Sometimes You’ve Got to Get Mad!

Mad Woman




I don’t usually get angry, and I’m certainly not one to advocate violence, but… sometimes, folks, you’ve got to get mad. 

I was thinking earlier about the holiday we’ll be celebrating here in the US on Monday. We will be honoring the life and remembering the tragic death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

So, what does the holiday have to do with anger? It has to do with one of the most memorable quotes from Dr. King:

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t want to be part of an appalling silence.  It’s true, though. Too many times, people choose to remain silent rather than speak up about a troubling situation.

As a writer, I understand the role that emotions play in fiction. Every emotion is good; every emotion serves a purpose. Without emotion life is flat and meaningless. Anger can be a valuable source of motivation. It can spur characters to action. It can do the same for readers, too.

I’m not suggesting that every story we tell must be designed to right great wrongs or to call attention to social injustices and painful conditions, although many of the greatest books in history have done exactly that. Charles Dickens, Upton Sinclair, and Ralph Ellison are three authors who quickly come to mind.

It is important, however, that our stories  have a strong moral base, a compass of sorts that defines goodness and points out the evils which lurk around us.  Good stories require conflict, and the source of that conflict is ultmately the struggle between right and wrong.

Here is where our own personal beliefs, our own values, and our own moral positions come into play in our writing. Our beliefs represent our passions, and passion is what infuses our writing with life, with energy, with the power to draw readers in and keep them turning pages.

We each have important things to say — if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be writing. Although we don’t need to turn our stories into “sermons” or lengthy treatises on human weaknesses, we can — we should — speak out about things that matter to us. Our characters provide us with opportunities to share our thoughts with others. We use their voices. We use their experiences. We make examples of them.  We reward them for “good behavior” or punish them when they break the rules we’ve established.

Yes, we make the rules in our fiction-writing. We decide what’s good, what’s bad, what’s right, and what’s worth fighting for. That’s how it should be, otherwise, we’re just telling stories. We can do so much more with our writing.

The next time you sit down to write, get mad! Think of the problems your characters are facing — and most likely you’ll discover problems that affect your readers, too.

Give thought to the injustice you see, the hypocrisy that exists, the pain, the prejudice, the awful greed and corruption that goes on every day. Give your characters something worth fighting for. Don’t let them be part of an appalling silence. Instead, let them speak up and inspire others.

Magic Carpets

Whenever I think of books, I think at once of flying magic carpets. It’s an image that was first put into my head many years ago by the old Girl Scouts USA handbook.  One of the proficiency badges girls could earn was called “Magic Carpet”. To earn it required reading a number of different books, making “book reports” to troop members, or even organizing a troop “book party” where all girls could share their favorites.

Jasmine on Carpet

Books are very much like magic carpets. They do have the power to lift us up, to carry us away, to send us off on grand adventures. s. The “magic carpets” of my childhood took me to many different places.  The characters I met became as dear to me as the friends and family I saw each day. My love of reading quickly led to a love of writing, and I was telling stories of my own from a very young age. I was fascinated by words and their ability to create an experience on the page that would become real for the reader.

Even now, I can quickly recall many of my favorite short stories, even if I can’t remember their titles. My favorite was a tale of a Russian village with a broken bell. The men of the village were sent to buy a new bell, and, of course, met with numerous disasters along the way, finally returning home with a bell much too large for the little tower.

As an older child, I loved the story of “The Countess and the Impossible“, also known as “The Tale of the Five Dollar Lawn”.

I remember reading “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson for the first time and being shocked to realize what was happening.

Wonderful memories, indeed. I read short stories, I read books, I read poetry, and I read plays. I began a love affair with words that has never ended.

Today, as an author, I’m frequently asked what my favorite books are and what books have most influenced me in my writing.  In either case, I always go back to those “magic carpet rides” of my youth. Even though I don’t write children’s stories, I still feel that the books I treasured as a child are the ones that played the greatest role in shaping my writing. I learned something from each story I read, and I like to think I apply those lessons to my own fiction.

Recently while browsing through the “author guidelines” at Goodreads, I came across the suggestion of starting a bookshelf for “Influences”. In other words, a virtual collection which would answer these two frequent questions:

  • What were your favorite books as a child?
  • What books have most influenced you?

I’m in the process of gathering up my virtual books and filling my shelves, and as I select each book, I’m taking a moment to explore its personal meaning in my life and how it’s affected my stories. Some of the books are ones you’d likely find on any little girl’s bookshelf; others, maybe not.

Here are a few of the many books that have influenced me:

Heidi by Johanna  Spyri taught me that not all people are kind. It also taught me the importance of hope.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain helped me realize the value of knowledge. It also opened my eyes to fun possibilities in writing. We don’t have to deal strictly with the here-and-now. We can invent improbable things and make them believable.

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell showed me that good stories don’t have to follow traditional rules. Through the power of words, we can share experiences not only with other human beings, but with other creatures, as well.

Lad, A Dog by Albert Payson Terhune topped my “favorites” list for a very long time. Reading it made me realize that words could touch a reader’s heart and soul. I cried when I read the book. Were I to read it today, I’d probably cry again.

Treasure Island by  Robert Louis Stevenson is the book I credit most whenever I’m asked about stories that have inspired me. I can’t say how many times I’ve read this book. I try to read it again at least once each year. No matter how many times I pick it up, it never grows old. As I curl up and begin to read, I’m caught up at once in the story, listening for those frightening sounds of the blind beggar, and imagining how exciting it would be to sail on a pirate ship. From this classic, I learned that good stories contain action — and lots of it.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens was another favorite. Dickens was a master at characterization. His writing always dares me to let my own characters be outrageous.

The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe taught me that many good ideas can come from the lives of real people and actual events.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville made me realize how important the opening lines of a story can be. It showed that the words we write can linger in a reader’s mind for a long, long time to come. Call me Ishmael is one of the most-recognized opening lines of any work of fiction.

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas rounds out my list of “Top 10” influential books. This classic tale helped me understand the importance of back story and motivation. Things happen for a reason in fiction.

There are many classics I’ve yet to read — such as Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Each year I promise myself I’ll do it, but although I once made a start on it, I’ve yet to finish it. Too many other things going on in life.

There are also classics I didn’t like. Dracula by Bram Stoker was an interesting read, but not one I truly enjoyed. Nor did I care much for Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift or A Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne. I suppose this is reflected in the fact that I don’t read or write paranormal stories, nor am I a fan of fantasy or science fiction.

What I find most rewarding in looking back over these titles is the fact that each of these wonderful classics is available through Project Gutenberg. If you’re not familiar with the site, do yourself a favor and visit. You’ll find over 42,000 books available free of charge. It’s definitely worth checking out.

Now that I’ve shared my favorites as well as a few not-so-favorites, I’d love to hear from  you. I’ll leave you with those same questions I hear so often:

  • What were your favorite books as a child?
  • What books have most influenced you?

I’ll leave you, too, with this thought:

We’re never too old to ride magic carpets. Happy traveling!