The lazy fantasy world-building of a 1,000-year-old empire

Guilty as charged! I’ve set my novel in a 1,000-year-old empire.

Author Rachel Aaron blogged this week about the absurdity of millennia-old fantasy fiction empires. An eternal empire is lazy fantasy world-building that authors use to create a sense of historic scale, she wrote. The problem isn’t necessarily the length of time that these empires exist, but the lack of change within them.

To me, enormously long blocks of time in books where things stayed basically the same are the epitome of lazy world building. Want to make something sound impressive? Add a big number to it!

Aaron points out that these empires are full of people who are more than props or names on a character list. They’re inventing things. They’re striving to improve their lives. They rebel. They fight wars. Civilization evolves. Empires fall.

Even the Roman Empire split in half within half a millennium, and the Roman western half collapsed nearly 800 years before the eastern Byzantine half finally crumbled. Empires are not static. They wax and wane. They break apart. They rise again as something new. Aaron writes:

The point is that generations of thinking mortals do not pass time idly.

In other words, don’t be lazy with your fantasy world-building and throw a big impressive number out there for your readers to ponder. A 10,000-year-old empire might sound impressive, but you better prepare to give the reader a sense of time passing and also be ready to explain how that empire held together for so long. An empire that old probably fought its earliest wars with bronze swords and  its last wars with muskets. Are you prepared to explain that much history? You don’t need all the details, but you need to sketch together enough history to make your reader believe in it.

The book I’m writing takes place in a 900-year-old empire that has been ruled by the same dynasty throughout all that history. That first detail is a problem that I’ll probably have to address.  I started with that large number because I needed a broad sweep of history. I wanted to establish some distance between the action of my book and a series of historic events that took place centuries before. These historic events not only shape many of the rules of my world, but also influence some of the characters and ultimately drive the plot.  The sweep of time also shapes the evolution of the magic system in my book. Magic was nearly erased from the world during a series of pogroms against people who practiced it. Only centuries later did magic re-emerge under tight legal controls. And the magic that emerges is a pale shadow of the powers wielded by people centuries before because so much knowledge was destroyed and lost to time.

I’m only 80% through my manuscript (it stands at 100,000 words today), but I’ve started revising it based on some advice I received from an editor and an agent. I admit that the stability of this empire that I’ve invented has troubled me, although at the time my book takes place the empire is in decline. I’ve been thinking about how the civilization of the empire has evolved over those centuries. Aaron’s post confirms that my instincts are right.

It’s a good thing I”m in revision mode. I’m open to making big changes right now. In addition to plot and character changes, I need tweak the history of my world. I’ve done a tremendous amount of fantasy world-building over these seven months, but I’m still a novice. I have a lot to learn. So thanks to Rahcel Aaron for the good tip.


NPR’s Kai Ryssdal’s essential interview with Donald Rumfseld

Old man Donald Rumsfeld has emerged to flog another book. He’s making the rounds on various media outlets to promote Rumsfeld’s Rules. Unlike his memoir, this book has no narrative. Instead it’s a set of dozens of rules that he’s come up with over the years as guiding principles for his management philosophy.

When he walked into the NPR  American Public Media (apologies for conflating NPR and APM) studio recently to do an interview with Kai Ryssdal, host of the network’s business and economy show Marketplace, Rumsfeld probably wasn’t expecting a hard-hitting interview, but that’s exactly what he got in the six minutes he spent on the air. You can hear the whole interview by clicking this direct link to

Actually I’m surprised that Rumsfeld could have expected anything less than a grilling based on how things started out. Ryssdal’s first question asked Rummy to expound on the origin of one of the rules in the book: “It’s easier to get into something than it is to get out of it.” That the management philosophy of the man who ran the Defense Department during the invasion and initial years of the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, two wars that we are still trying to extract ourselves from more than a decade later.

Rumsfeld said he came up with that rule when he was the Middle East envoy for President Ronald Reagan during the bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, that killed 241 U.S. Marines.

Rumsfeld: I concluded then that the United States has to be careful about putting ground forces in [a country] because we’re such a big target. And I also over the years came to the conclusion that the United states really wasn’t organized, trained and equipped to do nation building.

This is a shocking revelation from the man who was the Secretary of Defense during the launch of two wars that both had no exit strategy. Ryssdal did not let it go.

Ryssdal: I sort of can’t believe these words are coming out of your mouth ten years later. So this was on your mind as Iraq was bubbling up?

Rumsfeld: Absolutely.

Ryssdal: And yet here we are.

At this point, Rumsfeld tried to deflect, as Republicans so often do when confronted by the foreign policy and war policy disasters of the Bush Administration. He said the United States had only 23,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan during his time in office and President Obama ramped that deployment up to 100,000. This deflection is pure cowardice. Obama ramped up that deployment for a variety of reasons, one being that for the first decade of our occupation of Afghanistan countless experts chafed at how undermanned our mission was in that country. Any gains that were made couldn’t be held because the Bush Administration and Rumsfeld devoted too many resources to Iraq.

Modern political rhetoric is trapped in this cycle of never accepting full responsibility for anything more consequential than a sex scandal. Democrats and Republicans are guilty of this. It’s the attitude that led to politicians and bureaucrats to use the phrase “Mistakes were made.” The passive form of that sentence in itself is a dodge. It allows someone like Rumsfeld to admit fault without actually having to say “I made a mistake.” It’s cowardly and it’s weak. I wish we had leaders who actually owned their mistakes. But here we have a master of obfuscation. The intelligence was bad, so mistakes were made.

After deflecting the Afghanistan question by hiding behind Obama’s surge, Rumsfeld argued that his and Bush’s foray into Iraq was also done with careful consideration about putting troops on the ground.

Rumsfeld: We had a relatively small footprint and we changed the [Iraqi] regime, which was the policy of the United States in the Clinton Administration. Once you get a mission creep where people start attempting to do things well beyond that, that’s obviously not something the Department of Defense is trying to do.

I am astonished. Did you see how he tried to hang Iraq around Bill Clinton’s head, as if Clinton might have advocated an invasion? I’ve heard Bush apologists make this connection before, but I’m shocked that Rumsfeld is trying to do it in this context. Clinton wasn’t the one who failed to come up with an exit strategy. That’s all on Rumsfeld and the rest of that administration. Ryssdal doesn’t let him get away with it.

Ryssdal: I will do you the favor, Mr. Secretary, of assuming you are not trying to shift any responsibility here.

Rumsfeld: I’m not, it’s just reality that when you do something, then someone wants you to do something else, and then something else. And then over time the mission histrionically creeps into something other than was initiated at the outset.

Now Rumsfeld seems to be throwing the whole Bush regime under the bus. It wasn’t his idea to try building modern democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps not. But it was the U.S. military that was asked to do that job. And he was in charge of our military.

Finally, Ryssdal gives Rumsfeld to a chance to demonstrate some legitimate reflection and take ownership for at least some of his mistakes. No mention of the torture policy he administered. Ryssdal isn’t going into Rumsfeld’s warm crimes. Just his poor leadership and management. And yet, Rumsfeld just can’t take himself there.

Ryssdal: I do wonder whether you read Robert McNamara’s memoirs when they came out — The Secretary of Defense during Vietnam.

Rumsfeld: I have not. I served in Congress during that period.

Ryssdal: That book was widely seen as an apology for his role in Vietnam. And I looked in this book pretty hard for any rule that you had about apologizing and I couldn’t find it.

Rumsfeld: And what’s your question.

Ryssdal: Did you ever think about apologizing?

Rumsfeld: My goodness, you know, as Napoleon said, I’ve been mistaken so many times I don’t even blush for it anymore. Sure you see things that don’t turn out the way you hoped.

And that, folks, is the closest Rumsfeld is able to come to apologizing for the disaster he participated in — two wars that cost us trillions of dollars, thousands of lives and so much more. The Republican party still needs to come to grips with its role in driving us into that ditch. Until it does, it is not fit to govern our nation.

IT’s easier to get in to something than it is to get out of it.

In honor of Maddie on Things


Bishop the cat

In honor of our attendance of a “reading” by Theron Humphrey from his book Maddie on Things, I’m posting a picture of Bishop the cat. Bishop is my silent coauthor. At least 50,000 of my manuscript’s 100,000 words were written with him on my lap. As you can see in this picture, he’s a big fan of laps, especially from October to May. Once spring gives way to summer, he prefers a cool surface for his lounging. But until then, he’s a cuddle-bug.

By the way, I put the word “reading” in quotes because one does not read from Maddie on Things. One enjoys the pictures.

If you aren’t familiar with Maddie, she is a young, deer-spotted coonhound belonging to Theron Humphrey, who has discovered that his dog not only has the balance of an acrobat but also the patience of a saint. He’s photographed her in some remarkable positions as the two of them have traveled the country together. The blog that is devoted to her portraits is wonderful. There isn’t another dog in the world who would be willing to stand on the rim of a basketball hoop for a photograph.

Anyway, my favorite independent bookstore,  Brookline Booksmith, hosted a stop on he and Maddie’s book tour tonight. While Theron presented a slideshow of his work and talked about his passion for photography and his love of his zen-like dog, Maddie wandered around the bookstore’s basement greeting the more than 100 people who crowded the room to catch a glimpse of her.

Hyperbole and a Half’s home run post on depression

Cartoonist Allie Brosh wrote an epic post on her blog Hyperbole and a Half about her struggle with depression. I think she’s done a wonderful job of illustrating the disease not only to people who have never suffered from it, but to the people who live with it every day.

The first few paragraphs capture the experience of the disease perfectly.

I remember being endlessly entertained by the adventures of my toys. Some days they died repeated, violent deaths, other days they traveled to space or discussed my swim lessons and how I absolutely should be allowed in the deep end of the pool, especially since I was such a talented doggy-paddler…

But as I grew older, it became harder and harder to access that expansive imaginary space that made my toys fun. I remember looking at them and feeling sort of frustrated and confused that things weren’t the same.

I played out all the same story lines that had been fun before, but the meaning had disappeared… Depression feels almost exactly like that, except about everything.

The worst aspect of depression for me was loosing my emotional connection to the world. The meaning drained out all my experiences and memories. And explaining this to anyone, even myself, was nearly impossible. I did not know how to comprehend, let alone explain, what was happening to me.

I Think Ms. Brosh has performed a wonderful service by articulating these things. Cheers to her.

Novel Revision: Page One

This is the first page of the novel I’ve been working on. It’s a fantasy novel set in a secondary world analogous to Medieval Europe (no points for originality).

Anyway, I’m in the midst of heavy revision of the 95,000 words I have written so far. I’m drafting a new outline based on feedback I’ve received from an editor and an agent.  Here’s page one. I’m trying to balance character and setting on this first page. Villiard is one of three protagonists Some might argue that I should spend more time on him and less on the setting in these first paragraphs, but I want to pull the reader into my world. And the city where the book takes place is very much a character in its own right. 

Let me know what you think, if this this is working or not.

A city can do horrible things to a river.

Villiard Lopin walked along the bank of the River Weiss, and he could see and smell the depredation. Hundreds of miles to the north, where Villiard was born, the Weiss was a wide, green-blue channel where fish leapt from the water and ducks swam with the current. As a boy he had traveled to its icy headwaters at the foot of the Routeau Mountains that marked the northern edge of the Helmonic Empire. The fish at the headwaters were fat and fresh and delicious. Here in the city, of Vaydeenum, fish that knew no better to stay upriver bellied up and floated with the current.

Downstream from its headwaters, the River Weiss carved through its valley, the Weiss Valley, the empire’s breadbasket. The river watered crops that fed tens of thousands of people. It flowed past villages and baronies, abandoned castles and ancient monasteries. It flowed past Five Oaks, the town where Villiard had grown up.

As the valley gave way to the great coastal plain of the Ashen Sea, the river was throttled by the Vaydeenum. Here in this city where Villiard now lived, the Weiss was not the river that he remembered from his countryside boyhood. He could could smell the rotten stink of the Weiss choking to death on the foulness Vaydeenum. He saw rotten, dead things float by, and he longed for Five Oaks. He had left so much behind to come to this city in search of a fortune to replace the one his ancestors lost. But to see this river so abused and debased twisted at his heart. Hundreds of miles to the north the Weiss was still the river he swam in as a child. After a long day of working in fields he had drunk from it. He had led herds of sheep to it for watering. But here the city had changed the river, and it had changed him.

Vaydeenum was a provincial capital of the empire, its central citadel visible for miles. It had sprung up as a trading town millennia ago around a ford. Over the centuries as it grew, the city had pressed against the banks of the Weiss, dirtying its waters and choking the life out of it. Vaydeenum was a muddy, dusty, sprawling miasma of stone and brick, winding streets, trade and power. As the river ran through its heart, past tanneries and sewers and slaughterhouses, the water congealed into a fetid sludge.

Like all rivers, the Weiss escaped the city that abused it. It flowed south into the coastal plain, where it forked and forked again into a wide delta that spanned for dozens of miles until its urban putridity emptied into the Ashen Sea, where the water would be redeemed in the salt and the sun.

No one could catalog all of the foul contributions that Vaydeenum made to the River Weiss, but some people specialized in tracking very specific adulterations, including Villiard. There were people who trawled the Weiss for its contents. The remains of wrecked riverboats could be salvaged for wood and nails. Orphans and urchins would swim in the stinking mire for half-rotten fruit that had fallen from boats. And then there were the bodies. The body’s were Villiard’s business.

Human relationships in epic fantasy: Give me some quiet moments

As I was recently approaching the 95,000-word mark in the fantasy novel I was writing, I thought to myself, “I really wish I could just have a scene in a kitchen where my protagonist can talk to his girlfriend about something mundane. How was your day? How was work?”

In a genre where someone is always saving the world, fighting monsters, casting wondrous spells, or fulfilling a prophecy, who has time for the quiet moments?

Author Brian Staveley published a refreshing guest blog from his wife Johanna about how heroes of epic fantasy tend to be crappy boyfriends. And she’s right. Her take on the hero of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series:

I can still be fairly certain that it would suck to go on a first date with Rand al’Thor – always talking about himself, never picking up on hints, alternating between needy and surly. He doesn’t know how to make Egwene feel pretty, even though it’s clear that she really cares about her hair and all he’d have to say would be something like, “Hey, Egwene, I really like your your new ‘do.” Nope. Nada. Instead he “stares at that braid as if it were a viper.” By the end of Eye of the World, he doesn’t even recognize her face. Okay, fine, he’s just been through some epic stuff with one of the Forsaken, but still… Epic hero? Check. Terrible boyfriend? Check.

Hey, I loved The Eye of the World when I was 14, and I still enjoyed it when I read it a second and a third time, but let’s be honest. Rand al’Thor is a bad boyfriend. He’s a pretty complex character, but he doesn’t spend a lot of time on dates. He doesn’t spend a lot of time relating to people. He’s brooding. He’s leading armies. He’s fighting evil. There’s not a lot of time for his humanity to shine through, except with his own tortured internal dialogue.

Too many fantasy authors (and genre authors in general) focus too much on driving their plots forward. Given that the fate of the kingdom, world, galaxy or universe typically turns on the outcome of the plot, it’s easy to see why we do this. Who has time to talk about relationships when the evil devil king is leading an army of undead against the city?

But quiet moments are often the moments that allow us to fall in love with a character. They help us find a reason to root for the hero to get the girl (or boy) in the end. Not every scene has to have global consequences. Not every seen has to drive plot. And when you are devoting a scene to pure character development, don’t be afraid to throw in a little domestic drama. Your hero forgot to pick up a pail of milk at the market. His wife is so angry. They have a fight. He remembers why he first fell in love with her. He goes out to a field in the middle of the night and milks the neighbor’s cow for her.  Sure, in the next chapter he’s going to get into a sword fight with the mad prince, but for a quiet moment, we see what he’s fighting for and we care.

I recently read most of a fantasy novel, the first in a series, that had had some decent critical acclaim. (The book and author shall remain nameless out of respect.) I had to put this book down after about 350 pages. I simply didn’t care about any of the characters anymore. The hero had multiple relationships that were critically important to him and that motivated him to do the things he had to do. He had a best friend. He had a forbidden love that he longed for constantly. He had a mentor whom he loved and hated. But none of these relationships seemed authentic to me because the scenes that would have given them authenticity were missing. I never saw him fall in love with the girl. I never saw him strike up a friendship with the friend. I never saw him connect with the mentor in such a way that he would develop a complicated love/hate relationship with him. Instead, I was told that these relationships were there and I just had to take the author’s word for it. That’s not good enough. That’s bad writing.

If you’re going to make up a world for a fantasy or science fiction novel, don’t forget during your world-building to set aside some time to think about how human relationships work in that world.

When and how do husbands and wives connect with each other? It can’t be when the goddess of love commands them to.

How does a teacher or mentor win the respect and admiration of his pupil. It can’t be because he has snazzy armor.

How did your hero fall in love with the object of his love. It can’t be because she tugs on her braid in such a cute manner. Or maybe it can. But show me why it’s cute. And show me what he does and says when he sees her tug that braid. And then let those two kids go for a walk and talk about something other than Voldemort.

Muse & the Marketplace takeaway: Novel revision time

So I went to my first Muse and the Marketplace, the annual writing conference held in Boston by the wonderful nonprofit Grub Street. This was a big event for me because I had signed up for the show’s Manuscript Mart. The Mart is a unique feature of the conference where writers can sign up for meetings with literary agents and book editors who have donated their time. The agents and editors will read 20 pages of your manuscript and a synopsis ahead of the show and then sit down with you for 20 minutes.

I signed up for a meeting with an agent and an editor at a major press and sent them the first 20 pages of the fantasy novel I’ve been writing since December (95,000 words written so far).

The meetings happened yesterday, and they were productive but painful. Long story short, although I have good ideas, my synopsis revealed some holes. I need to re-plot the book. I also need to rethink my character arcs. My beta readers love my characters and other aspects of my writing, but this editor and this agent saw past that. They wanted to see more depth. They wanted my characters to have more at stake.

Bottom line, a character can be well-rounded and interesting, but that’s not enough. They must have a wound that drives them. They should be striving to regain something they lost. Or they should be seeking to right a wrong that was done to them. They should be trying to restore order in their lives after something has upended everything.

I thought I was doing these things with my characters, but it’s clear to me that I need to do more. I need to raise the stakes.

For a few minutes I came away from these meetings discouraged, but as I drank a beer with a bunch of other writers (including my mom), all I wanted to do was go home and write. I had the urge to revise.

The manuscript I have was only 75% done, but I’m not going to finish it. Not yet. I’m going back to the beginning. I’m going to rip pages a part and revise. I can’t go any further into this book until I’ve gotten the first few acts just write. I need to make sure I have a good story before I finish it. I’ve spent a few hours on it so far. The first chapter is gone. Important elements of it have been integrated into subsequent chapters.

I’m also digging deeper into the inner lives of my characters, seeking out their pain and disappointment, they hopes and dreams. I’m going to pull it all out of them and make them desperate to push my plot forward.

Here’s how the book starts now:

A city can do horrible things to a river.

Villiard Lopin walked along the bank of the River Weiss, and he could see and smell the depredation. Hundreds of miles to the north, where Villiard was from, the Weiss was a wide, green-blue channel swollen with life. As a boy he had traveled to its icy headwaters at the foot of the Routeau Mountains,  which marked the northern edge of the Helmonic Empire. The fish that far north were fat and fresh and delicious. Here in the city of Vaydeenum, fish that knew no better to stay upriver bellied up and floated with the current.

Villiard knew the river well. Downstream from its headwaters, it carved through the great Weiss Valley, the empire’s breadbasket, watering crops that fed tens of thousands of people. It flowed past villages and baronies, abandoned castles and ancient monasteries. It flowed past Five Oaks, the town where he had grown up. As the valley gave way to the great coastal plain of the Ashen Sea, it was throttled by  Vaydeenum. Here in this city the Weiss was not the river that he remembered from his countryside boyhood.

He could could smell the rotten stink of river choking to death on the foulness of the city that he now called home. As he saw the rotten, dead things float by, he longed for Five Oaks. He had left so much behind to come to this city in search of a fortune to replace the one his ancestors lost. But to see this river so abused and debased twisted at his heart.

Hundreds of miles to the north the Weiss was still the river he swam in as a child. After long days of working in fields he had drunk from the Weiss.  He led herds of sheep to the river to water them. But this city had changed the river, and it had changed him.

Novel writing roadblock: Getting past the wall at 93,000 words

I started writing a fantasy novel in September. The book is based on an idea that’s been floating around in my head for a couple years. When I started writing, the book just flowed through me. I was churning out 5,000 to 6,000 words a week. I wrote an outline. Then I wrote a new outline. The chapters practically wrote themselves. I went from having two protagonists to three.  Secondary characters emerged everywhere. They wrote themselves. I have 23 secondary characters. I have dozens more tertiary characters. I’ve created a magic system. I’ve written the outline of 1,000 years of history in the world I created. I’ve drawn maps. I’ve created a polytheistic religion, some rudiments of language. This book is rich and vivid. My beta readers are loving it.

But I hit a wall at 93,000 words. I diverged from my outline around 40,000 words ago and I’ve strayed so far that the outline is useless. For the past two weeks I’ve been unable to write. Instead, I’ve been revising earlier chapters, filling in gaps in character arcs and plot elements. But moving forward has been impossible.

I’ve felt depressed over the last few days. I open up the book in Scrivener and try to forge ahead, but I just get tired and distracted. If my book were a five act play, I’m moving trhough act four right now. It’s crucial to get it right, but with my outline shot to pieces, I’m not sure where to begin. Starting the next chapter is hard when I’m not sure what I want it to be about. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my characters or my plot.

Last night I decided to forget about all that. Instead I let myself write whatever I could. My beta readers tell me they love my settings and my characters, but sometimes they want more sensory detail. So I decided to start there. Establish a setting and dig into the senses. Here’s what I started with. I knew that one of my protagonist Dosh, a thief and a cutthroat, needed to disguise himself as a soldier and go to the dungeon in the city’s central citadel to retrieve someone. So I put him there. I didn’t want to worry about how he got there or who he was with. I just put him in the place he needed to be, and I focused on what that experience was like. Here’s what I came up with.

The one thousand-year-old dungeon of Vaydeenum’s citadel stank. So may generations of people had sat in darkness, shitting and pissing in a a hole in the the floor of their cells, wearing the same rags for years, and picking at their daily meals of stale, moldering bread and gruel. During his years as a street rat, Dosh often frightened himself with the thought of being locked up in a dungeon cell for theft or murder. Now here he was, wearing the armor and livery of an imperial soldier and marching down the rows of cells as if he were the dungeon keeper and not a thief and a fraud.

Now I needed to put someone else there, someone to get Dosh out of his head (he’s been feeling sorry for himself) and get him focused on the task at hand. So, I had a prisoner call out to him.

“Oy, boy, you’re not old enough to carry a sword,” a grubby man said through the small, barred window on his cell door. His dirty hands were wrapped around bars. Dosh could see a wrinkled, bearded, dirty face.

Dosh was going into the dungeon with his boss, one of my nasty villains named Bern the Cooper. But I knew they needed at least a third person for the task I had for them. So I created another henchman. The Cooper has a lot of henchmen, but most of them are useless thugs who are too incompetent for sending on a delicate job. I’ve giventhe Cooper, three good henchmen, but one is too young for this job. Another got a very nasty concussion three chapters ago. The third is too dark-skinned to pass for a soldier in this city.   So I created secondary character number 23 (yes, this is getting out of hand, but I needed a competent henchmen). This new henchmen needed to establish his competence. Thus, I introduce said henchmen, Barrett Gwinn.

Barrett Gwinn, a man of the Lane who was accompanying Dosh and the Cooper into the dungeons on this job marched over to the cell door. A brown, leather-covered cosh slid out of his right sleeve and into his hand. He raised it quickly and smashed it against the bars and the grubby man’s fingers. The man howled and disappeared from the tiny window. The tiny club disappeared up Barrett’s sleeve again.
Barrett winked at Dosh then looked away. But the man in the cell was right. Dosh looked too young to be a soldier. The army that controlled the city was composed of veterans. Dosh had had a good look at the ones that garrisoned the citadel. The youngest one he’d seen was at least ten years older than he was. And they all had a far away look about them like the affairs of Vaydeenum were beneath their consideration. The Cooper had said these soldiers had returned from the war in Esseven Mil just months ago. They had been fighting overseas for at least four years.

Now I’ve noticed in those last sentences that the story is flowing through me again. I’m throwing out details about what the soldiers who have returned from war overseas look like.  But before I let myself move forward in the story, let’s circle back to setting the scene. The more setting I can ground myself in, the more I can immerse myself in this world. Then I hope the book will start writing itself again.

The stinking dungeon was dark and damp. Some torches burned in sconces along the walls, but many had burned out, which added to the gloom. Many of the cell doors were in shadows. If faces watched from the tiny barred windows, Dosh could not see them. He stared at his booted feet as he paced behind the Cooper. His feet stirred the dirty straw that partially covered the stone floor of the corridor. Aside from their footsteps and the occasional moan or scream from a cell, Dosh could hear dripping water somewhere in the distance. He considered that it could be someone having a slow piss.

At this point, I’m ready for Dosh and my other characters to do their job. They are there to retrieve someone through deception. An hour later, I’ve written nearly 1,400 words. Writer’s block is cured, at least for one night!

When will Republicans reclaim their party from right-wing radio?

The ideological rigidity of the Republican party has become unbearable. It refuses to compromise on anything. It says no to everything. GOP politicians are afraid to even have a photograph taken shaking President Obama’s hand.

Part of this is driven by right-wing media, particularly the radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, whose millions of listeners form the diehard primary voters that are pushing the party further and further to the right. These radio hosts do a good job of publicizing and publicizing Republican ideas, but they also demand ideological purity. Cross the line with them, and they will crush you. You’ll face a tea party opponent in you next primary.

Limbaugh in particular reminds me Jabba the Hutt. Republican politicians are terrified of him. So many times we’ve seen a Republican say something critical of Limbaugh, only to appear on his radio show a few days later to apologize or disavow his statements. He’s like a crime boss. You cross him and you sleep with the proverbial fishes.

But what if Republicans collectively stood up to these guys? What if they presented an alternative point of view that was less extreme, more flexible? Could they make the party more reasonable and pull the base of their party away from the fringe? We’ll never know until they show some courage and do something about it.

Frank Luntz displayed a profound lack of courage recently. He is the master of GOP messaging. He finds a way to change how people about something by changing the language associated with it. Does oil drilling sound dirty and destructive? Change it to “energy exploration.” Does the estate tax seems too benign? Tell Republican operatives to call it a “death tax.”

But when it comes to right-wing radio, Luntz has very little to say on the record. While speaking to a small group of students recently at his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, a student asked him about the problem of political polarization in the United States. Luntz said he had something to say about the subject, but he wanted to go off the record. A student reporter in the room turned off a tape recorder, but one student decided to record what happened next on his iPhone. That recording then made its way to Mother Jones. Luntz  complained about right-wing radio’s corrosive effect on civic discourse and its hold on Republican leadership.

[T]hey get great ratings, and they drive the message, and it’s really problematic… If you take—Marco Rubio’s getting his ass kicked… He’s getting destroyed! By Mark Levin, by Rush Limbaugh, and a few others. He’s trying to find a legitimate, long-term effective solution to immigration that isn’t the traditional Republican approach, and talk radio is killing him. That’s what’s causing this thing underneath. And too many politicians in Washington are playing coy.

“Coy” isn’t the word that I would use. Cringing might be more appropriate. Republican leaders need to stand up and push back against these media types. Too many Americans see Limbaugh and others as the real faces of the Republican party. Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, the supposed leaders of the GOP caucus on Capitol Hill, are little more than political operators whose profile barely extends beyond the Beltway. Limbaugh, Hannity, Levin. These guys call the shots because millions listen to them every day. It should be the other way around. But no one will take a stand. It’s painful to see a hateful, ignorant creature like Limbaugh wielding so much power over our country’s leaders. How much better off would be as a country if the people who were voted into office were courageous enough to call the shots.


Guns for self-defense: What are we afraid of?

Gun rights advocates tell us the Second Amendment is the people’s guarantee that their freedoms cannot be taken away, whether by criminals or a tyrannical government.

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

It is the possibility of an criminal entering one’s home or otherwise assaulting one’s rights that motivates many to keep assault weapons that can inflict massive causalities. They also argue that their ownership of these weapons is a check on government tyranny. Never mind the fact that an AR-15 will do little to stop tanks and helicopter gunships.

But the fact remains that millions of us don’t own guns and we get on just fine without them. We don’t live in fear of someone breaking into our homes. We know its a possibility, but we also know that the police for the most part keep our streets safe. Many of us distrust our government, even despise our government, but we don’t feel the need to keep an AK-47 in the closet just in case.

So why do some of us need these guns and others don’t? I can’t pretend to know the answer to that. But the fact that I don’t feel that need to own a gun for self-defense keeps me from fully understanding the point of view of someone who feels otherwise. It makes it very hard to debate the issue when people are divided by a feeling that is so ingrained in their very fiber.

Still, of all the wealthiest, industrialized democracies in the world, gun ownership — and gun-related deaths — are far too high in the United States. Western and Central Europe are mostly free of gun violence. The United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Australia.

Our country has always been a special case with gun ownership, I suppose. We rose up, after all. We drove out the British. We formed militias, distributed muskets. And when the war was over and the British were gone, we held onto those muskets. We expanded West.  Guns were essential for self-defense and hunting and the occasional murder. Guns became a sport, too. They became a family tradition. Many fathers passed down guns from one generation to the next.

But assault weapons are something new. Semi-automatic High capacity magazines. Capable of firing off hundreds of rounds in a in a few minutes. Capable of wiping out a school or a movie theater or a church. These aren’t muskets. These aren’t hunting rifles. These aren’t for sport, even if some have adopted them as such.

When gun control advocates push back against the pervasiveness of guns that aren’t built for sport, gun rights advocates go back to the Second Amendment. They talk about self -defense and tyranny. The very act of restricting the size of a clip on an AR-15 is construed as tyranny. It will prevent someone from defending their home, they say.

Again, a lot of people tell me the right to bear arms should not be abridged because people need to be able to defend themselves. Why? Nathan Hegedus, a Stockholm-based writer who once lived in the U.S. recently wrote:

Buying a gun in our times, especially for self-defense, seems to me an aggressive or defensive act—a statement by the purchaser about how he feels about his community, his neighbors and his country. It means he doesn’t feel safe in his bed at night, that he doesn’t trust the police to stop the criminals, and he doesn’t trust his fellow citizens not to attack. You can mask it with talk of freedom or the Constitution but underneath it all is fear. Firearms have become a manifestation of a massive distrust of both government and the wider society, a physical manifestation of a deepening societal and political divide.

Hegedus points out that our country is going through tremendous change. It has been for much over the last fifteen years. We face globalization and post-industiralization. We’re on our way toward being a majority-minority society. Feminists and gay rights advocates are changing family structures. We have a black president! This country has changed so much. And yet, there are a lot of people who are not a part of this change because the United States is a very big place. There are communities and individuals in this country who feel like they’re being marginalized. Where they once felt mainstream, now they feel like they’re being pushed to the fringes. If you’re not connected to these changes and not sympathetic to them, how can you feel safe in such a place?

A gun advocate commenter on my blog recently wrote that in this world there are sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. He says he took this from the writings of retired army Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman, a scholar of violence, particularly the effects of training soldiers to kill. Most of us are live-and-let-live sheep, the commenter claims. But there are wolves among us who hunt and kill, steal and rape. Finally there are the sheepdogs, who keep watch over the sheep with their shotguns and their AR-15s. This is what this gun advocate would have me believe.

This commenter would have me believe that I am the sheep and he is the sheepdog. I disagree. I’m not afraid to defend myself. I’m not afraid to let out a little bit of the wolf if I need to. I just don’t feel the need to own a gun.

I think it comes down to faith. I have faith in my neighbors and my community. I have faith in the institutions of law and order. I have faith that many of the changes our country is seeing are good.

But I also face the reality that there are bad people out there and that there will always be a risk, however slight, of someone trying to do me harm. I’ve narrowly escaped bad situations before. They could come again. But I’m not going to let it dictate how I live my life. I’m not going to keep an assault weapon or even a handgun in my home. And a year from now when they run the Boston Marathon, I’ll take the day off from work and head down to Boylston Street and cheer on thousands of others who refuse to give into fear, too.