December 18: Romance at Short Notice Day

Today is the birthday of Scottish writer Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916), better known by the pen name Saki.  Munro was born in British Burma, where his father was an Inspector General for the Indian Imperial Police. Munro later served in the Burma police force himself, but he was forced to resign after he contracted malaria.  Near the end of his life, Munro joined the British Army and served in World War I.  He was killed in 1916, shot by a German sniper in France during the Battle of the Ancre

Munro’s writing career began as a journalist in England, but he is best known for his carefully crafted short stories.  The stories often satirized social conventions and frequently featured surprise endings.  Saki’s stories are often compared to those of American writer O’Henry (1862-1910), which also feature endings with a surprising twist (1).

One particularly brilliant story by Saki is called “The Open Window.”  The story features a character named Framton Nuttel, who is visiting the country in hopes of finding relief for his nervous condition.  Nuttel, with letters of introduction from his sister in hand, visits the home of Mrs. Sappleton.  While waiting for Mrs. Sappleton to come down, Nuttel talks with Sappleton’s niece, a precocious fifteen-year old named Vera.  In the room where the two characters are sitting, a French window is kept open, despite the fact that it’s October.  Vera explains to Nuttel that the door is left open because Mrs. Sappleton is under the delusion that her husband and her brothers will return from hunting, despite the fact that the three men died three years ago, sinking into “a treacherous piece of bog.”

When Mrs. Sappleton arrives in the room and begins talking about the imminent return of her husband and brothers, Nuttel listens politely, but based on Vera’s explanation, he perceives his hostess to be deranged.

When Mrs. Sappleton announces the return of the hunters, Nuttel turns and sees three men approaching the French doors accompanied by their hunting dog.  Thinking he is seeing ghosts, Nuttel leaps up, fleeing the house in horror.   At this point in the story, the reader realizes that Vera made up the story of the hunting tragedy simply to entertain herself.  Next, instead of explaining the trick she played on Nuttel to her aunt, she spins another tale to explain Nuttel’s odd behavior, saying that Nuttel was spooked by the dog:

He was once hunted into a cemetery somewhere on the banks of the Ganges by a pack of pariah dogs, and had to spend the night in a newly dug grave with the creatures snarling and grinning and foaming just above him.  

The final line sums up Vera’s propensity for flash fiction:  “Romance at short notice was her speciality” (2).

The meaning of the word “romance” in the context in which Saki uses it does not mean romantic love.  Instead, in this context, romance relates to the long tradition of Medieval romances — imaginative and extravagant stories of the adventures of heroic characters.  Therefore, if he were writing today, Saki probably would have written:  “Imagination at short notice was her speciality.”  

Today’s Challenge:  Short Notice, Short Fiction

What is something odd that a character might wear or carry, and why would the character wear or carry it?  Practice using your imagination at short notice.  Pick a number at random, from 1 to 7.  Then write the opening of a short story in which you, the narrator, give the backstory of why the character wears or carries the odd item.  Give the character a name, and also establish the setting of your story.

  1. A character who wears a Santa hat in May
  2. A character who wears a toga in January
  3. A character who wears earmuffs in July
  4. A character who always carries a rubber chicken
  5. A character who always carries a cheese grater
  6. A character who carries a guitar with no strings
  7. A character who carries an open umbrella when there is no chance or sign of rain

(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-Encyclopedia Britannica. Saki. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saki-Scottish-writer.

2-Saki (1870-1916). The Open Window. Public Domain. East of the Web.com. http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/OpeWin.shtml.

December 17: Page 99 Test Day


Today is the birthday of British novelist and critic Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939).

Ford is best known for his 1915 novel The Good Soldier, a novel which routinely turns up on lists of the greatest novels ever written.  The novel chronicles the lives of two seemingly perfect couples, one American and one British, who become acquainted at a German spa.  

The novel’s famous opening line, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard” is a more accurate indicator of its plot than is its title.  As events unfold, the reader discovers that the lives of these couples are not as happy as they appear.  Ford’s original title was The Saddest Story, but Ford’s publisher John Lane thought the title was a bit too dour, especially since World War I was raging in Europe at the time.  Ford, who himself had enlisted in the army, was too preoccupied to concern himself with the title.  He later recounted how his novel came to have a somewhat incongruous title:

One day, when I was on parade, I received a final wire of appeal from Mr Lane, and the telegraph being reply-paid I seized the reply form and wrote in hasty irony: ‘Dear Lane, Why not The Good Soldier?’

In addition to being a novelist, Ford was a well-known critic, and he left us with a handy method for judging a book.  The method is not to judge the book by its cover or by its opening line; instead, Ford suggested to judge a book by the quality of its writing on one specific page:

Open the book to page ninety-nine and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Putting Ford’s Test to the Test

What are the qualities you look for when judging a book?  Select a book that you have not read, and open it to page 99.  Read the page carefully, and then write a Page 99 Review based on what you have read on that page.  What do you notice about the quality of the writing?  Based on what you see on page 99, explain your verdict as to whether or not you think the book is worth reading. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-The 100 Best Novels: No. 41 – The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford. The Guardian 30 Jun. 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jun/30/good-soldier-ford-madox-ford-100-best-novels.

December 16: Spelling Reform Day


On this day in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote a letter to a friend explaining a recent political defeat.  Roosevelt, who won fame as a Rough Rider in the Spanish-American War and served two terms as president from 1901-1909, was not used to defeat.  He broke up monopolies, championed federal regulation of railroads, spurred conservation of natural resources, and began the construction of the Panama Canal.  As the leader of the Progressive Movement, however, there was one reform that Roosevelt could not make happen:  spelling reform.

In addition to being an age of reform, the 19th century was also a time when public education was being expanded and democratized in America.  Roosevelt, along with other education advocates, viewed spelling reform as a practical and economical way to improve education.  After all, English orthography is plagued with words that have more letters than necessary as well as inconsistent and capricious spelling rules.

In March 1906, the Simplified Spelling Board was founded and funded by industrialist Andrew Carnegie.  Its mission was to reform and simplify English spelling.  

On August 27, 1906, President Roosevelt issued an executive order that 300 words from the Simplified Spelling Board’s list of revised spellings be used in all official communications of the executive department.  Some of the examples of changes are as follows:

blessed to blest

kissed to kist

passed to past

purr to pur

though to tho

through to thru

On December 3, 1906, Roosevelt wrote his annual message to Congress using the new spelling.  He became an easy target for criticism, however, as can be seen in the following sentence from a newspaper editorial:

[Roosevelt] now assales the English langgwidg, constitutes himself as a sort of French academy, and will reform the spelling in a way tu soot himself.

On December 13, 1906, soon after it received Roosevelt’s annual message, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution rejecting the new spellings and urging that government documents be written using “the standard of orthography prescribed in generally accepted dictionaries of the English language.”

At this point Roosevelt decided to surrender.  He withdrew his executive order, and wrote a letter to his friend Brander Matthews, who was also the chairman of the Simplified Spelling Board, admitting defeat:

I could not by fighting have kept the new spelling in, and it was evidently worse than useless to go into an undignified contest when I was beaten. (1)

Today’s Challenge:  Spelling Bee or Spelling De-bate

What are the arguments for and against spelling reform?  Should schools hold spelling bees?  Should correct spelling be a major criterion in evaluating writing?  Debates about spelling did not end in the 19th century.  Today people are still arguing about issues of spelling.  Select one of the resolutions listed below and take a side, yes or no.  Write your argument using reasons, evidence, and explanation to defend your position.

Resolved:  English spelling should be reformed

Resolved:  All students grades 1 to 7 should participate in an annual spelling bee.

Resolved:  Spelling should be weighted as a significant element in the evaluation of student writing.

(Common Core Writing 1:  Argument)

1-Thomas V.  Teddy Roosevelt, Rough Ride Over Spelling Rules. The Wall Street Journal 16 April 2015.