Flash Fiction: Writing Prompts

The Squirrel of Hope

Prompt: Each morning there are more red squirrels than the day before . . .

“Just another day in paradise,” snarled Amy, her voice dripped with sarcasm she immediately regretted.

It was just going on half past seven, too early for the day to be this bad. She’d queued at the well for almost an hour before she was able to hobble away, clutching the two jugs of water that would have to get them to Thursday. One and a half, actually. She’d lost half when she’d hit her toe on an angry looking chunk of concrete on the pavement in front of her.

“Aw now, take it easy mum, it’s a good day. Look, there’s a patch of blue in the sky.”

Sammy. A glass half-full kind of guy. She loved that about him but they really, really needed a jug that was more than half-full of water!

Amy wanted to be cheerful for him. She wanted the patch of blue to be enough. She rested the jugs on the collapsed remains of a bus shelter, overgrown with ivy, and drew a deep breath. The early morning light cast patchwork shadows across the grey pavement as the sun tried to cut through the jagged remains of the buildings on Main Street.

“Right you are, kiddo,” Amy said, forcing a smile. She would find beauty in this world if it killed her.

“Check it out, I see a butterfly,” said Amy pointing to the pattern of shadow and light on the pavement.

“Um, I see a pointy hat,” Sammy said, indicating another shadow.

Amy used to play this game with her own parents. Of course, back then they’d looked at the shapes in cotton-wool clouds parading across an unbroken canvas of blue. No clouds anymore.

She looked at Sammy’s pointy hat. It was clearly a Christmas tree, but of course he wouldn’t know that. He’d never seen one.

They said it would take decades for the earth to recover. But it felt like millennia passed before the earth hinted at hope.   Unless you count Sammy. Unplanned, of course, and utterly terrifying. The medic said she’d been unbelievably lucky that the infection hadn’t taken hold. The last dose of antibiotics had gone eight years before. The kid, hearty and oblivious to what was missing was the sticky, honey-sweat scented embodiment of hope.

“Mum, look…” Sammy cried as they turned up the lane to their camp. A dart of rust red across the smooth grey surface of rock danced in the corner of her eye.

Yes, thought Amy. There was hope—after all there were more red squirrels than the day before.


Prompts: You go for a walk in fresh snow. Suddenly you realise you’re not leaving any footprints.

No one noticed the screens, they were the very essence of life in Nova Londres. The city knew you, cared for you, provided for your every need. It was a great gift, it really was, thought Marril as she shuffled by the chemist’s screen at the corner of Abbey Rd. “Time to refill your prescription Citizen M22736,” said the genderless, ageless face on the screen, “Please approve for immediate delivery.” Marrill tapped the underside of her wrist where the chip was embedded, approving delivery. How very nice that she would not find herself without her appetite suppressant medication at this time of year. How very comforting.

Marril continued toward home. As she passed the cleaners, their screen showed a soothing scene of white linen flapping from a line in a green field. Lovely. Marril had never seen a field but the screen assured her it was a clean and lovely place. The screen changed and another face smiled and said, “Citizen M22736, your grey suit has been altered and is ready for pick up inside. Congratulations on trimming two sizes!” Marril nodded to herself and went inside. She tapped on her chip, paid and left with the smaller suit. How nice. 

The gymnasium screen had been very attentive that year, kindly reminding her of her weight gain each time she passed. In fact, it had been attentively reporting a steady gain for a few years but last Spring, when the mercantile denied her a new suit to fit, she knew she had to make a change. Citizens were discouraged from varying from the approved sizes. Target BMI was set to prevent the people from unduly impacting the environment and it must be met. How thoughtful.

So she’d joined the gym, went once a day on her way to work. The screens told her her calories were dropping, her arteries were healthy, her impact was reducing. She was given free credit for a second visit a day. She was an asset, a lesser burden on the country’s resources. She was appreciated. How satisfying.

Marril entered the grocers and filled her basket. She planned a fine meal of proteins and vegetable products. The screen in the produce section asked her to confirm that she was preparing a meal for two. She tapped her chip to confirm. Her shopping was appropriate for two,  it agreed. “What a nice salad that will be,” said the smiling face. Yes, it will be. Marril also thought a nice pudding seemed like the excellent end to the meal. The screen above the sweets section reminded her that her current, approved, BMI would be difficult to maintain if she chose the pudding. Marril replaced in on the shelf. So good to be looked after.

Of course, thought Marill, as she hung her rather meager grocery bag over her shoulder, she’d felt a little insubstantial of late, a little invisible. But the screen at the pub gave her a thumbs up. “You’ve added two friends to your contacts recently, Citizen M22736. Congratulations. You look good and you feel good. People notice.” It was true. She’d met two women at the gym. Pansy and Ishu were both at the target BMI. They encouraged her, they were good roll models. They were friends. How wonderful.

Marril arrived at home and shed her coat. Her reflection in the window, against the now-dark sky outside, was insubstantial. Her flat was small, but not as small now that she herself had grown smaller. She was lucky to have this room to call her own. At 7:00 Caleb requested access, she tapped her chip to approve. Caleb, Citizen C88912, was a friend. Maybe more than a friend. Marril wasn’t certain. She liked him but she had rather preferred Talek, from work. However, the screen by her bed had kindly reminded her that Talek had not been following advice at the market and had even frequented an unlicensed restaurant in the East End, without a screen. Marril thought he was sort of exciting, but he was a risk to attaining her BMI, her minimal impact.

Caleb helped her prepare the meal they shared. He was very very close to ideal BMI. He told her it was nice to meet someone equally efficient, equally minimal. When Caleb had left, the screen on her door agreed that it was nice. The screen reminded her how much nicer it would be to reach ultimate minimal impact by sharing her room. Marill smiled. It must indeed be nice. 

Fall rolled into winter, Marril noted that she was chillier now that she was less impactful. In November the city-wide screens announced a new reduction in ideal BMI. Marril sighed and signed up for lunch-time sessions at the gym. She saw Pansy and Ishu once, they were very close to attaining the new goals. She did not see them again. How sad.

Marill saw Talek once, crossing Finchley Rd. He waved and smiled. Marill waved and though that Talek looked somehow substantial, like he meant something. She thought that seemed nice but the crosswalk screen flashed Talek’s number, T110902, in red and his BMI. Marill’s eyes widened; that had been her number in June. It seemed a very long time ago and she wondered if she had also felt substantial in June. 

Mid-way through February it snowed. This was a treat and Marill was delighted. When it snowed the city was calmed under the white weight of the powder. Half of the city disappeared leaving only the smiling faces from the screens and narrow shadows, people maybe, cutting trails through the snow. Marill passed the market and the screen flashed to a face, beaming with eyes filled with pride and joy, “Congratulations Citizen M22736, you have reached the new target BMI. Please give yourself a pat on the back for your minimal impact.”

“Yes, I think I will,” said Marill to the screen. She reached back to give herself a pat and regarded the street behind. The snow sparkled smooth in an unbroken blanket reflecting the lights from the screens on the market, the crosswalk, the cleaner, the pub. Marill had left no footsteps in the snow.

I Lived on Butterfly Hill-Marjorie Agostin Review

I got this for my daughter for her Individuals in Society class (that’s like Social Studies in the US).

Of course, as an optional school book, she opted out! I loved it. Vivid and heartfelt it was both a peek into the troubling time of Pinochet in Chile (a time and place I guess not many 11yr olds know about) and a lovely journey into the life of a young girl. I suggest it as a great one to read out loud for younger to mid-level MG readers. Added bonus, you’ll love it too.

Begone pesky parents!

It seems that for great middle grade/YA fantasy adventure to unfold, you have to do away with the parents. Childrens’ writers have long known that a hero needs the independence of an orphan to really shine. For a while, it seemed that all of us poor parents, having overturned our lives to bring wonderful children into the world, were doomed to tragic deaths. We rarely even got names. Can you name Bambi’s mum? Elsa and Anna’s parents? Thanks to J.K. Rowling, at least us dead parents see some action. Lily and James, I salute you. I used to complain to my daughter that as a parent I resented that I would have, at best, a brief cameo before being snuffed out by a storm at sea or a casually referenced car accident. Truly made me want to stay indoors. But then I began writing fantasy and I immediately understood. A parent’s incessant need to know where their children are is a serious detriment to adventure. And how can an intrepid girl or boy set about saving the world if they have curfews to worry about?

As an avid reader of MG and YA, I began to collect the various ways we can be dismissed or done in. In Map to Everywhere (Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis) the adventuring takes place in an alternate universe where time unfolds differently and the heroine, Marrill, can travel for ages and return home moments later. As an aside, her mum is critically ill and Marrill’s own actions ripple through space and impact her illness. Sophie’s parents in Keeper of the Lost City (Shannon Messenger) become a nagging problem and must have their memories wiped. A lesson to be learned about unwittingly being implanted with an elf baby and raising her as your own. Sometimes, as with Percy Jackson or Catniss Everdeen, us parents get to live but we are either so removed —any gods or goddess out there?— or so irrelevant in a world where children must fight, that we may as well be dead.

I was once far more bothered by all of this. Could no one break this trope? But then my own reader became a tween and I see now that we parents must be swept out of the way, in life and on paper. I see the kids’ metamorphosis into competent beings, reaching out into the world ever more on their own and I know I have to step back. And, let’s face it, there are quite a few days in the life of a Tween/Teen parent when you’d welcome a well placed “Obliviate” charm to make you forget the latest row!

So, I march on and hunt for the most creative ways authors have found to rid themselves of us, the hapless parent. As for me, my novel is set during WWII, a time rich in opportunity to separate kids from their parents. I have embraced CS Lewis and have sent my characters away where far more interesting adults dwell and kids may be fed and housed but never harassed in the way only a loving parent can.

I welcome any ideas on how to silence meddling adults!

Wings of Fire-Tui T Sutherland Review

This is where it all began…about 5 years ago. Potter was done (because we insisted on reading the whole series out loud-why else do people have children?) and she was ready to embrace a series all her own. Then we found Wings! Now, there is much to recommend this visit into the world of dragons. For instance, it’s just dragons… they are not just the trusty steed to sword wielding children. Then there is the delightful fact that Book 1 focuses on the protective, kind, not overly brilliant and yes, some may say hunky, Clay! Oh Tui, how long I have waited to have a character wear my name so well! Pick the first few up for your 8-9s (depending on reading level) but only if you are prepared to go all in for 14 books, plus the ancillary series about a different generation!

I Read kid-lit

I wish, as I am sure so many people do, that I had more time to read. After all, it is the first piece of advice given to aspiring writers… “read!” When the work of the day is done, from the ministrations of my little family to the writing and efforts to get the writing read, I reach for middle grade and YA fiction. Every time. I know, as a writer for this age group, some of that inclination is for research and assessing the ‘competition’ but I read for the 10-15 year old set long before I put pen to paper. Not only that, I used to be embarrassed about it.

 I wish I could get through an entire blog series as a middle grade writer without mentioning JK Rowling, but it’s too hard. That’s like writing about fantasy without Tolkien or horror with King. The first toe I dipped in the pond of kid-lit was The Sorcerer’s Stone (Philosophers Stone in the UK). I was reluctant as could be… ”I do not like stories with cute little names for things, like ‘Quidditch’ and ‘Muggles’,” but out of respect for the recommender – who was 65 at the time—I gave it a try. To this day, I break out in an enormous grin if I see an adult on the train reading a Potter and I wonder, enviously, if it is their first time. What I wouldn’t give to get back my first time!

 Being transported back to your early teen years, to all that wonder and possibility, without the horror of actually having to live through the hormones, the acne and angst, is a delight. Those years are so long-past there is no painful yearning, just the pleasure of exploration and newness. I have a passion for fantasy but when I dip into YA I am just as thrilled to cry over Fault in our Stars or The Hate U Give and guess at the outcome in The Lies You Never Told Me. The worlds in many of these stories is no less horrifying, and often a great deal more so (Hunger Games, 5th Wave) than our own, but it still feels like escape. The heroes don’t have to hold down jobs, pay mortgages or make marriages work. They can thrill from head to toe over the possibility of a first kiss and don’t have to get bogged down in sexual politics. My first kiss was a dud; I wait with anticipation for that first kiss between Sophie and Fitz (Keeper of the lost Cities).

 If you pour through your book lists, churn over the quality of the prose with your book groups and quiver in anticipation over the turn of phrase or the spiritual reawakening of middle age, I commend you. As for me, every evening I am happy to clip 35 years off my life and experience youth again here, or in an imaginary other place. I read like a kid, maybe one day I’ll live more like one.

 Now I have to pay a bill, and walk the dog….

My take: The 5th Wave-Rick Yancy

Full disclosure, I haven’t fished the Rick Yancey trilogy and I’ve ‘read’ the first two on audio book. This brings me to my first comment… we want our kids to read, we love it when they forget their chores (and even their manners) because their faces are planted in books. Oh, wait, is that just me? Never the less, I feel a promo for audio books coming on… I’ve always been a big fan and now that I am writing middle grade fantasy it feels like there is never enough time to read and research. In comes audio. I cook, I run, I walk the dog… probably upwards of three hours a day. Much of this time can be filled with audio books. I tend to listen to books that I don’t feel I need require too much attention. Often, I raid the public library’s audio section to borrow books I might not otherwise read. This is a digression for new writers, but it is always good to dabble in other genres and pick up ideas on plot development, dialogue, world building etc… I’ve traversed many a long mile with the pup in tow listening to Grisham, Patterson and Dickens… yup, eclectic! And, it’s all guilt-free because it’s from the library.

OK, sorry, back to Yancey. I have no interest in writing book reviews for MG/YA books. Goodreads and Common Sense Media are great places to go if you want ideas for your kids or to get an idea what they are reading. Here’s where I share what I thought about whilst reading these books. Like so many wonderful dystopian stories, I hear them differently pre and post Covid and I wonder if kids’ appetites for world destruction will ebb in the coming months/years. In the 5th Wave a plague is the second devastation to blight the planet. Decidedly more fraught now. Yancey, however, focuses on the question of what it is to be human in a way that is satisfying. For many young readers, exploring relationship is the central interest, the devastation of humanity a side-line. My daughter and I enjoyed a robust debate on whether we were on team Evan or team Ben Parish. I won’t digress into a discourse on whether books like the 5th Wave could do without the romantic tension or whether Cassie may have too much reliance on the boys in her life. Cassie is badass, not cut from the Catniss mould, but somehow more real in her vulnerability.

What I really want to explain is that I adore MG and YA stories. Are there holes in this story? Yup. Why trick and train a bunch of kids to kill humans when you already have flawless alien killing machines embedded in humans? If the alien entity is just a consciousness that can occupy a human hull, why bother killing humans at all, why not just occupy them? (Especially if they are super cute like Evan! Please don’t point out he could be my kid, I know!!) But I love the playfulness, the ability to create worlds without having to explain all the science and reason behind them. I’m looking forward to seeing how this series goes.