mary McCanles faced down Pawnee attacks as a mother and widow; and Nancy Jane, well what Nancy Jane did will surprise everyone. These women knew adventure. What adventure calls to you? Has it shifted over time and ability?
March 23, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write an adventure, experienced or witnessed. Explore your own ideas about what makes an adventurous spirit. Is it in the doing? Does standing witness count, and if so, how? Be adventurous!
Respond by March 29, 2016 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Showdown by Charli Mills
Hickok grabbed across his hips and spun each revolver like a sideshow performer. He grinned at Sarah and Nancy Jane, both gathering lunch from the garden. “I’ve returned from my adventure,” he announced.
Nancy Jane stood up, brushed dirt off her faded calico skirt and grabbed the garden hoe, twirling it around her body in a similar manner. She rested the implement across her shoulders. Sarah, still kneeling by the peas, laughed.
Hickok frowned. “Well, it doesn’t shoot,” he said.
Nancy Jane swung it off her shoulders and sliced a sunflower stalk in half. “Don’t need to,” she replied.
Today is a cake kind of day. Go on, grab a fork and savor a bite. Settle in for a story.
Carrot Ranch is imaginary. It’s a place where literary writers gather. Like rainbow cake, we are many colors and layers. Some write novels; some short stories. Some write memoirs; some science journals. Some write poetry; some write web content. We write from different places around the world: Australia, UK, Canada, Poland, US, Spain and have welcomed others passing through from Germany, Turkey and India. We’re a mash of genders and generations. We have different views regarding writing, books and publishing.
All those differences are what makes us a tasty layer cake!
The frosting that holds us together is literature. This might surprise you if you expected me to name the frosting flash fiction. That’s certainly what we do here, and flash fiction is common ground. But the original intent of Carrot Ranch as of March 5, 2014 was to create a bully-free zone where writers could learn to access creativity through problem solving (the constraint); write from a unique perspective (diversity); read and discuss the process or prompt (engagement). All those attributes add up to a literary experience.
Literature most commonly refers to works of the creative imagination and includes the responses we create as flash fiction. Often we think of literature possessing artistic merit or lasting value, so how is it that we can claim literary status for works created at an imaginary ranch and constrained to 99 words? It goes back to that literary experience — we are not collecting a canon of trendy flash fiction, but rather using them to explore our ideas, characters, longer works, craft and more. We share what we write. We read a collection each week that speaks to our world experience right here, right now, from multiple perspectives.
Literature is what speaks to us and through flash fiction we are speaking how we observe and interact with the world.
Consider these thoughts:
“It’s in literature that true life can be found. It’s under the mask of fiction that you can tell the truth.” ~ Gao Xingjian
“Literature is the art of discovering something extraordinary about ordinary people, and saying with ordinary words something extraordinary.” ~ Boris Pasternak
“Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.” ~ C. S. Lewis
But who comes to an imaginary ranch to be constrained and roped into a literary process?
I have a Just One theory. For something to happen, it takes just one to set the spark. On March 5, 2014 just one person bridged people I knew with people I did not. Several writers from social media, Susan Zutautas and Ruchira Khanna, showed up to the first challenge, and I was grateful. My friend and family member, Paula Moyer, also showed up and I felt supported. Yet, from Australia, and only serendipity can say why, Norah Colvin stepped on to Carrot Ranch and took the challenge.
Norah was my Just One. She is the catalyst that got flash rolling. All four writers who showed up that day set the flames of the future in motion. The next week Pete Fanning showed up, followed by Georgia Bell, Sarah Brentyn, Anne Goodwin, Geoff Le Pard, Lisa Reiter, Larry LaForge, Irene Waters, Amber Prince, Jeanne Lombardo, and Sherri Matthews. I don’t know what stars aligned, but it took just one writer to saddle up and here we are. These are the earliest members of the Congress of the Rough Writers, which now consists of 33 writers and more Friends who join us weekly.
Today is our 99th Flash Fiction Challenge. When I compiled all the stories for the anthology manuscript, I narrowed the responses down to the literary group and contained it to our first year. That amounted to 68,706 words or 694 stories. And to think it started with just one!
As a treat to go with cake, I’m going to share with you some “firsts,” including my first McCanles flash fiction. I never thought I’d actually write Rock Creek, yet all it took was just one 99 word story to plant the seed of a novel. It reminds me that I might get 8,000 publishing rejections to wall-paper my office with, but all I need is just one acceptance.
Flash Fiction by Paula Moyer
Jean scrunched her fingers and toes, back and forth. They were all moving, but she was not strong enough to shake off the rubble. There was just too much of it. She was also unable to bat away the sense of shame. It was all her fault. She had known for some time that she needed to clean up her home office – excavate it, to be more precise. But after years of neglect, the once-rectangular stacks had rounded up into piles – and piles. Yet today, right on time with spring, she sneezed while reaching for a pen. Buried herself.
Flash Fiction by Susan Zutautus
As we were racing down the hill I felt a strange and eerie rumbling going on as the earth shook beneath my skis. I looked over at my son who most likely did not hear or feel anything as his music was probably cranked.
Scared to turn my head but feeling I had to; I saw the white cloud approaching behind us. Quickly I motioned to Allan that we were in big trouble. Seeing the look of terror on his face we both knew deep within our souls that this might indeed be the end for both of us.
Repercussions!! by Ruchira Khanna
Sandra is in a cleaning spree cause if mom will find out she is bound to get a time out for goofing around. As she is wiping those stains from the floor, chair, and table she hears footsteps. Her face is red with guilt and is ready to face the music for her actions.
Gets up to face her mom, who surprisingly has a calm expression and is all ears to hear her side of the story before coming to a decision. Startled Sandra explains how the cans came avalanching when she opened the cabinet thus the mess everywhere.
The Avalanche by Norah Colvin
The trickle began; imperceptible, unheeded and ignored.
Needing more attention, the volume swelled and quickened pace.
Still no attention was forthcoming so the surge became more urgent and incessant in its plea.
“Slow down! Stop me!”
To no avail.
The avalanche engulfed her.
Heat flashed through her body, from feet straight to her head.
Heart pounding loudly, “Let me out of here!” it pled.
With reverberations magnified in each and every cell,
the heady swirl became too much –
she trembling choked. “I’m dying?”
B-r-e-a-t-h-e . . .
The panic abates.
Flash Fiction by Pete Fanning
Any other day a ride to the dump would have made my week. The mountains of treasures, stacked far and wide over the rolling hills. Sure, the smell could get thick, nearly visible during those muggy days of summer, but today my nose was too stuffy to smell anything. I wiped my face with the back of my hand, still unable to look back at my old friend, sitting on garbage bags in the bed of the truck. Dad put a gentle hand on my shoulder, his eyes soft.
“Son, I’ll get you another big wheel, this one’s caput.”
It’s Just the Wind by Georgia Bell
I pressed my forehead to the window, the cold glass soothing against my flushed skin. How long had I stared down at the sidewalk, waiting for something – for someone – to be the change I couldn’t initiate? How long had I been sitting here, wanting and needing and not acting?
I felt him standing behind me. His silence as loud as the words he wouldn’t say. I didn’t turn, but flinched as the window rattled in the frame.
“It’s just the wind,” he said, and I nodded, closing my eyes, hope burning as hot as the tears on my face.
Dreams and Debris by Sarah Brentyn
Sitting next to the bonfire, I read the words I wrote when I still believed. Better days were ahead. Success awaited me. Love would find me.
Flipping through pages, I watch my handwriting change. Ugly scribbles fill the diary toward the end where I wrote about the things that were lost and the things that were never found. I want to remember, to feel something. But I can’t hold on. Bits of my life flutter in and out of my head and these memories lose their meaning. I toss the book into the flames and walk into the lake.
Virgil Kane is My Name by Charli Mills
I says to my wife, there goes them no-good McCanlesses. Me, I’m out plowing the field them Yankees trampled after murdering Cap’t Morgan. Stoneman’s cavalry. Bah! Bunch of thieving turncoats, I say. “You leave Tennessee,” I shouts at them. Their wagons creak but they say nothin’ to me. Old man Cobb McCanless slumps in his wagon seat. Hope he feels a fool having to flee Tennessee. He was my school teacher once. Old man Cobb. A poet. Virgil Kane is my name and I rode on the Danville train. Until Cobb’s sons came and tore up them tracks again.
Flash Fiction Character Bio by Anne Goodwin
Winning the TV quiz show, Family Challenge, assured me a rosy future. My encyclopaedic knowledge would fuel my teaching career. I hadn’t bargained for a pregnancy midway through the training. When I surrendered my baby for adoption, I lost my sense of purpose too.
Can’t complain, though. I work in a school, albeit in admin. I’m extremely popular on quiz nights down the pub. But, if people ask if I have children, I don’t know what to say.
Everything’s changing again, as Jason has made contact. Given he’s about to become a father, can I call myself Grandma now?
Seth by Lisa Reiter
Stooped and bowed, by both time and hard living, his florid, round
face and rude countenance throw up barriers he wishes were not there
but like a caged animal, knows little else.
Once a traveller, now he only journeys between pub and house – no
longer much of a home since Helen left, except for the loyal, mangy
Skip who barks at every passerby – claiming Seth as his pack.
But he loves that dog and ruffles his coat roughly in greeting. Might
be the only time you’ll see him smile but you’ll get a glimpse of a
once warm man.
Dogged by Geoff Le Pard
Harry dropped his gaze to avoid looking at Sally. No point; she didn’t know he existed. He looked at the dog. Milton looked back; he scratched his ear before lowering himself into a squat.
“No. Christ. Not here.”
Milton held Harry’s gaze as he shat on the pavement.
“Great” Harry stared at the sticky turd. He patted his pocket. No bags.
Harry glanced up, wondering if he could leave it. To his horror, Sally was a few paces away. She held out her crisp packet. “Here.”
As Harry cleared up, Sally rubbed Milton’s head. “Cute dog.”
Bye Bye Betsy by Larry LaForge
He’s struggling with it, but knows he must dump her immediately after graduation.
They had a great ride for four years. He took her everywhere, and she never let him down.
She didn’t come with a manual, so he had to learn everything on the fly. It was rocky at times. Someone more experienced could have kept things running more smoothly.
Her presence at the big job interview was embarrassing. Now that he must impress his uppity colleagues, she just can’t be in the picture.
But deep inside he knows.
That’s the best pickup truck he will ever own.
Vacation Getaway by Amber Prince
Night had fallen like a thick blanket dropped from the sky.
I gripped the steering wheel, drying blood oozing between my fingers. I pressed further down on the gas.
It was too late. Headlights flickered in the rearview mirror.
I turned off my own lights and let off of the gas, not using the brakes. I veered off of the road, flying into the field.
I maneuvered into the backseat, pushing the still warm body over top of me.
My only hope was the dead taxi driver, and my ability to play dead.
Man, I should’ve vacationed in Alaska.
The Wheel Barrow by Irene A Waters
The sound came again. Closer this time. It sounded like a squeaky wheelbarrow. He ran to his mother’s room. She would know what to do. Hugging, they listened to the sound. She rang the police. Arriving quickly they searched outside, returning pronouncing the culprit was a leaking hot water system. The plumber was called and the leak repaired. The next night he was again woken by the sound of a wheelbarrow. Not waking his mother he went to check the hot water. He saw the wheelbarrow when suddenly, a hand over his mouth turned his scream silent.
The Patrick Cat by Jeanne Belisle Lombardo
The rain stopped. She stepped through to the patio, drank in the scent of quenched earth and creosote, then moved to the Palo Verde tree.
Her hand on the smooth, green bark, she looked east. A rainbow crowned Fire Rock Mountain.
Then she noticed it, the chain, hanging free from a bough. The terracotta winged cat that Patrick had given her was gone.
She toed the earth. “Where are you Patrick?” she whispered. “Don’t die on me again.”
A rustle near the rosemary. A cat the color of clay pawed the air. “Meer,” it said. And took flight.
Last Train Home by Sherri Matthews
Settling in for the train journey, Jamie plugged in, metal guitar riffs screaming. An hour in, he turned and saw her.
Dark eyes met his, frozen in disbelief. Turning to her new man, she giggled as they sat down in the seats in front of Jamie.
“That’s Jamie sitting behind us!” They swapped tongues.
Jamie exploded out of his seat, leaping off at the next stop. He caught a glimpse of her staring blankly out of the train window, chewing her nails, looking ugly. Jamie turned away and kept walking. He smiled then. Poor bastard, it’ll be him next.
March 16, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write about the idea of “just one.” If all it takes is just one, what is the story? Explore what comes to mind and go where the prompt takes you. Bonus challenge: eat cake while you write, or include cake in your flash.
Respond by March 22, 2016 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Thank you to all who come here and add to the literature of our times, joining together to write in fellowship.
Just One to Speak the Truth by Charli Mills
Sarah handed Leroy a cup of cold coffee and the carrot cake his wife had fixed earlier. Five days now since Cobb was gunned down at Rock Creek. She could still smell blood. Hickok, Doc Brink and Nancy Jane’s lover were under arrest for murder in Beatrice.
“Did you find the teamster?”
“Yes.” Leroy downed the coffee and set aside the plate.
Leroy growled. “No. Not one man will speak well of Cobb.”
“Mary’s got to let Roe testify.”
“She won’t. She’s scared.”
“Cobb wasn’t armed. I’ll testify. You need just one witness…”
“…who isn’t a woman.”
It’s dark and the dogs have to pee. With one arm wrapped around the porch post, I lean toward the dark lawn to let Grenny reach as far as he can to pee on leash. No way will I let him cavort in the darkness. He’ll bring back a monster I can’t see.
The Hub calls me the Cowardly Cowgirl. He finds it amusing that I scream over mice and refuse to step a toe across the dark shadows of night. He recently bought me a monster-finder. I think it’s actually called a night scope, but whatever it is the device can pick up eyeballs and heat-shifting forms in the darkness. Like that’s going to make me less afraid of monsters.
I live in North Idaho where monsters are real. A woman new to the area posted on a local social media group about tips for hiking alone. No one mentioned lurking rapists or muggers, but everyone who responded had a story about wild monsters. The woman asked if she need a firearm, bear spray or of her dogs would suffice. The responses? Both, and don’t let your dogs run or they’ll bring back whatever is out there to you.
Yep. I know that. We live in grizzly country. Wolves slather on the fringes of my property and I’ve nearly been trampled by a moose (not nearly, but could have been). Coyotes grow to trickster proportions and in the summers I even dread the pond gang of bull frogs. Monsters and darkness go hand in hand. Give me broad daylight and I’ll pick huckleberries past the clumps of bear hair, read my book on the Pack River while my dogs entice moose or wolves into an attack, and explore remote and unknown places.
I don’t carry bear spray or pack a firearm. But I also don’t stray far from the man who does. I feel safe from monsters in the company of the Hub. After all, he did rescue our meddlesome dog from a grizzly by mere force of voice. Sgt. Mills mode I call it.
At night, though, I get jittery. Even with the Hub leading me to the back pastures to teach me how to use the scope. He seriously thinks that giving me night vision will ease my monster fears. I tolerate the lessons and groan when he says, “Let’s go look at stars and monsters.” For four years this man trudged at night in South American jungles with deadly snakes, spiders the size of eco-cars and guerrilla soldiers with guns. He’s been bit, shot at and drowned three times yet he doesn’t fear the dark.
Instead, he sees darkness in our government, in drug lords and the evil intentions of powerful men.
We all see monsters in one form or another. Call them fears or risk-avoidance. And we don’t agree on the monsters we see. The Hub might think it foolish for a pastor to minister to addicts, felons and the mentally unstable, and was not surprised when Pastor Tim was shot. By a monster, some might say. A crazed monster who himself feared aliens. But Pastor Tim sees hurting and broken people, broken systems, not monsters. His family asked others to pray for the man who shot him.
It’s not monsters that interest me, but rather monster-slayers. And like monsters, we don’t all agree on what needs slaying. It’s perspective. However, it is also a rich human complexity to explore in literature — what are the monsters and who are their slayers? Are monster-slayers heroic or misguided?
James Butler Hickok earned the name “Wild Bill”once the story of his infamous fight with the guerrilla McKandlas and ten of his men became popularized in Harper’s Weekly (think sensational tabloid). And David Colbert “Cobb” McCanles earned the title of monster, although recent historians are satisfied to raise him up to that of a bully. But why is Cobb a bully and Hickok a frontier hero? Again, it’s perspective. Hickok is forgiven any sins because he was a Civil War scout, a plainsman and occasional lawman.
However, Cobb was a lawman consistently for over six years. He was General of Musters for his militia and when he arrived in Rock Creek, he organized the citizens to adjudicate crime. He refused to kill criminals (vigilantes often hung men for lesser crimes or those fabricated). His punishments, which could be harsh, did not result in loss of life. Cobb never killed anyone in the line of duty whereas Hickock killed over 100 men. Cobb is called a bully for punishing people and Hickok is revered for bringing order to the frontier by killing “bad guys” a.k.a monsters of the west. Hickok is a monster-slayer; Cobb a monster.
See how complicated it can be? We all need special goggles to help us see in dark places. Many times, the darkness is within. Some of us write to bring light to stave the darkness and others write the darkness out in order to let light in. In a way, considering all the struggles we have as writers to keep the monsters of doubt at bay, we are all monster-slayers when we persevere to write.
March 9, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a monster story. You can pick any perspective, even that of the monster. It can be literal or symbolic; it can be heroic or realistic. Think about the shifting roles of what is a monster and who is a monster-slayer. Consider how easily we give the label to others or to fears we can’t name.
Respond by March 15, 2016 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
A big Gracias to Geoff LePard for the monster photo. Read more about where this monster lurks.
Monster Hunt by Charli Mills
Wilstach patted his mustache with a lace hanky. Sarah, lost in thoughts of Rock Creek, heard her friends speak in her head.
“A fine dandy for lunch, Rosebud,” Cobb said.
Nancy Jane scoffed. “That man for real? Sarah, you need to kick him in the shins.”
“I’d play poker with him. Strip his money and ego in minutes,” added Hickok.
Wilstach repeated a question. She had to snuff the voices, bury secrets with the dead. Lunch was not so tempting that she’d betray them. Her stomach growled in protest.
“Mrs. Devald. Tell me, which one was the real monster?”
Mr. P would ask, “Have you read the Iliad?” I’d shake my head no. If I had my way, I’d have stayed lost in the Little Woods or the Prairie. Eventually I found my way from Laura Ingalls to the diary of a girl who died among the Donner Party. I’d seen wagon ruts, knew about the granite walls where you could still see scrapes from the wagons hoisted up impenetrable box canyons, and I often read my library books in the back of an old Conestoga abandoned along Pleasant Valley Creek.
But Mr. P wasn’t having any of it. He sent me through Greek mythology, introduced me to classics and quizzed me on each book. I couldn’t escape this Apache. Yes, he was Apache–a scholar, a poker player, the husband of one of my school teachers and he worked for the county in a little modular office set up next to the stout library built of rock. He knew how to lure me. “Want to know where you can find arrowheads?” My eyes lit up. Yes! The catch was, read another classic.
And so I did.
For some reason, these books failed to capture my imagination until I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Yet what intrigued me about Dracula was what kept me going back to the library for Laura Ingalls. It wasn’t just the stories, but the authors. I wondered at who Laura was behind the page as much as on it. For some reason I can’t explain, I was curious as to why Bram Stoker would write such a story. So I wrote a story about Bram and how he liked history and mountains and found himself researching Vlad Tepes in Romania.
I was 12 or 13. It was after I discovered writing stories. My first constraints were given to my by my 7th/8th-grade teacher who also made me run long distance for physical education. Where I lagged in running, I excelled in spinning stories. I wrote three pages. He said write five. I wrote five and he said write ten. I suspected he was training me like in PE–run half a mile this week, one mile the next.
In 8th-grade I was running five miles and turning in 15 pages a week. I dropped the running but never the writing.
Fast forward through my life and other mentors flash in and out of memory. I can tell you what each library was like wherever I lived. In St. Paul I discovered the History Center, where a humble library sat upon three levels of historical archives. Here I learned to walk in the shadow of classics that mattered most to me–historical fiction. I secretly dreamed that one day I’d finish a historical novel.
Now it’s the path I walk (not run) out loud. I’m writing historical fiction, revising my first draft, poking at the idea for my second. With my contributions to Go Idaho, I’m firmly set to join Women Write the West. This is my dream and I would not have it if it weren’t for the libraries in my life, and the people who pointed me to them. When was the last time you visited your library?
Libraries are more than a container of books. As writers we should be attached to our libraries like a baby to mama. They comfort and nurture us; they help us grow and learn. The Library in Sandpoint is as amazing as a star. It twinkles among a swath of other diamonds that make up the night sky. I have one, you have one, every community has one. And like stars, each one is worthy of wonder. May we never lose our wonderment for libraries!
Yet, what do you do for your library?
I know what East Bonner County Library District does for me. Books. They have old favorites, new fictions. It was upon The Library shelf I discovered, I Was a Revolutionary by Andrew Malan Milward, a collection of short stories rooted in history and place, weaving in and out of time, genders and ethnic identities. It opened my eyes to threading shorts in a long way. I can check out seeds from my library! Seeds! I can also deposit seeds from my garden.
When I do something for The Library, I get something in return. I became a volunteer and I get supportive and informational monthly meetings with chocolate. I host Wrangling Words and get support for building a local writing community. I put up posters and I meet people and get coffee. I make posters and I get invited to a design workshop. And did I mention, this is all free? I get to grow and learn as I did in school. Learning is life-long at the library.
In 1909, Fairbury Public Library become one of 69 Carnegie libraries in Nebraska 48 years after Cobb’s death, two years after Mary died (in Fairbury) and one year after their son Monroe met Wild Bill Cody. Monroe would tell the western entertainer his version of events at Rock Creek that eventful day when Hickok (Cody’s good friend) shot Monroe’s father. Today, Fairbury Public Library is the repository for genealogy in Jefferson County where Rock Creek was located. And yes, I’ve been to that library. It’s the photo for this week’s challenge.
Appalachians are often thought of as uneducated. Yet, Cobb was highly educated and so were his sisters and brother. His father was a school teacher. Cobb introduced one of Jefferson County’s first schools, paying a teacher out of his own pocket to teach his children and others in the area. I wonder if he would have had a personal library. Sarah was also literate, but Mary and Nancy Jane were not. Literacy didn’t seem to get a woman further in life during these times. And many northerners (Yankees) made poor assumptions upon hearing a southern accent, thinking a slow drawl meant an uneducated mind. How wrong, yet these biases still stick to the annuals of history.
Literacy is a great equalizer, and as Mr. P tried to impress upon me, a foundation of books builds an open mind.
March 2, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a library. You can honor the libraries in your own experience, dream about libraries of the future or explore a community without one. Bonus points for discovering something you didn’t know your library offered. For example, my library offers organic and heirloom seeds.
Respond by March 8, 2016 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Northern Assumptions by Charli Mills
The stranger scuffed his boots when he entered Rock Creek Trading Post.
A lanky freighter, Sarah thought. He favored one leg and his left arm hung limp. “Good day. Supplies are low until spring mud recedes.”
“Well, I don’t think you’d have what I need, anyways.” He touched the brim of his hat.
“What’s that, Sir?”
He grinned. “A proper northern library.”
“I see. Follow me.” Sarah opened the backdoor to reveal shelves of books. She grabbed one, handing it to the stranger. “I hope this isn’t beyond your grand intellect.”
It read, Tom Thumb’s Picture Alphabet.
I feel like I’m breathless, dancing.
My partner is Writing and we’ve been together a long time, me and W. I fell in love as a young girl, giddy to practice story-steps on that old paper dance-floor called the Journal. W showed me new tricks with a pencil beyond spelling words and long division. With my imagination and W’s endless possibilities, the world was our ballroom.
The fancies of youth gave way to the trials of learning complicated steps. Yes, dancing with W was still fun, but our relationship was challenged by English teachers and professors, literary criticism and the needs of media editors and bosses. For a time, W and I danced secretly in other Journals we found, not showing our moves to the world. We danced formally, earning some jobs and greenbacks.
The one day, we left the formal dances, cracked open the moves we started in Journals and took a chance that we might be able to create dances of our own. W has taken me to new heights and my head is spinning.
Writing has opened new doors. Or perhaps, I opened new doors with writing. See, that’s the thing with dancing — it’s a partnership. Much has happened in a short period of time. When I was asked to host a BinderCon event, it lead to partnering with the library. When I was ready to launch an anthology project, I was offered a chance to host a contest. When I was searching for another supplementary client project, I found two that are perfect matches to what I love to do — profiles on people and place. When I went into revision I planned to come out with a draft, but I will have a draft and a serial project to plot.
When I worked 9-5, I would take any opportunity that led to my dream even if I had to write late nights or weekends. Now I am working that dream. I should feel overwhelmed at the heaping portion on my plate, or how full my dance card is, yet this is…exactly…what…I…dreamed…to do. I am overwhelmed with gratitude. This is my life’s work. I’ve found a happy balance between writing that pays and writing that fulfills. There is nothing that I’m doing that is a step toward something; this is the destination.
Life doesn’t always celebrate with us. In fact, life often rains on our Happy Parades. It blew in like a hurricane. What happened? Well, that’s what happened — it RAINED. Yesterday morning we awoke to four inches of snow, the first snowfall in the valley. Sad to see winter arrive, but snow (not a date on a calendar) is the signal. Then the snow began to melt, the clouds sputtered rain and a fierce wind blew in replacing the rain with RAIN. Our house felt battered, wind howling in cracks we didn’t know we had and water pouring off the roof and down windows like garden waterfalls. The winds blew across Schweitzer Mountain (behind our house), clocked at 101 mph! If we had been a ship, we’d have wrecked, for sure. Instead, we lost electricity. We were lucky.
Yet Life has a wicked sense of humor. It didn’t understand that W and I had to dance! These were the dances we had been waiting for and we needed electricity! Come on! Life had its way and I actually found it rather pleasant to curl up by the fire in the dark, listening to the howling wind and lashing rain. My phone was charged and I reached out to Sarah Brentyn who so kindly rode over to the ranch to announce the delay. I prematurely got excited when the lights came on for 30 minutes, followed by darkness. By then the outage included eastern Washington, northern Idaho, western Montana and southern British Columbia.
Life added a further insult when I began reading from my Kindle aloud to the Hub. Just as we were cooing over our rediscovery of reading together, it smelled smokey. The Hub flicked on his flashlight and smoke was billowing from the wood-stove like a steam engine. Evidently, the wind gusts were so massive that they were forcing the smoke down the chimney! The Hub knew enough about the physics of wood-stoves and he opened the damper full throttle to counter the wind force with fire. That was a scary sight! We had to hold open doors against gusting winds to try to air out the house, listening the the crack of tree branches.
Today, our yard is littered with broken branches and our house smells like an ashtray. But still I rise to the dance. I will dance across the litter Life tosses at me and I’ll counter stale air with fresh. And I’ll be late on the compilation. It’s a set-back, not the end of the dance.
In trying to regroup, I decided to get the next prompt out first and do some quick summaries. Notice that this next prompt has a longer deadline. Carrot Ranch is welcoming home the Little Buckaroos next week and I’ll be a giddy mum. We haven’t all been together in one place at one time in over three years. They’ll be expecting ranch-cooking so W will have some time off. That means W has much to do in just few days, but we’ll get it wrangled!
I hadn’t intended to be missing in action on social media, but the way W was dancing, I didn’t get the chance. In particular, #MondayBlogs, #wwwblogs and #LinkYourLife are all Twitter events I try to keep up with, but they will be there when I return. Elmira Pond is rather neglected these days and I miss connecting with Ruchira Khanna on Wordless Wednesdays, but I will return there, too. The pond is rather silent, anyhow with all the migrating fowl having migrated elsewhere.
I’m excited to share my other writing as it publishes. A new magazine is launching in Idaho and I get to cover fun assignments in the Panhandle like a castle up on Schweitzer, my favorite local restaurants and Ruby’s Lube (it’s not what you think, but then again, maybe it is). When the publishers release the name, I’ll share it. A newsletter I’ve edited for years has a new look and most of the content is my writing (pages 2, 4-5, 6-7, -8-9) though I only have one byline. The fun challenge here is to vary the voice between articles, such as representing the board, operations and highlighting their food educator. You can access the digital publication at Living Naturally if you want to see our new look. Another project is ghost-writing but I can sneak you a peak as they publish.
The Congress of the Rough Writer’s Anthology Vol. 1 has officially kicked off on a ride to publication. It’s an exciting ride and one of my favorite new dances with W and the ranchers here. Sarah Brentyn is Trail Boss as the anthology Editor. What an incredible and skilled writer for the project! Many Rough Writers have stepped up to teams on the project. If you are a Rough Writer and received the anthology notice, you have until December 9 to decide if you want to participate. Even if you don’t, your writing may be selected or we may have questions and we’ll follow up with you. If you are a Rough Writer and didn’t receive the email (some filters will flag group emails as spam), shoot me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. We have new Rough Writers to announce and they’ve been patiently waiting for their pages — soon! I’m so privileged to be in the company of so many diverse and talented writers. Thank you!
A quick NaNoReViSo update — revision is to writing what Pilates is to dancing; both will make you stronger but it’s going to hurt! Writing is free expression (for those of us who identify as pantsers) and it feels like revision is a bunch of laws we freedom writers want to rebel against. However, revision gives what we write structure, clarity, correctness and artistry. We think we are more artsy free writing, but the real artistry shows up when we can master the craft and apply the right creativity. Creativity without craft mastery will not be clear or correct, thus our art might be missed. I thought I’d be working more on structure, but instead I immersed in research for clarity. The result is that my improved understanding led to better plot structuring. I’m cutting much and will need to fill in new places. I can better see what work needs to be done. It’s a lot of big picture focusing, problem solving and handling details I skimmed over in writing. It’s painful, but it improves the dance. And, Sherri Matthews, thank you for dancing with me this month to tune of revision! Tough steps to learn and I’m grateful for your company.
The Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Contest is open until January 31, 2016. It’s my pleasure to introduce to you our Rough Writer judges: Sarah Brentyn, Norah Colvin, Pat Cummings and Geoff Le Pard. This is a great crew who will give submissions the review they deserve for entering and supporting Noah in his quest for a service dog. All other Rough Writers are eligible to enter, but remember this is blind judging so do not include any identifying information inside your submitting documents. We have a process in place and will announce the Winner and the over all Top Ten February 20, 2016. Entry fee is only $15 and you can enter as many times as you like. Read the details on the Contest page so you know by what criteria we are judging. Have fun and support a worthy cause!
Where am I at with Cobb? I’m resting easy these days, and focusing on Nebraska now that I understand circumstances in North Carolina better. A big round of applause for Geoff Le Pard whose real estate law background helped me understand a tough nut to crack. He also looked at it with a writer’s eye and gave me interesting plot twists to consider. I now feel that my story has the historical legs to stand on and while I can’t prove my theories, I can explore them in fiction and give a more plausible story than the ones historians have recounted over the years. If my Uncle Cobb were to sit by the campfire with me he might say I got it, or he might say I was off the mark, but I do believe he’d feel proud that a descendant was willing to search for the truth and see a whole man, not just the good or the bad.
And thank you to all who responded last week! My apologies for the weather delay and getting to this post first. In that 30 minutes of returned electricity yesterday, before it went down for good, I read a fun exchange about dance in the comments. Thanks for this prompt’s inspiration! I look forward to tangos, rumbas and more.
November 18, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write dance into your story. Twirl your characters round and round or stomp your plot onto the page. Use dance in any way that comes to mind. Be specific or free, tango or disco.
EXTENDED DEADLINE! Respond by December 1, 2015 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Secrets Kept by Charli Mills
Cold seeped into the corner of the Greene barn where Sarah watched him unseen. Snug breeches clung to massive legs, but he danced as fluid and light as any gay girl. More like a prancing stallion. Why did he keep dancing with Mary Greene? If only she’d the courage to step out of the dark, she’d ask him to pull molasses with her, then maybe he’d reciprocate with a dance. So cold, though. She couldn’t move.
“Mama, Miss Sarah’s waking.”
“She’s too far gone. Poor dear, I hope she’s ready to dance in heaven. We’ll never know her secrets.”
Some spouses want to look at mattresses. Space age foam, coils and springs, firm tops, pillow tops. Mattress makers have even cleverly devised ways to please more than one mattress occupant with dual sleep number settings. Finding a resting spot is vital.
But my spouse is asked to search for different resting spots. I’m not interested in mattresses; I want to find old cemeteries. On our forest service map, the one we use to navigate where to cut firewood in the Kaniksu National Forest, I discovered listings for known graveyards.
I say, “known” because Idaho has a creepy law. Home burials are legal in most counties within certain zoning restrictions. Back in the 1900s when Elmira was a thriving town for railroad workers, backyard burials were common. For a history buff like me, I dig hanging out in cemeteries where history reads in the names and dates carved in stone. So I was puzzled when I discovered that Elmira had no old cemetery. A local explained why.
After all these years, the Elmira Schoolhouse stands, but we no longer know where anyone buried loved ones in backyards or family plots. We’ve forgotten these final resting places.
This makes me curious to discover the ones I see listed on our map. The Hub is less curious, but has promised me a cemetery day after I pitched a fit in Bonner’s Ferry this afternoon. For some unknown political or economic reason, gas in Bonners is way cheaper than it is in Sandpoint. Our normal route to the firewood stand is up a two-track called Twenty Mile Road. From there we take a logging trail numbered 2260A on our map. Because the Hub wanted to fuel up in Bonners, I thought we’d take the back way in and look for the Boulder Cemetery.
No. That’s all he said when he jumped back in the truck, put it gear and turned south toward Twenty Mile. I wailed like a spouse told, no we aren’t going to get that mattress. Don’t mess with my resting place curiosity! I gave up an afternoon of blogging to get firewood, all I wanted was to go past a cemetery. With a heavy sigh, the Hub pulled over and looked at the map. He pointed out the distance, and he was right.
But wait. I saw a cemetery listed on the map just east of Bonners and not too far. This time, I got my way. It’s called Grand View and it is a resting place with a fabulous view of the Cabinet Mountains. The very mountains the Hub would prefer to be in with his chainsaw. He let me snap a few shots and then agreed to taking a cemetery day on Friday. We continued to the forest and tipped several trees (he, not we) and skidded several logs (me, too).
Here’s a bit of our day (the Hub skidding a log from a dead tree he fell):
And I got to skid one, too:
You can tell from how giddy I get that I had fun even though I was thwarted from viewing more cemeteries until later. Believe me, we both are going to enjoy our resting place tonight.
When working on historical fiction, I begin with the non-fictional parts — the facts that detail the story like trim on a hot-rod car. Cemeteries can reveal much more than dates and names. Last year, when I visited the Fairbury Cemetery outside the remains of Rock Creek Station in Nebraska, I noticed an oddity about Mary McCanles’s headstone — it bore no last name. That was really the starting point for me to get into this woman as a character. The stone did claim her role as “wife of D.C. McCanles” but revealed nothing of her maiden name nor her brief marriage years after Cobb’s death. I felt she had a sense of identity loss, having given up her Green family to follow her husband she chose the side of the Union over the Confederacy. Even after the Civil War and after Cobb’s death she never returned home.
Another telling point from the Fairbury Cemetery is the fact that D.C. McCanles and James Woods are listed on a single headstone. If you didn’t know the story, you might puzzle greatly over that one. The day Cobb was shot, his two ranch hands were also killed. James Woods was not only a ranch hand, but was Cobb’s young cousin from North Carolina. The reason they were buried together, according to witness statements who did the burying, is because the neighbors built one large pine box and interred the two bodies in one grave on a knoll behind the station. The third body was a quarter mile away, thus had its on final resting place.
So, if Cobb and James had a backyard burial, how did they get to the Fairbury Cemetery? A family story claims that when the railroad cut through that knoll, Cobb’s son, Clingman, met the workers with a rifle. He didn’t want to disturb the bones of his father. Finally, the railroad agreed to re-inter the bodies in a single grave in Fairbury. Mary is buried on one side, and Clingman on the other. Cobb’s only daughter, Lizzie, is also buried with her brother and parents. Cobb and Mary did a rare thing back in the 1850s — they let their baby, who was deprived of oxygen at birth, thrive. Most parents let such children die of natural causes in infancy. That Cobb and Mary cared enough to give Lizzie life, speaks of their compassion. Clingman never married and took care of Lizzie, his mother and the third ranch that Cobb built.
And I could read all this in a cemetery.
What will I find on my upcoming cemetery day? I don’t know! That’s part of the fun. Maybe a name or gravestone moves me to research Census records, and maybe I uncover new material for future historical fiction. And what will you discover, so close to Halloween and with a possibly ghoulish prompt?
October 21, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a final resting place. You can take any perspective that appeals to you from the historic to the horrific. Just don’t scare me too greatly. You can also choose to write about those buried before they came to their final rest. An extra challenge is to discover a story or character from a local cemetery. I double-dog dare you to join me with your own cemetery day!
Respond by October 27, 2015 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Lunch with Wilstach by Charli Mills
“Call me, Sarah, Mr. Wilsatch.” Her stomach rumbled at the sight of steaming soup served to their table.
“All right, Sarah.” Frank Wilstach dabbed his lips after each spoon of broth.
“A right fine lunch companion you are, Sir. A fair price for an interview.”
He smiled. “Sarah, did you know only you and Mr. Monroe McCanles are left ?”
“What of Mary?”
Wilstach shuffled notes. “Ah. She went to her final rest in 1907. Buried next to her husband.”
“At Rock Creek?”
Why did it matter they had moved Cobb? He was never one to rest.