Just Me and My Personalities: How to Juggle Multiple POV Characters

When I started taking classes from my writing teacher, mentor, and now friend Laurel Leigh (perhaps you’ve heard of her?), she gave me some of the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten.

Fortunately, I completely disregarded it.

Before I tell you what her advice was, why I ignored it, and why that turned out to be a good thing, let me provide some background for the subject matter: writing in multiple Point of View (POV), or as I like to call it, expressing your multiple personalities in a single work.

I grew up reading epic fantasy, and I’ve known since I was a teenager that this was the genre I wanted to write. If you aren’t familiar with the genre of epic fantasy, I’ll give you the briefest introduction. Basically, the hero always has nothing less than the fate of the entire world on his or her shoulders. Picture Frodo attempting to drop the ring into the cauldron of lava in Mordor while everyone he cares about fights for their lives. No pressure, right?

In order to succeed in such a monumental task, the hero needs a large and competent cast of supporting characters. Would Frodo have succeeded without Samwise? I don’t think so. Gandalf, Aragorn, and Legolas played important roles too, among others. In epic fantasy, the battle is always fought on several fronts.

Because the hero can’t be present on all these fronts at once, epic fantasy is often written in multiple points of view. In one scene, we’re in Frodo’s POV as he inches toward the cauldron; in the next, we’re with Gandalf, holding back the orc army in the last ray of light left on Middle Earth.

Now, the advice Laurel gave me was this: Don’t attempt to write your book with six-plus POV characters. Find your hero—she might not even be the hero you have marked out as the main character—and tell her story.

Given my background with epic fantasy, these words broke on barren shores.

I should start by saying that Laurel was absolutely right. I would have had a much easier time, and probably produced a much better first novel, if I had followed her advice. I should also mention that I have followed, or tried to follow, at least 90% of the advice Laurel gives me, with winning results every single time.

Unfortunately for me, epic fantasy is what I wanted to write. I needed to start there.

I should also add that there have been several incredible epic fantasy tales told with a single point of view. In fact, my favorite author, Robin Hobb, uses single first person POV in her first work, the Farseer Trilogy. So multiple POV isn’t a rule of the genre, though it is the norm.

When I told Laurel this, those many years ago, she replied that it may be a convention in the genre, but that doesn’t matter. You should tell the story the way the story needs to be told.

Again, she was absolutely right, and again I ignored her advice, but her response got me wondering why so much epic fantasy is written in multiple POV. To be honest, before she suggested maybe I should scale things back, I hadn’t really considered writing in any other format.

The answer I come up with is this: multiple POV epic fantasy novels are actually the story of several different characters woven into one book, united by plot and setting. Through this method, the writer explores the implications of the main event (usually, but not always, the end of the world, or some great and final battle) on the various POV characters.

The benefit for the reader is that they can experience several different personalities under the same conditions. The farmboy becoming the prophesied hero experiences the dramatic arc differently from the wise old magician, who experiences it differently from the inexperienced young battle Queen. As a reader, I can experience the same story in a variety of different ways. It’s like the difference between ordering off the menu and exploring the buffet.

One of my favorite things about this kind of epic fantasy is how opinionated readers get about the characters. Even when all of the “good” characters are drawn as sympathetic by a given author, all of them have their haters on the online fantasy forums. Entire threads are devoted to tearing apart these characters, evidence perhaps of how deeply epic fantasy writers are engaging their readers using multiple points of view. Continue reading

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Through a Distant Lens: Travel Poems

Hello from the Dogpatch!

My friend and mentor Dr. Alex Kuo (author of My Private China and the forthcoming shanghai.shanghai.shanghai) pointed me toward this poetry collection, and I’m so glad he did! Through a Distant Lens is one of those indie titles that launches with modest fanfare yet quietly and gracefully along the way promises to pick up more and more readers—this reader one of them—for its relatable, artful yet unpretentious poetry. Beautifully curated and arrayed, this assortment of travel poems is further enhanced by a sprinkling of gorgeous photography.

 

Through a Distant Lens

 

An invitation to “Depart” guides one into this eclectic collection of poetical musings, each piece navigating around the theme of travel, and with each of the four main sections prefaced by a striking black-and-white photograph evocative of the chapter’s overarching theme: A Buddhist Temple in the Himalayas opens the section entitled “Continental Drift; “Borders Less Defined,” the third of the quartet, is coupled with an approach view of Kells Priory in Ireland.

The book’s editor and publisher is Sheryl Clough, herself a well-published poet and essayist and founder of the Whidbey Island, Washington–based Write Wing Publishing. For this endeavor, Clough gathered the work of forty-six poets—the myriad voices offering singular definitions and experiences of journeys, from a memory of a boat trip on wind-blown Hawaiian waters to scatter the ashes of one’s brother to the hilarity of trying to maneuver the simple task of doing laundry in Dublin, Ireland. The layout of the book is accessible, letting the reader plot a straight course from cover to cover or simply thumb through and meander over land, on water, through the air and through time—en route finding beauty, surprises, angst, challenges, pain, and even joy in pain as in Sheila Nickerson’s “On Transplanting the Poppies,” commemorating both loss and gain of life.

Poet and Editor Sheryl Clough

Poet and Editor Sheryl Clough

“Funny how your mind takes you somewhere else,” Ann Curran’s “There, Not Here” [p. 5] comments at the opening, coaxing the reader to come willingly aboard this vessel of poem-stories to be carried away. The chapter “Continental Drift” drops the reader at India’s majestic Taj Mahal on one page, in the heart of an ancient Chinese dynasty on the next, then has one gazing off the Cape of Good Hope beholding a conspiring of life off the rocky headland. The poems filling this section gleefully dance among the continents, each most decidedly to its own tune while not only moving from place to place but between styles and perspectives. Diane Stone’s “Last Night’s Chicken Curry” [p. 14] delivers a vision of Nepal, distant and landlocked but easily reachable via the pleasing flavors and aromas of the recipe contained within this poem. Whereas Debra Marquart’s “Wild Thyme” [p. 24] is laugh-out-loud funny depicting the less-adventurous tourist compensating alongside her fellow intrepid explorers.

“In my rearview mirror Dallas fades. . . . Phoenix, where I am bound, materializes – / less like Brigadoon from Scottish mists, / than Petra carved from red sand” opines Ann Howells in “Moving On” [p. 28], the poem that opens the second main section, aptly christened “Snapshots from the Road.” Like “Odysseans, drunk on bliss,” to cull a line from Teddy Norris’s “Barging in Burgundy” [p. 43], the poems in this chapter invite the reader into a panoply of images and memories taken from the road. One encounters Marianne Patty’s touching image of “Our Lady of the Street” climbing “up the stairs of her broken world” [p. 29], jettisons back in time with Lois Parker Edstrom’s “Yellowstone Park, 1948” [p. 30], and then meets Gail Denham, who offers up a mix of memories married to that (in)famous war:

 

We had tea and succulent pastries at Betty’s

Café in York, a refuge for WWII airmen, where

they came to dance and forget war for an evening.

[“Treasured Journeys, A Memory Jumble, ” p. 38] Continue reading

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A Few Thoughts About Charlie

A protest sign — both very Gallic and oddly charming — spotted at the massive unity rally in Paris earlier this month to protest the recent terror attacks there, read, in effect (I’m paraphrasing here): ‘I have very conflicted feelings about this very complicated situation, but I’m out here marching anyway.’

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And one thing you can say about the French: they know how to put on a protest.

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But now that all the dust has settled, and after it seems the entire world has paid tribute to the murdered writers and artists at the satirical publication, Charlie Hebdo — I, too, like any writer or artist, would like to pay tribute to the lives of those poor, unfortunate staff members who worked there and died there.

And yet I too have very conflicted feelings about this very complicated situation.

I feel like I may be stepping into it by even bringing this up; but as the nation of France rushes with political unanimity into ‘war with the Arabs’ — as some of the French themselves are calling it — in response to the recent terrorist attacks, I can’t help but feel like we’ve seen this movie before.

And I thought perhaps now might be a good time to discuss the real-world, political ramifications of any writing, fiction or non-fiction.

 

I currently am at work on a novel with a small subplot involving a commune in 1970s California. This part of my story involves some rather sanctimonious individuals, the type of know-it-all, kale-eating Lefty liberals that people on the political right love to hate. If you grew up in Northern California, like I did, you know people like this. They are the humorless, holier-than-thou types that naturally lend themselves to satire.

Yet I find myself struggling to establish the right tone; I struggle to extend these characters some small modicum of respect — so that they will live and breath like any character on the page ideally should — and yet still let them do the same stupid, self-serving things that my narrative warrants and demands. I’ve been struggling with the tone of this section for months now.

In other words, I guess what I’m saying is, satire in freaking hard to do right.

Now my feeling on the subject is that if you’re doing satire right, you are upsetting the powerful, not the powerless. And when a publication like Charlie Hebdo, which prides itself on satirizing everybody and everything, goes after the sacred cows of Islam, the real targets for their abrasive brand of satire are, naturally, the radical imams and mullahs, the humorless ayatollahs, who deserve to be mocked.

Yet, in practice, the slings and arrows of Charlie Hebdo’s particular brand of outrageousness do not land that far afield. They land — with some real force — on the heads of much closer targets, those Muslims immigrants who live in the miserable, squalid banlieues that surround most major French cities. And anyone who thinks the French Muslim population has any genuine cultural or economic power hasn’t spent much time in France.

So when Charlie Hebdo publishes an image of the Prophet on its cover, they are hardly going after what real power there is in the Muslim world — say, the royal family of Saudi Arabia. Continue reading

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Nobody Will Die, Maybe—Scaling El Capitan

The flickering headlamps halfway up the wall of El Capitan caught our attention as we stopped to look at the full moon shining across a meadow in Yosemite Valley. It was Saturday, January 3rd, 2015, and the climbers appeared to have covered about a third of the 3,000 foot wall since they started eight days ago.

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If you haven’t been following the story in the New York Times, two climbers have been planning and practicing the free climb ascent of El Capitan for the past ten+ years. This is now the real thing. If you’d like a better perspective of the size of this monolith and their undertaking, the NYTimes article provides a terrifying composite image showing the climbers on the wall.

Anyone see a parallel between this ascent and writing a book? Our advantage over climbers?

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We can’t see the size of the wall in front of us.

We’ve planned and practiced and tried and failed on numerous attempts. We’ve achieved smaller goals. We’ve said that if we don’t make it this time, there won’t be another. We’ve faced odds that would make a grizzly bear shudder, and still we are on that wall, refusing to give up. OK, so maybe we’re not facing death should we make mistakes with our climbing harnesses. For we climb WITHOUT harnesses.

We’ve got shredded fingers reminiscent of carcasses put through the meat grinder. We’re swaying in gusty winds. We’re facing the uncertainty of our uncertainties in the blackness of bitter, star-filled skies.

The night we saw the climbers, the moon underscored just how insignificant their goal was to the universe.

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But it was important to THEM.

So that’s what I take away from this effort. A refusal to give up. A determination to do something that leaves others shaking their heads in disbelief.

Why climb the wall? Because it’s important to ME. When it’s no longer important, I’ll stop.

Until that happens, you can find me taping my fingers, casting a shadow, tapping away, and laughing at the man in the moon and his distorted sense of reality.

That’s MY new year’s resolution.

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Leave No Character Behind

You know that thing about not putting characters by themselves too often because then it’s harder to have an antag in that protag v. antag equation?

Yeah, that’s not what this is really about, but I was thinking about how people always say that. Don’t put that character in that room by themself unless there’s a Bengal tiger in there for them to tame. That would be cool, having a friend who’s a Bengal tiger, but in the wild, where it could run free and maybe bring you a present of a fish now and then since there probably isn’t a Safeway.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAThen there’s that thing about wanting to know more about the mother, or knowing too much about the mother. If it’s my mother, then god love her, you would have a dilemma, or I would have the dilemma, not to project this onto you. The point is that you could talk to her for a while and you’d know a lot about her but you wouldn’t really know anything about her. Interesting to try to capture that on the page. That’s also not really what this is about.

MeOr that one about how good fiction should read like it’s true. That’s always been a harder one for me to get my head around. I can be gullible, but I knew that Lilliput was a made-up place. And Tom and Becky in the cave? Come on! But there are those stories where we think, yeah, that could be true. I never related that question of the reader wondering about true-ness or lie-ness to my own work so much until I recited part of a story I wrote at an open mic. The story’s about this kid who’s trying to earn money to visit her dead mother’s grave site. She’s afraid of this mysterious guy in town, and she can bake. I know, good luck with that.

Anyway, at this open mic, my recitation went well, and despite being slightly older than my character, I successfully projected eleven-ish and people were touched. Afterward, this woman said how much she liked the story, and that she was from Minnesota and familiar with the setting. Cool. Then she asked if the story was true.

“Oh, no,” I said. “It’s made up.”

Her face fell. If I was writing this into a story, I’d write it that way without embellishment: Her face fell. She looked seriously disappointed, like she wanted to take back everything good she said about the story. Continue reading

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Dogfight: No More Mrs. Nice Guy

When one of our own comes up with a story that involves six adults dressed like superheros wandering through San Francisco’s Tenderloin district (after they’ve lined up babysitters, that is), a ’70s blaxploitation film, adult adoption, and Venus Palermo (this is only chapter one, people!), there’s only two things to do: read the riotous piece and then fight about it, because that’s what we do. Welcome to the dogfight.

Art by clubraf

Art by Reid Forster a.k.a. clubraf

Here’s an excerpt of this whale of a tale by DWC co-founder Wes Pierce:

He had seen this movie too many times to count. Yet no matter how many times he watched it, the movie still always seemed to bring him the same warm, comfortable feeling. When he first popped the VHS tape into the machine, it made a funny grinding noise, perhaps because the tape was so heavily used; but soon the familiar sound of an ascending three-toned scale — accompanied by the logo of the production company behind the release of the film, a cartoon image of a white bird in flight over a dark mountain range — signaled the start of Black Mamba, starring one of the queens of 1970’s blaxploitation films, Venus Palermo, and almost instantly he could feel his breathing come easier and his heart-rate drop.

And here’s another excerpt, because we couldn’t pick which one we liked the best (read: which one would be the most fun to fight about):

‘Oh, well…such a lovely girl. She’s been back in town recently, you see, pregnant, and she needed our help. Her mother, poor thing, has been dead these many years. She was just a girl when it happened. Becka, I mean. And she’s been estranged from her father…oh, for ages. She had no one she could turn to. You should have seen her, poor thing…’

Gerda said, ‘Is this leading somewhere, Momma?’

‘Leading somewhere?’

‘Yes. Like, what you and Dad mean by sending me a birth announcement? Or, like, who this Rebecca person is…?’

‘Dear, I’m talking about Rebecca. Becka is Rebecca, dear. We’ve adopted Becka! You have a sister now, dear, just like you’ve said you’ve always wanted.’

‘You what? You adopted Rebecca…?’

‘You’re shouting, dear,’ her mother said. ‘There’s no need to shout.’

Are you a little confused about what these characters might do? So are we. That’s why we love wicked Wes’s story so much! Here’s what we thought, and feel free to join the fracas: Continue reading

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Litquake Alert!

Got libations? Survival gear, including ibuprofen and rehydration tablets?

Ready. Set. Let it shake!!!!!

900 authors from all over the San Francisco Bay Area, the U.S., and the world.

Friday marks the 15th anniversary of Litquake, the best literary festival on the Left Coast. Sell-out shows include “The Best of Craigslist,” where writers give dramatic readings of found literature culled from REAL posts on Craigslist.  I’ve got tickets.

I’ll also be at “Drivel,” where some rather famous writers read some of their less-than-stellar prose.

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Who could resist?

Interested in poetry? Try “A Flight of Poets” or maybe “Dark and Stormy: Contemporary Swedish Poetry.”

Adventure travel? “Into the Wilderness” or “Bicycle book tours,” depending on what your idea of adventure and travel really is.

Sci-fi? Try “Into Tomorrow.”

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Something from the heart? Try “Tales of Love and Longing,”  “Hot Flash Fiction,” or “Family Secrets.”

Something edgy? Try “Walk on the Wild Side.”

Need to feed you inner chef? Try “Sausages and Syrah.”

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The opening night party on Friday, October 10, will be celebrated quinceañera-style. Think pink taffeta and a shot or two of tequila. Oh, and don’t forget your tiara.

On the last night, October 18, the world’s largest Lit Crawl commences, 101 events in three hours. 

See you there!

FULL FESTIVAL GUIDE PDF

MAP AND GUIDE FOR LITCRAWL 

 

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Neglect of a Different Sort

Some years ago Philip Roth despaired at the dwindling number of what he called ‘real’ readers left in the United States, readers committed to reading serious books written by serious writers.

Back in the Day

Back in the Day

By some arcane system of his own devising Roth came up with an exact figure, one which I forget, but by his calculations there were only somewhere around five thousand of these ‘real’ readers left in the country.

Roth was reaching a point in his career where he was finding it harder and harder to see the point in writing books anymore. He also was mourning the loss, I think, in the importance of books and literature in American cultural life. But then Philip Roth has gone through several periods throughout his long and storied career (the awards he has received by themselves take up one full page on his bio sheet) when he was in despair over the nature of the book business.

Who could blame him?

Depending on who’s doing the telling, serious literature has been in serious decline for pretty much ever, a victim of benign neglect or communal and/or commercial indifference. And as many now know, Roth finally gave up writing altogether a couple years ago, and recently gave up (or so he says) reading, too.

Philip Roth threw this ‘five thousand readers’ number around for some time until a friend pointed out to him that while five thousand might not seem like a lot, if he was to line up all those people and have them pass one at a time through his living room, while he shook each of them by the hand, that by the time he got to the end of that line, Roth — any writer, for that matter — likely would be reduced to tears.

Neglect, I guess, is in the eye of the beholder. Continue reading

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Overcommitment

Just returned from the annual August tour de famille on the East Coast and in the Midwest. Well, that’s not really true. We’ve been back since August 26. Really late in the evening on August 25, but our keys were with my husband, and he wasn’t with us. So we arrived at baggage claim at SFO only to realize that it was midnight, and we didn’t have keys to our humble abode.

This event symbolized our August. But now that we’re back, what is my excuse for being late to the post?

Overcommitment. You know you’re overcommitted when you can’t recall what you’re supposed to do next because there are too many things competing for “next.” And overcommitment stalls my forward movement.

I’m working on picture book fiction and nonfiction and literary short stories in addition to giving my novel-in-training some gas. I’ve got two kidlit writing groups in addition to the dogs at the patch. I’m taking a nonfiction picture book writing class where I’m supposed to have a first draft to critique in two weeks. But I just discovered last night that my topic is too complex (or at least the way I’ve envisioned it right now) to move forward, so I spent the evening last night looking for a new subject.  When I originally signed up for the class, I was going to do a biography, but it turned out that the living person I want to write a biography about is wary of saying “yes.” Sooooo, how many times can I go back to the drawing board?

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And it’s a new school year with many library liaison activities, including planning for an author visit, creating a new library “wish list,” and getting new library volunteers up to speed on working with classes.

And new afterschool activities every night of the week. And….I’m supposed to be volunteering for Litquake and visiting my new writing group that meets North of SF.

And then there was the unexpected death of my mother-in-law the night of my father-in-law’s memorial in mid-August that continues to haunt me. I’m not sure if haunt is the right word, unless an intermittent replay of the middle-of-the night knock on the window and subsequent events qualifies. It does explain why my husband wasn’t with us when we returned without keys. He (the guy with the keys) took a side trip to his parents’ home to get things in order.

But I’m a writer, right? And I’m supposed to be getting something done. But at the moment, I’m not doing anything well. Getting anything finished, polished. I run from one thing to the next, often without making a single edit. Just enough time to get started before I’ve got to move on to something else.

The center cannot hold. And I wonder if there are writers out there who work best like this? If there are, I wish I were one of them. But I am not, and I have to make some changes. I hope everyone else out there is being more productive than I am right now.

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Living in the Great State of Lynch

There’s a conversation that’s been heard a lot over the years in these parts—that being upper Western Washington, near the Canadian border:

“Did you like Border Songs or The Highest Tide best?”

Note that there are built-in assumptions hard-wired into the DNA of any denizen of this rainy realm:

  • The listener has read both books by Jim Lynch.
  • The listener absolutely has an opinion.
  • If the listener agrees with the asker, both will nod smugly at their mutual rightness.
  • If the listener disagrees with the asker, it will be even more fun to argue the merits of each story, just like Norm and the professor hollering at each other across the ditch.

Truth Like the SunSince the publication of Jim’s third novel—yep, we call him “Jim,” because we feel like he is our author, in the sense that we live spittin’ distance from Border Songs’ setting on the Washington-Canadian border—the conversation widened to “Did you read/like/love Truth Like the Sun yet?” (There’s an awesome interview of Jim atop the Space Needle in Seattle.)

Again, some built-in assumptions:

  • The listener, like everyone around here, preordered book three and started reading it standing at the mailbox.
  • That Miles, Brandon, and Roger should probably have monuments built in the center of town (or the center of each town; arguably Roger does).
  • That having to choose a favorite among the books might be like admitting to loving one son/daughter more than his/her brothers/sisters—completely inappropriate yet sometimes done in secret.

Occasionally, some unfortunate soul admits in the barest of whispers to not having read one of the trio, or, god simply forbid, any of them. Far less often, someone blurts out awkwardly that they haven’t actually heard of Western Washington’s equivalent of a duke, at which point we refrain from scolding them outright because our mother taught us to be polite, but someone won’t be able to resist saying something like, “Were you kept underneath the stairs until recently, like those people in that creepy Wes Craven movie?”

Setting foot inside these borders—above or below the “ditch”—and remaining uneducated about the life and times of Brandon Vanderkool or Mr. Seattle is akin to living in San Francisco and never having been to MoMo’s. Some things just can’t and shouldn’t be forgiven. Picking up on the below stairs theme, and to help break any awkward silence, someone will then say that Jim Lynch has been known to write in his basement, at which everyone will nod knowingly, regardless of whether they knew that or believed it, but it just seems right. That will lead to fragments of knowledge and/or myth people presume to know:

  • His agent sold The Highest Tide when it was only half-written.
  • He wrote two other novels that he never bothered to publish; how cool would it be to read those, we say, reverently.
  • His next book (Before the Wind) involves sailing.
  • Oh yeah, he sails a lot, we say, as if we know exactly how much a lot is, but we know it’s enough that it’s gonna turn out to be another killer story.
  • (Read more about Jim on his website.)

Border Songs birdsAt any point, someone will inevitably yell, “Nineteen!” sending us all into peals of laughter, and god help the poor soul who doesn’t know and earns more pitying glances. There are inevitably a few showoffs in the party, who try to impress everyone by comparing Tom Robbins and Jim Lynch stylistically—well, we could compare snowflakes, too. It’s at least fair to say that both gentlemen dwell in the Pacific Northwest and have their own cult followings. Nonetheless, the comparisons often make for an extremely fun detour that can deteriorate to a lot of creative thumb waving and comparing to see who has the longest thumb—and there are also some overachievers who can name or have been to every locale used in the stories, sort of like this one woman I used to work with at the mental health center in Spokane who was an encyclopedia of Days of Our Lives and who could fill us all in on the lineage of relationships and feuds for the past decades of the show. This would occur during lunch in the quiet room, where we brought our lunch to eat and watched Days of Our Lives, and you guys don’t even begin to start laughing, because there were plenty of guys in that room who cared deeply about Bo and Hope.

“Speaking of which, do you think you know who and you know who will make it?” someone might ask.

The after story of Lynch’s characters is something we care about deeply. In a place where educated folks drop their g’s because they do, and socks and sandals make a weird kind of sense in the climate (having moved here from the SF Bay Area, I confidently double-dog dare you to resist more than three seasons), the zany ensemble of Lynch’s gives voice to the sort of experiences and issues that characterize us near-the-border dwellers and our frenemies to the north. Continue reading

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