WORD DAYS is now available for the first time in paperback!
On this day in 1956, the novel I, Libertine was published. What makes this novel such a literary oddity is that it made The New York Times bestseller list before a single word of it had been written.
The story begins with the writer Jean Shepherd, best known as the narrator and co-writer of the film A Christmas Story. In 1956, Shepherd hosted a late-night talk radio show in New York City. Annoyed that bestseller lists were being influenced not just by book sales but also by the number of requests for a book at bookstores, Shepherd hatched one of the great literary hoaxes in history. Shepherd encourages his radio listeners to visit their local bookstores and request a book that did not exist, a novel whose title and author were totally fabricated: I, Libertine by Frederick R. Ewing.
The plot thickened once the nonexistent book hit the bestseller list. With the imaginary book now in demand, publisher Ian Ballantine met with Shepherd and novelist Theodore Sturgeon. Sturgeon was hired to write the novel based on the rough plot outline provided by Shepherd, and on this date, the fabricated fictional work became fact (1).
Today’s Challenge: Fabricated First Lines
What would be the opening line of your bestselling novel? Try your own hand at fabricated fiction. Grab a novel that you haven’t read. Look at the title, and then compose a captivating first sentence. Next, grab a friend. Read your friend your sentence along with the actual opening sentence (in no particular order) to see if your friend can tell which is the actual opening sentence. Your goal is to pass your prose off as professional! (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)
WORD DAYS is now available for the first time in paperback!
On this day in the year 1297, the Scottish defeated the English in The Battle of Stirling Bridge. Heavily outnumbered by English infantry and cavalry, the Scottish army led by William Wallace and Andrew de Moray nevertheless won the battle (1).
In the film Braveheart, William Wallace, portrayed by Mel Gibson, gives a rousing speech to the Scottish troops. With the odds clearly against them, the Scottish troops are at first reluctant to fight. Wallace challenges their reticence, asking them to think ahead to the future when they will regret that they did not fight for their freedom. They will wish for the chance to return to this spot and fight their enemy. After listening to Wallace’s succinct, clear, and forceful speech, they storm into battle.
Although the film is based on actual historical events surrounding the battle, the speech itself is fictional.
Today’s Challenge: Moving Them with a Moving Monologue
How do you motivate people to do something they may not want to do? Write your own rousing fictional monologue based on a character who is in a situation where he or she needs to motivate an audience to act. Begin by brainstorming some speakers and some situations, such as a son trying to persuade his father to raise his allowance, a door to door salesperson trying to persuade a homeowner to buy a security system, or a teacher trying to persuade her students to do their homework. Then, write your speech from the point of view of the speaker you have chosen, combining logic and passion to move the audience to action. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)
WORD DAYS is now available for the first time in paperback!
Today is the birthday of Edith Hamilton whose writings on ancient civilization and mythology have been read by generations of students.
Born in Dresden, Germany in 1867, Hamilton immigrated to the United States with her family as a child. At the age of seven, she began studying Latin and committing biblical passages to memory. She completed her education in classics at Bryn Mawr College in Baltimore where she later became headmistress. She gained a reputation as an excellent teacher, storyteller, translator, and interpreter of Greek tragedies. Encouraged by her friends to write, she published her first book, The Greek Way (1930), in her 60s.
Hamilton continued writing into her 90s, publishing a total of nine books. Although she wrote about ancient Rome and Israel, the civilization she seemed to admire the most was ancient Greece:
The fundamental fact about the Greek was that he had to use his mind. The ancient priests had said, “Thus far and no farther. We set the limits of thought.” The Greek said, “All things are to be examined and called into question. There are no limits set on thought.”
Hamilton’s best known and most widely read book is Mythology (1942), which she wrote as an overview of Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology. This book is known by generations of middle school and high school students who read it as a primer on the myths.
Prior to her death in 1963 at the age of 96, Hamilton received several honorary degrees in the U.S. and was also honored internationally as an official citizen of Athens, Greece in 1957 (1).
Words from the Gods
Many common English words spring from the stories that Hamilton told of the ancient Greek and Roman gods. Given the eight clues below, see if you can name the words.
This word for any grain, such as wheat or oats comes from the name of the Roman goddess of agriculture.
This word for a repeating sound comes from the name of a nymph who loved Narcissus.
This word for maintaining health and preventing disease comes from the name of the Greek goddess of health.
This word for psychically induced sleep comes from the name for the Greek god of sleep.
This word for being full of happiness and playfulness comes from the name of the most powerful Roman god.
This word for being changeable or volatile comes from the name for the Roman messenger of the gods.
This word for sudden fear comes from the name of the Greek god of fields, forests, and wild animals.
This word, used to refer to something that induces sleep, comes from the name of the Roman god of sleep.
In addition to being embedded in the etymology of English words, the characters from mythology and their stories are frequently alluded to by many writers. The works of Edith Hamilton are one the best ways for students to become familiar with these fascinating stories as well as to become familiar with allusions – indirect or passing references – to these characters that are made throughout our culture, both past and present.
Here is a list of a few prominent figures from Greek Mythology:
Today’s Challenge: What characters and stories from mythology to you think are the most captivating? Brainstorm a list of characters from mythology that come to mind. Identify which one character you think has the most captivating and fascinating story. Then, tell the story of that character and explain what makes it such a captivating story. (Common Core Writing 2 and 3)
Today’s Quote:It has always seemed strange to me that in our endless discussions about education so little stress is laid on the pleasure of becoming an educated person, the enormous interest it adds to life. To be able to be caught up into the world of thought — that is to be educated. –Edith Hamilton
WORD DAYS is now available for the first time in paperback!
Today is the anniversary of the Continental Congress’ establishment of the monetary system of the United States. The year was 1786, and the ordinance called for U.S. coins with the following names: mill, cent, dime, dollar, and eagle.
According to Bill Bryson in Made in America, bankers and businessmen wished to maintain the English system based on pounds and shillings, but Thomas Jefferson devised a distinctly new system based on dollars and cents.
The name dollar comes from a town in Bohemia called Joachimstal. A coin made there in the 1500s, the Joachimstaler, spread throughout Europe evolving from the taler, to the thaler, to the daler, and finally into the dollar.
The name dime comes from the French dixieme, which means tenth. It was originally spelled disme and pronounced as deem.
The name cent comes from the Latin centum which means one hundred. The unofficial name penny comes from the Latin term pannus, which means “a piece of cloth”; at one time these pieces of cloth were used for money.
The name mill comes from the Latin millesimus which means thousandth. A mill would have represented 1/1000 of a dollar; however, the federal government never minted the mill coin. The lowest denomination of coin ever created was a 1/2 cent piece.
The eagle was a $10 coin.
The missing coin from the 1786 ordinance, common today, is the denomination that represents 1/20 of a dollar: the nickel, named for the metal from which is was made (nickels never were made of wood) (1).
Dollars and cents are certainly important in America, so important that many expressions contain references to money, such as fast buck, more bang for the buck, and pass the buck. The term buck has been slang for dollar since the mid-1800s, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms.
See if you can find the English idioms that fit in the sentences below; they all have to do with dollars, dimes, or cents. The literal definition of each expression is also given as a clue.
A virtual certainty: It’s _____ _____ _____ that the team will make the playoffs.
To be absolutely sure: You can _____ _____ _____ _____ that he will be at the party.
Unexpected good fortune. I didn’t think I would get a $500 rebate on my new car. When I got the check, it was _____ _____ _____.
Stingy about small expenditures and extravagant with large ones. Dean clips all the coupons for supermarket bargains but insists on going to the best restaurants; he’s ______ _____ _____ _____ _____.
So plentiful as to be valueless. Don’t bother to buy one of these — they’re a _____ _____ _____.
To inform on or betray someone. No one can cheat in this class — someone’s bound to _____ _____ _____ and tell the teacher.
Take action and end delay. It’s time this administration _____ _____ _____ _____ and came up with a viable budget (2)
Today’s Challenge: Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
What is a story that you could tell that relates to the theme “money”? Below are ten idioms containing the word money. Using a money-related idiom as your title and as a spark for your memory or your imagination, tell a money-related anecdote. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)
Money is no object, Money talks, Hush money, A run for your money, Time is money, A fool and his money are soon parted, Money to burn, Pocket money, Easy money, Not for love or money (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)
Quotation of the Day:There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either. -Robert Graves
Answers: 1. dollars to doughnuts 2. bet your bottom dollar 3. pennies from heaven 4. penny wise and pound foolish 5. dime a dozen 6. drop a dime 7. got off the dime
1 – Bryson, Bill. Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States. New York: Perennial, 1994.
2 – Ammer, Christine. The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.
Today is the anniversary of the publication
of the first novel in America, The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of
Nature. When the book was first released in 1789, it was published
anonymously. Later, however, William Hill Brown, a 24 year-old Bostonian,
came forward to claim authorship.
Although the novel is not remembered today
for its literary excellence, it is characteristic of it time. Reflecting
a popular 18th century literary device, the novel was epistolary, that is, its
story is told via letters between characters. The novel involves an
illicit love triangle and is written as a cautionary tale. Some speculate
that Brown published his novel anonymously because the details of his plot were
based on actual events in the lives of his Boston neighbors.
Although there are certainly examples of
long fiction that might be called novels before the 1700s, it was the 18th
century that launched the popularity of this “new form” of extended narrative,
best exemplified by the works of English writers Daniel Defoe, Samuel
Richardson, and Henry Fielding.
Today’s Challenge: Blackjack
How can you captivate a reader by writing a
21-word opening sentence of a short story or novel? To celebrate America’s first novel
on 1/21, your task is to craft a novel first line for a story that is exactly
21 words. Think about a narrative hook that will grab your reader.
Here’s an example:
At 7:10 am that Monday morning, Bill awoke
to the choking sound of his cat, Hamlet, vomiting violently on his pillow.
There is nothing magical about 21 words,
but writing to an exact word count will force you to pay attention to the
impact of each word you write. It will also force you to pay careful attention
as you revise and edit. When you write the first draft of your sentence,
don’t worry about word count. Get some ideas and details down on paper
first. Then go back and revise, making every word count — up to exactly
21 (no more, no fewer).
The sentences below are some examples of
opening sentences from American novels. They are not 21 words, but they
will give you a flavor for the ways different novelists have opened their
You may now felicitate me — I have had an
interview with the charmer I informed you of. -William Hill Brown, The Power of
Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature. (1789)
I am an invisible man. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)
I had the story, bit by bit, from various
people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different
story. —Edith Wharton, Ethan
(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)
Quotation of the Day: It is only a novel… or, in short,
only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which
the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its
varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world
in the best-chosen language. -Jane
Erin. 7 Fascinating Facts About the First
American Novel. Mental Floss.com. 21 Jan. 2016. http://mentalfloss.com/article/74019/7-fascinating-facts-about-first-american-novel.
Today is the birthday of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), writer, inventor, printer, and founding father.
Franklin was a Renaissance man in every
sense of the term. He aided Jefferson in the drafting of the Declaration
of Independence, persuaded the French to aid the rebel colonies in their
fight against England, negotiated the peace with England after the war, and
helped in the framing of the U. S. Constitution.
Perhaps Franklin is best known for his
writings in Poor Richard’s Almanack, published between 1733 and 1758.
Full of proverbs, wit, and advice, Poor Richard’s Almanack made Franklin
an eminently quotable figure even though Franklin freely admitted that fewer
than 10 percent of the sayings were original.
In his autobiography, which was published
in 1791, Franklin recounts one particularly interesting project he undertook
when he was only 20 years old. It was what he called a “bold and arduous
project of arriving at moral perfection.”
Franklin’s project began first as a writing
project, a list of the virtues that he felt were necessary to practice in order
to achieve his goal of moral perfection. As he explains,
I included under thirteen names of virtues
all that at that time occurr’d to me as necessary or desirable, and annexed to
each a short precept, which fully express’d the extent I gave to its meaning.
The names of virtues, with their precepts,
1. TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink
not to elevation.
2. SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit
others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
3. ORDER. Let all your things have their
places; let each part of your business have its time.
4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you
ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
5. FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do
good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always
employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
7. SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think
innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries,
or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
9. MODERATION. Avoid extremes; forbear
resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness
in body, clothes, or habitation.
11. TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at
trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
12. CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for
health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or
another’s peace or reputation.
13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
Franklin arranged his list of virtues in strategic order from one to thirteen and created a calendar devoted to mastering one virtue each week. Practicing each virtue, he hoped, would lead to making each a habit, and his thirteen-week plan would culminate in his moral perfection.
Today’s Challenge: Tale of a Trait
What is the single most important virtue or
commendable trait that a person can practice, and what specific story
would you tell to illustrate its importance? The idea of identifying virtues and practicing virtuous
behavior did not begin with Franklin. Dating back to the fourth century
B.C., Plato identified in his Republic the four cardinal virtues of
prudence, justice, temperance, and courage. The noun virtue comes
from the Latin virtus, which was derived from the Latin vir,
meaning “man” (the same root that’s in the word virile). Thus, the
original sense of virtue related to manliness, and the qualities that were
associated with men of strong character, such as moral strength, goodness,
valor, bravery, and courage (1).
As Plato says in his Republic, youth
is a vital time for the forming of character, and the stories that are told to
youth should be chosen carefully based on the virtues they teach:
Anything received into the mind at that age
is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most
important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of
Write an argument for the one virtue you
would identify as the most important — one of Franklin’s virtues or another of
your choice. Present your case for why this virtue is so important, along
with a specific story or anecdote that illustrates the virtue’s benefits.
(Common Core Writing 1/3 – Argument and Narrative)
Quotation of the Day: Excellence is an art won by
training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence,
but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we
repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit. –Aristotle
Today is the birthday of American writer and poet Carl Sandburg, who was born on this day in 1878 in Galesburg, Illinois.
The son of Swedish immigrants, Sandburg left school at the age of thirteen to work odd jobs to help support his family. In 1898, he volunteered to travel to Puerto Rico where he served with the 6th Illinois Infantry during the Spanish-American War. After the war, he attended the United States Military Academy at West Point but dropped out after just two weeks after failing a mathematics and grammar exam (1). Returning to his hometown in Illinois, Sandburg enrolled in Lombard College. At Lombard, he honed his skills as a writer of both prose and poetry, and after college, he moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin where he worked as an advertising writer and a journalist.
Sandburg achieved unprecedented success as
a writer of both biography and poetry. His great work of prose was his
biography of Abraham Lincoln, an exhaustively detailed six-volume work that
took him 30 years to research and complete. Not only did he win the Pulitzer
Prize in 1939 for his stellar writing, he was also invited to address a joint
session of Congress on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth on February 12,
1959. This was the first time a private citizen was allowed to make such
an address (2).
Before he began his biography of Lincoln,
Sandburg established himself as a great poet, winning the Pulitzer Prize in
poetry in 1919. Writing in free verse, Sandburg’s poems captured the
essence of industrial America.
Perhaps his best-known poem Chicago begins:
HOG Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of
Player with Railroads and
the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders
. . .
One of the primary rhetorical devices at
work here is personification. Sandburg does not just describe the
city, he brings it to life, giving it job titles, such as “Tool Maker,” and
human characteristics, such as “brawling,” and even human anatomy, such as “Big
Personification is figurative language used
in either poetry or prose that describes a non-human thing or idea using human
characteristics. As Sandburg demonstrates, the simple secret of
personification is selecting the right words to animate the inanimate.
The key parts of speech for personification are adjectives, nouns, verbs,
-Adjectives like thoughtful or honest or
-Verbs like smile or sings or snores
-Nouns like nose or hands or feet
-Pronouns like I, she, or they.
In the following poem, Sandburg personifies
the grass. Notice how he makes the grass human by giving it not just a
first person voice, but also a job to do:
Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and
Shovel them under and let me work–
am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and the passengers
ask the conductor:
place is this?
are we now?
am the grass.
Let me work.
Today’s Challenge: I Am the
Homework, I Make You Sweat
What are some everyday objects that you
might bring to life using personification? If these things had a voice,
what would they say? Using
“Grass” as a model, select your own everyday non-human topic and use
personification to give it a first person voice, writing at least 100 words of
either poetry or prose. Imagine what it would say and what it would say
about its job. Your tone may be serious or silly.
Possible Topics: alarm clock, coffee cup, textbook, guitar,
bicycle, paper clip, pencil, car, microwave, baseball
(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)
Quotation of the Day: Carl Sandburg was more than the voice of
America, more than the poet of its strength and genius. He was America.-President
Lyndon B. Johnson
1- Wikipedia Carl
2-Poetry Foundation. Carl Sandburg.
On this day in 1974, President Richard Nixon signed the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act, which established a 55 mile per hour speed limit on the nation’s highways. Nixon’s effort to conserve gasoline was spurred by the 1973 oil crisis where Arab countries declared an oil embargo, dramatically increasing U.S. gas prices (1).
Just as reducing your speed when driving
increases fuel efficiency, reducing your word count when writing increases your
communication efficiency, making every word count. One excellent way to
practice limiting your word count is by trying your hand at an exciting new
genre of writing called 55 Fiction. In these short, short stories, you must not
exceed the 55-word limit.
Since 1987, Steve Moss, the editor of New
Times, a California newspaper, has held a Fifty-Five Fiction Story Contest.
The contest has spawned two books of 55 Fiction: The World’s Shortest
Stories and The World’s Shortest Stories of Love and Death.
As Moss explains, 55-Fiction is a little
like a one-minute episode of “The Twilight Zone,” or “what O.
Henry might have conjured up if he’d had only the back of a business card to
write upon . . . .” Shakespeare said it best: “Brevity is the soul of
wit,” and in the 21st century, where sound bites compete for our limited
attention span, 55-Fiction is the perfect form (2).
The keys to 55-Fiction are a good story,
concise — yet clear — writing, and a denouement with a payoff. Surprise,
irony, and/or humor are the hallmarks of the truly great short, short stories.
While 55-fiction is fun to read and write,
these are not just frivolous throwaways. The writer of a good 55-Fiction piece
must practice many of the key techniques of any good writer: clear diction,
vivid detail, concise language, careful revision, and thoughtful editing.
Here are a couple of examples:
It’s a dark summer evening. Lightning
strikes in the distance. Two young lovers rendezvous. She lies sleeping. He
kisses her soft, yet strangely warm lips. He makes a toast to his love and
drinks. As he swallows, his cell phone rings. He grabs it with a trembling
hand. “Romeo! Stop! Listen! Juliet’s not really dead!!”
He shivered in the darkness. Long ago,
there had been 12 in his pack, disappearing over time. Only he remained.
Suddenly, a change; the light at the end of the tunnel was coming nearer. Giant
hands grabbed him, pulling him towards the light. God, perhaps? Then, a voice:
“Mom, we’re down to the last soda!”
Today’s Challenge: Fifty-Five Test
What is an anecdote that you can tell in no
more than 55 words? Write
your own 55-word short story. Use the guidelines below. If you can’t think of
an original story, consider adapting something from classic literature, as in
Five Guidelines for Writing Fifty-Five
1. Like any good story, these stories need
a setting, characters, conflict, climax, and resolution.
2. Stories may be any genre: sci-fi,
romance, detective, horror, parody, etc.
3. Don’t try to write exactly 55 words in
your first draft; instead, focus just on writing a good short, short story.
Then, go back to revise and edit until you’re down to 55.
4. Humor, puns, suspense, or parody are
5. For more examples of 55 Fiction, go to
the New Times web site.
(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)
Quotation of the Day: Less is more. -Andrea del
On this day in 1946, the movie It’s A Wonderful Life premiered in New York at the Globe Theatre. Seventy years after its release, the story of how George Bailey arrived at his joyous epiphany is still one of the most popular holiday films ever made.
The film was based on a short story by
Philip Van Doren Stern called “The Greatest Gift.” After unsuccessful
attempts to get the story published, Stern mailed 200 copies of the story to
friends and family during the holiday season in 1943 as a Christmas card.
After the story came to the attention of executives at RKO Pictures, they
bought the rights to the story for $10,000 (1).
One rhetorically interesting aspect of the
film is the dialogue of its protagonist George Bailey. In one of film’s
most famous scenes, George pleads with his antagonist, the scheming misanthrope
Just remember this, Mr. Potter: that this
rabble you’re talking about, they do most of the working and paying and
living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them
work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms
and a bath?
Notice the intentional overuse of
conjunctions here. This rhetorical device is called polysyndeton.
The added conjunctions slow the list down, emphasizing each individual
item. The repetition of conjunctions gives the reader the feeling that
things are piling up and creates a tone that is more formal than a typical
The film’s dialogue features polysyndeton
at another dramatic point. It’s Black Tuesday, October 29, 1932, and
George is trying to convince the citizens of Bedford Falls to resist the
temptation to withdraw all their money from his savings and loan:
No, but you . . . you . . . you’re thinking
of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in a safe. The money’s not
here. Your money’s in Joe’s house . . . right next to yours. And in the
Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin’s house, and a hundred others.
The close cousin and opposite of polysyndeton
is asyndeton, where instead of adding conjunctions to a list, a writer
removes them all. Comparing the following lists might show us why Julius
Caesar chose asyndeton for his most famous proclamation:
Typical List: I came, I saw, and I conquered.
List with Polysyndeton: I came and I saw and I conquered.
List with Asyndeton: I came, I saw, I conquered.
Instead of slowing down the list, as with
polysyndeton, asyndeton has the effect of speeding things up. Asyndeton
also has the effect of making the list seem like it is continuing into
infinity, as if there is more there than meets the eye.
Today’s Challenge: A Monologue and a List and a Lot of Conjunctions
What is a hypothetical dramatic situation
in which an individual would be unhappy with another individual or group? Write
a dramatic monologue in which a speaker expresses unhappiness with the
individual or audience that he/she is addressing. Before you begin
writing, identify a hypothetical dramatic situation in which a speaker would be
unhappy and who the speaker would be unhappy with, such as a teacher who is
angry with a tardy student or a customer who is unhappy that the Slurpee machine
at his local 7/11 is empty. In the monologue include some lists using either
polysyndeton or asyndeton for dramatic effect. Try to capture the emotion
in the voice of the character. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)
1-Ervin, Kathleen A. It’s a Wonderful Life. Failure Magazine 1 Dec. 2001.
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
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
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,
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.
character who wears a Santa hat in May
character who wears a toga in January
character who wears earmuffs in July
character who always carries a rubber chicken
character who always carries a cheese grater
character who carries a guitar with no strings
character who carries an open umbrella when there is no chance or sign of rain