A Feast of Salt Beef or Pork, Peas, Bread and Rice (Historical Microfiction)

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What follows is a free historical microfiction. It was created for a writing competition in 2022. I have since made some small edits to improve the story based on the feedback.


Dry stone walls divide and protect the paddocks on the hills. A thin layer of snow dusts the landscape, rare even for this time of year when the cold creaks into your bones. Mary shivers in her light shawl as she waits in the lane for her brother. He strides up the dirt road towards her with a stolen cow in tow.

‘Alright, Mary,’ he says, ‘this is how it needs to be done. No one will think less of you if you don’t do it.’

‘I got it.’ Mary, an eighteen-year-old nursemaid, shoves her hands in her armpits. They have practised this madness many times before.

‘Then, once more, tell me what you’ll say.’

‘Again?’

‘Aye.’

‘It is not my cow. Do you think I’m such an eejit to steal a whole cow on a starry night? It followed me out of the paddock. I was trying to put it back when you found me.’

‘C’mon, Mary. Be serious.’

‘You got me. My brother, Patrick, stole it. Is that what you want me to say?’

‘That’s good, Mary.’ Her brother hands her the rope.

In Limerick, Ireland, they charge Mary Desmond with receiving stolen goods. Sick to her stomach with the endless emptiness, the jury convict her without leaving the box. Her bright blue eyes never waver.

‘Seven years transportation.’ The thud of the gavel seals her sentence.

Mary beams at Patrick as they lead her away. ‘No more potatoes, brother. Tonight, we feast.’


About the microfiction, A Feast of Salt Beef or Pork, Peas, Bread and Rice

I originally wrote this short story for the 250 Word NYC Midnight Microfiction competition of 250 words or less in 2022. This was my first attempt at writing a mircofiction.

In this competition, NYC Midnight supplies you with a genre, an action and a word that you must include in your story.

Here is what was on my competition table:

  • Genre: Historical Fiction.
  • Action: Rehearsing something.
  • Word: Less.

My reaction to the historical fiction genre

The genre pleased me. Although, I did not have a lot of experience with historical fiction having written one previous short story. That story was a university assignment. It was a bit longer with over two thousand words.

When writing a historical fiction, you must do a great deal of investigation. You undertake research to support your story’s setting, characterisation and language.

With my longer historical piece, I spent hours reading books on and about historical fiction. I read a book written by my protagonist, a real historical figure, diaries, letters, newspaper and gazette articles from the era. I also looked at paintings from the time, maps and images.

Time was on my side for the university assignment. I had several weeks to research and write it. This was not the case with the microfiction. Every participant had to submit their completed story within 24 hours.

At first, I began to research a different era. I quickly realised that I needed to fall back to a more familiar period. Aside from writing, one of my interests is researching family ancestory. I can spend hours looking for a clue about an ancestor’s life.

Mary Desmond is my great, great grandmother, an Irish convict caught with stolen goods in the early 1850s. The English court sentenced Mary to seven years transportation.

My search for information on Mary, has led me to Tasmania and then to Limerick, Ireland. I don’t have the full picture of Mary. However, I do know that during the great famine, many Irish people were desperate to leave Ireland.

What I learnt from writing this historical microfiction

I chose to write the historical microfiction in present tense as I felt it helped to set the scene and pace. This was the first time choosing this tense as I normally write in past tense. I enjoyed the change!

Waiting for the judges results and feedback was perhaps the least fun part.

While I was out on the first round of the competition, the feedback I received was encouraging. They liked my strong voice. They felt the ending could have more action and less narration. Using this feedback, I have since tweaked the last three paragraphs while honouring the original 250 word limit.

Writing a 250 word story is tricky but like all writing, it takes discipline.

One other piece of useful advice I found was on the competition forums about the title choice for short stories. I originally titled my story, The Great Famine, to make the era more obvious. Now I feel this was a waste of the title.

Instead, I have changed the title to include what a convict could expect to eat on their voyage to Australia. It might not sound like a feast to you or me, but it was to a starving convict.

Final thoughts

I enjoyed writing the historical microfiction and came away with some great feedback. I will probably enter the competition again one day to create some new tales.

Women’s History Month is the catalyst for revising this story. Mary was fortunate enought to find a servants role on her arrival in Tasmania. She later married another convict but did not have the luck of the Irish when it came to her marriage.

Reflecting on the feedback from the writing competition has been useful not just for this story but for others where I find endings and titles tricky.

1 thought on “A Feast of Salt Beef or Pork, Peas, Bread and Rice (Historical Microfiction)”

  1. Love it, Tina! It’s interesting how a micro piece can still be so engaging and have one reflect and step into a time period.

    Reply

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