Central Plains Road Trip – Part 3

Our road trip journey had already taken us through two central plains states, Kansas and Missouri, with a chance to see some western expansion history, two presidential libraries, the preservation of a Native American culture, an iconic national memorial, and a wonderful taste of Kansas City barbecue. Now, our trip was heading into the southern part of our Central Plains Road Trip. Even though the focus was on Arkansas and Oklahoma, the two states remaining on my pre-age two visited states’ bucket list, I had added a quick shot into Mississippi to view a couple of sites in Tupelo. I had only visited Mississippi consciously once before when my family drove me from Florida to Los Angeles just before I started college at UCLA. There was no stopping along the way for most of this trip, so even though I was at a conscious age, I still listed Mississippi as a state I needed to revisit and experience. Tupelo was just an hour away from Arkansas and Memphis, Tennessee.

When I first explored taking a quick zip into Mississippi, I went on to the National Park Service website and looked for historic sites near the Mississippi-Arkansas border and found the Tupelo National Battlefield. This appeared to be a worthy historic look at some Civil War history, so I marked it on my mapping program. I noticed on the program that Elvis Presley’s boyhood home was nearby and marked this as a stop as well. I expected that Elvis’ home would be a quick tour through a small home, so I planned it as the first stop before going over to view the major battlefield. I was in for a major surprise.

My friend and I left our Missouri motel stop and headed south into Arkansas. An hour later, we turned east towards the Mississippi River and Memphis. We circled around the south side of Memphis and went southeast towards Tupelo. When we reached Tupelo, we headed for the park where Elvis Presley’s boyhood home was located. What we found was more than just the two room house where Elvis grew up in. Next to the visitor parking lot, there was a decent size museum and gift shop where we bought our tour tickets. The tour included not only a walkthrough in the two room home and the museum displays, but also a tour and presentation inside the small church where Elvis and his family were members. The film presentation was a church service where the preacher encourages a young Elvis to perform with the choir. The museum tour was not only full of photos and memorabilia from Elvis’ childhood, but also items and photos that the older and more famous Elvis provided to his longtime childhood friends. In the adjoining park, a walkway took us to a memorial circle with a statue of an older performing Elvis standing spread eagle over a younger guitar-holding Elvis. It was quite a display of the life of Elvis Presley. Fully impressed, we headed over to the Tupelo National Battlefield, only to find it was just a white marble memorial surrounded by two cannons in a small corner lot park. There were no National Park center, just a small pamphlet holder next to the memorial. Within the small park, there were a couple of labeled cemetery markers that identified the final resting places of a couple of soldiers and a scattering of unmarked stones where unidentified soldiers died and were buried after the battle. This small park was just a representation of the full-scaled battlefield that extended around and beyond Tupelo during the Civil War.

Amphitheater statues and wall at Elvis Presley birthplace in Tupelo, MS

It was now time to head back to Memphis. My original thought in the planning was that after seeing Elvis Presley’s boyhood home, we would compare this to Elvis’ celebrity home at Graceland. However, we had taken up a lot of time at the boyhood home and had discovered a far greater perspective of Elvis’ full life within the adjoining museum, so we decided that we needed to drop Graceland from the schedule. Yet, according to friends, we did have to experience the Memphis music scene and take in the Memphis style barbecue by stopping at Beale Street in the downtown area. The famous section of Beale Street is within a single block, just two blocks from the Mississippi riverfront. When we got there, we found this section blocked off for a motorcycle rally, so we found street parking close by and walked into a street brimming with music. On the corner, we found BB King’s Blues Club and decided to try the Memphis barbecue there. It was a stroke of luck for us that Memphis Jones and his band performed live various blues and pop classics that were actually written and performed in the recording studios in Memphis, while we were eating. It was a wonderful dinner.

Motorcycle Rally on Beale Street, Memphis, TN

After Memphis, our next scheduled adventure was the only designated national park on the trip, Hot Springs National Park. Since Hot Springs was about a half hour off the interstate, I had suggested to my friend that it would be best to set up our motel reservation just before the exit heading off to Hot Springs, but he felt that we would have no problem driving on into Hot Springs, and I reserved our motel in Hot Springs. After our wonderful blues dinner, we headed off into Arkansas and drove towards our destination. By the time we got to Little Rock, the sun was setting. I recognized the hotel I had suggested as we passed before exiting the interstate and driving a northern arc up towards Hot Springs. There was no lighting on the US route into the city and we took the wrong turn off. We temporarily got lost, but thanks to my iPad map program, we finally tracked down the motel and settled in for the night.

The next morning, we drove up Central Avenue in Hot Springs to reach the national park. From what I understand, Hot Springs National Park is the smallest national park and the only park where one can take a taxi to visit, so I did not go up to the NPS website and download the official PDF map of the park. Instead I used my iPad map program to direct me to the park entrance. According to what I saw on the map program, the park boundaries covered the small mountain ridge surrounding the northern neighborhood of Hot Springs. The program marker directed us to a spot on the east side of this ring where Central Avenue turns left after entering the boundary ring. As we headed up Central Avenue, we noticed a national park service visitor center sign outside one of the buildings along the street, but there was no available street parking to make a quick stop, so we went on to reach the park entrance. However, as we turned and headed east, we never came upon a gate entrance into the park. After a few miles, we stopped and checked the map program, discovering we had already gone through the park. We drove back, found a sign pointing off to a campsite within the park, and turned down the road toward it. We passed the campground as we looked for trailhead parking, but the road led back to Hot Springs and Central Avenue. We drove back up past the visitor center and turned down a side street next to a corner park a half block away where we fortunately found an open parking space on the street. We got out and walked down to the corner park where a national park ranger had set up a small table display. What we discovered from the ranger was mind-blowing. Even though park boundaries had been mapped out, protecting the mountain ridge around the northern neighborhood of Hot Springs, the very focus of this national park was the hot springs themselves and the preserved bathhouses that tapped into those springs along Central Avenue. Much of the park was within the city limits of Hot Springs, so no park entrance gates or entrance fees. All of the park service employees were stationed in the buildings on this block of Central Avenue.

Hot Water Cascade Spring, Hot Springs National Park, AR

As we saw on the table display of expedition paraphernalia, the springs were explored by a small expedition sent by President Jefferson. The steamy waters were considered to be very healthy and curative, attracting many people. In 1932, Congress and President Jackson “reserved” the waters for the benefit of all, many years before Yosemite was the first protected land set aside by Congress under President Lincoln, and Yellowstone was officially protected as a national park some years later. However, this “reservation” did not set aside official land boundaries, so in 1921, the National Park Service convinced Congress to turn Hot Springs into the 18th National Park. After my friend and I listened to the history from the park ranger, we walked over to one of the open springs nearby and stuck our hands into the steaming waters. Then, we walked along a ridge path behind the bathhouses, taking in the surrounding natural greenery, before heading down to the visitor center, which was one of the major bathhouses that Hot Springs grew from. Inside the visitor center, we took the small tour to see how the popular spa treated its customers and clients. Of the 41 national parks that I have visited, Hot Springs is unique in its preservation of the business of natural relaxation and health.

After finishing up our visit with Hot Springs, we drove out of the city and headed southwest to another iconic location in Arkansas, the Crater of Diamonds State Park. Arkansas is the only state in the US where diamonds have been found and mined, all because of an ancient volcanic vent that brought many crystallized minerals up near the surface around the current town of Murfreesboro. When a farmer discovered the first diamond on his farm in the early 1900s, a diamond rush occurred in the area. In the 1950s, attempts were made to open sections of the diamond field to the public, but it was in 1972 when the state purchased the land and protected the land for the public. Once visitors pay the park admittance fee, they are allowed access to the plowed ground field to search for diamonds, which are still being discovered. The “finder’s-keeper’s” rules allow visitors to keep whatever potentially valuable gems they uncover. Serious gem hunters can rent digging and screen sifting tools from the visitor center, but for me and my friend, it was just interesting to walk along the dirt ridges and kick up some stones. We didn’t find any diamonds, but I did take an interesting conglomerate stone I found as a souvenir. After an hour of kicking dirt, we got back into the car and headed west for Oklahoma.

To be continued…

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Central Plains Road Trip – Part 2

My one week Central Plains road trip with my friend through Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma had just begun in Kansas with a quick look at a preserved western town in Dodge City and a walk-through look at Fort Larned National Historic Site, a major western military location on the Santa Fe Trail, but now, on our first full day of travel, we were attempting to visit two major presidential libraries in the same day in order to give my friend’s suggestion to add Hannibal, Missouri to our schedule a chance. We reached Abilene, Kansas around lunchtime and stopped off for some subs before heading over to the Eisenhower Library.

The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum was designed to preserve and honor the life, work, and history of the 34th president of the United States for both general tourists and historical researchers. Abilene was Eisenhower’s hometown, and the location of the museum and library was chosen to include his original boyhood home. We were able to take a tour within his house, viewing original preserved furniture and a family bible. The house, museum, and library surround a long, grassy courtyard, and at one end of the courtyard is a church-like Place of Meditation, which houses the final resting place of President Eisenhower and his wife. On the other end of the courtyard, a statue of Eisenhower in his general’s uniform, surrounded by honorary pylon plaques, looks down toward the Place of Meditation. We went into the museum and traveled through a maze of rooms that took us through historical objects that demonstrated Eisenhower’s childhood, his early military service, his military leadership during World War II, his presidential campaign, and his accomplishments during his terms as President. The library, which is reserved for serious historical research, was not a part of the tour.

Eisenhower memorial at Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, KS

After taking in the perspective of the Eisenhower administration, it was time to try and zip over to Independence, Missouri and see if we can check out his predecessor’s library in the same day. Independence is basically a connected suburb of Kansas City, Missouri, so the distance wasn’t far. However, not only did our time at the Eisenhower Library and Museum take a lot of time in the afternoon, but the Truman Library and Museum was not readily near the interstate, so we arrived at the museum at its closing time. I really did not expect to visit both museums in the same day, so I was fully prepared to calmly inform my friend that we had no time to add Hannibal to the schedule. We checked in at the motel where I had made reservations, then headed back into Kansas City to find a good barbecue meal. Kansas City is one of a select group of cities known for its unique barbecue style of cooking, and just before we started the road trip, a neighbor of mine gave me four top barbecue places to choose from. For our dinner, I selected the place closest to our motel, unaware of its longtime reputation. Arthur Bryant’s is housed in a brick building in a bare industrial section of the city, and diners get their food through a fast food buffet style line before paying a cashier and finding an empty table with their food, but a quick taste of the barbecue meats quickly shows why the walls are covered with pictures of celebrity patrons including former President Obama. It was a perfect example of Kansas City barbecue.

The next morning, we headed back up to the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. The Truman Library was smaller than the Eisenhower Library, since it was did not have extra historical buildings like a boyhood home or meditation chapel. Both the library and museum were in the same building which wrapped around a small garden. In the garden were the gravesites of both Harry and Bess under flat stone markers. Just like the Eisenhower Library, the Truman Library section was reserved for serious historical research, but the museum portion which took up most of the building covered Truman’s life from childhood and starting life running a haberdashery to being elected to office, being selected as FDR’s final Vice President, and having to take over the Presidency after FDR’s death near the end of World War II. Of course, this led to Truman faced with having to make the decision to use the atomic bomb on Japan. The museum included a reproduction of the Oval Office during Truman’s administration and his home office after leaving the Presidency. After our tour of the museum, we were given directions to Truman’s home in Independence. We did not have time to find the separate location of the visitor center in order to get tickets to tour inside the home, but we did stop to take pictures of the quaint two story house before heading on to St. Louis.

Harry and Bess Truman’s grave sites at Truman Presidential Library in Independence, MO

St. Louis is mainly known as the home of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, otherwise known as the Gateway Arch. However, just fifteen minutes across the Mississippi River in Illinois is a World Heritage Site, protected as an Illinois State Park, which is known as Cahokia Mounds. Since my research showed me that the Arch would be open a lot later than Cahokia Mounds, my schedule was set up to zip over to the Mounds first and come back to the Arch. By mid-afternoon, we parked in the lot next to the visitor interpretive center and cultural museum. The Cahokia Mounds were large mounds of earth constructed by a Native American culture that flourished around Europe’s Medieval Age and declined just before Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. Although more natural in construction with wood and earth, the mound structures and surrounding village features were very reminiscent of Aztec culture. The site had many miles of nature trails within the surrounding woods, but we just had time to walk the short trail around the Twin Mounds near the interpretive center, then go across the street to the large double mound structure called Monk’s Mound. A wide set of stairs has been built into one side of the Monk’s Mound, enabling easy access for visitors to climb to the top. From there, we were able to see urban and natural landscapes around us, including the nearby Gateway Arch and downtown St. Louis to the southwest. We got back into my car and drove back to St. Louis.

Monks Mound close up at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, IL

The Gateway Arch is nestled up to the west shore of the Mississippi River and anchored in the heart of downtown St. Louis, which means getting to the Arch and finding parking brings up the same obstacles one would find navigating any central downtown area. We wound up finding street parking, but luckily, since it was late in the day after normal work hours, we were not bound by parking time limitations. We were also within a few weeks of the first day of summer with daylight savings time hours, so we still had plenty of sun to view the memorial. The visitor center is in the nearby Historic Old Courthouse, which is where we had to go to get tickets for the tram car to the top of the Arch. The scheduled time for our tram access was an hour away, so we went across the street to an Italian restaurant for dinner, then we walked over to the Arch. Renovations were currently in process around the Arch which had temporarily closed the north tram, so all visitors were lined up for the south tram, a set of claustrophobic cubicles that transported us to the top of the Arch. The low hanging sun may have made looking down at St. Louis somewhat difficult, but seeing the shadow of the Arch stretched out across the Mississippi and toward the east was amazing.

Looking across the Mississippi River into Illinois from the top of the Gateway Arch (Jefferson National Expansion Memorial) in St. Louis, MO

From St. Louis, it was now time to head south. In order to get us closer to the southern loop through Arkansas and Oklahoma, with jaunts into north Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee, I had set up a reservation at motel close to the Missouri border with Arkansas. It was late at night when we got there, but we would be prepared for the next day’s schedule.

To be continued…

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Central Plains Road Trip – Part 1

In one of my earlier posts from a few years ago regarding the accounting of my travel bucket lists, I noted that I ranked the states I had checked off on the “US states visited” list in several categories. These categories were based on when in my lifetime I had visited these states and the quality of the visit. The lowest category was marked for those states I had visited before the age of two. It refers to the earliest period of my life when my father had a job maintaining military radar installations across the country, which resulted in our family packing and moving three times across the country until we moved to Florida where my father changed jobs, allowing us to buy a home and stay put during the rest of my childhood. Since that time, several of my travels had led me to come back and explore many of the states that I passed through during these early pre-conscious period moves, thereby allowing me to upgrade the visited states to a higher category. At the time of my earlier post, there were five states left in this category, but last year’s road trip upgraded Nebraska from this category, leaving just Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. This year I planned a road trip to focus on these four bordering states in the Central Plains of North America.

I began planning my trip last year, setting out a general course and looking for interesting sites to visit within or near these states. Around the holidays, I called a longtime friend back in Los Angeles to wish him well and mentioned my summer road trip plans. Almost immediately, he asked if he could come along. It felt great to consider having a travel partner to share a trip. However, he was limited to one week and had a set flight schedule in and out of Denver, restricting our capability to adapt the basic road trip for improvised added stops, but my friend seemed very eager to suggest new additions to my original stops list as the time for the road trip neared. Finally, as June arrived, he flew in to join me on a trip through the Central Plains.

On my original base trip, I had only one stop to represent Kansas, Fort Larned National Historic Site, which I found on the National Park Service website. It was just an hour south of I-70, making it a quick stop along the route. One of the first suggested additions from my friend was the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, also just off of I-70. It reminded me that the Truman Presidential Library was in Independence, Missouri, also just north of I-70, so to keep the trip politically balanced, I suggested adding this as well, which he excitedly accepted. Then, with about a month before the trip was to begin, he added another suggestion for Kansas, stopping in Dodge City, where a portion of the original Western town had been preserved. Looking at the map, Dodge City proved to be a major side trip off the interstate, so to please my friend and add Dodge City to the itinerary, we had to forgo the one day rest and prep following his early morning flight into Denver and drove off right after lunch to our first stop. Unfortunately, our arrival in Dodge City was just as the Boot Hill Museum, which preserves the original western town buildings, was closing for the day. There was no time to come back the next morning, so we took pictures of the town buildings through the surrounding fence and picked up a few souvenirs from the gift shop before it closed. Then, we headed to our motel.

Old wagon alongside the officers’ buildings at Fort Larned NHS, KS

The next morning we drove from Dodge City to the Fort Larned National Historic Site, which provided us with an interesting perspective of the US Cavalry during the western expansion and settlement during the post-Civil War period. Because this was a major fort positioned where the Santa Fe Trail crossed the Pawnee River, one’s initial impression would be that it would be surrounded by a tall protective wall, but there was no wall. The fort’s barracks and quarters were built in a rectangular fashion around an open field, but there were no protective defensive barriers around the buildings. As we discovered, this was unnecessary, as Native American tribes within the central plains region realized the futility of attacking a major military installation full of armed soldiers. Conflicts came about when troops were sent out to defend settlers or remove Native Americans from lands now claimed for a rising new country. After a quick hour of gaining this new understanding of American history, we set off northeast toward I-70 and onward to Abilene, the home of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Museum and Library.

Just about a week before my friend flew in to begin our journey, he had sent me a suggestion to add Hannibal, Missouri to the schedule. As one can readily surmise, my friend has a very big love of American history and gaining a close-up perspective on American literary legend Mark Twain was exciting for him. However, his pre-set one-week flight schedule was already putting a strain on our current scheduled stops and planned travel loop, and Hannibal would expand that loop off the interstate by several hours. In addition, our next two scheduled stops at two major presidential libraries were major time fodders for history buffs. I told him that the only way we would be able to fit Hannibal into the schedule was if we were able to reach and go through both presidential libraries in the same day. It was still morning on our first full day of travel as we headed towards Abilene, Kansas. Could we see two presidential museums in the same day?

To be continued…

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Finding Balance Through Context and Perspective

Nearly two years ago, I posted about how the current political polarized environment seemed to derive from the comfort many feel from a sense of absolutism, where a set framework of rules and beliefs gives a solid sense of direction, and how these absolute frameworks actually tend to upset the delicate balance of nature and society. I commented on how these expressions of absolutism failed to understand the balance by not seeing the context within the interactions of others or exploring the range of perspective in which one was creating the absolute framework. However, I do realize that understanding context and perspective is not a simple concept, especially when regarding each of our positions within this universe, knowing full context and total perspective is an absolute impossibility. Yet, the better one can understand the basic sense of how context and perception plays in understanding nature and social interaction, then accepting the variations of life in finding balance might come easier.

Context is a very important part of our ability to judge the actions of others around us, the conditions that many of us face on a daily basis, and the quality of our own actions within nature and society. Regardless of how selfishly or selflessly our own personal views characterizes right and wrong, worthiness, or responsibility, judgement is the way we relate our views to the actions surrounding us. However, our ability to judge any incident or decision is dependent upon the amount of information we can see about the factors surrounding the incident or judgement, including the aspects of intent and consequences. The better we are at seeing more of these factors of context surrounding an incident, the better we can become at judging the actions and consequences of the incident. For instance, imagine a person walking down a sidewalk along a busy street, when suddenly another person comes out of nowhere and tackles the first person onto the concrete, causing bruising and a couple broken bones. Just based on this information, one may judge the second person as being guilty of a vicious assault, perhaps even demonstrating a power-hungry sense of bullying. However, if mere seconds later, an out-of-control speeding vehicle suddenly jumps the curb and crashes into a wall at a point where the first person would have been if this person had not been pushed out of the way by the second person, then judgement of the second person’s actions may be seen as a selfless attempt of protection from danger and the injuries the first person incurred may be considered more acceptable to the real possibility of death if the first person had not been shoved out of the way of the wayward vehicle. Unfortunately, for many events, these factors of context tend to be much more complex and trying to understand actions or events often require sorting out opposing contextual factors, as well as trying to uncover the more hidden factors of intent. Yet, so much context is lost when we try to reduce our judgement down to a simple right or wrong single sentence meme.

Understanding the context of the information around us depends totally on the information we receive from our senses, our ability to integrate information over a period of time, and our acceptance in the reliability of this collected information, which forms our perspective of the universe around us. The evolution of humanity led us to develop a way to exchange parts of the information each of us gathers amongst other individuals through a common spoken language, then we developed a way to spread this information to a broader society of humanity through the organized symbols of a common written language. This sharing of information broadened our perspective and understanding to eventually create through scientific technology a way to share and gather information over distances beyond our immediate sensual views. However, no matter how much language and technology expands each one of our perspectives within our life and the universe, we are all limited in the amount and breadth of information each of us can gather and maintain in our memories in order to fully see the world and universe we are in and to accurately judge absolutely what our next actions should be within this world. Therefore, we base our decisions of future actions based on a core of information we feel we understand and use faith to fill in the blanks. However, due to variations in how information comes to us, we are often confronted with contradictions in what is happening around us. In some circumstances, these contradictions are caused by inaccurate or false information presented to us, from something as simple as a mirage or a damaged sense to something more complicated like incorrect or false information shared to us by others. How should we handle these flaws in our own perspective? For some, it becomes better to firmly accept one clear framework of information and begin to reject or judge negatively any information that begins to go against this framework. This may provide clarity or comfort, but very often this will begin to clash with other absolutely created frameworks. What I have realized within my own perspective is that there is no one perfect framework of perspective. To handle the flow of contradictory information, I need to constantly compare new information with old information and see where information seems contradictory. Sometimes, I notice that a changing environment only created the sense of contradiction when there really was no conflict in information. Many times, the comparison and balancing of information helps me to determine which information is illusionary or incorrect. However, oftentimes, I can only be open to gathering information, constantly compare and contrast what is provided to me, then use a little faith to fill in the gaps and move forward. My perspective is only one of an infinite number of perspectives in this universe, and seeking a balance among what I see, hear, read, and comprehend is the closest to being a calming part of this universe.

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2016 – A Year of Reviewing Indie Books

Here it is 2017 and I am going over the books from fellow indie authors that I read in 2016. It was my first full year in Colorado to which I am still adjusting. Perhaps this is why I read about the same number of indie books that I read in 2015, 31 books total. I do notice that 2 of these books are actually short novellas, each tied to another book on the list, so maybe I should just count them as one book, making my reading list total as 30. One positive is this year proved to be an especially good year in the quality on the list with 8 books I rated at 5 stars. 2 of these 5 star books were the novellas to which I just referred, and the 2 books with which these novellas were associated also received 5 stars. I wonder if I should just count each book with its associated novella as one book, but I think I will just keep the total as is.

Now to reiterate my review standards as I posted over the past two years, I had to be open to all genres and not let a genre type affect the rating and review of a work. My focus was on whether the story was told well, the characters were relatable, the plot functional and understandable, and the pieces fit together. If I could follow an enjoyable tale while pushing aside the typos, grammatical errors, and historical or cultural anomalies, the book landed within the 3 star zone. If I could feel more emotional attachments to the characters and find myself drawn into the plot action with less distractions from errors, then the book was landing into the 4 star zone. When character and plot all came together nearly perfectly within the genre I was reading, and editing was well-done, it was a 5 star effort.

Of the 8 books which I rated 5 stars, 4 of them were additional works from fellow authors I had read earlier in previous years. Of these 4, two of them are one of the novel and novella combos to which I had referred at the start of this post. This combo, Crystal Conquest and Crystal Horizon, were written by Doug J. Cooper, the only author to receive a 5 star rating from me last year. Crystal Conquest was the second in his Crystal series, which has the artificial intelligence crystal and his handlers fighting off a new attack from the villainous alien race. Crystal Horizon was just an introductory novella that deftly introduced how our hero handlers initially met before the alien battles. The novella is offered free on the author’s website to introduce readers to his characters and sci-fi adventure flair in his writing. As to the other two additional works, one was another women-lit romance from Deanna Lynn Sletten, Walking Sam, about a widower and a divorcee that meet and connect through the widower’s dog. Two years earlier, I had rated one of her other novels as a 5 star work, and it says a lot that the work I read this year matched that level. The other work was Hangtown Creek by John Rose Putnam, a historical adventure fiction tale set during the California Gold Rush era. Last year, I had given his novel about Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto’s conflicts with native American tribes a 4 star rating. His rough adventure of the Gold Rush Era drew me in more.

The other four 5 star novels were written by new authors to me. Steve LeBel’s The Universe Builders: Bernie and the Putty was a very imaginative concept that equated universe creation as products of a high-pressure god engineering firm, where one nerdy god is harassed by a bully god while trying to build the ultimate universe. It is no wonder that this book has received a couple of indiebook awards. The next 5 star novel was an exciting spy thriller set in the mid-70s by Paul Hollis entitled The Hollow Man, in which an unnamed NSA hero uncovers a plot against the European economy while on a personal mission against a terrorist assassin. Finally, the last two books I read in 2016 was the other novel and novella combination referred to at the start of this post, Theo and the Forbidden Language and The Queen and the Dagger by Melanie Ansley. The main story is the opening tale of an epic fantasy series about a rabbit with the knowledge of language who is enlisted to be part of a group of apprentices to lead the animal communities against a villainous human empire intent on enslaving them with a pacification potion. The associated novella is an introductory back story of one of the other apprentices, a princess warrior rabbit, in this very well written fantasy saga.

Just like the previous year, I had three 2 star rated books. In the first one, the author was too focused on creating and intricately describing an erotic romantic relationship between the two main characters in the thriller, causing the villain characters to be barely formed and hyped up actions to seem like weak plot devices. The next disappointment was actually a second novel in a romance series, and its plot was mainly unbalanced between the lovers’ well-described physical love moments and the somewhat bland interactive moments with family and friends. The author attempts to create conflict with a minor villain, but this character’s actions just appear to be a forced plot device. However, the final 2 star turned out to be an extreme adult erotica tale based on sadomasochistic games, which challenged my commitment to being open to all genres. Yet, even though I admit I do avoid novels whose themes are basically based on adult erotica pleasure, my main issues with this tale was that none of the characters, including the main narrator, had any true empathetic features to draw the reader in and that the promotional blurbs for the novel really understated the true nature of the level of adult erotica, which is not cool to readers who would be sensitive to this type of genre.

The remainder of the books I read in 2016 were split down the middle between 4 and 3 star ratings. Even though the 4 star books spread over a broad range of genres and themes, half of them did land in the paranormal range from a psychic involved in murder mysteries, a secret religious society hunter seeking and battling monsters, and a secret intelligence unit fighting a dark mythological order to a mystical Celtic location and a saga of a vampire feud. The other 4 star reads dealt with a mafia tale of romance and power competition, a spy thriller uncovering a devious plot, a family and crime drama stemming from the 9/11 events, a complex character drama about friends whose lives are affected over the years by underlying acts of abuse and manipulation, and a coming-of-age drama about a decade of summers with two best friends during the 70s. It was an impressive range of creativity.

So it was another good year of reading, and I hope that next year I will be able to match or better my reading time from my previous years. At the same time, I hope that more readers will find my novel, Legacy Discovered, and let me know if they liked it and why through Amazon, Goodreads, and other book sharing sites. Good honest reviews are the writer’s best friend.

My reviews can be found on my Goodreads Author page at https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6491046.Kerry_Reis.

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Volunteer Tutoring for CABPES

When I moved to Colorado a year and a half ago, the one activity I knew I would miss was being a volunteer tutor for 826LA. Helping the young students with their homework and promoting their creativity was as much an inspiration to me as it was to them. Unfortunately, even though the 826 organization is a national nonprofit with centers in several cities across the US, the Denver metropolitan area currently does not have an 826 center. I felt a bit of a loss with some empty free time. However, shortly after moving into my current townhome, I casually mentioned to a new neighbor about my time as a volunteer tutor, and she passed this on to another neighbor who was currently a volunteer tutor for a program supported by a local organization, CAPBES. This other neighbor recruited me to volunteer my time for the program at the beginning of 2016, which has been a bright spot for me this year.

CABPES, which stands for Colorado Association of Black Professional Engineers and Scientists, is not associated with or supported by a national organization. As one can infer by the association name, the tutoring support focus is more directed toward math and science, than reading and writing creativity, but the main goal is similar in supporting and encouraging underprivileged students to learn and move into more fulfilling careers that benefit society as a whole. As a local organization, its tutoring program has had to connect with local partners in order to find space to host the tutors and students. During the winter and spring of the last school year, we were meeting the students at a local high school that opened a few classrooms for the program. When the tutoring program started back up in the fall, a local community center opened its doors for the program.

The organization’s main program, MEP or “Math Enrichment Program,” is limited to two hours on only Monday and Wednesday during the school year and is focused on assisting math homework and improving math skills. There is no time for history or writing homework. Officially, MEP is for fourth to twelfth grades, but parental demand has brought first, second, and third graders into the program. Even though I was a math genius when I went to school, I realize that my career was mainly focused on entertainment, arts, and creativity, not engineering, so I offered and have been working more with the elementary grade students in the program. The other program that the organization offers is for high students planning on science and engineering majors in college and is called JETS for “Junior Engineers Tomorrow’s Scientists.” Presented in the winter and spring half of the school year for one night a week, the program challenges students to tackle scientific and engineering problems tied to a basic theme. Last year’s theme was planning a space colony on Mars, but the theme for 2017 will be to tackle climate change. The potential solutions that the students design are presented during a May banquet at the end of the school year. Finally, there is a program to help students with SAT/ACT testing for college applications.

As a smaller local organization, it has less resources to handle its mission, but it is still strongly dedicated to its mission. On some nights, I have had up to seven kids at my table, each of them wanting my full attention, but from what we have heard from the parents, each volunteer tutor has made a difference in the students’ work at school. CABPES may not have a national organization to help support its mission, but its local perspective is still evident in trying to attain its goal to improve and uplift every deserving student in its program. For Denver area residents who would like to learn about CABPES programs or other local communities who would like to see how they can set up a program like CABPES, the website CABPES.org is a good resource to check on. At least, I can foresee a good 2017 in supporting a worthy mission in encouraging young students onward in improving the future.

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2016 Emmy Voting

In one of my earliest posts, I wrote about the honor of being a member of the Public Relations Peer Group in the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which allowed me to vote to nominate programs for the Annual Emmy Awards. At the time of my posting, the final actual vote for an Emmy category was held by volunteer judging panels who had time to view all of the representative series episodes or movies of the nominated entrants at the Academy campus, which would demonstrate that their vote was fairly given. Since that post a couple of years ago, a few things have changed. First, the Academy simplified its name to just the Television Academy, and then, thanks to streaming technology, the final voting on the nominated programs was opened up to all eligible Academy members. To vote for a category open to a member’s peer group, the member could sign in to the Academy website, view all of the provided representative episodes within a category, and then vote for the program in that category that the member felt deserved the Emmy. Of course, it is impossible for any member to view and vote in all of the representative programming in all categories eligible in his/her peer group during the two week voting period, so each member must decide which categories to commit to judging fairly. Last year, which was the first year for this voting procedure, the final voting period occurred during my relocation to Colorado, so I was only able to view and vote for one of the reality categories. This year, having more time available, I decided to commit to four categories: Outstanding Reality Competition Series, Outstanding Variety Sketch Series, Outstanding Television Movie, and Outstanding Comedy Series.

The six nominees for Outstanding Reality Competition Series represents broadcast network and basic cable programming. Four of the nominees deal with creative competition where the ultimate winner is determined by judges and/or the program audience. For Dancing with the Stars, the competitors are celebrities, but the other three creative competitions, Project Runway, Top Chef, and The Voice, give talented hopefuls a chance to prove they belong with the best. Top Chef has a slight disadvantage with its viewing audience, as the viewer is unable to second guess the judges since cooking depends upon smell and taste, while dancing, singing, and fashion mainly requires sight and sound, the basic framework of television. The fifth nominee, American Ninja, is a straightforward competition of physical strength, agility, and speed, as the competitors must navigate a mainly elevated obstacle course. However, these five nominees still cannot match the global cultural lessons and perspective that the viewer receives while watching competing teams face physical and mental challenges within different countries in a race around the world during a season of The Amazing Race. It has been a favorite of mine for over a decade, and it did not disappoint this season. The Amazing Race received my vote.

Network television was only represented once in the Outstanding Variety Sketch Series, but that nominee, Saturday Night Live, definitely has history and longevity over its fellow nominees. Yet, this season’s cast is not as known as earlier casts which have introduced several comedic celebrities over SNL’s long past. Still, a few of this season’s cast members have begun to gain a reputation beyond the show. The other nominees come from two basic cable channels, Comedy Central and IFC. The Comedy Central nominees are Drunk History, Inside Amy Schumer, and Key & Peele. The comedy from these nominees is very brash in its humor. For me, while I respect and enjoy this wild style of humor, I do prefer more subtlety to my comedy, which is why I was a little more impressed by IFC’s Documentary Now! and Portlandia, both of which are or were executive produced by Lorne Michaels, SNL’s longtime executive producer. Documentary Now! is a touch too arcane, but I have come to appreciate the subtle humor of Portlandia, which got my vote this year.

There were only five nominees for Outstanding Television Movie, and they demonstrated the evolutionary changes that seem to be occurring with audiences. For me, a television movie was often a stand-alone fictional or historical long form film that would air during a single time period. However, PBS’s Sherlock: The Abominable Bride and BBC America’s Luther were more like a long form episode in a series, requiring the movie to provide a short recap at the start of the movie. Premium cable was represented by HBO’s two historical drama nominees, All The Way, the story of Lyndon B Johnson’s first year of presidency following the assassination of JFK as he pushed the Civil Rights Bill through Congress prior to the next election, and Confirmation, the story of the Anita Hill testimony during the Clarence Thomas nomination hearings for the Supreme Court. However, what truly surprised me in a strange way was the fifth nominee, A Very Murray Christmas from NetFlix. Even though it represented how original streaming video available to the viewer whenever it was requested was gaining recognition in the creative industry, this “movie” was less than an hour long and was mainly Bill Murray and other celebrities singing Christmas songs within only a slight pretext of a story. To me, this was a holiday special which had no similarity to the concept of what a movie should be defined as. It seemed to indicate that original television movies was fading from the creative focus of the industry. I focused on the two historical, non-serialized movies from HBO and selected Confirmation as my choice for this category.

As a major category, Outstanding Comedy Series had the most nominees of the categories to which I had committed, seven in all. In addition, each nominee had six representative episodes on the viewing platform, meaning I would need to commit two to three hours of viewing per nominee before voting. The Comedy Series category truly demonstrated the growth of original streaming video to the television environment as NetFlix and Amazon had produced three of the seven nominees: Master of None, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Transparent. Considering that HBO had produced two of the other nominees with Silicon Valley and Veep, broadcast network was only represented by two ABC shows, blackish and Modern Family. It was halfway through viewing the episodes that I found out I only needed to view one episode per nominee to vote, but I was glad I committed to viewing all of the available episodes as one episode does not always provide a true understanding of the series as a whole. For instance, in NetFlix’s Master of None, the first episode provided seemed to suggest the series would focus on two first generation American friends navigating the culture clash between the expectations of their immigrant Indian and Chinese parents and the American culture these friends grew up in. However, the other episodes only focused on the one friend, played by Aziz Ansari, trying to make it as an actor while dealing with racial stereotypes and multi-cultural romantic relationships. One episode was not enough to represent the broad range of themes and issues the series dealt with. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt also dealt with many themes crossing class, race, and sexual identity issues over its many episodes. This gave great respectability to these series; however, the brashness of the main characters clashed with the themes at times. Amazon’s Transparent, a series about a man who surprises his wife and three adult children by turning transgender, has also gained recognition by dealing with a modern subject of equality and sexuality, especially with good production values and excellent acting, even as the streaming series is not bound by language and nudity oversight. However, Transparent has one major flaw in this category. It is not really a comedy, but rather an empathetic family drama filled with true angst and reflection. For HBO, Veep is well produced in satirizing the hypocrisy and manipulation of Washington politics, but the political plots are too unrealistically stretched out. Silicon Valley also played the fun and futility of nerdy characters fighting the twisted machinations of the cyber-tech industry well enough, but the concepts seemed to be a little too difficult for a basic viewing audience to understand. This brought me back to the basic network series, blackish and Modern Family. In blackish, ABC is trying to demonstrate true diversity by focusing on a modern middle-class black family; however, with episodes focusing on gun ownership, the use of the “N” word, and sharp discussion of the Black Lives Matter protests, I felt the same brashness clash I observed in the NetFlix series. Modern Family is the veteran of the nominees and it is showing its age. However, it is still able to touch on matters of diversity and present its clash of ideas with a bit more subtlety for the viewer. This is why I voted for Modern Family in this category.

Well, will my fellow Academy members who committed to these categories share my opinion? We will see in a couple of weeks when the Emmy Awards are televised. I am honored to have provided my voice and commitment to the process.

Update: As announced during the Emmy Awards that aired on ABC on Sunday, September 18, my choices in all four categories were not in the majority. The Voice received the Emmy for Outstanding Reality Competition Series, Key & Peele received the Emmy for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series, Sherlock: The Abominable Bride received the Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie, and Veep received the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series. I applaud the recipients of this year’s Emmys.

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Dakota National Park Tour – Part 2

Halfway through my Dakota trip, I had the opportunity to explore the tight confines of Wind Cave National, checked up on the status of the Crazy Horse Memorial, and had explored what had inspired Theodore Roosevelt to highly promote the national park system during his time as president in the national park named after him. Now, I was heading east away from South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park on I-94 in a loop that would take me down to Badlands National Park. As I drove, the clouds darkened above me and the afternoon sun behind me created a marvelous arched rainbow against these clouds. Perhaps I saw it as a good luck charm. I-94 took me through the capital of North Dakota, Bismarck, but there wasn’t much to see from the highway. A few miles east of the capital, I exited I-94 and headed south towards South Dakota and its capital, Pierre (which I am told is pronounced like pier by the locals). Pierre is one of the few state capitals not connected or serviced by an interstate highway, so my US route took me straight into the center of the city. I wound up stopping for a Chinese buffet dinner just a few miles from the capitol building. As I left Pierre and headed south to connect with I-90, just a few miles east of the motel I had made reservations near Badlands National Park, the clouds began to darken again. I was able to reach the motel in time before the thunderstorm opened up. I was beginning to experience and understand the severe weather that builds around the Great Plains at this time of year.

The next morning, skies were clear, and I headed towards Badlands National Park. At the interstate exit to the northeast entrance to the park, I noticed the visitor center to an interesting and important historic park, the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. Even though I decided not to stop because of the tight scheduling of my tour, it reminded me how this country was able to use the open spaces of the plains to hide a major part of our country’s defense in the modern era. I headed south into Badlands National Park.

Southwest panoramic view from Bigfoot Pass.

Southwest panoramic view from Bigfoot Pass.

Badlands geology is interesting to view, sedimentary strata of mainly white and red rock that is exposed on hills and canyon walls, with a section of yellow rock mounds in one part of the park. It was created by the huge sea that used to exist down the middle of North America until the land rose up, draining the sea and creating the Great Plains. I had viewed this badlands geology in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. However, within Badlands National Park, the geology was sharper with craggy spires and a higher contrast between the red and white strata colors. In one section, a hiking trail explored a section where fossil remnants from prehistoric creatures are still being uncovered. Badlands does support the same types of bison and groundhogs that I saw in Theodore Roosevelt National Park; however, during my visit, I only came upon one deer hiding behind some shrubs on a trail. The canyons and mounds of Badlands appears to be closer to the expansive great plains to the east than the Black Hills to the west, as I was able to view long open stretches of vibrant green grass fields heading away from the canyon bottoms and out from the tops of the canyon rims along the loop road. The road that traveled along the badlands walls was called a loop road because it somewhat paralleled I-90 to the north with two park entrances on either side of this road section that connected back up to I-90. This allowed me to exit the park at this west entrance, then loop back east on I-90 to the exit that led to the eastern entrance. Only I passed this exit and took the next exit south, heading down towards Scottsbluff, Nebraska.

As I traveled down the state routes towards Nebraska, the severe weather patterns of late spring that I had begun to experience in previous afternoons along this trip suddenly demonstrated their greatest fury when I found myself driving through a thundering hail storm. It didn’t help that I was stuck behind a semi-trailer at the time the storm struck. However, my faithful car persevered, and I passed through the storm before arriving in Scottsbluff. This was the last stop on my road tour, and I checked into my hotel in preparation of my final day of the tour.

Pioneer wagons at Scotts Bluff National Monument.

Pioneer wagons at Scotts Bluff National Monument.

The small city of Scottsbluff grew up in the Platte River valley next to a major landmark the early pioneers used as they made their way along the Oregon Trail, a large rocky bluff named for an early fur company employee that mysteriously met his death near this bluff in 1838. The bluff and the pass between it and the neighboring Wildcat Hills are protected within Scotts Bluff National Monument. In the morning of my final day of my tour, I stopped at the visitor center within this pass next to the bluff and walked a short trail up to a point where the Oregon Trail officially snacked its way westward. Some representative covered wagons presented the history that brought pioneers here on their way west. I walked back to my car and drove up a road that snaked up through a few tunnels to the top of the bluff. From the top of the bluff, I was able to see a broad landscape both east and west, showing why this rocky bluff was such a major landmark in the expansion of America. After enjoying this perspective of history, I headed back down the bluff road, got on the interstate, and headed back to Denver. I was home in time for lunch. This tour was a short trip, but it was also an impressive tour of history and geology.

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Dakota National Park Tour – Part 1

Ever since I moved to the Denver area, I had started plans for a quick road trip to explore the three national parks within the Dakota states. I had already had the opportunity to visit the most famous Dakota site on a major road trip I had done with my mother in 2003 – the Mount Rushmore Memorial, but this was my chance to visit Wind Cave National Park, Badlands National Park, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park. As the ten day weather report finally showed a period of seventy degree temperatures in the week leading up to the Memorial Day weekend, it seemed like a perfect time for me to make the trip.

I started out at midday and headed north to Hot Springs, South Dakota, a town just south of Wind Cave National Park. I spent the night at a local motel, then headed up to the park in the morning. Just inside the south park entrance, I and a few other visitors came upon a small bison herd enjoying the hilly grasslands around the visitor center. One male bison decided to take a stand on the road, delaying the small line of cars heading both ways on the road. It was a perfect opportunity to take pictures. Once past the bison herd, I headed up to the visitor center in time to take the first tour of the morning.

A bison enjoys the grasslands within Wind Cave National Park.

A bison enjoys the grasslands within Wind Cave National Park.

Wind Cave is one of the longest cave systems in the world. However, its passageways were one of the thinnest and tightest I had ever been through. In fact, the natural entrance that our tour was shown would barely allow a baby to pass through and looked more like a rocky rabbit hole. It was because of this feature that Wind Cave got its name. Inside the cave system, the lack of large openings to the outer world was instrumental in the cave being able to maintain a steady air pressure within its passages, but at the small openings where the cave connected with the external atmosphere, the normal changes in air pressure from high and low weather systems outside would cause the cave to “breathe” in or out. In order to maintain this standard pressure within the cave, the manmade entrances that were built to allow tour access have a double door system, an outer door to allow access into a gathering room, then once this outer door was sealed, the inner door was opened to give the tour group access to downward steps into the lower lit passage. The unique geology of the cave provided interesting wall features like popcorn and boxwork, but large stalagmites and stalactites were not evident in these tight cave passages. At one point, the ranger guide turned off the lights to give our small tour a chance to truly witness absolute darkness. Wind Cave is definitely not for the claustrophobic, even mildly.

Boxwork formation on a cave wall in Wind Cave National Park.

Boxwork formation on a cave wall in Wind Cave National Park.

After exploring Wind Cave, I headed north towards North Dakota. Just a few miles from Wind Cave, I stopped at a rest stop and took a photo of the Crazy Horse Memorial, still being sculpted in the Black Hills. During the 2003 road trip with my mother, we had stopped to examine the memorial and visit the adjoining visitor center and museum after viewing the Mount Rushmore Memorial nearby. The sculpting of the Crazy Horse Memorial had begun in 1949, but as it is being funded through a nonprofit system, the main progress was just the face and general shape of the mountain sculpture in 2003. Now, looking at it in 2016, I could only see minor progress in the memorial project.

Crazy Horse Memorial still in progress in 2016.

Crazy Horse Memorial still in progress in 2016.

Continuing on into North Dakota, I was able to reach I-94 by around five in the afternoon. I thought I might try to slip into Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit for a quick run-through, but discovered that the visitor center was closed by four-thirty. I was able to stop at the Painted Canyon Overlook just off the Interstate and get some afternoon shots of the striated rock and grassland landscape. My reasoning behind trying to get into the park at this time was due to the somewhat unique outlay of this national park. Theodore Roosevelt National Park is actually divided into two major units with a third small unit between them. What is especially unique about this is the distance between the two units of over sixty miles, basically a two hour round trip between the two units. The North Unit could only be reached from one US route, so I could not just check out this unit along the way to the next national park. I checked into the local hotel in preparation of exploring the South Unit in the morning.

Theodore Roosevelt's preserved Maltese Cross cabin in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Theodore Roosevelt’s preserved Maltese Cross cabin in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

I entered the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park the next morning and stopped in at the visitor center. Behind the visitor center was the Maltese cross cabin that Theodore Roosevelt lived in shortly after his wife and mother both died on the same day in 1884, an amazing historical structure. At the visitor center, I asked about what I would see at the North Unit and was told by a ranger that the environment, although basically the same, was more rugged and had a wonderful view of the Little Missouri River along the viewing road. Roosevelt also had another home in the North Unit, but it was no longer there. I spent the rest of the morning exploring the South Unit on its loop road, checking out bison herds, prairie dog towns, some feral horses, hiking trails along badland hills and grasslands, and panoramic overlooks, including one next to a section of the Little Missouri River. As I finished the loop, I debated whether the two hour round trip to the North Unit as well as the potential hour or so traveling the overlook road would add much more to what I had seen. I decided I had explored and come to understand the landscape that Theodore Roosevelt had come to love within the South Unit and decided to move on to the next location where I had motel reservations near Badlands National Park.

The Little Missouri River from Wind Canyon Overlook in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The Little Missouri River from Wind Canyon Overlook in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

To be continued…

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Villains Are Characters Too

When I go back over the indie books I have read over the past few years, I find myself interested in where a few of them were flawed or, in some cases, totally failed. To me, the core of good storytelling rests with a good balance between plot and character. Keeping the reader engrossed in the story requires presenting the characters in ways the reader can connect and understand their actions, while presenting a series of events that affects and directs these characters in a way that the reader can follow and accept the revelations the story presents. If the reader is truly embracing and understanding the story, the reader will begin to expect where the story is leading, but will still find satisfaction whether the actions and reactions follows expectations or takes a turn toward a totally unexpected resolution. The keys to whether the reader is accepting the story are whether the actions and events are explainable within the parameters of the story and whether the motivations of the characters are sensible in their reactions. For this reason, many authors work to empathize with their main characters, seeking to express the inner debate and growth these characters experience as they somewhat heroically face the challenges they are tasked to overcome physically or emotionally. However, when the author focuses too heavily on the main characters without taking into account the antagonists who have created and continue to push the challenges and dangers upon the main protagonists, holes will appear in the story that causes the reader to become confused and lose interest. In other words, the author needs to understand that villains are characters too, ones that are just as important for the proper balance of plot and character to keep the reader engrossed.

Nearly all stories deal with a major challenge or series of related challenges that are faced by a major character or set of characters. The reader is introduced to the major character or characters, gaining a quick understanding of who they are and where they are at a certain moment in a real or imagined time, then the elements of the challenge or challenges they must overcome are revealed. In some stories, the reader may be introduced to the main character or characters at the height or depths of the challenge, instantly enhancing the reader’s empathy with the character or characters. These challenges faced by the characters are the framework of the plot, and it is important that the segments fit together so the reader can experience the challenges with the protagonists. Often, these challenges are generated by other characters, whose actions run contrary to the general benefit of the main characters and the humanity they represent. These are the villains, responsible for the grief, danger, and obstacles faced by our heroes. It is when the author treats these villains like plot segments to generate story direction that the author risks losing the reader. This happens when the author depends upon a simple stereotype description – bully, terrorist, evil wizard – to present the villain, then just uses the villain to push the plot along at critical times. Sometimes this may work in a one-time fateful crossing of lives, like a bank robber who locks a man and a woman previously unknown to each other inside a safe, initiating a very unique environment to create a romantic connection before the two are rescued, or a terrorist bomber whose recent attack collaterally kills a woman, forcing her husband to spend the rest of the story trying to get beyond the loss of his soul mate. In these types of stories, the villainous party is not directly related to the main characters, so the reader does not have to ask why the villain created the situation, since the reader has become so engrossed in the aftermath of the villain’s actions on the main characters. However, if the story presents any connection between the antagonist and the main characters before a major evil action, or interaction occurs between the parties after the initial critical action, then the reader will become just as interested in both the motivation and ability of the villain to create the chaos and challenges to the main heroes. The villain is no longer a plot device, but rather a character of interest to the reader.

Of course, the reader does not need to delve too deeply into the back story and mental state of the antagonists of the story. The reader only needs to know enough to answer the “why’s” and “how’s” of the antagonists actions towards the main characters. The level of interest in the villain and any other secondary character who abets the villain’s actions will be dependent upon the level of interaction the villain and abettors have toward the main characters. If the interaction is somewhat random throughout the story, the reader will expect to discover an obsessive characteristic and a rash capability for action from the antagonist. However, if the antagonist and protagonist have a deeper history, then the reader will be expecting the author to provide a deeper understanding of the motivation behind the antagonist and a better sense of how the antagonist will be able to manipulate the actions toward the protagonist. Again, this includes abettors of the main villain.

As an example, I recently read a work about an erotic romance between a daughter of a well-to-do politico and a hunky owner of a small security protection agency. Some casual incidental meets at a night club and a coffee shop generate initial sparks, but her kidnapping and initial rescue by him and his team amps up the relationship to a new level. The kidnapper is revealed to an abusive and possessive mental case who had developed an obsession with our heroine, but before we can find out more, the hero security guy is informed by the police that the perp has escaped. How did he escape? To the author, this was not considered important. The escape meant that the heroine had to move into a safe house with the hero to be protected, creating the situation where the couple had to bond and submit to their carnal feelings for each other. However, as a reader, I had no real idea just how much danger our couple was in. How committed and skillful was this villain? If authorities were looking for him, why would he stick around? Was the escape skillfully planned or did it occur because of police error? After a period of time of this relationship, an ex-girlfriend villainess of the hero appears at the door and tells our half-dressed heroine that she is the hero’s fiancée, sending the heroine rushing home to her parents’ mansion. Of course, this ex doesn’t have to show off a ring on the finger to prove her lie, as the reader is supposed to accept this spur-of-the-moment attempt to reclaim an old beau. However, this little unrelated deception allows the kidnapper to come back and re-kidnap the heroine from her parents’ home that very night. However, the kidnapper brings the heroine back to the original location he held her before, allowing the hero to re-rescue her and re-capture the villain. But this does not tell the reader how the villain was able to escape in the first place. Oh, and how was the villain able to know when the heroine was back at her parents’ home? He had a cousin on the parents’ household staff who sent him a message when the daughter returned. No other information than the distant familial relationship is provided for why a loyal staff member would put the heroine in instant jeopardy. In the end, no matter how vested a good reader could get with the relationship of the two main characters, which wasn’t badly written when it was just about the interactions between them and their inner romantic insecurities, the reader begins to feel all of the antagonistic drama brought by the villains around them is just a bunch of straw plot devices to create action, slowly turning the main characters into straw figures of their own.

In the end, a well-defined villain or enemy actually enhances the empathy we have for our heroes and main characters. Whether the heroes are able to overcome or find reconciliation with their antagonists becomes a major part of a plot’s theme, which is why authors need to remember that villains are characters too.

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