So, we’re halfway through January! Time for the surprise I promised. What I have in mind is to share and discuss a story each month. I’ll start with a piece of flash fiction, “Quail,” by VickiXu and published by Split Lip Magazine.
“Quail” is set in a Chinese supermarket. Buried in its opening is a hint of a buried regret. Aunty Li, the story’s main character, has “learned to find comfort in” the jumbled Mandarin of Chinese expats living in America. But hearing a snatch of childhood dialect, pure in form, sets off lush, full-sensory memories, and in a moment, we see the contrasts between present and past, an artificial and a natural environment, that reveal the pretense of Aunty Li’s “comfort.” Set among “neat aisles,” where everything is compartmentalized, shelved, and far removed from its place of origins, Aunty Li’s separation from place, community, language, mother, daughter, and self is exposed. A quiet, unassuming moment feels volcanic, and we’re left imagining its seismic repercussions.
“Quail” perfectly illustrates flash fiction’s power of compression. Reading this precisely crafted moment set off seismic waves within me. Who doesn’t have, like Aunty Li, regrets in life? Our regrets might involve a relationship, a job, or the dull routines consuming our day-to-days. Consuming time itself. Perhaps we regret inaction or some bold move. Like Aunty Li, we might counter the stress of experiencing regret by creating a false sense of contentment and convincing ourselves that we find comfort within it.
Reading Vicki Xu’s “Quail,” what did you feel? Is there something in your life that could trigger a memory with the power to create seismic waves? Try to express that moment and imply its repercussions in fewer than 300 words.
One time, years before I knew anything about physics, I was pedaling my bike down a sloping stretch of our suburban street and I saw a single brick lying on the pavement. Construction was ongoing in the neighborhood, and builders’ trucks shed things regularly, like ropes, a thermos, or a leather glove. I imagined hitting that brick and flying through the air a là Evel Knievel, the stunt motorcyclist shown on TV recently, jumping fifteen Ford Mustangs.
I pedaled faster, gaining speed, and a roaring crowd filled my ears. A news reporter narrated my approach moment by moment. I pedaled faster. Harder. To fly higher.
I hit the brick, and—yes!—I flew.
Oh boy, did I fly.
This is the beginning of story:in a familiar landscape, something is different. Oh, look! A brick. Add some form of what if to that difference and you take off. What if I hit that brick going full speed on my bike?
I will fly.
A familiar landscape can be just about anything, particular or abstract. The street you once lived on, live on now, or one you’ve been imagining and visiting since childhood. It can be memory evoked. Kept it simple or add layers of complexity. Here I am, an unremarkable Caucasian woman in her sixties, walking down a busy street in Zurich, Switzerland, thinking random thoughts in Swiss-German, when I smell steaming white rice. Fresh pineapple hits a wok sizzling with garlic, onions, and pork. Time and place shift. I’m twelve years old, in the center of Tainan, Taiwan, surrounded by the buzz and horns of local traffic and conversations in Taiwanese. A dog barks. A street vendor scrapes a wok with a metal spatula. The wok releases the scents of garlic, onions, pork, and carmaelizing pineapple. What if that vendor opens a rice cooker, fragrant steam escaping, and a kernel of rice screams for help?
Remember that brick lying in the street? I was going Top Speed when I hit it. And sure enough, I flew.
Right. Over. My handlebars.
Is that a story? Not quite, right? But it’s change powerful enough to incite a story. Add layers of What ifs and see what happens:
What if a little girl’s boarding a school bus the day after she rode her bike into a brick? She’s sore and ashamed of the Band-Aids covering her nose, upper lip, and chin. What if a boy on the bus sticks out a foot and trips her? Or what if she so enraged she beats up the mean boy? What if her class crush stops her instead, just before she trips? Or what if she falls on her wounded face and sees, huddled beneath the seats, a dog-faced creature with pointy ears and hair that grows like a flame from the top of its head? She smiles and feels herself immediately transformed and transported . . .
Take an event from your childhood. Add layers of what ifs and see where they might lead you.
We all know the fun of collective nouns. A murder of crows! A parliament of owls! A lying of pardoners!
Kathy Fish, seasoned teacher and writer of brilliant flash fiction, lures us into her “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild” (which appeared in Jellyfish Review in 2017) with what reads like an innocent vocabulary romp. Some romps are pure fun, some combine fun with a lesson. Kathy Fish’s 135–word romp is a lesson in social commentary.
The story ends with a zinger. Not a twist, which once was the aim of most flash-fiction writers. No, it ends with one of the art form’s best ever zingers. Where Kathy Fish ends her story will send shock waves through your marrow. I don’t exaggerate and I won’t elaborate. Read it.
Read it for its impact. Once you recover, go back and look at the rhythm she creates by using a simple switching of nouns and noun phrases. One precedes the other; switch. Note her use of single-sentence paragraphs. For punch. And how, once she’s lured us into the fun complete, and mesmerized us wither her use of rhythm, she lands the ending. Whomp.
Whenever I think of point of view and details, I think of grass.
Grass is grass—right? We may find it more attractive when it thrives in a proper place, like a suburban lawn rather than between slabs of sidewalk. And perhaps more attractive still, when it’s carefully tended to, watered, mowed, and fertilized.
Growing up in a military family, I moved around a lot. From place to place, lawns changed. In Texas, their trimmed blades were scratchy. Lawns resembled green pot-scrubbers. In Arizona, our base-housing lawns looked inviting, but run barefoot across one, and you might hit a thorn as sharp as a dagger. Ow! In North Carolina, our grass struggled to thrive in the clay soil. In Ohio, it grew lush and soft.
But when I was fourteen, Dad hung up his uniform, and we moved to the Oregon countryside. We bought horses, and the world of grasses really transformed. From ornamentation to food. Our horses rushed to lush blades, their teeth cropping them with vigor.
I began to gauge a pasture’s appeal from a horse’s perspective. Mmm, well-watered and fetlock-high grasses. Spring grasses grew rich and inviting—but too much, too fast, could produce an aching belly. And, oh, dear, how heartbreaking; anything nibbled to dust levels or dried to hay or worse, dried to brittle, seedless stalks.
Names grew in fields—meadow fescue, perennial ryegrass, Kentucky bluegrass, and sweet timothy. Complexity grew, too. The best pastures offered grazers a mix of grasses and herbs. The suburban gardener might detest clover, yarrow, and dandelions but not the grazing horse.
I could go on and on about pastures—and don’t get me started about horses—but you might be asking what grass has to do with writing. It’s about learning to take a detail and detailing it.
Grass. You can allude to a season in a story by whether the grass is frost-covered, new-growth lush, or sun withered. You can describe its setting—city, suburbs, countryside—and its color and texture. And what about metaphor? What does grass mean from the perspective of suburban child, growing in friendly or unfriendly soils? A picked-over monoculture, chock full of weeds, or a bounty of nutritious and healing herbs?
Take a detail you think you know. View your “grass” from a fresh perspective. Get down on your knees and dig deeper. What’s there? Strawberries? Primroses? An orchid or mushroom? Stinging nettles or poison ivy? You may think you understand your lawns or pastures, but worlds of wildlife live below the blades of grasses and herbs, mammals, insects, spiders. Mosses, fungi, bacteria, microbes, viruses, and more. How can a fresh perspective impact your story? Its setting, conflict, or characters?
This is the tale of sister stories. They share a mother, me, and a father, an Italian idiom that’d been translated into English. Both stories were born in a global pandemic.
If you’ve never come across idioms translated from their native language into your own, go search for some. What seems to make sense (until you think about them) rarely translates well. Several years ago, I found a website of idioms from around the world translated into English and colorfully illustrated. Reading through the list felt like reading flash fiction prompts.
Several idioms popped like a gun fired at the start of a race, my imagination off the blocks and adrenaline fueled. Each Friday, I’d work with one to create a piece of flash fiction. My intent was to teach myself flash-fiction techniques—strong imagery, tight prose, use of in medias res, alliteration, repetition, metaphor, and similes—and to improve my general writing skills.
In the meantime, the COVID pandemic ravaged Northern Italy, wiping out families, neighborhoods, and even villages. The news reported military vehicles transporting stacks of coffins and neighbors singing from the safety of their balconies. Once the pandemic seemed to be taking a breather, my husband and I drove down to Venice. When I came upon the Italian idiom, “fuori come un balcone” (outside as a balcony), which relates to the English idiom “you’re off your rocker,” I felt prompted to write a piece about the pandemic’s impact on a Venetian neighborhood.
Two years later, Mediterranean Poetry contacted me, the editor apologizing for reaching out so long after I’d submitted “Outside as a Balcony (Italian: Fuori come un balcone)” for consideration. Apparently, my submission had landed and languished in his Spam folder—but he wished to publish it.
At first, I panicked—had I not withdrawn my submission from his publication?
I also checked his submission guidelines. The publication accepted previously published work. So, why not say yes? I responded, mentioning the piece’s publication in Bandit Fiction and that if he was fine with publishing it again (two years, after all, had passed), I’d be happy to see it in Mediterranean Poetry.
But apparently, the Bandit Fiction story wasn’t the story I’d submitted to Mediterranean Poetry (I’d deleted my submission email and had no idea what I’d actually submitted. The editor kindly sent me the copy I’d submitted to him. The two stories read like two sides of a moon. Since I liked both, I gave the editor permission to run the piece he loved.
They’re great examples of what a difference strong edits and a changing approach to repetition can make. Should you wish to compare them, here they are:
Recently, I participated in a flash-fiction writing workshop that ran for three weeks. Each week, the workshop participants were assigned to a new instructor and small group. Each instructor gave the participant groups a daily theme, readings, and a writing assignment. We could share our work within our small groups and hand in one assignment draft to our instructor for feedback at the end of each week.
Now, I’m revisiting each story I generated, taking a fresh look at what I produced. There’s often a great discrepancy between my excitement for a new story and how exciting the first draft actually reads a few weeks later.
Last night, I revisited one of the first drafts from the workshop. I recalled patting myself on the back for such a “tight” draft, writing that wouldn’t need too much “polish” to finish. Wrong. I had a story with too many complexities for its size. My main character struggled with two external conflicts and two internal conflicts. One particular line within the story generated positive feedback from my workshop group, which made it feel vital to the piece. Wrong again. It happened to be the one sentence that introduced the character’s second internal conflict—that one complexity too many. Because the sentence had generated positive attention, I tried reworking the story to fit it and ended up running the story right off of its tracks.
There’s a trick to know when a sentence jumps out because it’s key to the story’s intent or because it’s rogue.
If you’ve ever been advised to “cut your darlings” and not really understood what a “darling” is, think of this kind of situation: a strong, but rogue, sentence, a sentence that introduces a complexity the story doesn’t have the capacity to fulfil or a level of lyricism or description that feels out of sync with its surrounds. A “darling” may be a sentence you cannot believe you came up with. You may feel unwilling to admit the threat it poses, to pull your reader out of your story’s flow, away from your story’s intent.
I ended up cutting the sentence because it led my reader out of the story that wanted to emerge. Stories can do that, tell you what they want to be about, but you’ve got to be willing to listen. Listen, and sacrifice what you want for what the story wants.
For the time being, I’ve set aside my rogue sentence. Actually, it might make the first sentence of a new story. And I like that idea.
Do you have a “darling” tale? Or a story that isn’t quite coming together? Could there be a “darling” at fault? A sentence that introduces unnecessary complexity or shifts narrative style?
I’d love to hear your story about wrestling with the rogue.
Several years ago, the Switzerland-based novelist and translator Michelle Bailat-Jones offered an in-person novel-writing course in Lausanne, on the Lake of Geneva. Participating would have meant a six-hour commute to each session. For six months. I just couldn’t swing it. When she offered a weekend writers getaway, I immediately booked myself a round-trip train ticket and two nights in a quirky hotel close to Lausanne’s main station.
On that retreat, I met a great group of writers and read excerpts from brilliant works-in-progress. Michelle gave tips, support, and resonating feedback. As we packed up to head home, she asked a parting question: “What are your writing plans for the year?” Thunder roiled, but no lightning struck: I didn’t have plan: Why didn’t I have a plan?
My long train ride home gave me time to think. I should have a plan. I already practiced two beneficial writing habits, showing up to my desk every weekday morning at five o’clock and writing flash fiction.
Getting up early gives me two hours of quiet before the house wakes up, before it’s time to get ready for work. Okay, weekends, I sleep in. Until six. (What can I say? I’m a person who’s awake when she wakes up, and I generally stir—as in, Oh, boy! It’s morning!—between four-thirty and five.) I make myself a cup of coffee, and on winter mornings, I build a fire in our Kachelofen, the tiled stove.
At the time of the retreat, I’d only recently turned to writing flash fiction—as a craft exercise. Keeping works lean, purposeful. Cutting flabbiness. I’d keep my short pieces to five hundred words.
My new plan took form. Every day, I’d continue to show up. On Mondays, I’d submit two stories—longform or flash—to publications. Tuesdays, I’d research publications. It’s vital to find a good fit for what I do and how I do it. To seek a shared aesthetic. It’s also vital to know when publications accept submissions. Some have specific reading periods, which I now plug into my calendar along with word-count limits and site links. Wednesdays and Thursdays I’d write and/or edit. And Fridays I’d dedicate to flash fiction.
My list of publications has been growing because I joined that retreat. So, thanks, Michelle, I’m indebted to you! My plans are growing, too. They now include showing up on social media and keeping this website current. And as for my musing here, I’ve got a switch in mind.
Starting next year, I plan to focus on writing, processes, and techniques. What do you think? Care to join me? Do you have a topic you’d like see discussed—or one of my publications? Let me know. I’ve also got an idea for a mid-month bonus. But I’ll leave that for you to unpack in January.
Thank you for your visit. For joining my Meredith Writes journey. I wish you a joyful holiday season and an easy and safe slide into 2023. May your plans take root and yield great pleasures. And treasures.
The first Thanksgiving I spent abroad, we were living in Tainan, Taiwan, and I was eleven years old. My dad, career air force, commanded a military installation and coordinated with the American-trained Republic of China Air Force. At the time, Chiang Kai-shek was still alive and head of the Kuomintang, which ruled Taiwan. Martial Law—not that I was aware of it—prevailed. Two women worked for my mom, keeping us fed and our house in order. Both were Taiwanese, and both refused to work whenever my parents threw parties that included Chinese guests. The elder of the two, a woman who ask us to call her Ann, suggested that the Japanese occupants, pre-WWII, had been better liked than the Chinese.
Days before that first Thanksgiving on the island, we received the delivery of a turkey, a gift from one of the ROCAF generals Dad worked with. It was a live bird. Ann installed it in the large, screened-in porch above our carport. A sturdy and no-nonsense woman (“housegirl” to our elitist, expat community), Ann found my insistence on keeping the creature as a pet, laughable. She didn’t hide her contempt when I gave it a name. (Oh, I cannot tell you the many and frequent ways I earned her contempt.) “There’s no way we’re going to eat it,” I said. I was sure my mom would agree.
Dad knew turkeys well. “Dumbest creatures on the planet,” he’d say just about every Thanksgiving as Mom pulled a steaming, skin-crackling carcass out of the oven. During the Great Depression, his parents had raised turkeys for a little extra income and put him in charge of their keep. His experience, of course, was with the domesticated, white bird—quite unlike our scrawny porch guest with its long neck and brown feathers.
The day after the bird’s arrival, I rushed straight to the porch after school to find the space empty. “Where’s (bird’s name)?” I asked Ann, who’d followed me upstairs. She crossed her arms and said, “Your parents gave the turkey to Lee. He lives on a farm. The turkey is happy now. It lives in the country.” Lee was our gardener.
I’m sure I started to cry. I knew better than to believe the turkey would survive the chopping block.
On Thanksgiving, it was pure relief to see a fat Butterball turkey from the base commissary going into the oven.
Kaiserstuhl, Switzerland, twenty years later: Markus and I invited his family, thirteen adults and children to join us in giving thanks. Weeks earlier, I’d gone to the local butcher, located in a village a thirty-minute walk away, and asked if I could order a turkey. My request excited the butcher, a stylish man fashionably bespectacled; his wife, who worked alongside him, was equally stylish and fashionably bespectacled. “Of course!” he said. “When do you want to pick it up? It will be frozen, by the way. Is that okay?”
“No problem!” We agreed upon a date.
Because Thanksgiving isn’t a Swiss observance, there was no way to invite family over for a late Thursday afternoon meal; no one had the day off, so I scheduled a Saturday feast. There would be no (American) football to watch—actually, we didn’t own a TV, anyway—and I would be in charge of the whole meal. No one would be saying, “I’ll bring the mashed potatoes!,” “The broccoli in cheese sauce is on me!,” or “I make a killer pecan pie—my grandmother’s recipe. Interested?” Yes, yes, yes.
The butcher and his wife proudly presented me my frozen turkey. And, good grief, it was the real deal: a Butterball. I didn’t know it then, but it would be the last turkey I’d buy for my Thanksgivings abroad that included the giblets. Oh, how I’d plea for a neck and giblets to be included with all future, locally sourced birds; oh, every year’s disappointment. I quit buying birds from one farm because the farmer trimmed off the tail and all that flappy skin I needed to sew in my stuffing. I couldn’t convince the man to leave it on for me.
The Butterball purveyor, wrapping up my bird, said, “That’ll be two hundred and fifty Swiss francs, please.” In US dollars—I was still doing conversions in my head—my perfect turkey came in around $200.00. My knees buckled. Why hadn’t I asked the butcher how much he’d be charging me? What would Markus say to a bird worth its weight in gold?
He didn’t blink an eye, and a gorgeous, golden-brown bird came out of the oven. I presented it to the family Rockwellian style, placing it before Markus, seated at the head of the table. He stood, picked up the carving knife, and sawed off an entire leg. Holding it up, he said, “Who wants a leg?”
Well, how was he to know how to carve a bird in Thanksgiving style?
A summer night. The kids in bed. Our windows open. Lights dapple the pollarded chestnut trees of the Gartenwirtschaft across the street. Two teens occupy a bench at the train station visible from our living room window, and their conversation rises above the restaurant’s banter and laughter. The language they speak is Schwyzertüütsch, a Swiss-German dialect, lovely and lyrical.
From her upstairs bedroom, our ten-year-old daughter shouts, “I can hear you!”
The teens immediately switch to French, which they learn in school.
It just so happens that we’ve only recently relocated here from a five-year stint in France, where our kids attended the local kindergarten and primary school. We had the chance to settle there but chose to return to Switzerland, to live close to my husband’s family. We’re renting next door to where my husband grew up. His parents live a block away, in a house they built after their retirement.
I go to the living room window and gesture to him to join me in eavesdropping on this exchange.
Our daughter usually falls asleep quickly, but within minutes of being asleep, she’ll be on her feet and sobbing, heading to the top of the stairs. One of us will always listen for her, fearful that she might trip over something or stumble down the stairs. One of us will go to her to offer comfort. We’ll lead her back to bed where she’ll promptly fall into a deep sleep that sees her through the night. Her two younger siblings, inured to this odd ritual, sleep on.
Recently, between hiccups of sobs, our sleepwalker expressed frustration about something being left undone. Without having any idea what it was, I said, “Oh, I finished that for you. Go to sleep, darling.”
“Really?” she said through sobbing hiccups, “It’s done?”
I said, “All done!”
Within days of this trick being employed, she stopped sleepwalking altogether; but that summer, her father and I were still habituated and attuned to listening for her somnambulate sobs and treads.
Fully awake now, though, she yells, “Je comprends français, aussi !”
The teens on the platform exchange looks of astonishment, their mouths open. One whispers something, and the other says, considerably louder, “Okay, then. English.”
It just so happens, I’m from the States. I speak North American English with the kids. I’ve learned Schwyzertüütsch and French, but my accent falls harsh on native speaker ears. While we still lived in France, our daughter told a plumber, “Maman parle anglais parce qu’elle est anglaise. Papa parle allemand parce qu’il est allemand. Je parle français parce que je suis français.” I laughed. Wrong on three accounts.
Upstairs, our daughter shouts, “And I speak English, too! So, shut up!”
One of the teens cries, “Who are you?”
Our daughter, now grown, lives in LA. On a recent visit, she says, “Here, I feel so American. But there, I’m so Swiss.”
“Don’t fly back home over Charles de Gaulle,” I say.
She laughs—indeed, she will be, and probably feeling totally French.
To those acclimated to Swiss summers, temperatures pushing 85°F (29.5°C) feels scorching. Usually, we reach such temperatures around mid-July, suffering for a maximum of three weeks. Even at their peak days, they’ll drop significantly at night. And we sleep restfully in such a respite.
North of the Alps, Swiss houses aren’t equipped with air conditioning. At worst, we suffer. At best, we cope with floor fans. The stay-at-home Swiss (-German) generally close their windows and shutters against the heat, opening them when the air starts to cool. They’ll complain bitterly about being stuck all day in a dark and stuffy house.
I used to argue with former work colleagues about how to respond to summer heat. Our office building had no air conditioning. In the mornings, we’d open the windows to air out the place. I’d insist on keeping some open all day to encourage air circulation, which I considered critical to staying comfortable. Sure, we’d sweat, but at least we wouldn’t suffocate. I also advocated for the purchase of fans. To zero effect. My coworkers—and everyone else in the company—shut the windows and shutters around ten o’clock to “keep in the cool air.” Miserable. When I bought myself a desk fan, my coworkers complained of the draft it caused.
When I was growing up in the US and elsewhere—in places like Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, Ohio, and even Taiwan—my parents didn’t consider the day hot until the mercury broke 100°F (37.7°C). I recall Mom claiming we’d catch cold if we went swimming before it reached 100°. They’d grown up in Central and West Texas. During a summer day—the heat lasting months rather than weeks—fans circulated the air around our house. In fact, the rumbling of fans felt as summery to me as bare feet, swimming lessons, and a fat watermelon chilling in a tub of ice.
While driving through the southwest deserts of the US, I introduced the kids to what travels had been like in the early 60s. No air conditioning: windows open. In the dry heat, we weren’t miserable until the mercury broke 107°F (41°C).
One summer in Switzerland, the temperatures weren’t dropping at night, and I longed for that childhood rumble and sweep of moving air. I bought a table fan and set it up in our room at bedtime. Markus said, “What’s this? That thing can’t run all night long.” On one hand, I can count the times he’s conceded that the fan’s hum and drift is easier to endure at night than any summer heat.
Nowadays, when I work alone in the house, two fans operate. One in the cellar pushes cool air up the stairwell, and an upstairs one keeps that cool air circulating. The temperatures broke 100° (37.7°C) this year. I cracked open a roof window, intending to create a chute to encourage the hot air to leave the house.
Did it work? Maybe.
But the buzzing fans readily returned me to a childhood sense of wellbeing. A great comfort.