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Clickety-clacking rings across the house as guest-dog, Monte, prances on the hardwood floor. It’s been silent and I welcome the sound of canine life. His humans have left for an extended weekend out of state, and we get to enjoy the company of this nine-year-old Dautchund. He curls up on the couch next to the Hub, who rubs his head and calls him, “Big dog.” It’s hard to adjust to not having the big dogs around.
We also have a visiting tabby cat — a prowler caught on NOAA’s satellite. From 23,000 miles up in space, the weather image captured fuzzy plumes of lake-effect snow across Lake Superior, and it looks like a hunkered tabby cat. If you check out the NPR story here, scroll down to see the plumes in action. That tabby has been a frequent visitor, only it looks more like fluffy white kittens from our perspective.
Domestic animals aside, I’ve also conquered a wild beast. Last Sunday, I turned in the first draft of a plot outline to my proposed novel thesis. Last term, I completed a plot following Snyder’s Beat Sheet. In case you are wondering, a plot and a plot outline are not the same. One is telling the story of the plot, and the other maps what happens when. Turns out, I have seven plots and subplots — who knew? Well, that’s the problem. You don’t know until you are forced through the sieve of mapping a plot.
My W-storyboard is getting a workout. Just because I have a plot outline does not mean it is the novel’s final structure. Index cards and sticky notes rearranged on the board will provide the blueprint as I write. My inciting incident is due in another week. Having an outline forced me to contain my ideas, which is similar to what happens when I write a story in 99 words. It’s made me rethink my beginning.
I’m not even going to say how many times I’ve written the beginning to Miracle of Ducks. If my outline holds, this novel will be nothing like the first draft I wrote. However, my original opening was closer to a proper inciting incident than any subsequent one I wrote. What is proper? Something that gets the reader reading — a character who compels, action that excites, a mystery that begs resolution.
My professor made an astute observation. He told my cohort that we are also competing against technology for readers’ attention — Netflix, YouTube, streaming, social media, video games. Not only do we need to stand out among books, but we also have to get readers away from different screens. It’s daunting to think about in those terms. That’s a lot of pressure to place on an inciting incident.
Another consideration is that I’ve mapped my inciting incident deeper into my book. It does not occur on page one. I’ve designed a trap for my protagonist called “Danni in a box with a knot.” The box includes four different plotlines that emerge to squeeze down on her. The knot is the fragility of her need to belong. She thinks life is good and she has what she has longed. Except, it comes with a cost, and she’s about to get delivered the bill.
What excited me in mapping out the plot outline is that I realized the inciting incident. The box traps Danni, but it is one particular incident that moves the story toward its trajectory of growth, specifically, Danni’s growth. If I hadn’t (been forced) to complete a plot outline, I would have missed this incident. While painful for a pantser to knuckle under and learn, I feel more confident as a writer. Instead of committing to XX number of words a day, I’m now setting specific goals for what to write.
We can debate when, how much, and why we should plot. The most important point to keep in mind is that each one of us must find the process that works. I signed up for two-year writing boot camp, so I have to execute processes that are not my first (or fiftieth) choice. I’m finding out that the pain is worth the gain. At some point, a pantser has to plot, and a plotter has to write into the draft. If you think you can get away with not plotting, you’ll learn differently by the time you get to writing a synopsis.
You’ll be faced with defining your structure at the beginning, middle, or end.
On Twitter, Sherri Matthews posted an interesting article, When ‘Situational’ Writing Works Better Than Plotting. The author quotes Stephen King in regards to being a situation writer, coming up with a situation that is the story. The advice is to keep the momentum going by writing, what next? And then, what next? He also says that writers can be hybrids. I think what we call a hybrid is a plantser!
With snowcats and situations in mind, I thought it would be a fun and informative exercise to write 99-word stories based on a situation. You’ll start with the situation and add what next, what next, what next until you arrive at “until finally.” In 99 words, of course.
February 20, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a library cat named Rainbow who escapes. Use this situation to write what happens next. Where does this e=situation take place, and who else might be involved? Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by February 25, 2020. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Rainbow Makes Her Move by Charli Mills
Rainbow faked a yawn, stretched a declawed mitt toward a shelf of new releases in fiction, and calculated the distance to the door. She had made several tests runs the day before and knew how long the door opened before shutting. Preening her calico fur, Rainbow waited to blow this boring book joint. When a group of homeschoolers entered the library, she made her move on the open door. Swerving in and out of gangly legs like a feline slalom racer, she won the race and made it outside. Shivering beneath plumes of lake-effect snow, Rainbow calculated her reentry.
Coursework on plot scatters across my dining room table as if I were translating old Medieval letters, seeking the alchemy of novels. How do I turn base pages into golden books? I’m overwhelmed with formulas so I draw pictures in the margins. My stick-figure protagonist ends up with a knot in a box with wheels, and I have the slightest shift in understanding. I can visualize what I’ve been trying to do with my W-storyboard for years.
Of course, it helps that with each a-ha of chemical compounds to create a novel in a lab, I have fellow mad-scientists to work with and Dr. Frankenstein to guide in our critique. The hard work of my MFA has arrived and I didn’t know my writing could be pushed to such depths where heat and pressure crystalizes material. Will strands of gold emerge? Time will tell.
Needing to relieve some of that pressure, I suggest to the Hub that we go to the cheap-seats night at the movie theater and catch 1917. One of the plot techniques I’ve studied is the Blake Snyder Beats. Save the Cat! is a website of diverse writer resources based on Blake Snyder’s series of books for developing screenplays and novels. His genres include Dude with a Problem, and that’s what 1917 is — a movie about a soldier with a problem. I justify going to the movie because after I can read the Beat Sheet and learn more about novel alchemy.
The movie rolled on from opening image to closing image with a single blackout break. Otherwise, the viewing experience remained intense. If you have not seen the movie, know that the 1917 Beat Sheet reveals spoilers. If you have, it’s worth comparing what you viewed to how the beats apply to the screenplay. In order for my thesis to be accepted, I have to complete a detailed plan including plot and character development. At this point, I’m reading books and watching movies to study the plans beneath.
That doesn’t mean my mind has avoided windows or playtime. In fact, I feel my imagination is heightened. I worried that if I gave in to plotting I might lose the fun of discovery in pantsing, but I’m finding that discovery exists in plotting, too. I’m starting to see stories emerge more quickly, which is a huge relief given my propensity to stare. I still get to window-gaze. The flow comes faster.
This week, Mental Floss posted a list of antiquated words or phrases associated with Valentine’s Day. One is sugar report, which is what soldiers in WWII often called mail from wives and girlfriends. This made me think of the character, Schofield, in 1917, and his reluctance to see his family on leave because he’d have to leave them again. It made me wonder how the sugar report was received in WWI. It’s a phrase that can be applied to modern sweethearts, too.
I’m not full of insights this week, adjusting to the absence in our home and working toward that thesis plan. If you were here, I’d invite you to the Parade of Confections tomorrow at the Finnish Heritage Center. I’m a newly appointed Board Director for the Copper Country Community Arts Council and this is one of our big fundraising events. I’ll be pouring wine and helping to keep the appetizer trays full. In the future, I look forward to bringing literary and other artists together for learning and collaboration.
Somewhere in all of this, I’ll find transformation. I hope we all will. In the meantime, let’s write love letters to the frontlines, no matter where a sugar report might turn up.
February 13, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that includes a sugar report. Use its original meaning of a letter from a sweetheart to a soldier, or invent a new use for it. Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by February 18, 2020. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
1917 Sugar Report by Charli Mills
In 1916 it wasn’t clear if America would send troops overseas, but if they did, John Kellerman was enlisted and ready. His mother refused to say goodbye the day he left their Midwest farm. She was a widow against the war. His kid sister ran after his bus, waving proudly. She sent him letters scented with pink roses from her victory garden. Kellerman let his squad believe he had a sugar report from home, enjoying the minor deception. When he was killed on the frontline, they buried him and his sister’s letters beneath a white cross. Nothing sweet remained.
One night, two great horned owls hooted outside our flimsy camp trailer that leaked in the rain and scorched in the sun. It was during a time I was homeless with my veteran spouse and our two dogs, showering in public restrooms and buying bottled drinking water. We had landed on Mars, which is how the southern Utah desert felt to me after living on Elmira Pond in North Idaho for four years. It’s hard to believe this is our fourth year since leaving Elmira, Idaho. Like the broad wings of night owls, life seeks balance.
I remember the unease of hearing the owls that night. Harbingers of death. I didn’t really believe that, but it’s an ingrained thought from the western culture I grew up in, and a line from one of my favorite songs,
“There’s been a hoot owl outside my window now/ for six days in a row/ she’s coming for me I know/, and on Wildfire we’re both gonna go…” Michael Martin Murphy, Wildfire
If ever I was going to pass from this walk to the next, I wouldn’t mind riding out on a horse named Wildfire, all the dogs I’ve loved before running at my heels.
And if a hoot owl called me to the next journey, I suppose I wouldn’t mind such an escort.
That night back in Utah, I pushed aside my unease because I lived in a constant state of unease. The Hub and I stepped outside the camp trailer to see if we could spot the winged duo. We ended up chasing after them from tree to tree, catching glimpses of their massive wingspan as they flew low. Finding a new perch in the cottonwoods along the Virgin River, they’d pause and hoot.
I remarked how much they reminded me of our two dogs, brother, and sister, and the way they loped together, her with a limp and him with cocky stride, but both in unison the way connected spirits can be. The next day, Grenny fell violently ill and was gone by the second day after the owls visited. Worse, his sister Bobo, not understanding where her brother went, sought him everywhere and stopped eating. She wasn’t well — the vet said her kidneys were failing on top of an old spinal injury that decreased her mobility, sporadic seizures, and a congestive heart. We had been surprised by Grenny’s undetected prostate tumor that shut down his organs because we thought he was the healthy dog of the pair.
Somehow, the two owls made me think that Bobo would soon follow Grenny. She didn’t. She pulled through with her joyful determination.
There has always been something amazing about that dog. She was born the day after Christmas in 2006, into our hands. We all watched the miracle of birth that day, me, my husband and our three kids. She was the runt with the bow-marking on her head. Her brother was the only male and a big brute of a pup. We all fell in love with her that moment and although the Hub intended to keep the male, we all insisted we keep Bo(w)detta Bosephine — Bobo. Yet she enamored him, too. She would become his “snort,” his beloved dog.
No matter what life dished out to her, Bobo overcame with little fuss. At age five, a rough but accidental tumble from two of her pack on a hot summer day left her back legs paralyzed. We did what we could at the time, and our vet said she’d get better or not. We walked the dogs every morning, and she was pined to go. So, we lifted her into the car, propped her up in the back seat, and she learned that rides were much better than walks. Despite the odds, she did get better and walked with the drive of a wounded warrior (she had much in common with the Hub).
When we moved to Idaho, the seizures came next. They remained intermittent enough that we never had to medicate her but they left us all shakey after she’d have one. Her needs challenged both my strengths and my weaknesses. Yet, no matter what, she grabbed life with joy. I wrote about how writers could learn from her joyful determination and I still live by those teachings. She died exactly six years to the date that I wrote that post. Yes, our amazing Bobo, our sweet girl has walked on.
Bobo did not succumb to the call of an owl, but when we rushed her to the vet on Tuesday afternoon, I saw a lone pigeon sitting on the eave of the office, with markings like the ones we helped fledge. Always looking for meaningful connections, it’s part of what drives me as a fiction writer and gives me purpose as a human. Connections make us not feel alone. Our eldest left work and met us at the vet’s office, and our Arctic daughter called us and stayed with us while we sat and cried and told Bobo what a good dog she was. Our son called later that night. The pup that was born into our family’s hands passed in our arms.
In the end, I realized that she was determined to have joy. Another lesson. Joy is something we cultivate, persevere to grab hold of and choose. Not all the time. Not every moment. But we get up and notice the beauty, the preciousness of life, the good that exists, the purpose we can find. I grieve, but I’m determined to keep joy in my life.
That’s about all I can muster for now. What I’d really like is for us to tell stories about the “dog in the daisies.” It’s my absolute favorite photo of Bobo and it captures her essence. She was poised in a field of daisies as if looking right at that joy she chased. Maybe it was deer, but whatever she saw filled her being with mindful purpose. In that moment she was a happy critter in a mountain meadow. For those astute regulars, this is a repeat photo (White Flowers, December 28, 2017) but with a different prompt.
I might not be real social over the next week as I draw inward and plug away at school and ranch and writing. Not doing anything unsettles me, but doing anything makes feels thick and sluggish. It’s a muddy emotional time. I’m glad I’m a writer and have a way to process. I’m grateful for a compassionate community of literary artists. Thank you to those helping to keep the community connected. I appreciate you all taking extra care this week to notice any newcomers and welcome them and to keep each other encouraged.
We don’t have our pets for the duration of our lifetimes, but we are better off for the time we do have them. I am content that a dog named Bodetta Bosephine had me from her first until her last breath. One day, I’ll hear a hoot owl calling for me, and on Wildfire I’m going to ride, Bobo greeting me with a woof — there you are!
February 6, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story to the theme “a dog in the daisies.” It can be any dog, real or imagined. Push into the setting and as always, go where the prompt leads!
Respond by February 11, 2020. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Submissions closed. Find our latest Flash Fiction Challenge.
Dog in the Daisies by Charli Mills
I yearn to see you twitch your nose one more time to sniff the wind. To hear you woof a greeting to me, making sure I trail your winding path. To see you poised, a dog in the daisies, ears perked. Happy. I am happy for you. I am content to have had you in my life. You look away from me, toward something I can’t yet see or trust is there. This I know — daisies die and life goes on. Nothing ever breaks down so completely as to disappear. Joy fizzes the smallest particles. So, I follow.
A wisp of tarragon grows from a small pot in my windowsill, a gentle summer monk on a cold winter path to enlightenment. Or maybe not. Maybe, a frail twig of indoor tarragon dreams that one day it might be a hardy spear outside rooted in real dirt. How about — the emergence of tarragon in winter was unexpected as a pregnancy at age 50. Even — the tarragon leaned like a colt on spindly legs toward the window, seeking sunnier pastures.
What am I doing here, you might be pondering? I’m characterizing the upstart of growth in my kitchen herb box, surprised by the frail determination of tarragon I thought dormant. You see, this term of my MFA focuses on character development. Not only do I get to be Dr. Frankenstein to Danni Gordon, but I’m also tasked to bring life to her novel-mates. Thus, I’m practicing on a personified herb.
Character traits come in two forms — external and internal. Which do you dive into first? For me, character development is internal, considering who the character is and why. How did they get to be that way? What personality traits do I use to share the sense of this person with a reader? External traits help, and some are necessary if it matters to the story or character’s growth.
Take gender, for example. It’s an important external trait, typically. We want to know if Harry Potter is a boy or girl. Little Women would be silly if the characters turned out to be male (or perhaps profound with a deliberate framing). I recently read The Whale in the Wolf by Jordanna Max Brodsky. It’s the story of Omat, a small clan’s next shaman. The character is born to a young widow following a tragic accident on the ice that claimed all the young hunters (there were four, which conveys how small and vulnerable this group of people are). The baby is limp, the mother has expired, and the midwife abandons the newborn to the elements. The next day, a wolf appears over the baby who has survived the night, heralding the child as the new guide to a people whose hunting skills also rely on pleasing the spirits.
As a reader, we follow the child’s upbringing through his own story. We know he is small, has two freckles on his cheek from his mother’s final tears at birth, and is male. Omat was the name of his uncle. It’s believed that the spirit of the wolf and Omat reside in this young apprentice to the spirit realm. Those are the external traits. Internally, we learn that Omat is fiercely loyal to his family, determined to succeed as a shaman and a hunter, learning at every chance. A serious and studious person. He recognizes the jealousy of his older brother, who is bigger and stronger but envies Omat’s abilities. As characters, they are a striking contrast in personality. This deepens our understanding of who the Inuit are — individuals, and yet dependant upon group dynamics for survival.
Internal characteristics enrichen a story. They are the traits we can slip into. When we feel like Harry Potter or Omat, we don’t become boys. Instead, we become the personalities having experiences we relate to through the characters. Ultimately it doesn’t matter what shade of green a character’s eyes; it matters that we can see through her eyes and experience a new culture, past event, or future predicament. Internal traits embody the emotion of a novel, which is where character growth resides. Note: character growth is not a mandate, but it is an element crucial to some genres. For example, both characters must grow in romance to experience the happily ever after (or good enough for now) ending. Contemporary character-driven novels often hang a satisfying conclusion upon that growth.
Yet external traits come into play with that growth (or character arc), too. Those freckles, dark hair and coloring, and size add up to Omat’s unattractiveness to a blond, strapping Viking he’s rescued when later trying to find his brother. Brodsky manages to develop a natural unfolding of two people from different cultures through a process of friendship. Both find their external traits initially repulsive, but as they become friends and build trust to survive the harsh climate and rescue of Omat’s brother. In a way, this phenomenon shows that looks matter less than intention and action.
What is surprising is that one physical trait becomes the cornerstone of character growth for Omat. He was actually born a female biologically. The reader learns of this early on and comes to understand that Inuit have three genders because of their belief in ancestor souls returning to the newborn of their clan. It’s a complicated system where one’s son might also be a grandfather. And, in the case of Omat, the male spirit inhabited the baby girl. The book is Omat’s identity struggle physically, spiritually, and between cultures. It’s intricately written and well-plotted to be concerned for Omat on many levels.
According to one of my professors and the books I’m currently plowing through, every character has a core trait. For example, Omat’s concern for clan survival formed the core of a person who learned to accept both a woman’s body and a male spirit. Every plot point that emerged, Omat responded from failure or success to integrate self with survival. Another way to look at core personality is to examine psychology or personality tests. I once did numerology on the birthdates for the historical characters in Rock Creek and gained valuable insight.
Do you have to go take the Meyers Briggs for your character as I did for Danni Gordon? No. But you do need to have a core internal trait that guides your character’s actions and growth. As authors, we run the risk of developing characters who are flat, false, or familiar (to ourselves). If you want as deep of a dive as I’m currently submerged in, here are some reading materials:
- Plot Versus Character by Jeff Gerke
- Please Understand Me II by David Keirsey (recommended by Jeff Gerke)
- The Psychology Workbook for Writers by Darian Smith (I’d buy one from Anne Goodwin)
- Writer’s Guide to Characterization by Victoria Lynn Schmidt (and yes, it includes the Hero’s Journey)
I’m also reading Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and recognizing why this book won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It’s a portrait of one woman’s life through the multiple perspectives of those who know her. It spans numerous decades but is not linear, with each chapter reading like a short story from different periods of her life. Some chapters aren’t even about her but have something to reveal who she is. It’s a remarkable contemporary novel and has saved me from the despair after having clawed my way through Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies.
It’s important to read as a writer.
Read your genre. Read yesterday’s classics and today’s big prize winners. Read independents and small presses. Read what you like and define why. Study what succeeds even if you are not the target reader. Build your apprenticeship that not only takes you where you want to go but also gives you a fabulous journey along the way. Write daily. Plot fairy tales in the shower for practice. Talk about what you read or wrote and why either moved you.
Like a single sprig of tarragon, we grow our gardens from the faintest ideas to the strongest cores.
With winter piled upon the Keweenaw and garden season far away, I wondered what it must like to be a mail carrier in extreme conditions or unusual locations. How does the character’s core trait interact with such environments? What conditions can happen on the job to create a conflict, tension, or a plot twist?
January 30, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a postal carrier in an extreme situation. Even if you base your story on a true one, focus on the core trait of this postal carrier. Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by February 4, 2020. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Submissions closed. Find our latest Flash Fiction Challenge.
Tough-Minded to the Core by Charli Mills
Poking at her glass eye with a felted mitten, Frankie yelled over the storm, “Ain’t no use, Burt. Can’t get through this detestable blizzard.”
Burt relied on her to find shelter. With one eye, she followed flagged Ponderosa pines back to the ridge where she stored supplies in a cavern. “This is why we scouted last summer, Burt.”
Prepared to ride out the storm, Frankie secured the US mailsack, unsaddled Burt, and cleaned her glass eye while beans bubbled in a tin over a crackling fire. Burt nickered for more oats. Just another day delivering mail to mining camps.
Same window, different image. Downtown Houghton gathers Tech grad students, professors, locals, sledders, and window apparitions. I settled into my Wednesday spot and wondered if I’d see my three Italian sisters in mourning across the street. I didn’t. I saw a row of miners as if sitting on a bench, wearing blue overalls. I never really thought about what copper miners wore. They could have been futuristic astronauts or ancient argonauts. I can’t say I was prepared to see a different image from the one I saw last time I peered across the nighttime street into the darkened window of a closed business.
I thought about ignoring it. We do that with what disturbs us — put the blinders on and pay it no heed. It’s how the chronic homeless on the streets slip into oblivion before our eyes. They become the unseen. It’s not our pain we fear but the reminder of our own vulnerability. And, thoughts go straight to my favorite researcher storyteller, Brene Brown, who expands the idea of embracing our vulnerability:
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”~ Brene Brown
So I explored the darkness. I looked at what was disturbing me about the image I could see of miners created by the reflection of lights and my imagination — they had black hoods on their heads as if they were condemned. Was my mind feeling the pressure of my first week back to school? Regardless, I opened my Word Doc and spun a story in 99-words.
Gerard’s Tale by Charli Mills
Rumbling, the tram lumbers nineteen levels below to the copper veins. Sun, snow — the weather fails to influence the deep. I inhale pulverized basalt, hack black snot. Time slips away, my hands numb [hold the drill, young Geri]. I dream of sweet Maggie’s warmth in our bed, our mewling babe between us [hold the drill, young Geri]. Rock cracks, steel sings, the widow-maker hammers above my head [hold the drill, young Geri]. The tram rumbles like a beast upward, toward my wife and child. My body exits, wrapped in canvas. My soul trapped below, black dust to black dust.
When I realized I only caught one miner, I cut them off. After all, I had work to do. Maybe I’ll continue to press into the songs of condemned copper miners. The brackets reminded me of a chorus as if the group was singing of the individual’s cause of demise. Actually, it’s an influence from a contemporary novel I’m loving to loathe. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff is a beautifully written novel about a seemingly perfect couple (with brackets to denote narrative interruptions from the characterization of their marriage). They are not. And I’m having difficulty with pretention parading as suffering. But I’m pushing myself to dig deeper past my dislike to unravel the workings of the novel.
The Business of Writing class had a reading assignment that amused me because I like to go on about visions and vision-based goals. The article, How to Set Goals for the Life You Actually Want, echoes the Twitter chat I did in December about setting joyful goals. But I’m hoping to learn what I don’t know.
Today’s challenge is going to be something different. Susan Sleggs shared a gif that shows the daily cycle of a park bench, and it is full of different human stories in each timeframe. An option will be to watch the gif play out and write one of the scenes in a story. If the gif is inaccessible for some reason (technology), the prompt will remain “park bench.”
January 23, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a park bench. Use this gif to choose a timeframe and write the story behind that particular scene. Use the time as your title. Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by January 28, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Submissions closed. Find our latest Flash Fiction Challenge.
9:30 by Charli Mills
Gina sat and talked about auras. Maizie chalked vivid colors on the sidewalk, capturing the world’s energy field. She said my daughter was an inquisitive “indigo” and that I was a wise “violet.” I leaned back on the bench, hand in hair, wanting to believe my aura held meaningful hues like she said. But as we walked back to our apartment, all I could think about were the lonely shadows waiting inside. I wonder what color his aura was when my husband died in a botched training? In return, Maizie and I received a flag – red, white, and blue.
A black raven lands on my neighbor’s sloped roof to dig in the snow. Always one for a good bird show, I pause in rinsing dishes to watch. With a long thick beak, the raven scoops snow like those of us below with steel shovels and scoops. Finally, he retrieves something frozen the size of a cracker and lifts his wings, chomping his hoard. The raven must have stashed food on the roof, and I witnessed his mid-day snack.
It’s the days of messy middles. With winter half over in the northern hemisphere, we impatiently endure more snow and wait for the sun to return. Half a world away, Australia suffers a hot mess, waiting for the sun to subside, the heat to relent, the fires to burn out. Writer and educator, Norah Colvin, is safe where she lives in Australia but witnesses the daily impact of her nation burning. Last week, she left a link in the comments to an article that lists genuine organizations to help.
Several years ago, Norah created a S.M.A.G. Badge to spread goodness in the world across our literary, writing, educator, and blogging networks. She called the recognition the Society of Mutual Admiration and Gratitude. It calls to mind what 99-year-old Sirkka said about the anecdote to hate in the world. In her documentary, she calls for us to come together for humanity. S.M.A.G. is such a call. If you look to the right-hand column, you’ll see a graphic and a link to Bushfire Recovery Relief.
Please consider copying the graphic and posting it on your own site, blog, or social media. After all, we are communicators with reader traffic, and together, we can share links to legitimate organizations that have boots on the ground in the areas devastated. Norah also shared an op-ed by Jackie French, who writes, “Focus on what you can do. Don’t cry for what you can’t.” It’s easy to get overwhelmed in the face of tragedy, in life’s unexpected twists, in the persistence required to write novels. So, we focus on what we can do.
Sirkka’s mother protested. It was dangerous to stand up for injustice or call out for rights denied. History is filled with tales of violence against those who protest. When Sirkka’s mother protested, she took her daughter with her. The miners were demanding safer work conditions and fair wages. Their wives and daughters took to the picket lines to deliver these messages and make the world aware of the situations. In return, thugs were hired to beat the women and told to aim for the kidneys. Sirkka recalls standing up to a thug ready to strike her mother but shamed by looking into the eyes of a determined little girl.
On Christmas Eve, 107 years ago in Calumet just north of Carrot Ranch World Headquarters 19 miles, a large group of women and children were celebrating the festivities at the Italian Hall. For six long months, copper miners struck, led by a woman, some call the Joan of Arc of the Copper Country. (You can read about her and others in the new novel, Women of the Copper Country.) It was a time of great tension, and the holiday should have provided a respite. Instead, the greatest mining-related disaster on record in this region occurred that night, and 73 women and children died.
Witnesses claimed that someone yelled, “Fire!” from below. The reception hall was upstairs, and some argue that anti-union thugs held the doors. It remains, to this day, a wound upon the Copper Country community. No one yet agrees to the specific events or intentions, and no one was ever charged for a crime. But when families tried to flee, many slipped down the steep stairs, and inexplicably, the doors failed to open, suffocating those on the stairs.
When Sirkka faced down the thug ready to beat her mother, it was 1925, twelve years after the Italian Hall tragedy. I think about how Sirkka stood up all her life for the “foreign-born” like her parents. Cultures came together to speak up for the reason they came to America in the first place — a better life. From my posts, you know that Finns populate the Keweenaw. So do the Italians. My neighbor’s house that holds the raven stash is Italian-American. In fact, my Roberts Street neighborhood is said to have been an Italian one with many markets. Today, the Keweenaw Co-op remains as our corner grocery store.
Maybe I had all these jumbled ideas in mind — influenced by Sirkka’s documentary and resonating words, by recent research to discover the roots of my Italian neighbor, by concern for climate change and how it is burning and flooding communities. It’s no wonder we feel called to protest, to take up from the long line of others who have confronted injustice. But I’m also a writer, and I let these ideas stew and simmer into something I can serve up in a story. The night after the raven’s visit, I was downtown and looked out the window across the street and saw three women in mourning attire. When I focused, I realized it was an optical illusion of night shows and reflected lights.
But I was curious about what my mind had momentarily witnessed.
If you have ever stared at cloud shapes or optical illusions and seen what is not there, that is the power of imagination. Often we feel the need to correct what we thought we saw. Or sometimes we innocently play like a child and describe great ships or rearing lions that float by in the sky on a summer’s day. I often like to indulge the illusion. If it is real, what do I see? If I look closely at the reflection in a closed business across the street, I see a yarn shop with round skeins for sale, tags bobbing. I can’t explain it. No such thing exists across the street, and I don’t know why my brain thought yarn. Fuzzy, right?
But I go with it. Go ahead, brain, play. I pretend what I’m seeing is real. Across the street is a yarn shop. What else? And there they are — three dark-haired women in long black dresses with corseted waists standing together in a tight huddle. Mourners come to mind. Sisters.
When the Hub comes over and asks if I want another beer (full disclosure: I only had half, and it had nothing to do with the optical illusion). I point out the window, asking if he sees anything in the window across the street. He explains what I’m seeing is a reflection of a reflection of KBC, the local brew-pub. Except he sees it differently. Different perspective. I explain what I see, and he grunts and says he’ll leave me alone to write. Not everyone appreciates imagination. So I write my illusion in a sentence:
Three sisters in black opened a yarn shop in Houghton, Michigan, 19 miles away from where their children died in a stairwell.
I’m surprised by what I write because I was not thinking about the Italian Hall tragedy, but it slipped in there – soft yarn, three dark-haired women in black, dead children. Such is my mind. Normally, this is where I would get excited about discovery and let loose. This time, I’m inviting a playmate over for imagination. As an MFA student, I’m studying the writing process. Imagination and discovery is part of that. How we shape it into a story is another part.
I’m figuring out – learning – what I don’t know about writing fiction. I know I’m a pantser who has easy access to imagination and a keen interest in people, history, and stories. But I’m also learning that my pantsing can lead to half-baked stories. Great ideas, emotive, sharply imagined characters, sometimes I even have a point. Sometimes I lack form, the structure of plotters. Intellectually, I know story arcs and plot points. But imagination doesn’t remember to play with intellect. Writing 99-words helps to bridge left-brain, right-brain. But I’m also learning to incorporate other tools. So, Story Spine gets invited to play.
It looks like this (by Kenn Adams, author and Artistic Director of Synergy Theater):
- Once upon a time…
- Every day…
- But one day…
- Because of that…
- Because of that…
- Because of that…
- Until finally…
- And, ever since then…
Like 99-words, Story Spine becomes a problem-solving tool. So, I used my intriguing first sentence to describe the optical illusion as “once upon a time.” Then I followed the rest of the script.
STORY SPINE DRAFT
Three sisters in black opened a yarn shop in Houghton, Michigan, 14 miles away from where their children died in a stairwell. They stood stiff as marble in the back corner like three dark muses, the waists of their dresses pinched as tight as the grief in their eyes. Heads held high to defy pity from the wives of wealthy mine captains, they sold colorful yarn soft as baby’s hair. Pity or fear, they induced a brisk business.
One day, another Italian family from Calumet crossed the Portage canal and planned a confectionary business. They would armor their building with steel ceilings to curb caramel fires that could start in the expansive kitchen filled with heat and sugar.
Because of the false fire at the Italian Hall on that fateful Christmas Eve, 57 children died in the greatest minie-related disaster of the Copper Country.
Because families lost children, safety and survival melded like chocolate and wove a community with skeins of cashmere.
Because grief poured into business, the next generations of Italian Americans prospered greater than the mine captains, owners and enforcers whose fortunes fizzled with the depth of copper and shallowness of the economy.
Therefore the Copper Country was built on the entrepreneurial spirit of widows, mourning mothers, and a desire for comfort and safety.
I’ll plan to use this draft to put it in place as my 99-word response. It’s interesting to follow the script because I didn’t feel as hemmed in creatively as I had expected. It’s also a good exercise to recognize the Story Spine of books or fairy tales you’ve read. This helps you develop as a writer with another tool to aid your curiosity and imagination.
This weekend, I have a choice — to retreat or protest. The Women’s March happens this Saturday with a protest scheduled for the Houghton Lift Bridge. That same day, my friend Cynthia is hosting a retreat for vision work. I’m thinking back to Jackie French’s words about doing what you can. And Sirkka’s about doing things together. Therefore, my form of protest will be to go on retreat and focus on what Carrot Ranch can do together with writers and poets and bloggers and teachers and readers and storytellers of the world.
Together, let’s make literary art our stand.
Submissions closed. Find our latest Flash Fiction Challenge.
January 16, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a protest story. It can be about a protest, or you can investigate the word and expand the idea. Who is protesting, where, and why? Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by January 21, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Legacy Survived by Charli Mills
Three sisters opened a yarn shop in Houghton 19 miles from where their children died in a stairwell. They stood stiff as marble in the back corner, the waists of their dresses pinched as tight as the grief in their eyes. Round skeins of yarn soft as a baby’s head inspired sales to knitters whose wealth they had once protested. Next door, another displaced Italian family opened a confectionary with fireproof ceiling tiles. In business, they dispensed softness and sweets, set codes for stairs, and prospered. Their surviving children’s grandchildren expanded family enterprises long after the copper mines closed.
Well, it is finished: Term Two Week Ten. My final grades come out on January 16, and this week, we wrapped up our discussions. My thesis, when accepted, will be a contemporary novel about Danni Gordon who is an archeologist ready to settle down but married to a restless veteran who finds a way back to Iraq. In Advanced Literature, we studied the four primary genres of my MFA program: YA, romance, speculative and contemporary. Our final project was short and creative. We had to write a two-sentence story for each genre to show the differences.
Here’s my homework:
YA: My name is Danni and I’m a Nevada girl who can drive steers, mustangs, and any old Jeep. Before you start thinking that’s all cool, understand that my life is misery, too — my name came up on the teenage ranchhands list at the bunkhouse today and I drew short straw to muck out the calving barn.
Romance: Danni couldn’t resist staring at the way the fisherman’s black tee-shirt stretched across his muscled chest and she could forgive him for walking across her archeology grid. Ike had no idea who the stupendously sexy woman digging in the dirt was, but he could forgive her from distracting him from fly-fishing the rest of the afternoon.
Speculative: With a single brushstroke, Danni uncovered a metallic glint among fragments of Navajo potshards. She kept brushing until days later the outline revealed what archeology had not prepared her to find — an ancient spaceship.
Contemporary: Ike charged her with his knife drawn but the full-body impact came from her left side. She never saw the charging moose her husband took down with a single slash.
Can you spot the differences? YA is a teenaged version of Danni told in the first-person POV and demonstrating a strong narrative voice. Romance focuses on a relationship and famously includes a first meet, and often told from alternating perspectives, which I did but as close third-person POV. Speculative includes spaceships. Contemporary creates verisimilitude through details that put the reader in the story. My biggest takeaway, though, is that no matter our genres of preference to write or read, we all blend genres. What is important to know for the purpose of publication is which genre best describes yours. Do you give this topic much thought or do you write what you write?
I’ve come to decide, for now, at least for we are always evolving, that I write contemporary fiction about the women’s frontiers. Typically I look for stories not being told or forgotten in time. As a researcher, it can be hard to find women in the records at all. Yet, stories have a way of rising to the surface, even ones buried in time.
Today, I took an artist’s date with a friend who claims to be the longest-standing student of Finnish language who still can’t speak it. I admire her attempt — it’s like Nordic Welsh. Hancock (Hankooki) has street signs double posted in English and Finnish, and after two years in the Keweenaw, I’m still no closer to understanding how to say a single word. Still, I appreciate living in a place with strong cultural identity from many sectors. While I originally planned a post inspired by my local Italian neighborhood, I got sidetracked this afternoon at the Finnish Cultural Heritage Center, where my friend and I watched the new documentary, Sirkka, by local filmmaker and Finnish American, Kristin Ojaniemi.
At 99 and a half, Sirkka Tuomi Holm is blind in one eye and can hardly see out the other. Born five days before women had the right to vote in the US, her foreign-born Finnish parents raised her to fight for what is right. She stood on picket lines as a child with the working class, joined the Army as a WAC in WWII, and stood up as a hostile witness under the hysteria of McCarthyism. She writes a column in the Finnish American Reporter monthly and says history will always repeat itself. She should know. She’s lived through it. A veteran and a woman born before the Vote. Yet living, breathing, and showing how the past informs the present.
You can see from the film trailer how easily Sirkka captivated me. She relates a story about her shoes falling apart, repairing them with cardboard. She lived through the Great Depression and remembers the harsh times. A teacher referred her to the school principal for a shoe donation. The principal wrote out a slip for the program, but rather than hand it to Sirkka, she crumpled it and threw it on the ground to make the girl fetch it, saying, “You foreign-born make me sick! Lazy! Your father should be working to provide your shoes.”
Those words echo down through time and find new mouths to spill out from, shaming those who migrate for a better life, enduring poverty and hardships in the transition. Sirkka was shamed but held her gaze directly at the interviewer and said of the principal, “She was a bitch on wheels.” 80-some years later, Sirkka still recalls how that woman made her feel. As writers, that’s what we want to capture no matter the genre and its tropes we write. Readers should walk away from books remembering how the characters made them feel.
As for living history, Sirkka participated in the fight against fascism, aiding D-Day in Normandy. Yet, less than a decade later, she watched fear of communism turn to hysteria. Many Finns, such as Sirkka and her parents, were indeed Red Finns. They maintained their language, love of theater, religion, and politics without any subversive motives. She embraced being American because it meant the freedom to be who you are, speaking out, standing up for justice. The tide turned against her, and McCarthyism left her hating. Then, she realized that hate was making her like those who had wronged her. She loved people and made a choice to dispell hate.
Sirkka has a message for us. She says history will repeat itself, and it’s up to us to remain human. We do that together. She said, “Sing together. Go for walks together.” I’ll add to that — write together.
The debut of Sirkka’s film kicked off the mid-winter festival in Hankooki — Heikinpäivä. In Finland, they say, “The bear rolls over,” meaning winter is halfway over. And here’s how they say it:
Heikinpäivä 2020 includes a stick horse parade, pasties, kick-sledding, and a wife-carrying contest. Little appeals to me in the sport’s origins or modern contest, but it makes locals laugh and cheer the contestants without being as intense as other races. But it got me wondering, as writers are wont to do with strange little tidbits — what other ways and reasons might wives be carried?
January 9, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a carried wife. Why is she being carried? Who is carrying? Pick a genre if you’d like and craft a memorable character. Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by January 14, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Submissions closed. Find our latest Flash Fiction Challenge.
Arrival to Rock Creek by Charli Mills
Her black hair sleeked and pinned, Mary Green McCanles rode the Tennessee Walker sidesaddle alongside the wagon train from Carter’s Station. Among the dusty herd and hands, she looked regal and rested. Sarah’s cheeks flushed, and she patted the frizzy sides of her brown hair, feeling like a pale version of Mary. Sarah dimmed when Mary dazzled. Cobb strode from the barn, ignoring the new livestock that just made him the wealthiest man in Nebraska Territory. He swung his wife off the horse and carried to the outburst of cheers. Sarah would have to sleep in the barn tonight.
Outside my front steps, little brown pellets form a scattershot design in the freshly scooped snow. “Farfennugens” comes to mind. It’s a made-up word from the last century — the 1990s. I don’t remember who came up with it, but I recall the incident. My eldest went into kindergarten, where Mrs. C had a classroom bunny. Gus was his name. Every student had a turn, taking home Gus for the weekend. He made similar brown pellets throughout our house, and we called them farfennugens.
These wild farfs puzzle me. Why at the front steps? Our neighborhood bunnies shy away from the doors. When I take Bobo outside, I wander their trails with my gaze, noticing where they dash, where they hunker, and where they hide. I’ve never seen them venture so boldly up the driveway to the steps. And then I recall my poor pitch. Let’s hope I have a better pitch for my thesis than I do with my arm!
Two days ago, after a sloppy-wet blizzard buried us in heavy snow, I watched the pigeons flock in circles. Wanting to make sure our two resident fledglings survive winter, I had been leaving out seed for them, but they were not coming to the back deck once it snowed. I had an idea — I’d sprinkle seed across the driveway the Hub had blown and scooped into a flat white mat. My heart was big, my pitch was not. A cup of seed sailed vertically as if I were trying to feed pigeons in flight. I dropped back down to the steps where I stood.
What the pigeons did not get, the bunnies did. They left their calling cards.
The only hutches I ever remember the women in my family owning were for rabbits, doves, or chickens. Fancy hutches filled with glassware belonged to women elsewhere. Back in Idaho, I used to pick up old glass in the south horse pasture. As a kid, purple glass and square nails held my attention for hours as I combed the hillside behind my house, where likely an old dump had been in the silver mining days. The first time I met someone who collected glassware, I was fascinated to see the pieces in their whole shapes.
Hutches were more common back in the pioneer days. Sod houses and cabins had no built-in cupboards. What I knew as a “pie keep” was a common type of hutch for the practical pioneer wife or ranch cook. Like a rabbit hutch, it employed mesh wire on the doors. The idea was that the cook made the pies on the countertop and then stored the baked goods on the shelves behind the mesh, allowing air to circulate without flies. I could see owning a pie-keep. Yet, it is a fancy hutch I now own.
It did occur to me that I could start collecting whole pieces of glass instead of fragments. But I have this rule of household goods — it must be practical and beautiful. It can’t just be a pretty thing, hanging out to collect dust. I have purchased glassware from the local church thrift and yard sales and the consignment shop. Wine glasses, cider mugs, and teacups for large groups fill my built-ins. I was at a loss as to what to with this large hutch.
For Christmas, Todd got a toy Monster Truck — Gravedigger, a jacked-up hearse on super-inflated tires. Our daughter had seen a friend’s child playing with one and knew she’d have to get one for her dad. The Hub talks in his Monster Truck voice, taking on the persona of Gravedigger. He has vexed me for years in public places, talking to me in his Monster Truck voice. This includes following me through the grocery store, making commentary on every item I set in the cart. In Idaho, he was singing to me in his Monster Truck voice as we were winding through the backroads after cutting firewood, and we turned the bend and, there was the real-deal Gravedigger parked in someone’s yard. It’s a family joke.
So, of course, Gravedigger, the model toy truck, now sits in the center of the fancy hutch. I now know what I will do. Next came the scams (the affectionate name for book and 99-word story sales). The entire bottom shelf is lined with the promotional items I use at farmers markets and book fairs — a copper bowl filled with copper pennies next to a sign offering 99-word stories and a penny for a dollar; a stack of Vol. 1 Anthologies next to a sign and plate of bookmarks touting flash fiction.
Sure, I have some pretties, too, that hold special meaning from special friends. Those and rocks are dispersed. I have room for some local art I might pick up this summer, and room for a bowl of broken glass. The hutch that came with the dining room set now has a purpose. The table gets plenty of use, and moving forward into 2020, it will be the scene of weekly literary events on Thursdays.
Locally, I will host a variety of Thursday evenings from 5-7 p.m. EST. They will alternate, so each one is once a month and will attract different groups of people and a few who want to come to them all. Silent reading parties are for introverts with books. The house is unfinished. Eventually, it will include lots of reading nooks (the Unicorn Room will be a reading room with a plush carpet, lots of sitting pillows, and space for an air mattress for overnight guests who will sleep among the unicorns and cameo-pink walls). Game night is self-explanatory, and my collection includes Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride Europe, Sushi-Go Party, Bananagrams, Story Cubes, and Scrabble. Write-ins are a collective time to write from the various writing nooks throughout the house and are an effective way to be accountable to one’s writing goals. Critique is for those who take my workshops so we can continue to progress on our novels and learn the adaptive critique process I’m developing (so far, it has met with the approval of my professors).
Where do you fit in? Right next to my hutch! I have a lectern where I set up my laptop to record discussions for my MFA classes. On that lectern, I also want to invite you to come and read on a Thursday (Friday morning in Australia). We can do this via Skype, Messenger, FaceTime, or even an old-fashioned phone call. You would introduce yourself, say how long you’ve been wrangling words at Carrot Ranch, what you write and why, and then read some of your 99-word stories, or poetry, or book excerpts. Your choice. It will be a 10-minute spot. And you will help connect the Keweenaw to the World through literary art.
This year, with anticipated and continued stability, my goals include connecting up Carrot Ranch online to World Headquarters on the Keweenaw. I will return to Vermont in July with one writer’s retreat, local workshops, and literary outreach (to libraries and veterans). I’d like to host a couple of writers in residence — a free three day stay where we’ll treat you like literary royalty. My vision grows, but my North Star stays constant — to make literary art accessible (encouragement, inspiration, education, collaboration, and play). I’m still tweaking goals but plan to have plans in place by March, which is the annual anniversary of Carrot Ranch.
If you want to join me on Facebook, I’ve created a private group called Carrot Ranchers. It’s a way to combine multiple communities that intersect here, and also focus on weekly support, accountability to writing goals, and play for writers who want to publish. You can view the weekly schedule here. I realize it’s not for everyone, but anyone who wants to join can. It’s a private group so we can keep it to our known communities (it’s an extension of safe space to grow as a writer).
Now let’s turn our attention to what could be hiding in a hutch.
January 2, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about something found in a hutch. It can be any kind of hutch — a box for critters or a chest for dishes. Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by January 7, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Submissions closed. Find our latest Flash Fiction Challenge.
That One Day (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Sun beat down on the oxidized hood of the Willies Jeep. It was Danni’s ninth birthday and her dad said they’d explore the old wagon road of the 40-Mile Desert. So far, all Danni had seen were oxen bones and rusty horseshoes. Her dad stopped to check out a dried-out pile of wood.
“An old hutch once,” he said.
Danni climbed out and saw a glint of something in what had been a cupboard door. A marble. Not just any marble but a large globe with an elephant inside. That was the day Danni decided to become an archeologist.
The day after Christmas and some might be elated, some might be feeling battle-weary, and some might not recognize the day as any different. Across Roberts Street, the Christmas tree in my neighbor’s window went dark. No more dazzling LED lights to keep me company into the long dark nights I write at my desk next to the window that gave me an unobstructed view of his. Some neighbors up the street still illuminate their old mining homes and likely will into the New Year.
On social media, I’ve witnessed Christmas joy, angst, and meh.
Joy goes to many who had sorrows last year. One close veteran friend battled agent orange-derived cancer, which shadowed the past two years, holidays included. This year, with surgeries and chemo complete, he showered his wife with thoughtful gifts, the kind that will be remembered — years ago she shattered an heirloom casserole from Poland. He finally found a replacement and surprised her with it. It’s understandable that this couple has savored every celebration in December this year from making cookies with the grandkids to the quiet after Christmas Day. Joy returned to them.
Another family I know from those long-ago days in Montana celebrated Christmas with purpose too — that family matters. They sprinkled gothic Halloween humor into traditional Christmas themes because one daughter created that infusion. Families often invent their own traditions, renewing those passed down. I remember this daughter as a girl who was best buddies with my eldest daughter. She and her sister were children, I loved dearly, and when I think about them, I think back to when my kids were little. It’s hard for me to fathom that she took her own life this year.
Grief comes at Christmastime.
Festive lights and remembered carols remind us of loss — death, divorce, and other unexpected changes. We humans like to pretend that change doesn’t happen. Maybe it’s a protective mechanism, a way to avoid contemplating our own mortality. Looks, circumstances, and vitality inevitably change. When I consider those dark Christmas tree lights across the street, I wonder how my neighbor is doing. He lost his wife this summer. Did he honor her memory by putting up the tree? Was he trying to maintain connectivity with their grown kids? Was it a relief to pull the plug on the lights? Let go?
So many of us try to hold onto what we think was the perfect Christmas memories. Others try to break free of the Christmas past. It’s easy to envy those who look like they have it all with gifts piled under a perfectly decorated tree, family in attendance, and intact traditions. The Mormon missionaries who visit talk about the Christmases back home where family was the focal point and Jesus the celebration.
This year, I tried Yule. It didn’t go as planned with my daughter’s friends feeling shy to celebrate a pagan holiday with others. In no way am I looking to replace one religion with another, I just want to cook and hold an open house. My ideal would be to have my children at home, playing games, eating mama’s cooking, and watching Lord of the Rings. But they have work, homes, and lives away from me. It’s unfair to tug them to my wishes.
It’s hard for married couples to navigate the traditions of their blended families. One mom wants this tradition honored, a step-mom wants to be with her kids alone, another mom just wants daughter time. Often, Christmas is the only time of year that families get extended work holidays. How do you decide where to spend that precious time? And it’s right smack in the middle of cold and flu season. It’s enough to make young couples implode.
My daughter and SIL have declared stay-at-home healing time. My son went with his fiance to spend the holiday with her small but close-knit family. And my other daughter encountered a polar bear that got into town on Svalbard Christmas Day. She was indoors, he was outside. How I long for our own close-knit days but honor the fledging of my children.
This is the most wonderful (complex) time of the year. Just scan your social media feed, and you’ll witness the full spectrum of joy, grief, and frustration. You’ll see faith renewed and lost. You’ll see cookies, jokes, and lashing out. What we all need, no matter our circumstances, state of mind, or expectations, is loving-kindness. Stand firm in your own truth, but don’t rob another of theirs. Find common ground, and don’t be afraid of change.
So why all the human commotion this time of year?
How can we not be impacted by the rhythms of our world? In the north, we celebrate the return of light. In the south, we look forward to relief from the peak of the sun. These transitions have occurred without fail for all our history. I think it is no coincidence that the world’s greatest concentration of annual celebrations lands this time of year.
For our modern calendar, no matter where we are in the world, this is year-end. And it carries an energy of closure and renewal. I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions, but I do believe in the power of planning. Every great plan starts with a clear vision, and this is a good time to renew or articulate yours.
On January 8, 2020, at 9 pm EST, you can join me on Twitter at #BookMarketingChat for a full discussion of how to use vision questing as a book author. Even if you have not yet published a book, it’s never too early to build an author platform. Use the search feature to find the chat and follow along, selecting the Latest tab. If you respond or ask a question, be sure to use the hashtag #BookMarketingChat.
2020 will mark my second year of a workshop series I teach called, To Cultivate a Book. This year, I will be experimenting with online classroom components. But first, I’m taking time to create a plan and to renew my vision. Last year, I focused all my efforts and energies on gaining stability. Now that the Hub, Carrot Ranch, and I all have a home, this will be a building up year, laying down the next level on the stable foundation. The prior two years were sheer survival. However, through it all, I never lost sight of my North Star. That’s the power of having a vision.
Life by design.
Whether it is recreating holiday traditions to align with changes, self-care, and compassion or embracing the joy of the traditions you have and share, be the creator of your life’s story. I don’t mean go write a memoir or imagine a better life. Know what you want to do or how you want to be, and create that life one step at a time. Acknowledge where you are and what your circumstances are but then look for ways to invite what you want to be part of your life.
December 26, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that includes the phrase by design. It can be used in any manner — a label, a mantra, a story. Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by December 31, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
By Design by Charli Mills
By design, my garden impressed. Every steppingstone measured, every bulb, seed, and root planted for maximum impact. In life, I did as I was expected. Good grades, college, spouse, suburban split-level, and two sons. On Sundays, I went to church.
Then my husband left me. My sons chose to live with him and his new wife, one without dirt under her nails. I moved into an apartment alone. Devastated. This wasn’t part of the plan. Where was God in this? Then I remembered the mustard seed. By design, I started over with a single planter and found my joy.
The summer before sixth-grade, a girl from Chicago moved to my small hometown in the Sierra Nevadas. She could wrap her ring finger and thumb around her wrist. Such long and nimble fingers. Mine squat short and stout upon the square pad of my hand, failing by a full inch to encircle my thick-boned wrist. This is but one of many instances of body shame I’ve felt in my lifetime.
Garrison Keilor, storyteller and creator of A Prairie Home Companion, once joked that he had a face for radio. I can relate. I’m not one for feeling comfortable in a literal spotlight. I like to be behind the camera, not in front of it. Place my writing in the limelight, and that’s a different scenario. But throughout my career in marketing communications, I often had to go on camera to deliver messages or promote fall apples.
How did I adjust to such discomfort? I got over it.
In some ways, I found it frees me not to have expectations of elegantly long fingers. No one asks me to play the piano. As for cameras, I grin and bear it. And stages? I march right up the steps (and sometimes I fall down them, too) knowing no one is there to watch me. If I’m in such a spotlight, I’m there to read my writing. By the time I finish, no one cares, I can’t encircle my wrist with my fingers. I’m a storyteller, and my voice is my superpower.
Oh, not a voice like a warbler or Dolly Parton. When I say voice, I mean that same one I use when I write. You hear it in your head, not your ears. It’s the voice that plucks the heartstrings, carries the tune of a story, and takes you someplace new. That voice. You have it, too. We all do. It’s what makes us who we are — the sum of all our experiences, thoughts, and emotions rolled up into one enchilada we sprinkle with words and syntax.
I’m beginning to believe that the notion — write what you know — doesn’t mean facts or information. For example, just because I haven’t actually encountered an elephant doesn’t mean I can’t write about one. But when I write about an elephant, I draw upon what I know from my experiences. I feel something about elephants because of the life I’ve lived thus far. I think about elephants in the way I’ve been exposed to ideas, documentaries, or information. When I write about elephants, I write what I know using my voice.
We see evidence of this phenomenon every week at Carrot Ranch. A group of writers responds to a prompt. Think of how different each story is. Sometimes writers go with a similar angle, but ultimately each story is different. Not only are we practicing the craft of creative writing, week after week, we are also exercising our voices. We are writing what we know when we follow where the prompt leads us. It doesn’t matter if any of us are zoologists or circus managers; any of us can write about elephants in our own voice.
My thoughts linger on the stage because that’s where I’ll be tomorrow night. Not the small, intimate stage at the Continental Fire Company, but the world-class 3,800-square-foot main stage at the Rozsa Center for the Performing Arts. My knees are knocking more than a little bit. Last week, I thought I’d be sitting comfortably in my season ticket holder seat, D32 watching the old-time radio and variety show, Red Jacket Jamboree. Now, I’m one of the show’s guest storytellers.
How did this all come about? Last year, I bought a booth at the Rozsa Center to sell my stock of The Congress of the Rough Writers Flash Fiction Anthology Vol. 1. I met the executive director of the theater who took the time to learn about Carrot Ranch and 99-word stories. D. Avery had given me a brilliant idea — to sell 99-words for 99 cents. That encounter reminded the director that she wanted to do something literary at the performing arts center. She did. She brought in Selected Shorts this season. Then she remembered Carrot Ranch and found out I was doing 99-word workshops at the library, and that’s how I was asked to prepare writers to submit to a Selected Shorts contest.
Last week, I told you about the winning entry and the power of writing 99-words. The winning author used 99-word increments to build the arc of her 750-word story. Another writer who writes at Wrangling Words every month (the library program) had her story picked up by one of the writers and performers of Red Jacket. When we spoke after the Selected Shorts performance, my friend who went with me had picked up my story. She gave it to the Red Jacket person and said, “You have to read Charli’s story.”
We all need friends who believe in us, or who watch our backs. I’m fortunate to have such friends. After I returned from Moon Lodge, I had an email from Red Jacket asking if I’d be interested in reading “To Be Known.” You betcha! Then came a flurry of edits — it’s a radio spot, so each segment is the length of a song. I had to get 750-words down to 3-minutes. I revised, read, and trimmed more so I could control the pacing without feeling that I had to read at a clipped pace. Tomorrow at 2 p.m., I show up at the Rozsa for dress rehearsal.
Red Jacket Jamboree performs like the Grand Ole Opry, where all the performers stay on stage throughout the show. We are to laugh, clap, and engage the audience. Naturally, I had one of those panicked what-will-I-wear moments. I had enough time to find a sheer cascading vest of red and black buffalo plaid (Northwoods meets holiday performance), and best of all, it only cost $16. My daughter, the dancer, has lots of glitzy jewelry, and she’s loaning me a set to wear and she’s doing my makeup. I’ll curl my hair, wear my black Mary Janes, and be ready for the spotlight!
And if I feel too nervous, I have a new gnome named Phineas who is like a big cuddly teddy bear. I’m bringing him backstage. Yes, I fell in love with a gnome at Cafe Rosetta. I have my own tonttu.
If you get a chance, I recommend finding an open mic night in your area. Go and read your stories. Red Jacket won a grant to develop the Keweenaw Folklife and Storytelling Center. I don’t yet know how, but Carrot Ranch will be involved! And visiting writers will get to experience the new cultural destination.
Wishing you all a Happy Holidays! I’m celebrating Solstice, Yule, Christmas and Finals next week. Embrace this season that calls us to slow down. Read a good book under a warm blanket. Unplug, unwind, go look at Christmas lights. Practice kindness. Unleash your voice. Write.
December 19, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that features an open mic night. Take a character backstage, on stage or into the deep woods. Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by December 24, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Submissions closed. Find our latest Flash Fiction Challenge.
Open Mic Night by Charli Mills
Mark tripped, spilling loose-leaf pages from a tattered folder.
Bobby laid a hand on the thin man’s shoulder. “It’s okay, dude. First time here?”
“Yeah.” Mark clutched the folder to his chest.
“A poet, eh?” Bobby tapped the folder.
“Been a while since we had rhythmical composition.” Bobby called the gathering to order, issuing encouragement. Some had instruments made of discarded objects. Some had stories memorized in their heads. One man whistled. Only Mark had paper. A luxury at open mic night on the corner of 5th and Elm where the homeless gathered for culture and comradery.