A Whispered Agitation (flash fiction)

photo in public domain*

Last fall I entered the NYC Midnight Microflash Fiction contest. In January, I made it through the first round, and last night I learned that I’ve made it through to the next round! Here’s the story that moved me to the finals. At the end is some of the judge’s feedback.

Assigned genre: Historical Fiction
Action that had to be included: bricklaying
Word that had to be included: step
Time to write the 250 word story: 24 hours

by Joanne Brokaw

Martin filled his trowel with cement, slopped the mortar onto the growing barrier, and topped it with a brick. “You’ll not see that neighbor again, Emily.” More slop. “She’s an agitator.” Another brick.

Emily knew enough to remain silent when her husband was mid-tirade. His word was law, by God, and she best not forget it. But while her lips were quiet, her spirit was not.

Days earlier, that neighbor, Clara, had returned from visiting cousins in Auburn and whispered to Emily rumors of a coming women’s rights movement.

“Can you imagine?” Clara marveled. “To have the vote?”

“That’s preposterous. Surely you’re mistaken. ”

“No, Emily, there’s to be a convention next week. We will be heard.”

For days, dreams of equality girded Emily with confidence. She sewed a new dress; Martin accused her of putting on airs. Her request to see the household ledger was met with icy silence. But it was her utterance of the word “suffrage” that prompted Martin to build the wall.

“You think we don’t know what our wives are up to behind our backs?”

Slop. Brick.

Emily spied Clara on her porch, her black eye and swollen lip visible even at a distance. Clara quickly turned away.

Slop. Brick.

Emily decided. With Martin distracted, she slipped away, donning her bonnet as she walked determinedly to the train station. She stepped up to the ticket counter and pushed a few pilfered coins towards the agent. “One fare to Seneca Falls, please.”


The judges had some nice thing to say about the piece and gave specific, really helpful suggestions. Here’s what they had to say:


{2032} Great opening sequence. You did well to capture the spirit of the misogynistic culture that women were forced to live in at the time. The giving of courage from one woman to another is nicely illustrated, as well.

{2014} I enjoyed your use of the prompt in this story, that the controlling husband was building a wall to keep his wife from the sights of an influential neighbour. I also really liked how you used the sound effects of the bricklaying to build tension, “Slop. Brick.”

{1788} The plot structure was skillfully done, with the author balancing Emily’s internal struggle and the external conflict (i.e. the movement’s effect on her marriage) very well. It was exciting to see the fire emerge in Emily despite her debilitating circumstances.
While the husbands’ actions were alarming, they were typical for the time period. The visual of Clara on the porch was haunting.


{2032} “Said” is the best way to assign dialogue. Words are spoken, not “marveled.” What could you describe with your writing that shows that Clara was “marveled?” That is the writers challenge.
I didn’t feel you needed to say “Emily decided.”
“With Martin distracted, Emily slipped away, donning her bonnet as she walked determinedly to the train station.” The reader will be able to figure out themselves that “Emily decided.”
It is otherwise a very good ending.

{2014} I think the ending of your story would be more impactful if you mention that the convention will take place in New York. Then it will make more sense in the end when she says she wants a ticket for Seneca Falls. Also, your story is told in a “telling” style. I would suggest incorporating more showing, to more deeply immerse your reader in the experience.

{1788} The author’s world-building is off to a wonderful start, but the setting could still be more tangible. How far away is Seneca Valley from Emily’s home? Try to ground the reader in Emily’s hometown. Do they live in an isolated area where Emily’s dreaming of something “impossible”? Is she a girl living in a little town and dissatisfied with the way her life’s going? The reader’s not sure at this point, but some key words will develop the setting (i.e. “Clara had returned to their small town after visiting cousins in Auburn”). Establishing the setting won’t take much work but it will enhance the world of the story.
“A Whispered Agitation” is an elegant piece that’s very empowering. Once the author concentrates on world-building further, it will be in excellent shape.


The writing process:

I was going to include a section on how this piece came to be – from the hours of futile drafts to the countless story ideas to the “I’m giving up and giving in” mindset that finally became “A Whispered Agitation”. The whole process was like birthing an elephant on deadline. But that’s a tale for another day. For now, I’m basking in the warmth of positive feedback, constructive critique, and another opportunity to create.


* PHOTO: This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1926.

SOURCE: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15154048

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