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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Flash Fiction Friday: “Hidden Shadows”

Groundhog’s Day is coming up!  In celebration, Flash Fiction Friday’s prompt for this week asks for a story that takes place around February 2nd.  Just to keep things interesting, it also must include the word “salad.” 

I couldn’t wait to start writing because Groundhog’s day, with its theme of creatures hiding from shadows, fits in nicely with a story I’m already working on.  In the scene I wrote, the tables are turned as it’s the shadow that is hiding from the “creature” looking for it. 

I’ve managed to exceed the word limit yet again with this story.  Only this time I’ve done so gloriously at a whopping 2,600 words.  I just couldn’t bear to trim anything out of the scene I’d written.  Hopefully you’ll love it every little bit as much as I do.

Prompt: This week’s challenge is to write a story that takes place on or around Feb. 2nd. Will it climax with a happy ending and the oncoming of spring or will it plunge into the bleak despair of six more weeks of winter?
Genre: Any
Word Limit: 1,500 words
Deadline: 2/1

Hidden Shadows

Patience wasn't usually one of Rosaline's virtues, but when there was something she wanted that required waiting, she somehow found the self-discipline she needed. Rosaline waited a week for the right time to search Katta's room to present itself. When it rained one day, she knew that time had come.

Putting on her boots, she went outside into the Inner Ward. She smiled when she saw the vegetable garden in all its muddy glory. Opening the gate, she stepped inside and plodded around, kicking up clods of dirt and tubers every which way.

When she was satisfied that her boots were covered in as much mud as they could hold, she exited the garden and made her way back towards the castle. Entering through the front hall, she stomped her way to the great hall, leaving a trail of muddy bootprints behind her. Once in the great hall, her lips curved into a smile as she looked down on the floor covering.

She renewed her stomping, vigorously working as much of the remaining mud into the intricately woven carpet as possible. When she ran out of mud on the bottom of her boots, she took them off and rubbed the mud off of the sides into the carpet. Once her boots were free of every trace of mud, Rosaline stepped back and admired her handiwork.

Satisfied, she replaced her boots and headed towards the kitchen. Following the sound of banging pans, she found Katta kneading dough and pulling baked loaves from the oven. Leaning on the counter, Rosaline started to pick at the loaves. Tearing chunks from the still very warm loaves, she stuffed them into her mouth until Katta swatted her away.

“Stop it! If you're going to eat, then take a loaf and be done with it. But don't just tear the tops off of all of them.”

Her mouth still full, Rosaline grunted something at Katta and walked away.

“What? I couldn't make out a single thing you said,” Katta said, irritated at Rosaline.

Swallowing the last of the bread, Rosaline turned partially towards Katta and said, “I just said that when you're done with cooking, you might want to clean up in the great hall. If you leave mud too long on carpet, it'll set, you know. And you wouldn't want that.”

Looking down at Rosaline's boots, Katta narrowed her eyes when she saw their pristine condition. Grinning over her shoulder at Katta, Rosaline sauntered out of the kitchen and towards the stairs.

Putting aside the dough she was working on, Katta went to investigate the great hall. She nearly slipped on a clod of mud she stepped on as she made her way to the large room. After regaining her balance, she looked down and her eyes widened at the trail she saw leading the way.

Rosaline laughed loudly when she heard Katta cursing her in the great hall, not caring whether she heard her. She waited for Katta to storm off towards the kitchen to get the cleaning supplies before doubling back down the stairs and dashing towards the servants' quarters. She had a good hour of uninterrupted time to look forward to alone in Katta's room before Katta would finish with her new chore.

Quickly locating Katta's room, Rosaline slipped into it without any trouble; none of the servants' doors had locks on them so her lack of experience with picking locks wasn't an obstacle to her curiosity. Once inside the room, she set to work looking for clues as to who or what Katta spoke to every night.

Compared to Rosaline's room, Katta's was spartan. She had no frilly curtains or bedspread, and no decorations of any kind anywhere in the room. Rosaline had discovered the first time she'd gone through the room months ago when she'd first arrived at the Castle on the Hill that Katta didn't keep anything in her room that didn't serve a utilitarian purpose.

Today she didn't bother with Katta's stash of plants on her desk. Rosaline considered them weeds and didn't know why Katta bothered with them anyway. Different combinations of ingredients did different things and having too much or too little of one plant could kill your or render the poultice ineffective. It was too much of a pain to worry about when it was easier to just not get hurt in the first place.

Heading straight for Katta's dresser, Rosaline started opening drawer after drawer and rummaging through her clothes. She didn't know what she was looking for (though she was hoping to find a diary or secret love letters), but the first place Rosaline would think to hide something would be underneath her clothing in the dresser. Finding a crude leather bag in Katta's shirt drawer, she pulled it out and upeneded its contents onto the floor.

River stones fell out and scattered across the floor of the bedroom. Rosaline picked one up and inspected it. Turning the stone over in her hand, she saw that on one side a symbol had been carved into the rock. Not recognizing the rune, she tossed the stone away and went back to searching the rest of the drawers. Finding nothing more, she turned her attention to Katta's nightstand.

Katta, unlike Rosaline, enjoyed reading and she had two books placed on her bedside table. Picking one up, Rosaline looked at the title and snorted. It read A Manéan Bestiary: Forest Creatures. She shook the book by its spine to see if anything fell out and was rewarded when a slip of paper fluttered to the ground.

Picking it up, Rosaline read the following lines written on it in Katta's meticulous handwriting:

You are silent like the oak

and just as strong.

You are not like other folk

and can do no wrong.

Giggling, Rosaline tucked it away in her dress pocket. It wasn't hard to figure out who Katta was writing about and having the poem would provide hours of entertainment once she figured out the best way to put it to use. Still, finding out that Katta harbored feelings for one of the brothers was no big find; Rosaline had been able to figure out as much just by watching Katta interact with them at mealtimes.

Rosaline hadn't gone through the trouble of getting Katta out of the way for an hour just to discover a crush she already knew about. She was here for bigger treasure; she was here for “Chicky.” Turning to the only piece of furniture left in the room to search, Rosaline set to work stripping the bed of its covers.

Leaving the sheets on the floor, Rosaline examined the bare mattress. She ran her hand between it and the frame all around the bed, but found nothing tucked away. Feeling the stuffing material shift as she pushed and prodded the mattress gave her an idea, though, and she went to Katta's desk in search of something sharp.

Lying on Katta's desk were a couple of implements that suited Rosaline's needs. One was a dagger, its wooden hilt worn and cracked with use and age. The other was a curved blade cast in the shape of a crescent moon. Its handle was made of bone, but was no less weathered than the dagger's. Both tools had been carefully set atop a folded scrap of silk cloth Katta had bought off a peddler years ago, and both had been polished to as brilliant a shine as their old blades would support.

Knowing nothing of athames or bolines (nor caring to know), Rosaline took one look at the dagger's keen edge and judged it suitable for the task at hand. Taking it back with her to the mattress, she started to cut into the mattress itself. Peashucks immediately started spilling out and Rosaline let them fall out onto the floor. Once enough of the stuffing had come out of the mattress to give her some room to stick her arm inside, she rummaged around in the remaining stuffing for anything Katta may have hidden inside her bed.

Rosaline wasn't surprised when she failed to find anything squirreled away inside the mattress. It had been a long shot to begin with that Katta would put something in such a difficult to reach location, but Rosaline was nothing if not thourough when searching for carefully guarded secrets. Back in Windhaven, she liked to think of herself as the next candidate for the King's elite troop of spies.

As persistent as she was when in search of another's secrets, she still disliked having to put too much effort into obtaining the information. Getting on her hands and knees and crawling under the bed was one activity that Rosaline considered “too much effort.” As such, she had put it off until the very end, hoping she would have found Katta's secret before the need to wiggle her way under Katta's bed presented itself.

Gathering up her skirt, Rosaline kicked away as much of the peashucks beneath her as she could before kneeling down next to the bed. She bent over first to see if she could see anything, but Katta's bed was pushed into the corner of the room, casting the area under the mattress in darkness. When Rosaline could make out nothing in the darkness, she groaned and reached under the bed as far as her arm would go, waving her hand back and forth to try and find something.

Something found her instead.

When Rosaline felt a sudden pain in her finger, she squealed “Ow!” and yanked her arm out from under the bed. Looking down at her hand, she could see blood start to well up out of a cut on the end of her index finger. Putting her finger into her mouth, she leaned back down and strained to see into the darkness under the bed.

The longer Rosaline stared, the more she thought she saw movement. It was difficult to make out a shape, because the different shades of darkness kept blending into each other, a kaleidoscope of shadows. Rosaline wasn't sure, but she had the distinct impression she was being watched by something in the darkness. At first, this made her uncomfortable, and she moved to get up. A faint noise made her stop, though. Straining to hear, it was difficult for her to make anything out beyond a very light tittering sound. Something about it reminded Rosaline of laughter, and in a second her unease turned to anger.

“You stupid mouse! Nothing bites me and gets away with it,” she said, getting up. Looking furiously around the room for something long, her eyes alit on a broom lying against Katta's desk. Katta had made it by hand out of an ash stave and willow twigs. If Rosaline had asked her, Katta might have told her that she called it a “besom.” Katta wasn't there to ask and Rosaline wouldn't have cared either way. Grabbing the broom with a triumphant grin, she returned to kneel by Katta's bed.

“I'll show you not to mess with me,” Rosaline growled as she plunged the broomstick into the darkness and waved it around. When she felt resistance and heard a startled squeak, she knew she'd hit something. She swung the stick back and forth, giggling when she heard the sound of frantic jumping as her target tried to get out of the way. All of a sudden, the stick stopped meeting resistance, smacking into the wall instead. Rosaline leaned over and stared into the darkness, listening intently for the sounds of movement. Before she had a chance to figure out where her target had gone, the shadows swirled around where she held the broomstick and a black beak darted out and cut a gash into the top of her hand.

With a yelp, Rosaline dropped the broom and clutched her hand to her chest. Scooting backwards as quickly as she could, she put as much distance as she could between herself and Katta's bed, only stopping when she bumped up against Katta's desk. Eyeing the darkness under the mattress warily, she reached up with her good hand and grabbed a strip of linen from off the desk.

Wrapping her hand, she glared at the bed and muttered “You're not a mouse; you're a rat! You can stay down there for all I care. I hope you have lots of babies in that mattress and you all bite Katta when she sleeps.” Getting up, Rosaline left the room with as much dignity as she could muster.

Hours later, a tired, dirty Katta returned to her room in search of a fresh change of clothing. Opening her door, she stopped at the scene before her. Her eyes took in every detail – the runes scattered across the floor, the opened drawers, the mattress – but she cared only about one thing. “Chicky?” she called out tentatively. When she received no response, a kernel of fear took root in her stomach and she called our more loudly, “Chicky!”

Her fear broke her paralysis and she started to search frantically through the sheets strewn on the floor. She had just finished pulling the drawers out of her wardrobe and pushing it away from the wall to search behind it when her gut told her her efforts were in vain. Chicky was probably gone. Rosaline had scared him away or he'd snuck out hidden in the folds of her dress. Who was she kidding? A closed door could never keep him contained if he wanted freedom.

Looking around, she sighed at the mess. Exhaustion overtook her and she sat down where she stood by her bed. She was still sitting there surrounded by peashucks when Jon found her half an hour later. Katta had heard him shouting her name down the hall, searching for her, but she lacked the interest to care. When he saw her open bedroom door, he ran in, livid about the state of the garden, only to stare in disbelief at her room.

His eyes met Katta's and his anger grew at the desolation he saw in them. “That girl... this is the last straw. No more. If she likes the garden so much, then she can eat nothing but salad for the next week. No, for the next month! Don't you go giving her anything either, Katta. Look at what she did to your room! She can't get away with this!”

When Katta looked away and chuckled at his pronouncement, Jon left in disgust. Deep down he knew what Katta's laugh had meant and he knew that she was right. There would be no punishment for Rosaline's mischief. As far as the Cauchemars were concerned, the girl had performed to expectations.

Katta sat in her pool of peashucks a while longer, feeling empty and alone. It wasn't in her nature to give up, however, and soon her fighting spirit stirred within her, spurring her out of her depression. She pushed her emotions away and set to work repairing her room. She was in the middle of sweeping all the spilled peashucks into a pile when she heard a chirping sound behind her.

Shrugging it off as her mind playing tricks on her, she kept sweeping. When the chirping became more insistent, she couldn't help but begin to hope. Stopping, she turned around slowly... and found nothing. Disappointed, she kicked herself for wishful thinking and turned back to her pile of peashucks. Just as she resumed her sweeping, a blackness jumped out from within the pile, spraying peashucks everywhere. Startled, Katta smacked it with her broom. The creature emitted a loud “CHEEP!” and flapped its wings in consternation.

With a gasp, Katta dropped the broom and sank to the floor. “Chicky!” Scooping him up in her hands, she hugged him to her chest and laughed. Setting him back down on the floor, she smiled and wiped tears from her eyes as Chicky bounced around happily. “You stayed.”

Photo credit: MikeArther

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Value in the Old Things: Save Your Writing

On my way to a bookstore yesterday, I walked by a furniture store and decided to take a look inside.  The pieces it housed were almost all rustic, old, and handmade – furniture with a soul.  Running my fingers along the intricate yet imperfect carvings of some of the works reminded me of just how much value we place on work that wasn’t made in a factory, especially if its aged.  The imperfections lend a uniqueness that adds to the appeal.

The same love people have for their early attempts at crafting doesn’t seem to extend to their writing.   Essays, once graded, get tossed in the trash and deleted from computers without a moment’s hesitation.  While paper can pile up over time, there’s not need to delete computer files to make room on hard drives now that hard drives are standardly made with hundreds of gigabytes.  

It took me years to realize the worth of my old writing and it wasn’t until graduate school that I started saving every essay I wrote.  I did manage to find several undergraduate papers and even a few high school papers I’d stashed away and forgotten about and those are now some of my most prized possessions. 

Revisiting your old writing is like opening up an old photo album and seeing pictures of yourself as you were in your youth.  Your psychological state was frozen in that essay and you can see just how much you’ve grown as a writer and matured in your thinking by rereading it.  When I reread essays, I’m overwhelmed by a sense of nostalgia.  I see more than just the words on that paper; I’m taken back to my memories about writing the paper itself: the time I spent struggling to find research in the computer lab at school, the queso and chips I ate with friends during breaks who were also working on their own essays, my exact thoughts as I chose certain turns of phrase over others, and my feelings of disappointment or success as I turned my final draft in and waited for the grade.  As juvenile as some of my essays seem to me now, I still feel pride at my accomplishment. 

Apart from the immense sentimental value of essays, there are plenty of uses for them years down the line.  They’re a wonderful way of connecting with your own children or nieces and nephews as they struggle to write essays in school.  Even if you don’t plan on having children, there may come a time in your life when you will be mentoring a person (even an adult!) who will need to see examples of written work to understand how to put their own words down on paper. 

If you plan on entering the teaching profession, it’s a given that you’ll want to save your old papers to use as models for your own students.  Even if you don’t ever foresee yourself teaching, keep in mind that the job market is particularly rough now and you may end up standing in front of the classroom after all. 

Most of all, old essays are like family heirlooms – they’re precious ways for the people you love to remember you.  I know my own parents treated every essay I ever wrote as though it could win a Pulitzer Prize, no matter how quickly I’d written it the night before its due date.  Who knows? You may just become famous one day and those old pieces of paper will be worth more than you could have ever imagined.  Or you may decide to write an autobiography and include them, or use excerpts from your 13 year old self’s writing when you write a young adult novel.  The possibilities are limitless when it comes to repurposing old writing.

Time passes so quickly when you get older; put that paper in a shoebox or binder and shove it into the back of your closet.  Before you know it, you’ll be blowing 5 years worth of dust off the next time you clean out your wardrobe.  If space is an issue, digitize.  It takes no room at all, but make sure you bring your files along with you as the times change as I used floppy disks in high school and, unlike some gaming consoles, computers aren’t always backwards compatible.

Just like people get lucky on Antiques Roadshow, you may just end up desperately needing something you wrote long ago as a reference for a current project. 

Photo source: Atalou

Monday, January 2, 2012

Why Spell Check Leaves Much to Be Desired

There is a myth pervading America, sabotaging the efforts of students and professionals alike. That myth is the myth that spell check and grammar check work well.  People everywhere are relying on them as their sole source of editing, much to the detriment of their writing. 

To understand just why this dependence is more a hindrance than a help, let’s look at how spell checkers and grammar checkers work.  This post will focus on spell check first because it’s more widely used than grammar check.

How Spell Check Works

Millions of people use their word processor’s built-in spell checker without knowing how it actually works.  It’s certainly not necessary to know what is going on behind the scenes in order to make use of this tool, but it can help you make an educated decision about the suggestions it gives you.

Because spell check is more widely used than grammar check, we’ll start with it first.  In simplest terms, spell check compares every word you type to a built-in dictionary; if it can’t find the word you type in its dictionary, it marks it incorrectly spelled (usually by underlining it in red).  While it’s nice to know what words are misspelled, simply identifying them for you doesn’t necessarily help you figure out how to fix the error.  At best, it means you have to pull out a dictionary yourself and search for the word.  The problem with that is you have to know how a word is spelled before you can look it up in a dictionary!

Spell checkers therefore have a second built-in step; after they identify an incorrectly spelled word, they provide suggestions for the correct spelling.  You simply scroll down the list of suggestions until you find the word you meant to type. Sounds helpful, right?

The main issue with spell check’s utility is the number of suggestions you receive.  Not counting synonyms, only one word should fit in the place of the word you spelled incorrectly.  How, then, is the computer generating a list of possible replacements? Doesn’t it know what you meant to write?

To understand spell check’s limitations a bit more, let’s break how it generates suggestions.  After identifying the incorrectly spelled word, the spell checker needs to figure out how it’s been misspelled.  To do that, it generates a list of words (both real and nonsense words) based on the different types of misspellings that can occur:

  • Deletion: a letter is missing (for example, “stacing” instead of “stacking”)
  • Insertion: there is an extra letter (for example, “eatting” instead of “eating”)
  • Substitution: one letter replaces another (for example, “thwee” instead of “three”)
  • Transposition: letters have switched places (for example, “teh” instead of “the”)

Here’s an example of a (very abridged) list of words a spell checker generates as it tries to figure out how you misspelled the word it’s trying to fix:

Misspelled Word: siting (instead of "sitting")
Deletion: saiting, sbiting, sciting, sditing, smiting, sitting
Insertion: sting, siing, sitng, sitig, sitin
Substitution: sating, siring, seting, sitang
Transposition: isting, stiing, siitng, sitnig


From among the nonsense words generated, we have some real words that are not misspelled.  Using percentages gleaned from extensive analysis of a corpus of documents, the spell checker next ranks these words according to how likely it is the error occurred.  The final result is the list of suggestions the spell checker presents to you when you spell check your document.

The key idea to note here is that the spell checker does NOT know what word you meant to use.  It’s not actually taking into account the  meanings of the words and whether they fit into the context of the sentence.  The spell checker also doesn’t know if you made more than one type of error (or more than one instance of one type of error) when spelling your word.  While it will try to generate words based on more complex errors, it will rank more likely misspellings higher on the list, so the word you meant to type may be much farther down the list.

Why is this a limitation when it comes to spell checkers? We all know no one scrolls past the first few suggestions, if they bother to read the suggestions at all.  Most people just hit “change” automatically.  Because semantics aren’t integrated into the spell checker code, the words it suggests to you may not be the correct ones. 

Without getting into grammar check territory, there are some errors that spell check cannot find.  It can’t tell when you’ve used repetitions of a word incorrectly.  For example, “I’m very very sorry” may be acceptable, but “I’m writing about about the author” isn’t. It also can’t check whether or not your main points are in order or even if “Firstly” comes before “Secondly” in your paper! And let’s not even go into homonyms….

Spell check is definitely better than not editing your paper at all, but ONLY if you read the suggestions before clicking “accept” on the suggested change.  If you’re a non-native speaker of English, then you can still benefit from spell check without sacrificing accuracy; look up each of the suggested words in a dictionary until you find the word with the meaning that fits what you were trying to write. It will take more time, yes, but with repetition you will make fewer mistakes, learn more vocabulary, and even be able to spell better than many native English speakers!

If you’re interested in knowing the nitty gritty about how spell check is coded in a programming language, James Matthews wrote a great introduction called “How Does Spelling Check Work?”  I should warn you, though, it’s very technical. 

Examples of Spell Check Fail

Most people need to see something to believe it, especially when it comes to a tool many people wouldn’t be able to write a paper without. Here are examples of spell check failing in action:

Let the preceding links serve as cautionary tales for why it pays to be as smart as the tool you use.  Just like math teachers won’t let students use a calculator before they know how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide without it, you need to be able to spell before you rely on a spell check to catch errors for you.  Spell check should be your last defense and the errors it catches should be careless ones on your part that you immediately recognize when it points them out.

But don’t just take MY word for it.  Read Johanna Sorrentino’s article “Is Spell Check Creating a Generation of Dummies?” and Jill Baughman’s “25 Reasons Not to Trust Spell-Check When Job Hunting.

Photo source: BureauCrash