Sunday, November 29, 2015

BBC Series "The Last Kingdom" Ends With a Battle and a Bang

In 878 A.D. (C.E.) a battle took place in a field in what is now southern England, which determined the very existence of the country. How odd it is now, to consider that of the few thousand fighting men and women present that day, some gave their lives for what they thought was the small kingdom of Wessex - the last remaining stronghold of the Anglo-Saxon peoples, after years of Viking raids - but in the end, they gave their lives so that the United Kingdom would eventually come to be what it was centuries later . . . one of the world's greatest and most productive empires. How surprised they would have been to learn that their sacrifice was the foundation of so much more than what they could have imagined.  

The final battle, with the shield walls dividing enemies.
The Battle of Edington (aka the Battle of Ethandun) was arguably the most important battle in English history, and it is fitting that the first season of the magnificent The Last Kingdom from the BBC gave us this battle as its finale. For many reasons, the first season has been an impressive debut for what has become a standout series, and it has in a short time built a strong fan base who must have been, as I was, cheering a little inside as our hero rode off into the final sunset with a narration promising more adventures ahead. Given the enthusiasm of a growing fanbase, the BBC would be foolish not to be planning for a second season.

The series is based upon the Saxon series of nine (so far) books, from renowned historical novelist Bernard Cornwell. The story follows the adventures of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, the son of a Saxon Northumbrian ealdorman (the precursor of an earl). When the Danes (Vikings) invade and kill his family, he is taken as a child slave into the Danish household of Danish warlord Ragnar, where due to his intelligence, loyalty and charm, he is eventually raised as a son. But fate is not kind to Uhtred, and a warring clan of Danes kills off his adoptive family as well.  Uhtred is left without a country, rejected as a Saxon by Danes and a Viking by Saxons.  He has to fight his way into acceptance by those he must trust - including the future King Alfred "the Great" of Wessex and later of all England - in order to gain back respect and his birthright.  His story is told against the backdrop of the fierce wars of the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries of England against Danish invaders intent on making the British Isles part of a Scandinavian kingdom. This was a time when battle was eye-to-eye brutal, life was cheap and dearly won, and Pagan and Christian strove to coexist.
Lord Guthrum of the Danes is baptized.
The series was produced by the executive producer of Downton Abbey, Gareth Naeme, who obviously understands how to capture and hold an audience. Unlike some of the others in the current parade of Dark Ages and Medieval fantasy series, this one follows much more closely actual historical events and incorporates characters based firmly in historical reality (even Uhtred of Bebbanburg existed, and is a distant ancestor of Cornwell, although little is known of his actual history). As can be expected from the BBC, production values are held to a high standard. 

David Dawson's King Alfred battles for Wessex.
The eight-episode season was shot mostly in Hungary, with some additional work in Wales and Denmark. From the reconstructed villages and wooden/stone palaces of the Saxons, to the costuming (reportedly done with an intentional "modern edge"), to battle scenes, one is easily transported back in time to a place that actually existed, and a people who were caught between two worlds and facing an uncertain future. The film is saturated with warm, rich red tones which bring out firelit interiors, skin, and setting sun, and also green tones which exploit the wild, earthy feel of a time when life took place mostly outdoors. Camerawork is consistently expertly rendered, and interesting without being distracting.

Not enough can be said about the cast. Heading it up is the relatively unknown Alexander Dreymon, whose anonymity will come to a screeching halt with this project. The well-trained young actor has delivered a performance worthy of an epic - always competent, nuanced, and fascinating. He understands the value of accent, the glance of an eye, posture, and all the small moments that raise a performance from passing to mesmerizing. His Uhtred is multi-layered, enigmatic, superbly physical (check out the horseback stunts and the fight scenes - his martial arts training shows) and by turns quietly emotional and fiercely warrior-like, as he cries over a friend's betrayal or his dead child, then rushes into battle swinging a broadsword with an intimidating fury-birthed grimace. He is never less than 100% male, as a ninth century warrior had to be in order to survive.

Also excellent are David Dawson as King Alfred, Adrian Bower as the knight Leofric, Eliza Butterworth as Aelswith, Ian Hart as Father Beocca, Emily Cox as Brida, Harry MacEntire as Athelwold (a fan favorite, to be sure!), Charlie Murphy as Iseult, Rune Temte as Ubba, and many others.

Wessex has finally won everything, while Uhtred has lost all.
Fans of the books will love the series, but may be a little put off by a few instances of straying from the novels' storyline. As a writer and a film fan, I have no issue with the changes: many are necessary in order to make a series play to a film audience without confusing them with too many characters and subplots; after all, film is a much different medium, and must have different requirements for the sake of clear storytelling.  Other changes added to the stories, such as the screenwriter's decision to flesh out Uhtred's love relationships, where in the books they are too often mere mentions. This change in particular makes the film more interesting to a wider audience, and Uhtred's character more multi-dimensional. It also, in this writer's opinion, raises the quality of the story. Like many a male, Cornwell tends to write from a testosterone-laden point of view. In much the same way that some female writers are unwilling to write a great battle scene, he shies away from love scenes or any scene of emotional romantic depth. The screenwriter has understood the value of fixing that, and brings a story accessible and interesting to everyone.

Hild the Nun takes no prisoners.
Which brings us to the battle scenes. These are some of the best you will ever see on television; each battle-cry to raise the shield wall gives the viewer goosebumps. The filmmakers employ stunts and special effects and camera work to increase tension and authenticity -which is expected - but they go further. In an era of television and film when rape and massacre are too often exploited for entertainment (this means you, Game of Thrones), this series neither shies away from tough scenes nor does it present them as purely entertainment. There is brutality, but not the glee of excessive butchery; there is rape, but not a script or camera that lingers over a woman's torture and humiliation for the sake of titillation. These filmmakers understand the difference between realism and exploitation, and it raises the production to a higher level than any other historical out there.

Uhtred and his Danish brother "Young Ragnar" loyal enemies.
Just about the only quarrel I had with the series, and one present also with the books, was resolved in the last episode: that of the treatment of various religions. In the books, Christianity is presented nearly always in a bad light - never as a force for good or the power of justice and peace, against poverty and blind brutality, but as a particularly malicious form of oppression. As an amateur historian of the era, it troubled me because it doesn't give a complete picture. I have always been fascinated in the question of why the new religion swept over a culture as quickly as it did (given that there was no mass communication). Through the years I
have read the suggestions of many historians - it encouraged the value of the individual life, and raised the value of life overall; it offered a way out of a pattern of personal vendetta and inter-clan wars; it raised the value of literacy and learning; it established the first social programs such as orphanages, schools, and soup kitchens; it improved ties to the Continent and the Roman Empire and the rest of Europe, which meant trade and improvement of quality of life. Cornwell has said in interviews that he holds a personal bias against Christianity given his upbringing, and while I can't fault him for that, I do think it's a shame that it kept him from writing more realistically about the gentle slipping away of the pagan world, and the gradual establishment of the Christian. Historians agree that for the vast part, it was a peaceful transition for England, and I for one think it would be a fascinating question for the novels to have explored more. 

But here, the screenwriters have rescued the story from one-dimensional Christian-bashing. In the final episodes, pagan Uhtred comes to reconcile the two philosophies in his own mind, Christian King Alfred comes to appreciate that his god may have a broader point of view than he originally thought, Father Beocca realizes that God works even through pagans, and - as happened in history - the leading warlord of the Danes, Guthrum, offers himself for baptism as part of a peace treaty. (In reality, Alfred stood as Guthum's godfather for baptism, and Guthrum took the Christian name Athelstan, after Alfred's deceased elder brother.)  In the last minutes of the final episode, we have nuns and priests taking up the spear and raising the battle-cry for Wessex and rushing headlong into the battle - a scene which, given the politics of the moment in time, I agree is highly imaginable. Even the religious would have understood that the saving of a way of life demanded every heart and weapon available, and that defending one's life and land was a justification for war when the invaders were at one's doorstep.

As I watched this series, I was often moved not only by the story of Uhtred and his companions, but by the story of England's birth, and the comparisons in my own mind to our political struggles today. Surely the people of Wessex were increasingly frightened as the Viking menace first tickled their shores, and then made its way inland to kill and conquer. Perhaps at first they - preoccupied with everyday survival at their little farms and trades - would have heard stories of the pillaging and murdering and thought of it as a far-off thing, of not much consequence. They would not have understood that it was growing bigger, that it was a force that did not share the values they had embraced with Christianity, and would spare no one until they were all dead or subjected. Even good King Alfred imagined the Danes as people who would be reasonable, could be negotiated with and then trusted to obey a peace agreement. But he was wrong, and it is to England's luck that he learned it in time enough to get serious about defending his people.

Today we face a similar situation, as a force intent on the destruction of our way of life moves closer and grows larger, while still our leaders and a vast majority of our citizens play blithely along at their day-to-day pursuits, without understanding what is at stake and the choices we will have to make in a very near future. I wonder if we still - we peoples of the western world, who have built civilizations on a specific set of values and beliefs, whether we acknowledge that fact or not - possess the courage it will take to keep the right to decide our own path into the future. 

As Uhtred told us in every episode of The Last Kingdom, "Destiny is all."  In the Anglo-Saxon way of thinking, Destiny ("Wyrd") was a reality predetermined before one ever took a first breath. But they believed also that individual choices could affect destiny.  Let's hope that our destiny is as hopeful and kind to us, as was that of the brave Anglo-Saxon men and women who won their future with blood.

Do yourself a favor and watch The Last Kingdom in its entirety. You'll get a great history lesson, a glimpse into the past of a great people and land, and a rollicking good time.


Writer Bernard Cornwell with "Uhtred" Alexander Dreymon.

Bernard Cornwell's series can be found at, at bookstores, and elsewhere all over the web. The popular books are well-researched and well-written, and I highly recommend them.

The Last Kingdom is currently finishing up its run in the UK and Europe, but is finished with the first season's run in the US.  It can be purchased online as a DVD, or downloaded from Amazon or ITunes. If you are like me you will be watching each episode about four times.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Review: Gifted Hands, by Ben Carson

Someone handed me this book this morning, when I asked about it out of curiosity.  I find Dr. Carson fascinating. I remember back when he was, as head of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, invited to be the guest speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast, and effectively and politely - with impressive class and finesse - put a stone-faced Obama in his place like a patient older brother scolding a young upstart.

When he first entered the presidential race, I saw him as a breath of fresh air, and a welcome change from the Washington establishment. Over time, when a few things popped up in mainstream media illustrating some of his weirder comments, I started to feel some caution kick in. I resolved to file the reticence away until later in the campaign, and take a second look if he was still in it. But lately he has surged ahead in the polls, his quiet, intelligent demeanor conveying a calm reassurance that many voters respond to.

I took myself to lunch and read most of the book in that one sitting. I have to confess, I was looking for some evidence that he isn't to be trusted, some sign that he isn't as good as he seems.  Another crazy contender masking as the next superman.  But I didn't find it.

Gifted Hands is a memoir, detailing his beginnings as an underprivileged kid growing up in Detroit. He had the same circumstances as many a black child - and too many of all races - he was living in poverty with a single mom, not asking much of himself or his world, falling into a pattern of violent misbehavior. This is a guy who had no advantages. None.

The book reveals how his years through high school found him letting go of anger and violence as a way of life and allowing hope to creep in and inspire him.  It tells how he earned his way into Yale, not as a matter of affirmative action, but by merit of his hard work. It discusses his marriage and the births of his children, and his earning a medical degree and beyond, finding himself rising in one of the most competitive industries and sub-fields in the world.

But the book is so much more than a chronological blow-by-blow of his climb; nor is it merely a

lecture on the ladder to success.  Firstly, it is expertly written. Writers studying the art of memoir would be wise to take a look. The book begins with a critical conversation in the course of his childhood, and is full of stories of his own experience and accounts from within the surgery of some of his cases as a neurosurgeon.

And it's the point of the book that makes it worth a read: while too many very intelligent people get caught up in a pattern of endless self-analysis and world-analysis to the point of constant confusion, Carson has an ability to view the world and life's challenges through a lens of near-childlike simplicity. It has served to form in him a common sense that guides him daily.  The book is peppered with little bits of personal wisdom, that add up to a nice recipe for keeping one's head above water despite diversity and the more unsavory but unavoidable aspects of any lifetime.

The biggest difference in Carson's life, when compared to similar stories, is that his mother was even more impressive than he is. Uneducated, married at thirteen, she found herself a single mom with two boys when she was hardly an adult herself.  But this is a woman with an extraordinary dose of common sense, and an unshakable commitment to put and keep her boys on the path to success, and more importantly, to living a life of service to others.  The book's dedication to this amazing woman is justified as the reader realizes how the early lessons she imposed shaped the course of a life that might have gone in a very different direction. Perhaps the greatest challenge to such a parent, and one that too many fail at, is the challenge to make a bigger impression on a young mind than does the neighborhood, gangs, and financial circumstances.  This woman accomplished that and more.

Carson credits his mother, and his faith, for his sense of and commitment to right conduct. It's refreshing, in this me-centered society and era of self-obsession, to see any man - much less a presidential candidate - embrace basic ethics that used to be common in this society. His story demonstrates how a life dedicated to those values can benefit the individual as well as those with whom his life comes in contact. It demonstrates why those ethics are still valid and even necessary.

At its core, the book is a spoonful of inspiration, with a realistic take on what can change and make a life. In an ideal world, it would be required reading not only for every black student, but for every teen, regardless of background. It's that good, and that valuable. Interesting, it was written in 1990, when Carson was yet at the height of his medical career, and long before he considered a political one.  It would be fascinating to see what a new memoir, after an additional fifteen years of life experience, would look like.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Serial Craze: When Writers Sacrifice the Story

Not so many years ago, one could view a television drama or pick up a novel, and expect to be told a story.  A complete story. Beginning, middle, end. Can you imagine?  With the exception of daytime soaps, serial stories were the exception, not the rule. As we have entered an era where, across many entertainment platforms, serials are more common - books, movies, television, games - it has often occurred to me that this practice has hurt the quality of stories.

The first time I remember being bored by the serial thing was with the ABC television serial from the 1980s, Twin Peaks. I watched most of it, but grew increasingly annoyed as my writer's intuition (and experience) told me that there was no ending. We were all waiting week after week for a big fat nothing, because the writers hadn't a clue how the thing was going to play itself out. They were making it up as they went, and their ever bringing it to a conclusion seemed to depend upon how long the network was going to keep renewing its call for new episodes.

Apparently I wasn't alone; early in the first season viewership dropped off dramatically. Largely due to great critical reviews based on its innovation, and likely to some ego on the part of ABC, the show was renewed for a second season that proved to be a mess. The key mystery was solved mid-season (a bone-headed decision if ever there was one) and viewership dropped to negligible numbers, financially speaking. The series died a long drawn-out death. Creators later admitted that they never considered that the series was about plot (the murder of Laura Palmer), but more about the interactions between the show's quirky characters - a confession that likely surprised not a single competent writer in viewer land. 

Other shows were smarter; The X Files incorporated a secondary ongoing storyline regarding the relationship between the leads and with their pasts, but still offered a complete story weekly. This was a formula that kept the show alive far longer than producers of Twin Peaks could have dreamt of - several years. 

By the middle of the 1980s, movies that were "sequels" or "prequels" or whatever inanity-du-jour producers came up with were a bit of a joke. (How about that second Indiana Jones story?  The "prequel". Yeah.. that one.) One could expect the sequel to be a lame attempt at money-making on the part of producers, and rarely anything that lived up to the thrill moviegoers had at the original. 

In recent years, the serial craze has crept into the realm of novels. Interestingly, many of the classic novels that we still revere from the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries in American and British writing were originally published in serial form in various newspapers. And yet, even that took a different form than it does now. These novels were complete and promised to be so from the beginning: they would be advertised as for example "a novel in four parts".  The reader was reassured every time they began a new installment, that they were reading a real story with a real, logical plot, and that it would have a real ending.

Nowadays there is a lot of laziness in writing all around. While Amazon, I personally believe, has been a godsend in allowing innovative stories to find a place in the marketplace, I abhor the laziness - from people just wanting to make a quick buck who would not take one week to learn to write a plot in any coherent manner, to people who want to call themselves a writer but don't understand that putting a book out there with grammar and spellings issues and a mess of a structure does not a writer make. Of course, the buyer is as responsible as the writer, if not more, for this state of things in the marketplace - and that is another discussion. The point is, I have come to believe that writing serials is another rather cynical attempt to make money with bad writing.  One need only slap together the beginning of a story, and put of having to take it to a logical end. 

Why does this matter to me?  Because 1) we have so little in the way of novels of quality on the already flooded market, and 2) serials as they are currently being presented cheat the reader. And do that quite intentionally.

The best plots - and in my mind the only way to structure a novel - consider the outcome as they go. The author knows the ending and the conflicts and pitfalls, and leads the reader through a maze of clues (foreshadowing) that all contribute to the satisfaction a reader feels as they reach a great ending. If the writer from the get-go has no idea what the plot is or where the conflict is going, they cannot foreshadow, they cannot tease and lead the reader. To me, there is something really low about spoonfeeding a reader little bits of an incomplete meal of a story, allowing him to anticipate for nothing.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that whether you are a novelist or a playwright, a screenwriter or a producer for TV, you owe those to whom you are telling the story a well-structured plot. You owe this above all else, because without a good plot, the story doesn't take shape. I talk to too many writers who will tell me all about the great protagonist they have dreamt up for the upcoming series (usually this protagonist is based upon themselves, interestingly), but are unable to articulate any coherent plan for a plot.  "It's a series," is the excuse, "I can figure it out in Book Two."  Oh.  

The problem is, there are too many instances where the first book establishes the lead character and a conflict of sorts, and ties up just a few loose ends by the finish but leaves a few bigger loose ends for the second book, enticing readers to buy in order to be fulfilled. Fine, but too many times the author grows bored by the end of the second book, resorts to dragging it on to a third, or simply doesn't publish a book with the ending. (Can you spell "c.h.e.a.t."?) So what starts out as an enthusiastic following results in a lot of frustrated readers, and rightly so. The author struggles to keep plotting alive, the second and subsequent (God forbid) books lack quality, and the series fizzles out. The problem is that the writer didn't take the time and effort - and perhaps lacked the skill in many instances - to lay out a complete plot structure, and then figure out what would happen in each book.  Experienced writers (and most of them stay away from serials) don't make the mistake of making it up as they go - they know that unless you have plot issues resolved from the beginning, they become potholes that grow into craters, and you may end up without an ending that works, and a failed series.

I find that this scenario usually involves an inexperienced writer, eager to make a paycheck, and unschooled on the finer points of successful plotting.  Often, this is a writer who does characterization well; he or she can come up with a great character and stick them into a book. But that character ends up throwing up his hands and complaining to the author, "What do you want me to do?"  when he becomes hopelessly mired in the chaos of a lack of plot.

A few people - a few - who are experienced writers do serials well. But the ones I can think of all do one important thing that is different from inexperienced writers:  they roll a complete well-plotted story into each book. Each book can stand alone as a good read. And a person can read Book Three and pretty much enjoy a full story, never having read the first two at all.

One good example of this is the wonderful historical novelist Bernard Cornwell. He has done a few different series of novels designed around themes. Each book within a series is a separate story; it may involve an ongoing protagonist observer to the historical period. Bestselling thriller writer Tom Clancy uses the Jack Ryan character as a protagonist through many of his novels, yet each novel contains a complete mystery thriller. Another good example is the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Each story could be read separately and is complete in and of itself.

Unfortunately, the success of Harry Potter spawned a generation of novels that are badly written as series. Either, as mentioned above, an inexperienced writer is just in over their heads - or worse, the success of a first book prompts the writer to come up with an extension to the story that is never going to live up to the first because the writer doesn't understand the sophistication of plot structure required to pull it off (consider the Twilight story by Stephenie Meyer, or the 50 Shades of Gray books by E.L. James - yes there are three of those trainwrecks). 

The genre of erotic novels, along with "urban fantasy", offers up some of the worst nonsense in series reading. There, you often experience both bad characterization and bad plot structure, all rolled up in one. Why any reader continues to finance an author who can't be bothered to offer those two fundamentals to the reader, is beyond me. 

I'll continue to be annoyed by series writing, and dismayed that it seems to indulge a sort of greed amongst some bad writers, as their naive readers snatch up the first few books in a series before becoming disappointed.  I'll continue to tell the inexperienced writers I work with as an editor that series writing is not a good idea unless you are willing to plot out three novels, before writing a word of the first. You have to be willing to put thought into the last chapter of the third book, before you can presume to be able to successfully write the series or understand character development and conflict - those very things that form the true backbone of good writing and a successful series. 

I'll continue to believe that it's a trend whose life will be limited as people become tired of disappointment. When that day comes, there will be a lot of nervous TV writers, novelists and screenwriters, who will finally have to learn to write a structured plot!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Toward Better Writing: When Crazy Just Doesn't Cut It

Clowns and puppets. Back about ten to fifteen years ago, I noticed a trend in novels that I found infinitely annoying, and I have finally put my finger on why. I hope my observations might be useful.

It got to be predictable, particularly in the literary novel genre, particularly the best-sellers. Nowadays, you find it across genres. Characters had to be outrageous: they had to have almost unbelievable backgrounds; they had difficult to understand dilemmas, usually due to extremely far-fetched situations; they had names that ranged from sounding as if the authors' four-year-olds made up while munching on cereal at breakfast, and sounding as if the author had had one too many cocktails while sitting before the computer. Each of these characters was peppered over with a plethora of quirky habits. These aren't characters; they are so overly made up, so painted with pretty colors, you can't see their faces or souls. They are clowns.

Now you may ask, "What's wrong with that? Crazy characters are fun, Lichen! Some of the best and most memorable characters are like that! You snob!"

This is my problem with it: when you overdo it, you murder the very reasons you might successfully employ it as a creative device. You defeat the purpose - what might have been successful and interesting and drawn the reader in, in a more powerful way. You dilute that which you might have had.

This is why:

First, it is essential to a well-drawn character that your reader is able to relate in some way to her needs or frustrations or experiences or motives. I believe that is always necessary to a successful story. Now, your character might be non-human; he or she might be an anti-hero, possessing what many of us would see as negative traits; he or she might exist in an alternate universe or a time in the far past or distant future that you can't completely imagine. But that character must have traits at his or her core that the reader can relate to on a personal level. The reader must feel, in some important way, at one with the protagonist.  If this doesn't happen, the writer risks losing the reader - either in the bookstore reading the back cover and rolling his eyes before he puts the book back down, or sighing and tossing it aside in the third chapter as he sits on a sofa. A character is too far-fetched when he is made up of so much bizarreness (yes, I made that up, but it works here!) that the reader never bonds with him.

On the other hand, a character must possess some idiosyncrasy in order to be a character, and not a mannequin devoid of personality. Every elementary creative writing class teaches you to find something different to add to a character, in order to make him come alive. Maybe he can favor blue shirts only; maybe her shoes are always untied or her red curly hair always unruly; maybe he speaks with a brogue or a southern American, or British accent. Maybe she has lots of dogs or cats. Or walks ten miles to work every day. No one is interesting if they are like everyone else in the world, right? So a writer must find what can be unique about the character and emphasize that, in order to draw in the reader's interest.  But . . . too much weirdness, too many quirks, causes a character to feel overdone, overcooked, contrived, and well. . . phony. This is when the reader starts to disbelieve in the character. And thus lose interest in the character's plight. Bad news for your book!

In the art of writing for the screen or stage, when we learn the basics of plotting (and of course all of this applies to a novel or short story) we speak about the element of Suspension of Disbelief.  Have you ever been sitting in a theatre to see a play, and as the curtain rises you see that the set is very minimalist - maybe just a few chairs where you know there should be an entire room. Or a character's walk through what is supposed to be a forest, is a few risers or a ramp and some shadow scattered about the stage. But later in the production, you might realize that you have lost track of your initial worry about the set, because you have been engrossed in the story.  This is due to successful performance of a successfully-constructed script. The director, actors and writer(s) have achieved Suspension of Disbelief for the audience. In other words, the elements that might have caused the audience to disbelieve the story as it goes have been overshadowed by the larger story itself. The reasons for the audience to believe the plot being set before them - the obstacles before the characters and the motives they have as they fight for that which they desire most - are so powerful, that anything prohibiting that tendency to question, has been obliterated for a time.

Or have you ever sat and watched a film, and thought to yourself, "This is so stupid. This person would never do that. People don't act like that." You are bothered because the Suspension of Disbelief has not been successfully achieved; those elements that cause doubt in your mind have not been overcome by the plot or performances, and thus the film has failed to properly engage your imagination.

When you throw in too much of the bizarre into a character, your reader's ability to employ Suspension of Disbelief is impeded. If the reader already doesn't find your character believable (and to be relatable she must be a little believable after all!), why would he believe your plot?

To put all this simply: don't write characters that are so overboard weird that they sink into seeming silly. That is easier said than done, if you are a writer that loves quirkiness. So in the interest of the writers out there who may be in love with the Weird, let's set down some common sense guidelines:

  • If you are going to name people silly names from the depths of your imagination, do that to only one character. One character with a silly/quirky nickname or a name that only they could have inherited from Great Grandpappy Pinecone, is enough.  Let people around that character have more mainstream, geographically/ethnically/era appropriate names. That way, your odd character really stands out and your story doesn't seem populated by people your reader can't relate to or believe (and if everyone in town is named ridiculously, can the reader believe the town is well. . . sane?).  An exception would be a group of siblings who were all given odd names to make a point, and in order to allow you to say something about family dynamics. 
  • And let's say you do that. You have three sisters all with silly names their perpetually-drunken sire insisted upon. Then do it, but have one of them comment on the names within the narrative, because if the characters themselves acknowledge the ridiculousness, the reader will respect them and accept the reasoning, and thus believe in them and in the story. 
  • Don't give your character fifteen quirks. Give him three, tops. Those three will stand out enough, will keep your character within the bounds of logic, and allow him to still be believable if a little . . . unique. 
  • If you are giving your character an odd name, inexplicable quirks, and a crazy family, for Heaven's sake, make his background and dilemma believable.  Not that there is ever an excuse for a badly-constructed plot, but especially when you are demanding a lot of Suspension of Disbelief of your reader in the way of your character's very construction, do allow him a relatable situation to deal with.
  • Keep this in mind:  Most of us in our day-to-day lives are a little (or a lot) turned off by phoniness. We can smell it a mile away by our thirties or so. And it bores us. Phonies wear a smell of trying too hard, of displaying their oddness like a badge, along with a silent, "I'm too cool for you all. . . see how weird I am?"  You know what I mean. Don't let your characters be that. Keep them real. Write a real character who happens to have an odd name and be dealing with a weird life circumstance. Don't use a character to parade around your favorite weird name, personal quirks, and idea for the weirdest plot ever. That is phony, and it isn't going to lead to good writing. Believe me on that. Don't make a character your puppet. Rather, write a well-rounded, believable, relatable character from the beginning and then let the character carry the story. You record the actions of the character as he guides you, you don't manipulate the strings.
  • Cardinal rule: When the author is trying too hard to be cute, the readers feel it. Leave that in fifth grade, and just write a character the reader can respect (not necessarily like, but respect) and relate to in some major way. 
Respect your characters enough - whether they be animal or human, alien or not - to make them real so that the reader is drawn to them.  Bring each to life with a few points of uniqueness - a few odd habits, a few favorite turns of phrase, an interesting family member or two, one slightly odd experience in their past. Stop there. That's enough. 

Know when enough is enough, and never forget that less is more. And over-the-top is . . . well . . . just annoyingly hard for your reader to swallow. 

For more on writing good characters, see previous article: Characters: The Inspiration of Attraction.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Film Review: The Riot Club

I have been looking forward to seeing this film for quite a while. It is based on an award-winning play, POSH, by British playwright Laura Wade. As did the play, the film has garnered some good reviews, and in particular, its ensemble cast of ten of Great Britain's best young male actors have received positive attention for their roles. As some of you know, I became a fan of upcoming actor and former model Max Irons, after seeing his performance as King Edward IV of England in made-for-cable miniseries, The White Queen. His performance has been one of those singled out for praise in The Riot Club. And so I was excited to see him in this film. Because I am a fan of stage plays, and fascinating by the art of writing for theatre, I am always interested to see how a play has been adapted for the big screen.

The Riot Club was released first in the UK, and subsequently across Europe from early fall until present. The cast and producers have put in a lot of time with personal appearances at various premieres, and it has been met with good energy everywhere, including in Canada where it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in November of 2014. Its U.S. release is set for late March. It was directed by Danish director/producer Lone Scherfig.

The film is well-produced and adequately filmed. Not one performance is lacking, from the least - lasting a few seconds - to those of the ensemble cast of eleven men and two women, each of whom plays a major role. I found the structure of the plot rather odd, and had to settle in a bit to it: this was no doubt a result of the adaptation from stage. I'm not certain whether editing could have remedied the feeling that the build-up was too short and the debauchery scene very long. It seems that the balance achieved was necessary to the success of the plot.

The story follows two freshmen at Oxford University, Miles (Max Irons) and Alistair (Sam Claflin). Both
Sam Claflin (left); Max Irons
are approached almost immediately by a mysterious underground by-invite-only "social club" known as the Riot Club - named after a 17th-century nobleman who engaged in abandonned and continuous debauchery, and was stabbed in the stomach for it by a cuckholded husband. The boys see this history as terribly romantic and exciting and use it as an excuse to engage in a carpe diem lifestyle while at school which includes playing various pranks that are so extreme that they are more disgusting than amusing. But these kids are rich, and it's old money. They simply pay their way out of scrapes with wads of bills from their pockets and the help of Daddy's lawyers.

I know, you're imagining the horror stories we hear coming out of frat house hazings, right?  In most countries, the children of the financial elite sometimes get away with horrible behavior, and pay and/or intimidate their way out of it. But forget all that: the antics of this crowd would make the most hardened frat boys' jaws drop. They are truly out of control. The viewer feels the situation veering out of hand from early in the film, and the thing is that it never really careens until all Hell breaks loose well past the hour-long mark - it just crawls slowly to an increasingly dark inevitability, and it keeps the viewer mesmerized. It is the horror show you can't look away from - even as you know you don't want to see it.

Stories came out of the set during production that the cast itself was often uncomfortable with the subject matter. The male ensemble discussed it together at length, took time to bond so that filming the worst would be easier on them mentally. Actresses Holliday Grainger and Jessica Brown-Findlay have spoken about struggling with the tension of the misogynistic scenes in the film. Max Irons has told the press a few times that when first presented with the script, he felt he would decline the role, feeling that he didn't want to do something "so disgusting". But he thought about it further, considered that clubs such as the one depicted in the film have been the stuff of university legend for years;  a few years back some of the elite in the British government were discovered to have participated in such behavior themselves, and there was quite the scandal at the time. Irons decided that it was "an important story" and "a discussion that needs to happen" in the greater social context, and he agreed to participate.

Much is made in the film, and during interviews with the cast and director, about this social context. Most of Europe is deeply entrenched in the realities of social class differences, to a greater extent than Americans and Canadians experience. It seems to infiltrate so much of the way of looking at life. I say this as one who has lived in Europe, and was married into a European family for near two decades. To understand - as we do in America - that a lot of money brings what is sometimes too much privilege, and to as a Brit understand it as a sort of wall built over hundreds of years that cannot be scaled, is two different sensibilities.  And so perhaps my appreciation of the film from that perspective was a bit limited.

I think that perhaps my experience of the film was also affected by my gender. Why is it that young men, when they assume their ugliest personas, have to be so damned ugly toward women?  It would be funny if it weren't so horrid: the notion that a male somehow raises himself in the eyes of other males by demeaning those most vulnerable to testosterone-out-of-control, is something I have never been able to understand. The scenes which depict this particular behavior are so vile, that Holliday Grainger describes a sort of dream state she entered during filming the worst, when the line between what was the set and what was real seemed to blur. At one point she describes how one of the actors laid a kind hand on her to ask if she were all right, and she shivered, unable to stand him touching her. She rushes to explain that all the male actors involved were kind people and spoke of their own disgust as well, but it didn't make the filming of it any easier.

Of all the heinous behaviors depicted in the film, perhaps this one was the worst: the harassment of
women. Let me describe what I mean: some of the boys are frustrated that a high-priced call girl they hired to perform oral sex on them all under the dinner table has told them where to stick it (er..them) and walked out without the boys getting their fun. Later, Miles' girlfriend - having been tricked into coming to the restaurant - stumbles upon the drunken orgy at hand. The male mob turns on her, openly taunting her with language meant to intimidate and then terrify her into believing she will be raped, as they physically restrain her (and restrain a horrified Miles, who has let it go this far before trying to intervene). The girl finally escapes, but of course, nothing will ever be the same for the two lovers.

Which brings me to the point of the film. The behavior of the boys escalates over much of the film - each time the viewer hopes that we have seen the worst - and many times it seems that it is in fact enough to get the point - it keeps getting worse. It is ratcheted up yet another notch. Is destroying a working family's place of business enough?  Destroying a treasured collection of artwork? Vomiting under tables? Breaking literally everything in a room?  Is humiliating an escort enough?  Or a young woman who means no harm, and comes into the room expecting no harm to herself? Is terrifying her in an intimately, primal sexual way for one's amusement enough? How about beating a man senseless, as a gang, because you can?

As I write, it's been one day since the world was horrified by the act of a terrorist gang of thugs in Syria burning a young man alive in a cage. This gang has, over a year, gotten more and more brazen in terms of how it tortures and kills. From hangings to beheadings. From stonings to throwing people off buildings. And now we are back in the Middle Ages, burning people alive. As one news pundit said today - we have to understand that these are young men who are enjoying what they are doing. They are enjoying the victim's suffering and they are enjoying the horror we feel at seeing what they have done.  I thought a lot about this as I watched The Riot Club.

I thought about the nature of power - whether political or monetary, by virtue of terror or by inherited wealth.  I thought about human nature too.  I thought about what Miles' girlfriend says to him, tears streaming and body shaking, as she throws cold water on his effort to seek her forgiveness, "You were THERE. You had a choice, Miles, and you chose to do NOTHING."

The ugliest behavior humans can engage in are wrapped up in the under two hours of this film. When intimidation and power is used to destroy another - whether by the horrible psychological torture suggested in this film, or by setting fire to a person - I have to believe that the gods weep for us all: both for those who do it, and those who stand by and do nothing.

In the end, what is really the difference between the minds of young men engaged in a gang rape or beating a man blind in the back room of a pub, and the minds of a Middle Eastern thug?  What are we going to do about these acts, in our own societies, behind the doors of our governments, and within our universities? How much is too much for us as a species to bear, before we stop turning our faces away and excusing it? Before we stop refusing to be emotionally present, before we stop doing nothing?

These are questions this haunting film leaves us. I didn't enjoy it. I never want to see it again. But I'm glad I did see it once, and that it made me think about things that perhaps we all should be giving thought to from time to time.  As Mr. Irons observed, the story is important on many levels, depending on one's perspective, and it certainly is a place to start a much needed discussion. The most relevant films are those that make us look in the mirror, and for that, The Riot Club deserves accolades.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Je Suis Charlie: What Does That Really Mean?

Nearly two weeks after the Jihadist-driven massacre in Paris that took the lives of seventeen sane, innocent people and a few monsters, the fallout has left me a bit baffled.

"All is Forgiven" ;  "I am Charlie"
It was no surprise, really, that as the staff at Charlie Hebdo rallied to get out it's scheduled issue on time - complete with the usual satirical cartoons - the likes of The New York Times and MSNBC refused to show the cover during coverage of the story, explaining that they didn't want to offend Muslims (translate: hurt anyone's feelings). CNN was even more disingenuous about it: they announced they wouldn't show it without reason, for about two days, then said they wanted to protect their journalists from Muslim attack. Baloney - have they not covered other controversial subjects with no such worries? And after all - what sort of "news organization" are you if you do not take risks? At least one on-air anchor openly stated disagreement with the decision.

Funny thing is . . . no one seems to understand what the cover cartoon was about. I read and understand French well, and it left me scratching my head. I had to laugh when news anchors asked French citizens what they thought it meant, and got everything from nervous chuckles to various lengthy theories.  (In the end, I think the meaning was super-satirical: a crying Mohammad as a joke that Muslims would never feel remorse for the violence they inflict on the West in the name of Islam.)

What is astounding to me, though, as a writer and sometime journalist, is that none of these entities seemed to appreciate what I was taught in Journalism 101: that free expression is sacred, and that it must remain so. Sure . . . they give it lip-service as they link arms and walk a few blocks in a parade/photo op, but how many national leaders, and sadly how many news network editors, really get it?  I had to realize that many really don't.

Back thirty-odd years ago when I was a student in the journalism department of a large university, I was assigned a major paper for a writing class. The idea was to learn to write a well-researched 50-pager. I chose to write on Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. He was a Russian writer and social critic. Born in 1918, just as the Russian communist revolution was at an end, he grew up in a world where he was forbidden to write much of what was racing around in his head. But Solzhenitsyn bucked the system and did it anyway. As a result, he spent some time in a Siberian prison camp (he got a good book out of it), and eventually escaped the U.S.S.R. and fled into Western Europe, and after some time, the U.S.  I was twenty-something, and it fascinated me that someone could be punished so brutally for simply voicing an opinion. It fascinated me, and he fascinated me. 

I also was fascinated with the few voices in Nazi Germany who spoke out against the popular regime. Let's not forget that Hitler's rise to power took over a decade . . . during which your average German citizen either was too busy living life to care much about the cancerous elephant in the room, or simply couldn't wrap their brains around the ugly truth of Hitler's aims. So they told themselves it wasn't all that bad, turned their eyes away, and their backs, and well . . . we know how that  turned out.  Those who spoke up, who refused to be silenced against mass opinion, generally ended up dead. But quite a few managed to mess things up for the Nazis a bit before they did.  I understood quite early in my life that these were the lives that mattered in this world - these were the souls that were strongest.  Each time one died, they managed to light a small candle first in a world of darkness - in the form of open speech.  Forbidden speech. 

In early 2012, a teen-aged girl in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai, was hired to write a blog for the BBC, detailing her life under Taliban occupation.  She talked about their gradual occupation of the valley where she lived, how life became more restrictive and the Taliban patrols more feared. Most of all she talked about how things were changing for women, for girls trying to get an education. Malala loved learning and appreciated deeply the opportunities she had to go to school daily. She was punished for her courage in speaking out, in October of that year, when the Taliban stopped her school bus, boarded and asked for her by name, and shot the 15-year-old girl in the head. All for speaking out about her beliefs. After a long recovery, she continued to speak, even being one of few women to address the U.N General Assembly to speak on the rights of women to education.

There are hundreds of these stories through the time of our history as a thinking, writing, drawing,
photographing, painting, singing  race.  The people in our history who have introduced new ideas, who have spurred the rest of us to think, who have sparked the energy of change for the better, were all such people.  Change is rarely ever welcomed - it is human nature to push back against it; without these brave people to express ideas we have never heard before, ideas that demand thought and social progress, we would stagnate. 

Many of us watched the world leaders (minus our own spineless one) join the millions-strong march in Paris to support Charlie Hebdo and by extension freedom of expression. I had to believe that for many it was a photo op (witness the Saudi leader, having the gall to stand in support of freedom of expression even as his country carries out a sentence of 20 public canings against journalist Raif Badawi for daring to "insult" Islam in his work; or Putin - the thug whose regime murders journalists who get too mouthy). Others likely stood against Islamic extremism without making the connection in their brains that the two issues - Islamic extremism and free expression - were inseparable on that day.

I wonder how many in the crowd really understood it either.  France has a long proud history of fighting for freedom for the individual, and a long history of producing great artists and writers that introduced controversial ideas, and I have to say I'm not surprised that this social explosion occurred in France, of any of the western European countries. But, France has failed to protect free expression to the extent that it should have: it folded to the politically correct left and put in place "hate speech laws".  In the past decade, even Canada - that bastion of liberty - has made the same mistake.  The situation there is such  that an ex-Muslim, having fled the radical religion in his own country, cannot openly speak about his experience in Canada without some whiny leftist having him arrested for "hate speech". 

One day several months back, some worthless piece of dung posted an anti-gay rant on Twitter.  It was picked up by some in the gay crowd, who ranted back that he needed to be "banned from Twitter" for "hate speech".  I made the mistake of pointing out that, in my view, that would be wrong.  Several people threw back at me that what he said was "illegal" and "against the law".  I walked away from it - how to begin to reason with people in that frame of mind?  But he broke no law - he was expressing a free, legal, albeit vile, opinion.  People didn't seem to understand that in the U.S., where Twitter is based, it is not in fact illegal, and that in cyberspace there is no such regulation. 

But for me it was more than  that: this was an example of why free expression matters so very much. 
Let me say here that I understand well, as a journalist, that there are limits to free speech even in
Malala Yousefzai won the Nobel Peace prize at 17, in 2014.
the U.S., which arguably has the most free of speech rules in the world.  You may have heard the joke that you can't yell "Fire" in a crowded theatre, unless of course there is an actual fire.  You can't incite a public riot - posing imminent harm to people in a crowd (people in Ferguson, take note). Generally our speech laws reflect caps on speech which would cause immediate physical harm to people.  What we will not put caps on is more telling of American society:  we allow open criticism of government (people in New York, be grateful) in either public discourse or written form; we allow pretty much anything to be said in a novel including criticism and distortion of religions (Dan Brown);  we allow criticism of political ideas in the form of satire - comedy skits (you think SNL would fly in Saudi Arabia?), newspaper columns, and yes, cartoons.  We argue constantly about what to allow on prime-time TV and in feature films. These expressions of creation - good and bad, inspiring or debasing - spur discussion, they invite new ideas, new ways of viewing the world around us.  In this way they stretch our collective creativity and imagination. 

But what about the idiot on Twitter with the anti-gay slurs? What about those of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons that many deem distasteful?  What about the fact that SNL's skits are leftist-slanted?  What about when Solzhenitsyn, from behind the electrified fences of his U.S. home, ranted about the evils of the U.S. in much the way he ranted about the U.S.S.R. (the man was perpetually dissatisfied and angry, it turns out, genius though he probably was . . . )?  Do we have to tolerate speech that is . . . well, worthless?  Destructive?  

I would argue that we do. I would argue that we make a grave mistake when we fail to protect the vilest of speech and this is why:

1 - I truly believe in sunlight as the great disinfectant. Consider the person on Twitter - I suspect it was a 13-year-old trying to get a rise out of a bunch of gay porn stars and pro-gay activists, but let's say for argument's sake it was a 45-year-old business executive and respected member of his town.  I think it's good for us all to see what that man says, see it plainly for what it is, know the disease in our midst and then destroy it with education. If we are never permitted to hear it, after all, we never have to really look hard at its existence.   And. . . when it's out in the open, the person who spoke has to face consequences, has to defend an indefensible stance. That can only be a great exercise. 

2 - Secondly, we cannot with good conscience say that we are a free society that respects varied points of view, and then silence some points of view.  It's hypocritical, and furthermore it is damned dangerous: the more tyrannical regimes in the history of the world did this - a few people decided what everyone should believe and God help those who spoke up with a differing opinion. When we silence any point of view, we imply that only some of us have the right to silence others. This is pompous, arrogant, and invites totalitarian ways of thinking.  If we are a truly equal society, then we don't silence views we don't agree with. 

3 - Silencing unpopular views destroys the possibility for one of those views to change the world for the better.  Does any of us really want to live in a society where everyone agrees?  How boring!  How impossibly bland!  How would we create anything meaningful in such a place?  How would any innovation be born?  As I have already asserted, necessary changes for the better often begin with the spark of an offensive idea - or an offensive political cartoon.

4 - The cool crowd is fickle and their preferences change regularly with the wind. Today, it's not cool to speak against Islam; however it's fine to bash Christianity. Tomorrow.. who knows?  Two decades ago it was risky to defend gay marriage out loud . . . today it's nearly chic. Do you want to gamble that tomorrow the cool crowd agrees with you 100 per cent - because if you allow the cool crowd to always determine what is acceptable expression, and you value being truthful more than being one of the crowd, you may find yourself muted. Defend those who aren't cool today so that tomorrow your voice is safe. Simple.

Some argue that we go too far if we insult one's very religion. Imagine . . . if we outlawed religious critique and discourse, how shallow our philosophical world would become.  The Pope - bless him - got it wrong. His predecessors had the moral courage in the Stalin era to speak out against what they saw as an evil ideology; they did it again in the Nazi era. He might do well to review history. As for pulling our punches when discussing religion and politics, so as not to offend the faint of heart, I am with Bill Maher - whom I generally dismiss as a brainless  twit mind you, but lately have become a bit fond of (I hardly recognize the old guy nowadays . . .) 

A few wise people have pointed out since the Paris march that "free speech" is not made for those whose views are acceptable, but for those whose views are repugnant. This is why Evelyn Beatrice Hall's quote lives on through the decades (no, it was not Voltaire!): "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."   I was deeply offended by the rant on Twitter against so many of the people I love in the GLBT community, but I do not want to see that account banned for the same reason I don't want the vilest of rhetoric from Jihadists using Twitter to recruit banned - I want it right out in the open to be seen for the filth it is, and I want us all to have to consider it in its existence, and form our own moral code accordingly. I value an individual's right to free expression only secondly to human life. 

A wise reader of the New York Times wrote a poignant note to the editor in the days after the newspaper's decision not to run the controversial cover. In it, Gael Mooney of New York wrote:

"If freedom of speech applies only to speech deemed inoffensive to anyone, including extremists, then the terrorists have, sadly, achieved their objective."

Indeed, as Gael pointed out, by doing exactly what the terrorists want the West to do, the Times, CNN, MSNBC and other cowards of the media, moved us all a little closer to the objective of extremists - to force us all to silence.

As Bill Maher so simply and succinctly puts it: "Opinions shouldn't be illegal."  Think about it. Charlie Hebdo is a satirical paper by its own definition. It has insulted every religion, many individuals, and frankly I see much better anti-extremist-Islam cartoons. I agree that most of the time, the cartoonists at CB were and are simply jerks when it comes to their work.  But I would hate to live in a world where their right to draw and publish them, and my right to see them, is denied.  Because I cringe to think about the arrogance of those who would dare to decree for the rest of us, what information is fit for us to see and hear.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Former Life of a Novelist, or Thoughts On Courage

Some have asked recently about my interest in politics - specifically the politics of international relations and radical Islam. I have tried for the three years I have been on Twitter to keep that part of my writing out of "Lichen Craig".  But...I find that passion takes me where it will, and more and more my interest in politics creeps into what began as a pro-LGBT account to promote my fiction. Judging by the inquiries, many would like to hear the story, so here it is.

In 1983 I made my first trip to France with the man who would become my husband for near twenty years. I was 21 years old, wide-eyed and curious about other cultures. I had lived in Denmark for a time, so wasn't entirely ignorant of Europe, but I had never had any interest in France in particular. I was pleasantly surprised; it was Christmas, and lights, French carols, family, people off work, holiday shopping, chocolate and great food, were everywhere. I fell in love with my adopted culture. My fiance's family was in many ways a traditional one: generations of French blood back to medieval times and probably beyond. My father-in-law had spent years in the French army fighting in Algeria - my fiance had spent time there as a child, playing with donkeys in the streets with his Muslim companions, and picking up Arabic.

One night Dominique and I decided to go to a local Middle-Eastern restaurant for couscous, and we invited his dad and stepmom along. His father flatly and unapologetically refused. He would not enter an Arab business. My fiance grumbled to me about how racist/ethnocentric his dad was, how hopelessly old-school, how stupid. We laughed and went to dinner and had a great time. Through the years his father would make many anti-Arab, anti-Muslim comments, causing us to roll our eyes. We were young - we knew it all.

I suppose it was about 1993 when I stumbled upon a book that changed my life. Journalist Jean Sasson teamed with a member of the Saudi royal family to write Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia. The book has since been reissued (2010) and has become a sort of classic of the study of Islamic popular culture. For me it was an eye-opener; I had no idea that women were treated thus in the Middle East. Stoned? Walled up in rooms to starve and die? I was horrified and sickened by the book - and permanently fascinated by a culture that allowed such things.

I began to read everything I could get my hands on, first about women living in Islam, then about Islam itself, about the histories of Islam in various countries, in Europe. During one trip to France we visited the lovely city of Clermont-Ferrand in the French mountains (Massif Central), where we saw the cathedral where the First Crusade began. For the first time I understood that it began - three hundred plus years of warfare - as a result of Moorish Muslim invasions of the Holy Land and of mainstream Europe. Islam had been overrunning Europe by sword, since the seventh century when its founder prophet taught his followers that his faith was the only answer, that the rest of the world must bow to it ("Islam" means literally "submission"), and those who refused to do it had to be forced by violence.  I later visited Poitiers, where Charles Martel stopped the Moors, two thirds of their way into the north of France in the eighth century.

For many years, I worked in various jobs and wrote/edited for extra pay on the side. I never wrote politics - I dabbled at wildlife and ecology, education, social issues, edited a local newspaper. Nothing terribly controversial. Then came 9/11.

Those of us born before say . . . 1985 or so all remember that morning well. For me, a phone call came from a friend. None of the usual cheery hello, but just, "Turn on the TV. NOW."  I turned on NBC - I remember Tom Brokaw's voice. The first plane had just hit a tower. At that point, everyone was horrified but assuming an accident, an unfortunate, tragic accident. Then about five minutes in, the second plane . . . like many others I watched it aim for the tower and plow into it; my jaw dropped. I still remember my brain scrambling, desperate . . . trying hard to connect dots. The slow and horrible realization that this was no accident.  I remember Tom Brokaw going silent for what seemed like forever but was probably a full half-minute or more, while his brain - and that of his producers no doubt - did the same gymnastics mine did. After that I remember little, save spending the morning curled on the corner of the sofa with a Kleenex box and my heart heavy with indescribable grief, staring at the TV screen, my day's work neglected.

Most of us were changed forever on that day. I know I was. I started to reread the books that had interested me. And I read more. I began to talk to people . . .to Muslims I knew, to those who had left the religion. Life went on and years passed, and I continued to obsess and gather knowledge. I read the Koran, I read books discussing and interpreting it. I read others on Christianity and Judaism, trying to understand why this level of violence occurred in this one of the three faiths of Abraham.

Back in about 1998 I had made a visit to Paris, and during the course had to visit a magazine in the Muslim section of the city. I had visited there before, and had enjoyed the friendly street vendors and exotic products from the Middle East, spices in the air, colors and sights. I had loved the restaurants. I was looking forward to revisiting that neighborhood of the city. As I stepped out of the subway into the light, I was hit in the face by the unexpected sight of a sea of burkas - for blocks and blocks as far as I could see. I strained my ears to hear a word of French, but could detect only Arabic around me. Men stared as I stepped carefully around people on the sidewalk. I was petite, young, blond, white, dressed modernly - and feeling very vulnerable. I had heard that Paris had changed and that the Muslim population had established closed enclaves unfriendly to non-Muslims, but hadn't quite understood fully until I witnessed this. It saddened me. Not because it was a piece of multiculturalism but because it was NOT. It seemed to be intent on erasing Paris itself... in these streets there was no trace of the Paris I loved. I remember thinking to myself that Tehran was in the middle of Paris now. This was not multiculturalism, it was the denial of the host culture altogether. I took a cab out to avoid walking the sidewalk again.

By 2006 I was divorced. My ex let me know that my father-in-law, to whom I'd been close and who had been suffering from cancer for a time, had passed away in France. I thought back to his words, all his words, warning of the coming of Islamic extremism. The advent of the internet had allowed information to reach me and others in ways it never had before (my dad always calls it a library in the living room).  My knowledge of the subject through years had grown and ate at me. I felt a tinge of guilt at the times we had laughed at my father-in-law and assumed him outdated and ethnocentric. On the contrary, he'd obviously come to understand a few things from his years in a Muslim country. My brother-in-law had gone to live and teach in Algeria after about 1998, and after 2001 violence had risen in the streets there against all Europeans/non-Muslims. In the end, he barely got out by the skin of his teeth in the middle of the night. His lover, a young man who was Muslim but associated with Europeans and dressed and acted Western, had suddenly disappeared.

Denmark, which I had known well as a teenager, was under attack for publishing cartoons. This pained me not only because it was Denmark but because back in 1986 I'd earned a journalism degree and had the idea of freedom of expression pounded into me. The notion that anyone could be killed for expressing an idea was astounding for me. And now...Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh had been butchered on an Amsterdam street by Muslims for making a film about Islam's treatment of women. The extremist menace was growing. My ire had grown, and like any writer, I was driven to channel it into writing. The first article - and I used a pseudonym, a bit frightened of writing frankly about Islam - was about Denmark:  I felt out of my element; I had no formal education at university in politics, but I did have a brain. I saw so many around me so much smarter and more articulate. I worked daily and hard to learn from them. My article was quickly picked up all over the internet, I was paid, and best of all . . . a gentleman scholar from Denmark wrote to tell me how much he liked it and thought it was accurate.

I kept writing. I wrote on the growing enclaves in Paris. I wrote about Theo Van Gogh, about freedom of speech, about Islam and real history and the revision of history by apologists and liberals. I wrote it all - all that had eaten at me for years. Haters - yep, I heard from them. I got some death threats. I was careful never to mention where I lived. But I made friendships too . . . with people I never would have imagined. Like the young people who ran a website devoted to telling the stories of those who had left Islam at great peril to their lives and welfare. Or the scholar who worked to educate people about what Iran was pre-Islam (Iran, "Persia", was one of the last Middle Eastern areas to be conquered
by Islam). Once, he warned me about being lured to a meeting in Paris with a source who turned out to be a former soldier of Sadaam Hussein's inner guard; that man meant me harm. I talked with people who grew up in Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, and had left the religion. They passed information on to me for stories. I did a guest stint on a national radio show a few times to talk about the rise of radical Islam in the U.S. I felt safe doing it because no one could see my face. I manned a blog called ASKEW, focusing on the plight of victims of Islamic ideology - Muslim and non. I got thousands of hits a week. (I took it down two years ago, when the host went out of business.) I got letters in response to my articles that I will never forget - like the one from a physician in London, a Muslim, who said my articles often made him angry but that he could find no flaw in my arguments or research, to his frustration. In the end, after writing for a few years, I was asked to speak at a large conference in Florida, side-by-side with people I so admired. I was flattered and astounded that they considered me one of their own, an "expert" on radical Islam.

But I had to admit to myself - and it was hard - that I hadn't the courage my associates had. These people lived daily looking over their shoulders, lived daily with death threats from Islamists. Some lived under guard, behind electric fences that made a sort of prison around their properties, in Western countries far from their places of birth. Many had been rejected from their Muslim families for their truth-telling. I hadn't the courage to show my face in Florida and risk my safety.  And truth be told, it was all taking a toll on me, mentally and emotionally. It wasn't interesting anymore; it was damned depressing.

You see, the more you learn, the more you really look into the truth of radical Islam, the more you realize what it is. You hear the comments of people bent on being politically correct and you stifle laughter: if they only knew how out of touch they are, how astoundingly dark the truth is. How insidious the danger is as it silently creeps further into cracks in Western culture - cracks made up of naivete and of the political double-speak of politicians who have no idea what kind of threat they pave the way for. I became more depressed the more I realized and understood; I hadn't the spirit for it.  I am tough - I've lived a tough life and well - and it was the first time I saw a lack in my character, the first time I saw a limitation to my own courage. It was humbling.

I had to quit. I had to find my sanity again. I had to find light in the world, to balance the darkness I'd wallowed in for those few years. And so I turned to writing about animal training and animal husbandry, editing nursing journals, and finally, writing a novel. That was 2012.

Now...I see what is happening in the world, and in Europe, and I find my own lion awakening again. Once again, I am inspired by the courage of those working to disseminate the truth about Islam's most radical followers - radicals are actually the Muslims who follow Islam as it is really written. (While "moderates either delude themselves or struggle within themselves to find an alternate "interpretation" of a faith built upon the musings of a cold killer and his god.)

This time I have balance - I write on other things; I hold onto my emotional well-being jealously. I'm older, wiser, and I know the toll writing can take. But I find myself pulled back into that world I left - where top leaders of nations lack basic education on something so terribly important to our futures and consequently say the most idiotic things in public interviews. Where Shariah Law continues to creep into Western cities. Where most people blithely go about their lives talking about their latest job and love interest and post selfies on Twitter and never give a thought to the coming threat. Except in a week, perhaps, when 17 innocents are mowed down by Islamic fundamentalists in Paris. And then. . . like the masses do so many times, they pause, say "what a shame", then forget about it in a week and go back to their lives. But the Islamists . . . they aren't forgetting.  And increasingly, I find that I can't forget either, and more frequently I rejoin the conversation of those brave ones who refuse to forget it even for a day.

It's a struggle that goes to the heart of who I am. The written word has defined me since I was 12 years old, when I found my voice as a writer. To me, it represents freedom, the singing of a soul. The thought of it being silenced fills me with a dread and fury that I cannot adequately describe to you all. And so, I have to continue to pick up the pen, like those braver souls around me, and light my one small candle - and tell the unpleasant truth about an unpleasant subject. For indeed, JE SUIS CHARLIE.