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Trapped by Shirley Muir

Featuring the accompanying post:

A Three-Year Mission to a Winning Story

Quick links on this page:

Introduction, by Chris Fielden

'Trapped' is a short story written by Shirley Muir. It won the 2015 Crediton Festival short story competition. Shirley has very kindly allowed me to feature the story on my website.

Crediton Festival

After the story, you can read about Shirley's experiences, detailing how she developed her writing over a 3 year period to the point that her stories started winning competitions. This helps to clearly illustrate how much work and effort a writer needs to put into their writing to start enjoying publishing success.

Shirley's story also appears on the Credition Festival website. You can read it, and the other winning stories, here.

This is the first guest post I've accepted for my website and I intend to accept more. If you've been published through a short story competition or magazine and would like to write about your experiences for my website, please visit my submission guidelines page.

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Trapped

by Shirley Muir

She would be his last victim.

The man limped towards her hiding place in the darkness, dragging the leg that had been crushed in the pit accident two years earlier. He knew she was defenceless against him. She would smell the sweat from his body as he stole across the uneven floor of the copse. She would hear his irregular gait over the turf. She would know he was coming.

The leather bag swung heavily on his shoulder. His eyes peered, his wits were vigilant for the slightest movement on this moonless night. She would be immobile in the undergrowth.
His peripheral vision caught a tremor in the blackness and he swivelled to face her. The little shape was indistinct, but clear enough.

The merest crack registered in the silence as he snapped her tiny neck, and she was dead. He sprang open the trap and deftly removed her mangled foot, then bundled the warm, velvety carcass into his now-full pouch.

George turned, weary, for home and his bed, satisfied with the rewards from his traps. He was thankful that he could put meat on the table for a couple of weeks.

Without warning a shotgun blasted the night peace, and George toppled onto the soft ground. The pouch spilled its newly-killed booty alongside his lifeless figure, his own blood trickling onto the shiny fur of his last victim and mingling with her own red wetness.

*

At the sound of the gun, Ken scrambled to George’s side from his lookout position. ‘Can you hear me, George?’ he hissed. ‘We’ve got to get you out of here fast.’

Ken dragged George, bleeding profusely from a gaping chest wound, and hauled him to safety through a gap in the wooden fence on the side of Square Wood. Gently organising the bloodied body of his friend on the waiting wooden barrow, Ken listened for breath. He whispered to George as he rolled the barrow into the town. ‘You’ll be OK soon, George - hang on man, it’s only a scratch.’

***

Unaware of the calamity unfolding in Square Wood, Maggie stirred the cauldron of thick vegetable broth. Her neighbour, Mrs Greenfield, was generous with her bread donations just when Maggie ran out of money and sensed the workhouse beckoning.

Maybe George would come back with some meat for the table. She looked forward to his return. Jack would soon be home from his night shift at the pit and drink tea with his da. In an hour or so the two girls would get up for school. Jack’s sisters idolised him. Not that they saw much of him, and he was generally shrouded in coal dust. But his smile shone though the black grime from the pit.

George’s earnings from casual farm work would never be enough to feed the whole family. Jack was proud to have the chance to contribute to the family coffers when he had been offered the job at the mine. 'No, Jack, not the mine. It's desperately risky. How many men have lost their lives in that hellhole? Look at your da, he can’t get work because of his smashed leg. You’re too young to go underground.’

‘I’m not, Ma,’ he had said. ‘The law says I’m not a child anymore and thirteen’s old enough to go down the pit. And if Da’s foot hadn’t been injured he would still be making a good wage.’

Maggie’s heart swelled with anguish, remembering the hundred and sixty dead miners only four years ago at Stanley, just a few miles to the south. Mrs Hedley’s lad was only fourteen, and Jenny Doyle lost her da and her brother. Every family grieved for someone, mostly fathers and brothers and sons, but a lot of grandfathers, too. Many of the casualties had died from their terrible injuries in the days and weeks following the explosion. Some survivors were badly burned or suffered from gas poisoning. Grief and horror overwhelmed the population of County Durham and miners around the world had rallied with their sympathy and support.

It was still a raw memory for Maggie but Jack had accepted the pit job and now he toiled at the coal face ten hours a day, hacking coal from a seam that was less than three feet high. ‘And if the war comes I won’t have to fight, Ma, remember that.’

***

Hurtling through the kitchen door as dawn broke, scrunched-up flat cap in his hands, and tears streaming down his face, Ken confronted Maggie with the ghastly news.

‘George is hit, missus. The ghillie got him. He must of known we wiz there. S-s-sorry missus. He’s outside on the barrer, hurt bad. Oh, them wee bairns. Sorry, God help us...’ Maggie fled upstairs, scooped up her girls and bundled them off through the front door with a brown carrier bag filled with their school clothes, to Mrs Greenfield. She would send them to class, no questions asked.

Together she and Ken manhandled a gasping, bleeding George in through the back door and onto the big table in the scullery. Maggie caught her breath when she realised his proximity to death.

She drew his blond head against her chest. ‘Don’t leave us, George. Please.’

Gassy blood oozed through his white lips and foamed in a red river down his chin. She mopped him gently with the clean part of her pinafore. His eyes watched her face in the soft gaslight. ‘George, me darlin', I’m here,’ she coaxed. ‘It's all right, lovey.’

And then, in the dawn quiet, with the birds starting to sing outside the window, he was gone. She grazed his forehead with a final kiss, and shut his pale blue eyes with a caress of her fingers. Maggie was desolate, but she had got her man back. He had died in her arms and not in the back of some police wagon for animals and criminals.

‘You’ll get caught, George,’ she had warned him a dozen times, but he had to go.

‘And who’d miss a few rabbits?’ he would say.

‘There’s a couple of rabbits for you and the bairns, Maggie,’ Ken stammered, lifting up the heavy bag onto the sink, with the still-warm bodies that George had so recently shoved inside. The dead animals wouldn’t make up for the loss of a husband.

‘Thank you, Ken.’ She met his gaze and imagined with despair the months and years that lay ahead, trying to bring up her family, bereft by the loss of her beloved George. Maggie saw naked terror in Ken’s face. He wiped his sleeve across his streaming eyes and nose.

‘Oh missus - Maggie, please don’t clype to the police... it’ll be prison for me, missus... it’ll kill me mam.’

Ken worked by day in the co-operative warehouse. He had money coming in every week. He had money enough to put food on the table for him and his mam. He didn’t need the high-risk night escapades like George did. He was merely the sentry. Ken slumped onto the now-bloodied chair and took George’s slack, dangling arm.

‘George, lad, I’m sorry. I should've been looking out fer ye.’ His shoulders wracked with sobs at the loss of his friend, slain over a bag of rabbits. Ken wept for fear of his own future. He laid his forehead on George’s mauled torso. ‘I’ll make it right, lad. I promise.’

Shot by the ghillie at dead of night, Maggie knew that in law her husband was the criminal. He was trapping only rabbits but the ghillie from the estate was entitled with impunity to shoot a poacher of estate rabbits.

The police would be at the door once the doctor had been in to write the death certificate and arrange for the undertaker. ‘Wash the barrer, Ken, and take it home. Nobody needs tae know. And as for clypin’ - well, you don’t need tae ask. I’ll go for Doctor Mackay meself.’

‘Thank you missus,’ he whispered, and slunk out of the door. Maggie took off her bloodstained pinafore, washed her bloody hands and put on her coat. She ran to leave word for the doctor. She would struggle to keep them all from starving, and to save them from the disgrace of the workhouse. Feet without shoes were one thing but the workhouse would be truly humiliating. The bairns would hang their heads in shame at the school.

She would withhold the gruesome details of George’s death from the girls, but Jack had to hear the truth. His father had striven to provide for them. And now Jack himself would have to put food on the table. At thirteen. Thank heavens for Jack’s pit job. Back home, Maggie covered her dead husband with a soft wool blanket, said her goodbyes and waited, numb.

*

Doctor Mackay tapped on the scullery door and stepped inside. He took one look at George and raged inwardly. He knew there were too many cases like this, that the ghillie was trigger-happy with his shotgun. Murder was a step too far. But he kept his own counsel.

'I am truly sorry for your loss, Mrs Bell. Your husband was a good man.’

'Thank you, Doctor Mackay. You're fair kind. I cannae think straight.'

*

Jack perceived alarm as he turned into the long street of terraced houses, trailing pit dust from his overalls and boots. In the dawn light he identified spilled blood drying in the gutter. His chest grew tight. Maggie waited in the doorway, pale as a sheet. ‘Mam, is it me da?’ Maggie nodded and Jack enfolded her in his black, soot-encrusted arms. She clung to him. 'What'll we dae, Jack?'

*

Maggie knew that the ghillie would freely admit to the shooting, as it would deter a whole network of rabbit poachers who operated nocturnal excursions in the Square Wood. But neither man nor woman in the town would give up a single name to the police.

Word of the tragedy spread fast through the little community. Packages of onions and flour, broad beans and eggs, milk and soap, and basic household items were brought by neighbours or left at the door by other pit wives and well-wishers. Maggie knew that Jack could repay some of the kindnesses with bits of his small coal allowance from the mine, but it wouldn’t keep them out of the workhouse long-term.

And then she resolved that she herself would earn money to keep her family together. She would take in laundry. She had the mangle from the rag-and-bone man that George had renovated. She would use her poss-tub and poss-stick to clean other men's shirts and overalls. She would bleach and whiten other families' bedlinen and flat-iron them to perfection. The bleaching lye and the boiling water would redden and ruin her hands for sewing, but it was worth it.

***

A week later at George's graveside, Ken stood firm as an anchor, his neck chafed red by the gleaming, starched white collar, his shoes shining. George was the younger brother he never had, a trusted friend for over twenty years, right from schooldays. Taken from them by the murdering ghillie. 'That man deserves a whipping,' Ken had simmered all week to anyone who listened.

But it was all talk. Nobody would take up arms against the big estate. Too many from the town worked there day and night. Women in the kitchens, young girls apprenticed as scullery-maids, eager lads training to be gardeners, fathers driving tractors, fruit pickers, blacksmiths shoeing the horses, stable lads and grooms. Most local jobs – and families – depended on the mine, the estate, and the new steam railways which transported the coal to the waiting ships on the Tyne at Newcastle.

Ken cast the second handful of dirt over the coffin. Maggie, in her widow's long black coat and wide-brimmed veiled hat, had filled his fist with the dirt, and nodded to him that he had earned the right.

‘I’m here for them, George,’ he said quietly, and crossed himself after he scattered the dust onto the polished wood box in the grave. Next to Maggie, Ken’s strong baritone joined in 'Abide With Me' as the shovellers rained earth down with a clatter.

Imperceptibly, Ken's hand slid into the folds of her coat and found Maggie's small, black-gloved hand. Tears glistened on her cheeks and her eyes looked straight ahead, but her mouth lifted slightly at the corners.

THE END

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Shirley Muir's Biography

Shirley Muir

After a career writing technical materials for the engineering, pharmaceutical and oil industries I retired in 2012 and decided to try writing fiction.

I have a degree in molecular biology from Edinburgh University and I delight in calling upon scientific topics to insert into my fiction.

I live in East Lothian, Scotland and am fortunate to live in the area where Tyne and Esk writers have an immensely effective network for supporting writers. I am a member of the North Berwick writers’ group and my fellow members are creative, amusing, helpful and experienced in critiquing short fiction.

In 2015 I achieved my first short story competition win and my first story was published in an anthology. I submit my stories to magazines and competitions and I am also submitting creative non-fiction to UK publications.

But I never stop learning and I am grateful to everyone who has given me their time and their opinion to help my embryonic fiction-writing career along the way.

My blog charts some of my progress and reminds me how far I have come and how much further I have to go.

My blog is called Writings from Fidra.

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A Three-Year Mission to a Winning Story

My success at the inaugural Crediton Short Story competition in July 2015 was THE high point in my recently-begun fiction writing career. I found the competition details under the Writing Advice tab on Christopher Fielden’s useful and detailed web site.

After thirty years of writing industrial, financial and marketing literature I retired and moved away from Aberdeen. A molecular biologist by training, my background offered nothing to suggest I would be able to competently write short fiction. But I wanted to try. My new life in East Lothian presented me with a blank page on which to write a new chapter.

Write What You Know - Memoir

It was a while before I could even consider the idea of entering a short story competition. I decided that the only way to get going was to ‘write what you know’. This later turned out to mean ‘start with memoir’. Having dabbled in 2012 by writing a few pieces of ‘fiction’ that were really memoirs of mine, I realised that my writing skills would only improve if I knew what I was doing. If I couldn’t be good at it I didn’t want to do it. I could always knit.

  • Writing Group: I joined the local Tyne and Esk writers’ groups and I met up with the North Berwick team twice a month. The other members of the group provided critiques and gentle suggestions about my stories and I learned to do the same for them. Once a month an experienced author would join us for more heavy-duty feedback on our work. My writing and critiquing skills improved noticeably
  • Online Advice & Resources: I spent hours online devouring short fiction advice and downloading workshops and ‘How to...’ books. I realised slowly just where the major gaps in my knowledge were. You couldn’t just write fiction as a result of reading fiction
  • Night Classes: In January 2013 I embarked on a ten-week night class at Edinburgh University called Write that Story. It was enlightening and hard work. It proved to me that I really wanted to write good short stories. I was inspired by some of the other delegates

My First Portfolio

By May 2013 I had created a small portfolio of stories and I produced the first draft of the story that was two years later to be my first winner. I called it 'His Last Victim' and it was 928 words long. In August 2013 I learned that the story was unsuccessful in yet another competition I had entered and I was disappointed. But my writing wasn’t actually good enough to win anything.

My First Competition - Chris Fielden's Listings

In early 2014, believing my writing was now sufficiently good enough to take the plunge, I was trawling the internet for competitions to enter and magazines who might want submissions. Finding Chris’s site listing hundreds of competitions – in the UK and elsewhere – made me feel like a child in a sweetie shop. So many to choose from.

I found his filtering into sections like regular, annual, and prestigious very useful and it helped me to choose the right contests. Deciding to pick minor targets first led me to UK competitions with low or no entry fees, and smallish prizes. One such competition was run by Henshaw Press.

My First Win - Second Prize

A year later, in June 2014, I learned that I had won second prize in the Henshaw Press quarterly short story competition with my gritty story 'Time to Flee' about an abused woman of seventy-nine. I was delighted.

That same month I also won second prize in The River, a local competition in the North of Scotland. My writing buddy and I both entered and we came joint second, our very first competition placements.

Structured Learning

There’s nothing like a win to galvanise you into writing and submitting more stories. My programme of structured learning that led to this juncture included a number of free workshops that are run by Tyne and Esk writers as well as other paid-for assistance:

November 2013

  • Crime writing workshop (free)
  • Engaged a mentor to teach me and critique my stories
  • Prose writing workshop (free, run by Tyne and Esk)
  • Radio drama workshop (free, run by Tyne and Esk)

December 2013

  • Mentoring

February 2014

  • Short story workshop (free, run by Tyne and Esk)
  • Character development in short stories workshop

March 2014

April 2014

  • A Writing Buddy - Essential: Week holiday with writing friend/pact to be writing buddies and start submitting to competitions and magazines. Story reading and analysis every morning for a week
  • Began Open University 8-week online short story course (free)

Understanding Short Fiction

The two second-place wins really spurred me on. By this time I had developed an understanding of what are the key points of short fiction. The hardest thing for me to get to grips with has been Point of View. I am sure I am not alone in that. Here are the story ingredients that I have worked on most:

  • Character development
  • Plot
  • Suspense
  • Emotion
  • Point of View
  • Scenes and story structure
  • Dialogue
  • Description

Keep Submitting!

In 2014 I submitted to the following short story competitions / magazines:

  • Scribble (4 times)
  • William Souter competition in Perth
  • Henshaw Press (2 times)
  • Yours Magazine (3 times)
  • Aberdeen university special collections
  • The Treacle Well
  • Giddylimits
  • Ideastap
  • Writer of the Year (Tyne and Esk)
  • Aberdeen city competition
  • People’s Friend
  • Writing Magazine

In August 2014 I edited 'His Last Victim' and entered a revised version called 'Trapped' in the Writer of the Year competition. It failed again. The revisions had made it about 90% different from the first version, submitted a year earlier.

Keep Track of Your Stories and Submissions

I continued to consult Chris Fielden’s site for opportunities. I drew up a spreadsheet of upcoming competition deadlines and stories that I'd completed ready for submission. I also began to send feedback to Chris Fielden. I realise that some competitions only last one year and some fold without informing people. I know how important it is to find accurate information online about forthcoming competitions so I conscientiously report back to Chris if I find a competition link that isn’t leading anywhere for whatever reason. Or if I hear of a new competition that Chris isn’t yet listing.

In November 2014 my writing buddy and I met up in Aberdeenshire to spend the book tokens we had won in the River competition. They had to be spent in a specific bookshop – the one which had sponsored the competition.

My 365 Project - A Treasure Trove of Stories

A book caught my eye. It was by James Robertson and was called 365. He had written 365 stories, one a day for a year, and each was 365 words long. We were fascinated and we both bought the book. On November 12 we both embarked on our own 365 projects and by the beginning of January 2015 we had drafted just over 50 stories each. We had long since dropped the requirement for the story to be 365 words long because that was counter-productive to our writing plan.

But there was a catch. We spent so much time creating new stories we were starving ourselves of time to edit, finish and submit stories. We agreed to spend January 2015 editing and finalising some stories from the treasure trove we each had created. But in fact we have never needed to go back to add more to the ‘365 project’. Our stashes of stories, plus a few more created along the way in workshops and for specific competitions, have kept us busy for the nine months since then (it’s October 2015 as I write this).

A Mentor

In March I also engaged a new mentor, the author and poet Claire Askew, who had run a series of 6 intense 2-hour workshops on writing that I found so useful.

As a result of her coaching I resurrected 'Trapped', edited it lightly and submitted it to the Crediton Short Story competition. And it got short-listed. I was ecstatic when the short list email came through on my smart phone. I was eating dinner with friends on the Mediterranean – in Fethiye, Turkey. We had a little celebration at my success.

My Second Win - First Prize

Two days later I missed a phone call from the organisers and had to wait an agonising three days before I was back in the UK and could return the call. I had won.

I think the moral of this story is: ‘if at first you don’t succeed, keep editing, keep learning and sending stories out’. I was encouraged by my fellow writers that this particular story was worth editing and submitting because it was basically a good tale and was one of my best pieces of writing.

My First Published Story

It’s October 2015 as I write this and I have made 33 submissions to magazines and contests this year. My success rate is very low but I have been in the newspapers twice, I have won a first prize, a number of my stories have been published online, and one story has been tweeted by the competition organisers to more than twenty thousand people.

Only last week the organiser of the Henshaw competition announced that he had published an anthology of past winners, and my story is included. My very first published piece.

A Numbers Game

It’s a numbers game to a great extent, and also you have to select your target to match your stories in terms of quality, topic, grittiness, and length.

In the past months I have been steered towards science fiction, and, as a scientist I am excited about a new genre so I am writing different material. And my portfolio is growing. And I’m still learning.

Thank you to Chris for getting my stories in the right places at the right time.

Shirley Muir, October 2015

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Big Thanks To Shirley

I'd like to say a big thank you to Shirley for writing this useful and informative post.

If reading it has inspired you and you think you could write an equally useful post, please read my submission guidelines.

How to Write a Short Story book ad

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Frank W
I find Ms. Muir's account of her writing experience very inspiring and thank her for it. Unlike so many unsuccessful writers, she developed a plan and pursued it, including the investment of time and funds. Yes, there were successes and failures, but she kept to her plan, and I was very pleased to read that she was rewarded for her diligence and perseverance. This is one e-mail attachment that I am not deleting, as I do with hundreds of others. For me, the most difficult aspect of fiction writing workshops is the criticism that is essential, but one day I will get over that. Thanks again, Shirley, and here's wishing you continued success.

Frank W, Hammock, Florida

Chris Fielden
Thanks, Frank. I'll let Shirley know you commented so she can respond.

Shirley M
Dear Frank W

Thank you so much for your kind comments. You are so right that criticism, feedback and responding to others is essential to allow us writers to move forward. Comments and ideas on one's own writing ensure that we are constantly aware that our writing is written for our readers. My writing is not for me, it is for others to enjoy. My journey towards my first competition win was a journey towards achievement and personal satisfaction. But the satisfaction came from knowing that others appreciated my work. I still experience many failures but I enjoy the comradeship of workshops and the support network offered by my writing group and my mentors. They keep me grounded. They assure me that my successes depend on my readers. And that I must grow and develop and keep moving forward to achieve any level of success.

Thank you Frank, and may I wish you success in your own endeavours.

Shirley Muir