Flash Fiction: Secrets

I’ve been meaning to post a new flash fiction for ages – finally, here it is! Inspired by a photograph of a letter and a mysterious key. They seem full of secrets.


Now that I’d reached the back of Gran’s closet, cleaning it out became slightly less painful. Like pressing on a bruise instead of stabbing with a hot needle. The dresses and skirts here were old items, obviously treasured, but I had no memories of her wearing them. I pulled out a black dress beaded with jet and flecks of silver. It could have belonged to a stranger, for I’d never seen it before. It smelled faintly of potpourri, the last ghostly linger of perfume.

I laid the dress on the stripped bed, smoothing my fingertips over the straight skirt. I could picture Gran as a flapper, sort of – I’d seen pictures of her with a sleek bob and matte lipstick. The short fringe dangling from the dress’s hem would have swished and trembled with each shimmy of the wearer’s hips, and I smiled to think of Gran dancing in it.

That smile turned into another pulse of pain, mourning sharp in my veins, leaving a salty taste in my mouth. I’d never again hear Gran singing Edith Piaf as she baked strawberry pie, or humming as she picked flowers from her garden to donate to the hospital. That emptiness ached, squeezing the air from my lungs, closing my throat.

I lifted the dress to my cheek, as if it could somehow bring me closer to her again. The fabric crackled under my cheek, which lead me to discover a hidden pocket, cleverly sewn at the hip and just large enough to hold a small piece of paper, folded four times. The heavy creases had grown soft as silk over the years, and I opened the paper with caution, afraid of tearing it. The once-black ink had faded to tea-stain brown, but I could still read the narrow script.

Rosie, it began, addressed to Gran:

After tonight, we’ll never have to see each other again. The plan hasn’t changed, but the time is confirmed. Create a distraction at exactly 9:05. Make sure the back door is unlocked before that. The diary will be hidden at our usual meeting place, and you may reclaim it any time after tonight.

I don’t think I need to say that this secret never leaves us two.

J

My mouth gaped. This mysterious letter didn’t seem as if it could have anything to do with sweet, unselfish Gran. Did it refer to a crime? Worriedly, I checked the other side of the dress for more letters, and instead discovered a hard, tiny bump. I almost tore the skirt’s lining in my attempt to get it free, and then I held a small metal key in my hand. One that would probably unlock a diary.

I gingerly placed the key and the letter on the bedside table. I knew where the diary was. I’d found it once years ago, while playing dress up with Gran’s shoes. She made me promise to never say anything, and I’d childishly agreed, putting it from my mind for the promise of a trip to the park.

If I read it, anything I learned could never be forgotten. Curiosity yanked me toward the diary, nestled in a shoebox, but fear held me back. The contents of the diary could change my view of Gran, snatching her away even more than death already had. My teeth fretted at my lip.

Eventually, I burnt the letter in a green tea scented candle I found on her dresser. I shoved the diary key into my pocket, and turned back to the closet. The tiny key poked me as I moved, its edges sharp, its presence unforgettable.


 

This flash fiction was full of surprises for me. First, it’s longer than I expected. I also meant for this to be a nice story, about someone discovering a pleasant secret about a lost loved one, and it morphed into something ominous. I think indecision is one of the worst feelings, and I’ve been mulling over a couple things in my own life recently, so maybe that’s a factor.

Have a great week, everybody!

Book Addiction: The Other Alcott

It’s been a while since I had a new Book Addiction post, but I’m really excited about this one. The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper captures the magic of Little Women, which I read probably a dozen times growing up.

Amy March, of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved classic Little Women, often gets the short straw compared to her feisty sister Jo, but in this novel, her real-life inspiration, Louisa’s sister May Alcott, gets a chance to shine. May’s determination to cast off the shadow of Amy March and to prove herself as an artist depicts her as a strong, likable heroine. Elise Hooper’s period details and elegant writing bring the story vividly to life, making this story one to be cherished alongside Alcott’s classic.

And now some insights from Elise on her wonderful book…

What was your inspiration for The Other Alcott?

I attended drama camp at Orchard House in Concord, MA, the former Alcott family home-turned-museum, when I was in elementary school and never could quite shake my interest in the Alcott sisters after that. I read all of Louisa’s books and wanted to know more about the sisters behind Little Women.

Did you face any unexpected challenges or pleasant surprises while working on the novel?

Once I delved into researching May’s art studies, both in Boston and Paris, I became fascinated with all of the other women who were trying to develop artistic careers. These women came from different backgrounds but all were drawn to the goal of becoming professional artists. That doesn’t seem so extraordinary in 2017, but it was pretty audacious for the late 1800s.

Which of the “Little Women” do you identify with most closely?

I always admired Jo’s single-minded drive to becoming a writer, but I think I have Amy’s optimistic spirit.

What was your favourite scene to write?

I loved writing the scenes with Jane Gardener. She seems like such a pistol! I’ve been told to write a novel about her next.

What’s your writing process like? Do you have a strict schedule or can you write anywhere, anytime?

I wish I had a strict schedule! Since I had two young daughters and teach part-time, I must be flexible. You can find me hunched over my laptop at my daughter’s gymnastics studio, at the pool while my girls swim, and in my minivan while I await my kids to get out of school.

How can we stay updated on your book news?

Someday I’m going to put out a newsletter. See? Now that I’ve said that here, I really will do it, so please sign up for it! In fact, I have some deleted chapters from the end of the book that I’d like to send out in a newsletter sometime this fall. In the meantime, Instagram is my social media outlet of choice.

You can also find Elise on Twitter. 

From the book jacket:

Elise Hooper’s debut novel conjures the fascinating, untold story of May Alcott—Louisa’s youngest sister and an artist in her own right.

We all know the story of the March sisters, heroines of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. But while everyone cheers on Jo March, based on Louisa herself, Amy March is often the least favorite sister. Now, it’s time to learn the truth about the real “Amy”, Louisa’s sister, May.

Stylish, outgoing, creative, May Alcott grows up longing to experience the wide world beyond Concord, Massachusetts. While her sister Louisa crafts stories, May herself is a talented and dedicated artist, taking lessons in Boston, turning down a marriage proposal from a well-off suitor, and facing scorn for entering what is very much a man’s profession.

Life for the Alcott family has never been easy, so when Louisa’s Little Women is published, its success eases the financial burdens they’d faced for so many years. Everyone agrees the novel is charming, but May is struck to the core by the portrayal of selfish, spoiled “Amy March.” Is this what her beloved sister really thinks of her?

So May embarks on a quest to discover her own true identity, as an artist and a woman. From Boston to Rome, London, and Paris, this brave, talented, and determined woman forges an amazing life of her own, making her so much more than merely “The Other Alcott.”

 

Author Biography: 

Although a New Englander by birth (and at heart), Elise now lives with her husband and two young daughters within stone-skipping distance of the Pacific Northwest’s Puget Sound. When she’s not writing, she’s in her classroom making American history and literature interesting for high school students. Want to try your hand at creating a pitch for Shark Tank: Colonial America Edition? Stop by her classroom.

The Other Alcott is Elise’s debut novel and will be released by William Morrow/Harper Collins in September 2017.

Flash Fiction – Haunted

The story that came out of this eye-catching photograph wasn’t quite what I expected, but I think it turned out better that way. It reminded me just how much I love writing flash fiction.

Photo via Visual hunt

As I unfold the silky blue cloth wrapping keeping them safe, the fragrance of the daisies drifts through the air; sweet as grass, clean as raindrops, haunting as the pages of an old book. Fresh enough that if I close my eyes, the image of a sun-kissed meadow, scattered with the confetti of wildflowers, forms in my mind and lulls me into a sense of peace.

Exactly as they’re meant to. It startles me, shaking off the drowsiness, and I bring the flowers closer to my face, inspecting them. I guess I didn’t really believe, even though I let myself be tempted into buying them. It seemed like a good story, to buy supposedly magical flowers from the witchy lady at the Renaissance Faire. She sold jewelry too, rings twisted to silver flowers and ravens and Celtic knots, everything as dramatic and beautiful as the pentacle at her throat. Her ears, glinting with gold earrings, tapered almost to a point, and as her papery voice whispered about dreams and escape, I believed her. Head spinning with overpriced mead and an edge of adrenaline, I’d laughed and agreed, lumping the flowers into the cost of the bronze ring now curled around my finger.

“They’ll bring peace and inner calm,” she’d said.

“Who doesn’t need that?” My voice rang, brash and hard, drawing too much attention. Her mouth smiled in response but her eyes stayed slated as mirrors.

I want it now. Tranquility, a reprieve from the curl of nervousness that pinches my stomach and dries my mouth. Even a placebo effect will be enough to give me a moment of peace, if I believe hard enough. I put the flower in my tea, as instructed. It shrivels in the hot water but tastes purer than chamomile.

My heartbeat slows, a steady drumbeat instead of the thrum of a hummingbird’s wings. Warmth steals through my veins, droops my eyelids. I sling my body against the couch cushions, half-listening to the sound of music drifting through the open window.

I wake with sourness and a needle-jab at my temples. My ears hum. Slowly, the nervousness creeps back, sharpened to an edge now that I’ve lost another day and success matters all the more now.

I work all day to make up for precious lost time, dragging my attention from one task to another with methodical resignation. My bones ache with weariness, thoughts drifting like obscuring mist over a mountain peak. At night, I drink a glass of wine, resolutely focusing on the rest of my to-do list, ignoring the flowers.

At bedtime, my resistance crumbles like chalk, and I lift the second flower to my mouth. Its white petals are velvet against my lips before I swallow it whole and let blissful ignorance and apathy wash over me. Dreams don’t exist; I float as nothing, forgetful and calm.

The after effects linger much longer this time, and on the fourth day, I stare at the last flower for ten minutes before gritting my teeth and lifting it into the flame of a lighter held over the sink. The heat stings my thumb, and as the bittersweet smoke curls into the air, I drag it into my lungs.

The shadowy peace twirls out of reach, nagging at the corners of my eyes, fidgeting its way through my fingers. Destroyed, it won’t work again now, and after moment of mourning, a sense of relief rinses over me. The anxiety comes back, but I embrace it because it feels like something. The shining moments need darkness to make them gleam like a pinprick of light.

 

The Pets of Queens

The lives of queens through history are often so overwhelmed by politics and court ritual that it can be difficult to sense their personalities as individuals. Finding the small details that provide a spark of illumination into a queen’s hobbies and penchants are thrilling, especially for a historical author. During my research for my forthcoming novel, The Wardrobe Mistress, I remember the surge of excitement I felt when I discovered that Marie Antoinette preferred purple and disliked orange, that she loved children to the extent that she’d often call out to them in a crowd, that she liked dogs and some of hers had been gifts from friends. These are all things that brought her to life for me, showed me why my protagonist, Giselle, who worked for the queen, would be sympathetic to her.

In her fondness for pets, Marie Antoinette was not alone. Many queens enjoyed the company of their pets, especially dogs, which many modern people can relate to as well. Historical figures weren’t always so different from us as we think. From dogs to parrots, here are some famous queens through history and their beloved pets.

From the 2006 film, Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette with Mops.

Marie Antoinette had a pug named Mops, whom she brought with her to France from Austria. Nervous to be leaving her home and going to a foreign court, she clung to Mops and was said to be extremely fond of him. Sadly, he had to be sent back to Austria with most of her other belongings, in order for her to start fresh as a new French dauphine at Versailles. Thankfully, she was later able to send for him, and princess and pug were reunited.

She also received a dog as a gift from Count Axel von Fersen, the courtier often believed to be her lover. While it’s difficult to find absolute proof of this, it’s undeniable that the two were quite close. Little is known now about this dog, but it’s was likely a Swedish dog, similar to Fersen’s own, which was called Odin. Marie Antoinette also had a red and white spaniel named Mignon, a gift from her dearest friend, the Princesse de Lamballe. The spaniel was called Thisbée originally, but Marie Antoinette’s affectionate nickname of Mignon eventually stuck. Mignon was left behind at the Tuileries after the chaos of the invasion of the Parisian palace during the revolution, but was later reunited with the queen at her imprisoned lodgings within the Tower.

Anne Boleyn was also fond of dogs. There are records of her greyhound, Urian, as well as a little lap dog called Purkoy. His name is thought to be derived from the French word ‘Pourquoi’, meaning ‘why’, so it’s easy to imagine that Purkoy must have been an inquisitive looking little canine. His exact breed isn’t known. Purkoy came to a tragic end, falling out of a high window. It’s said that all the courtiers were afraid to tell Anne, knowing how distraught she would be, and it fell to Henry VIII himself to break the bad news. Anne also had a songbird that was sent to her by Lady Lisle, wife of the Governor of Calais. She found great pleasure in listening to it sing.

Mary, Queen of Scots is another queen who could usually be found in the company of one of her beloved lap dogs. In fact, her Skye terrier, usually recorded as being called Geddon, was found huddled, frightened and blood-spattered, under her skirt after her execution by beheading. I don’t know what happened to poor Geddon after this, but I hope someone gave him a kind home. It’s nice to think that these three doomed queens – each of them executed – found some comfort in their last days through the company of their pets.

Catherine and Zemira

Fortunately, many other queens through history found joy in their animal companions, without the executions. Catherine de’ Medici is said to have possessed a long-tailed monkey from the Indies. Queen Isabella of Spain had a pair of Cuban Amazon parrots, brought back to her by Columbus. Catherine the Great of Russia was extremely attached to her little greyhound called Zemira. The dog slept in the queen’s room in a pink silk-lined cradle. She was also painted with her mistress, since one of Catherine’s favourite activities was walking with her little dog. Zemira’s likeness lives on in various sculptures as well, since the queen’s affection for her meant she became something of a muse for artists seeking the queen’s patronage.

In China, Empress Dowager Cixi apparently owned over a hundred Pekingese dogs and was so fond of them that she supervised their daily baths. Pekingese dogs were quite exclusive, and for a period of time in history, they could only be owned by members of the Chinese Imperial Palace. With their unique lion-like appearance, the little dogs were believed to bring luck and protection against evil spirits.

Imperial ladies holding pekingese dogs

In Egypt, gazelles were common pets through history. Queen Isiemkheb loved her pet gazelle so much that she couldn’t bear to be parted from it after death. Unfortunately, the gazelle’s name is unknown to us today, but it’s custom made sarcophagus still exists, carved with the image of the gazelle. The mummified gazelle was found with Isiemkheb in her tomb, both preserved in such a way and possessing amulets to ensure that they would someday be united again.

And of course, in more modern history, Queen Elizabeth II is famous for her pack of corgis, as well as for being an excellent rider, even venturing out on horseback at ninety years of age. That’s dedication to spending time with animals!

Plenty of writers have pets too, so if you enjoy linking up adorable or eccentric pets to famous faces, I’ve blogged about the pets of writers, too.

 


The Wardrobe Mistress, a novel of one of Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe women who casually spies on the queen during the French Revolution and finds herself torn between her loyalty to the queen and her sympathy for the revolution, publishes on August 15th.

Pre-order links:
Amazon | B&N | IndieBound | BAM | Macmillan

Add to your Goodreads shelf

Flash Fiction – Goodbye

For some reason, the word ‘goodbye’ popped into my head as soon as I saw this picture. And then a story about a mother and daughter grew from there.

Photo via Visualhunt.com

When I took that photo, Sierra was thinking about how to say goodbye. I understood that now. The oversized burgundy sunglasses shielded her eyes, but her lower lip drooped in the way that meant she cringed inwardly. Usually it meant I’d said something embarrassing – which seemed to happen often enough, in spite of my efforts to be a ‘cool Mom’.

Last week, when we’d taken advantage of the slanting golden light for a photo session, I thought she was merely pouting for the camera.

“We don’t need new photos already,” Sierra had complained, glancing up from her pink-cased iPhone. The silvery glitter on her nails gleamed as she scrolled. “My portfolio is fine. And Instagram is better anyway.”

“I know, but it can’t hurt to take a few more. You can put some on Instagram, too. It might be nice to post a few more before Nationals.”

She’d sighed, but that was nothing new, really. Teenagers sighed all the time. She flexed her foot en pointe and tossed her phone on the counter. Even that motion looked graceful. “Whatever. Let’s go now, then, because I have to do my barre exercises still and then I have math homework.”

“We’ll have plenty of time.” I tried to sound encouraging. “We can stop for Chinese takeout one the way home.” Even as I said it, I realized that wasn’t going to be possible, not with Nationals coming up.

Sierra rolled her eyes. “Yeah, right. I can’t eat that right now.”

“I’ll make grilled vegetables and some fish,” I said, talking too fast, trying to cover my mistake.

Without her, the emptiness of the townhouse crushed in around me, and the tick of the clock echoed, knocking on my spine until I could hardly bear it. I imagined Sierra at her dad’s house, curled on the couch in the basement. I’d seen it once, when I picked her up. It was grey and soft. Maybe she’d be perched on the edge, eating pizza and laughing with her friends. She’d told me that he was letting her have a sleepover to celebrate her moving in with him.

“Are you coming back?” I remember how much I’d hated the tremor in my voice when I asked.

She lifted her hand to chew her thumbnail, a habitual nervous habit, and then dropped it again. Her lashes covered her eyes. “I don’t know. Not for a while.”

Panic bubbled in my chest, threatening to shatter. “What about Nationals? Are we still going?”

Her face scrunched up and she looked at the ground, kicking her toes against the corner of the tile. “I don’t know. No.”

The pain in my leg stabbed, sharper than the steady ache I’d been left with after a car accident smashed my bones and my own ballet dreams. I hobbled to the living room, and stared blankly at the muted TV.

Yoga for Desk People

A couple of years ago, I started doing yoga. I didn’t have any real intention to start, but the opportunity came up and my friend was also going to the class so I figured I might as well go too. Between my office day-job and my evening and weekend writing time, I spend an awful lot of time sitting at a desk, so any chance to stretch and move needs to be taken.

I loved the class, and I’m still doing yoga a couple times a week now, two years on. I’ve even managed to reach a point where I can have a decent session on my own at home. (My previous attempts ended with my mind going blank on what poses to do after about five minutes). Over time, I’ve become stronger and more flexible – not that I’ll be doing any crazy pretzel moves, but I can reach poses that I couldn’t at first. I’m better at those long, slow breaths than I used to be.

But it’s the mental benefits of yoga that surprised me the most. I never thought I would be a meditative person. I’m always thinking of plot holes and making up dialogue in my head and wondering what to cook etc. I certainly haven’t perfected the ability to let my mind enter a blank, quiet state, but improvement comes with time there, too. I find that regular yoga practise helps me to stay calm and focused. It can also re-energize and help me to shift gears between the very different worlds of my office job and slipping my mind back into the historical setting of the novel I’m currently writing. As an added bonus, I’ve also noticed it’s easier not to stress out over little things, like traffic.

Since I clearly recommend yoga, I thought I’d share my three favourite gentle stretches here, which are particularly useful for if you’ve been sitting at a desk all day. I’m not a yoga instructor though, so I’ve kept it to fairly simple stretches. I don’t want anyone to get hurt! I included additional links for each for added explanation.

Photo via Visualhunt

Arms and Shoulders

Stretch your arms as if you’re a cactus. Elbows bent at ninety degrees, fingertips pointing toward the sky. Look upward, stretching your neck and taking a slight back bend if that feels good (only go as far as it feels like it’s helping, there’s no need to force yourself deeper). It’ll open up your chest by pressing your shoulder blades toward each other. It’s especially helpful if you’ve been hunched over a mouse or keyboard all day. Take a deep breath and feel how much more open your chest and lungs are. This link has some further description.

Next, bring your arms forward as if you’re hugging someone, wrapping your arms around an invisible person (keep hands about face height or a little lower), right hand stacked on top of left, and round your neck and shoulders forward as well. It’s a gentle stretch between your shoulder blades.

Repeat steps 1 and 2, switching with hand is on top during the ‘hug’ part. You could easily do this one at your desk, if you’re not shy about any co-workers possibly seeing you. (The next two are better to do at home).

Low back and legs

Stand with your feet about hip-width apart.  Bending at the hips, move into a forward fold, trying to press your stomach to your thighs. It’s okay to bend your knees – in fact, it’s easier to start that way to deepen the fold. It’s a good stretch for your low back. Do whatever feels comfortable with your arms; rest fingertips on the ground, gently grasp the back of your ankles, or clasp your elbows and rock gently from side to side. Hold for a minute or two, as long as it feels comfortable. If desired, you can gradually straighten your legs to extend the stretch into your hamstrings as well.

This link has a photo and some further description, while this one shares some more information on the benefits.

Legs

Lie down on the floor (use a blanket or a towel if the floor is too hard and you don’t have a yoga mat) and scoot as close to the wall as possible. You’re going to be lifting your legs up, resting them against the wall. It’s easier to start sideways, so your legs are parallel to the wall, and then inch closer as you lift the legs into the air, letting them rest against the wall. Feet can be touching, side by side, or you can stretch them further apart if that feels better. Keep your feet flexed so your toes sort of point toward your shins. Rest here for a minute or two, however long feels good. This one is also very nice to do before bed. It’s very calming.

More description and benefits at this link.

Bonus – eyes

If, like me, you spend way too many hours per day staring at a computer screen, it’s good to stretch your eyes once in a while too. Gentleness is the key here though. Let your eyes rest, unfocused, for a minute before starting the stretch.

Sit straight and raise your gaze upward, sweeping to the right, down, and back up, so that you do a full circumference of looking all around without moving your head. Try to move your eyes smoothly. Do this a few times, then switch directions, so you go to the left first for the second set.

Next, stretch your arm out in front of you, thumb up. Stare at your thumb while you slowly bring your hand all the way to touch your nose, keeping your gaze focused. Do this about ten times. Switch hands partway through if your arm gets tired.

Lastly, make sure you rest your eyes for a minute, letting them gently drift closed or stay unfocused before going straight back to another screen.

Check out this link for more details as well.

Happy Stretching! And make sure to do some deep breaths as well. Try to count to three for a big inhale, and then slowly exhale for a count of five. Doing that for even a minute really helps ease stress and reset focus.

Photo via Visual Hunt

 

And stay tuned for a new Bad Decisions in History next week!

 

Flash Fiction – Whispers

Now that it’s finally spring, I wrote a winter story for some reason. Still, it’s a pretty picture and I loved the idea of hearing eerie whispers in this setting.

 

His legs ached as he plodded forward, snow churning around his shins. Every gasping lungful of air squeezed his chest, and the exhales frosted his glasses. He focused on the nearest crooked pine, determined to pass it, and the next, each a landmark of laborious progress. The effort frustrated him, though it’d been his idea to go outside. His weakness felt unavoidable, almost appropriate, because it matched the stagnant crush of his repetitive days.

He was breaking that pattern, though, so it made sense that it hurt. Breaking something meant jagged pieces, cracked foundations. Painful rearranging. The thought unfurled a burst of energy and he charged forward in a cloud of snow. This was a good workout, if nothing else. After everything his sister said about nature and healing – well, it made sense to her; she did meditative yoga, too. The idea sounded dumb to him. And yet, here he was, voluntarily freezing and sweating at the same time, stumbling around in the dark.

Reaching the top of a swelling hill, he lurched to a halt. The heavy stillness of the clearing helped ease his breath. A hissing sound skated through the air, and he whirled, heart leaping. Only the friendly silhouettes of the trees circled, nothing else. A flicker of movement lifted his gaze, and he saw the sky, painted red and green. Mesmerized, he watched the colours sway across the stars and realized with an awed pang that the noise poured from the sky. The auroras crackled and whistled. Goosebumps prickled his skin.

It was just the sky, and it wasn’t. It was vast and cold but vital. The moment burned, imprinted on his bones, echoing through the trek home and through every step tomorrow. Just like hiking past the trees, the small milestones could make him free.


Here’s a link to a video if you want to hear the eerie sound of the northern lights.