Writing flash fiction or creative non fiction in 500 words or less is no easy task so, with just one week to go before next Sunday’s deadline for our latest competition, we asked three previous finalists how they tackled the challenge.
Below are their answers to questions about story idea generation and the all-important editing process which may provide guidance and inspiration to those entering our next ‘Wild Atlantic Writing Awards,’ deadline May 2. The stories are published below.
In terms of ideas generation, Grainne Quinlan, a finalist in the flash fiction category with her story, ‘If The Sky Had Eyes,’ said, “I was thinking about isolation and loneliness. And how with Covid, humans are becoming normalised to disconnection. Then I wondered if the wind and the sky had personalities what would they say. What would they think of the world? How might they intervene? I have always felt the wind a strong force and wanted to give it a voice and character to match its volatility.”
Martina Foreman, whom we are delighted to say has just been released from a hospital ICU after falling victim to Covid, said her story idea for ‘Brambles,’ a finalist in the flash fiction category, “came out of my creative writing class when we were asked to do a piece based on one item. I immediately thought of a round fat pot of jam. The story is fictional but there are elements of it that are real - the cottage, picking berries and, more importantly, the expression of loss.”
In selecting a suitable title, she said, “my story had numerous ones such as ‘The Jam Pot’ and ‘Blackberries’ but as soon as I hit on ‘Brambles’ I knew it was right. Sometimes you have to bear the scratches to taste the sweet fruit.”
Nick Lyon said his story ‘The Bear,’ a finalist in the creative non fiction category, emerged from his trip to the North Pole years ago searching for evidence of a lost expedition led by Captain Sir John Franklin in 1845. “We had seen several bears from a distance before this encounter, but had never expected one to come so close. To suddenly find yourself no longer at the top of the food chain is a strange, primeval experience which I wanted to write about, but had never found the right vehicle for it.”
In terms of editing, Martina said, “I probably revisited the story a dozen times, cutting, cutting, cutting. I wrote the piece quickly and liked it but returned to it over and over, editing it down. I enjoy trying to convert as much as possible into as few words as I can.”
Grainne said, “I did maybe four drafts. I let it sit and came back to it and the edits became obvious.” In contrast, Nick said, “I tend to write quickly and with little planning, which I know doesn’t suit everyone, but it lent a sense of immediacy to the type of story I wrote, which was completed in a day. This was the first draft and was only revised for spelling and grammar."
Here are their stories.
If The Sky Had Eyes
By Grainne Quinlan
It was a damp Tuesday evening in November and loneliness curled up and cried under the old stone wall. Dan Og inhaled. The wind filtered through his nostrils and drifted back out, taking some of his dreams with it. He opened the galvanised farm gate to the second field and counted his cattle.
One, Friesian, three.
Four, Charolais, six.
Dan was only thirty but dressed like his dead father and said as few words. A whooshhhhhh ripped through the thicket. He saw a light in the gable window of the old Darcy place. Darcy had long since gone and rented out the cottage to a young woman. Dan imagined her sitting alone by the wood burning stove wearing her blue woollen jumper and typing on her laptop. He knew she was a writer but did not know her name.
There was a meow from a cat nobody owned. A water rat skimmed the ditch and the dusk- squall of the birds clouded the ash trees. Dan looked skyward toward the circular outline rising slowly and yellowing in the half light. A crow looked too. The crow had not the word ‘moon’ in his vocabulary nor the word ‘hope’, but he knew both. The now full-bellied moon sailed slowly northwards to take position in the turbulent sky. A sky dominated by the wind. After the thrill of breathing contagion, the wind had become cynical and these days enjoyed doing more bad than good.
The rain was dismayed and half heartily drizzled grey and violet upon the western fields. Tonight the moon had listened to them all. It heard the pleas from the clints and grykes, and the sunken souls. It acknowledged the sadness of the ground animals and felt the sag in the hearts of Dan Maloney and the woman too. The moon whispered its plan in the rain’s ear. The rain opened its eyes in surprise and smiled. A clock ticked. The woman pressed ‘send’. Dan stood still.
The sky clashed and emptied itself onto Maloney’s field. There was a bang and a flash and the electricity supply went out. Dan held on to the gate post, and wondered what to do. He had become awkward and reclusive since the virus kept them all apart. His life hung like Burren fog and afforded him a momentary vision of what it might become. He needed to see her.
The short boreen to Darcy’s place was lit up by moon silver, exaggerated in its madness. Dan sloshed forward in the mud with the rain skipping behind him in solidarity. The mean wind hung still in the sky and held its own breath, unused to being challenged. The woman hadn’t moved from her chair. She didn’t look for candles as she had none. Instead she bit her bottom lip and waited in the blackness. Dan knocked on her door.
One lust, three.
Four, love, six.
When the knocks came, she was ready.
Grainne Quinlan, 42, from Dublin, now lives in the coastal village of Kinvara in Galway where she is a student tutor at the University of Limerick. Grainne holds an MA in English and Creative Writing from that university and writes poetry and short stories. Her work has been published in The Ogham Stone literary journal, The Irish Times and VOX Galvia. Upon hearing she was a finalist in the ‘Wild Atlantic Writing Awards’ she said, “I am delighted to be selected. It has really boosted my confidence and motivated me to keep writing.”
By Martina Foreman
She reached across the table and placed the pot of jam in its centre. The jar had a round belly and the handwritten label said, ‘Wexford 2018-Blackberry.’ A thick syrupy tear made its way slowly down the side of the pot before pooling on the scrubbed table. Instinctively she ran her finger along it before placing it in her mouth.
The day had been warm as she made her way along the hedgerow with her stick and basket that September. ‘An Indian summer’ her Mother would have called it, the phrase holding the promise of exotic possibilities that never quite seemed to reach into the narrow Dublin streets of her childhood. Terraced houses had stood stacked together like overstuffed books shelves and she had played happily in their shadow on the noisy streets. So different from the green fields that hugged her little cottage now, bounded by hedges of honeysuckle, fuchsia and hawthorn. The Atlantic sighed in the distance.
She had been a little late in the season heading out that day, but the birds had been kind and left enough on the bushes for her. She remembered again her fingers, stained iodine blue from the over-ripe berries that burst hari-kari like, the juice running into the palm of her hand and along her wrist. Small insects had landed and left again, as gentle as a breath and she had held her face up to the warm sun and breathed in deeply the slight mustiness of the fruit.
She had arrived back at the cottage with her bounty, sticky and happy, briar scratches mixed with berry juice. He had laughed and, taking her hand, had licked the inside of her wrist. ‘What are you going to magic up out of those?’ he had asked, putting the basket on the kitchen counter. ‘I’m not sure,’ she had answered. ‘Chutney maybe?’, but she had seen the disappointment on his face, ‘or maybe plain old jam’ and he had smiled, his face as open as a boy’s.
And so, she had boiled and mashed the fruit, adding sugar and lemon zest and a good glug of port near the end so the alcohol wouldn’t boil off, and she had gotten four good sized pots from it. He had sat watching her.
At first, when he complained of a sore throat, she had fed him spoonfuls of the jam, ‘it’s full of natural aspirin’ she had told him. Later, after the hospital visits and the serious smiles, she had made it into tea, heaped spoonfuls in a mug with hot water and a nip of brandy when he never seemed to be able to get warm. At the end she had crushed the sleeping tablets and morphine and added them to it when he pleaded to be let go.
And so, here the last pot stood and, as she removed the lid and smelt the sweet musty goodness, she heard again his soft boyish laugh as gentle as a breath.
Martina Foreman, 55, from Dublin, decided to go back to college later in life and is now in her final year studying art psychotherapy. After joining a creative writing group a couple of years ago, she really enjoys short story and flash fiction genres. Martina said she was “incredibly pleased to have been listed as a competition finalist,” in the ‘Wild Atlantic Writing Awards,’ adding “it would be such a lift for me to have my story on the ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ website having just come out of a 10-day stay in ICU with Covid.”
By Nick Lyon
Have you ever seen Polar ice crystals? They hang in the frigid Arctic air, glistening like stars. Conditions must be right in order to see them. Freezing of course, but completely windless. In this dreadful cold, the sky and frozen sea merges into one, with no horizon to be seen, the only contrast comes from the sparkling ice.
Sea ice is never still. Tides and winds tear the vast ice sheets apart to form leads of open water or crash them together making jagged pressure ridges. The leads form natural canals for seals, walrus and whales to pass along. The pressure ridges are the domain of the polar bear.
I first saw it the previous day. A lithe white ghost, weaving smooth and silent through the distant ice rubble, far out in the Barrow Straight, north of Somerset Island. In a second, I was gripped by the primeval realisation that I was not at the top of the food chain.
It was April and there was no darkness. We made camp and slept by the clock, rigging our sledges and skis together with cord to form a ramshackle bear alarm. With four of us crammed head to toe in a three-man tent, we changed positions each night so that we took equal turns to be next to the door and in charge of the shotgun.
Sea ice is never silent. Sometimes you can hear the tide rushing beneath it. Sometimes it screams, whispers and groans as unimaginable forces tear apart a million square metres at a time. Sometimes it booms and crackles like gunfire as the vast sheets crash together. After ten hours of man-hauling a heavy sledge, the irregular noises were simply background music by which to sleep. Irregular noises.
That was regular.
I peeled open my frozen eyelashes and stared at the tent roof, listening carefully. What had I heard? An ancient part of my brain already knew. I could hear my heart pounding in my ears but there was something slower. A soft, regular crunch, circling the tent. It can only have been the bear. It had come right through the cordon.
My hand fell on the cold shotgun and I thumbed the safety catch off. It didn’t move. It had frozen solid.
The pacing had stopped, but I knew that the bear was just the other side of the tent door. I felt sick and realised that I hadn’t breathed for some time. As the tent door bowed in towards me, the shape of the bear’s face was visible, veiled in orange nylon. I didn’t think to wake my companions. I didn’t think at all.
I screamed and lashed out, feeling my fist hit what felt like an oak door. But the bear backed off.
I threw open the tent door. There he stood; he was magnificent. We were all awake now. His gaze met ours for a moment before he shambled away, leaving a wake of twinkling ice crystals.
Nick Lyon, 57, a Fellow of the Explorers Club, diver, shipwreck hunter, climber and Polar traveller, has been writing about exploration, the sea and travel for fifteen years. He said he entered the ‘Wild Atlantic Writing Awards' “out of curiosity,” adding, “I have never entered a competition before but I can’t resist a new experience. I was completely amazed to have been named a finalist. It was incredibly gratifying to know that I’m on the right path. It has certainly encouraged me to write a lot more. Thank you so much.” Nick lives in Cornwall, UK, with his wife, Juli, and his dog, naturally called Skipper, a schnoodle (schnauzer/poodle cross).