Tag Archives: Author: T.R. Heinan

Because He Survived By T.R. Heinan



He was rock star famous and Warren Buffet rich during his lifetime, but, unless you are a native Portuguese, you probably never heard of him.  His life was a series of improbable events that significantly changed the history of Western civilization.  Born out of wedlock, he became the father of royal dynasties, yet he died penniless.  With only 6,500 volunteers, he challenged an army of 30,000 professional soldiers, led by the King of Castile himself. It was the decisive battle for Portugal’s right to self-determination and independence. Few, if any of his contemporaries expected him to survive. Not only did he survive, he defeated the entire Castilian army in just one afternoon.  His name was Nuno Alvares Pereira, and had he not won that battle, it is likely that you or I would not even exist

Born in 1360, Nuno Pereira was the natural son of the Prior of Crato, who was himself the son of the Archbishop of Braga, both of whom appear to have had some difficulty keeping their solemn vows of chastity.  Given the circumstances of his birth, he seemed an unlikely candidate to become the ancestor of many European royal families.  Yet, both King Ferdinand and Isabella the Catholic of Spain, the monarchs who sponsored the voyages of Christopher Columbus, were direct descendants of Nuno. So was Emperor Charles V, who ruled over more territory than any other European monarch, including most of the Americas.  Catherine of Braganća, Queen Consort of England, for whom the Borough of Queens in New York was named, Archduke Ferdinand, whose assassination triggered World War I, and the Royal Houses of Braganća who ruled over Portugal and Brazil, were all directly descended from this man.  By somehow surviving the Battle of Aljubarrota on August 14, 1385, Nuno not only preserved the independence of his native Portugal, but was lived to start a family and have a daughter who would marry into royal family of Portugal. Her decedents would rule much of Europe for centuries.

Nuno lived at a time when both his nation and his church were in total upheaval.  His elderly king was planning to offer his only legitimate heir, Princess Beatrice, into the royal family of Castile. His Queen was having a rather public and scandalous affair with an agent of Castile who hoped to serve as regent. Three different men claimed to be Pope.  Following the wrong one could have serious consequences. A mob had tossed the bishop of Lisbon to his death from the tower of the Cathedral.  Confusion and revolution reigned.

During this period, the Arthurian tales had begun to reach Portugal from the shores of England and, as a young boy, Nuno told his parents that he wanted to become a great knight, a knight like Sir Galahad.  At age 13, after taking it upon himself to spy on Castilian military scouts and reporting his findings to his king, Nuno’s wish was granted and he was invested as a knight of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, known today as the Knights of Malta.  So small was the boy at the time, that he had to borrow amour from the king’s teenaged natural son for the ceremony.

It is said that Nuno may be the only knight in history to have lived up to the ideals of the legendary Galahad. His reputation for chivalry soon spread beyond the borders of his native land.  In time of war, he fed the hungry populations of his Castilian opposition at his own expense. He customarily refused to share in the spoils of war. Once, he was so hungry that he traded his horse for a loaf of bread, then decided to give all of that loaf to a group of starving English knights who had allied themselves with Portugal.  It is recorded that Nuno even allowed squires from the enemy forces to meet with him in peace, just because they wanted to see the “Great Nuno” about whom they had heard so many stories.

In appreciation for Nuno’s unexpected victory over the Castilian army, Portugal’s new King John bestowed Nuno with a great number of titles and, to the consternation of various nobles, granted him land amounting to almost a third of the nation. Nuno, a deeply religious man, attributed his victory to the protection of the Virgin Mary. Historians would note that masterful military strategy, a travel weary Castilian opposition suffering from dysentery, and a few hundred expert archers provided to Nuno by the king of England also played a significant role in achieving his “miraculous” victory.  Nuno believed in the power of prayer, but his was never a jingoistic, arrogant conviction that God was exclusively on his side.  Nuno fought side by side with English troops. He died the same year as Joan of Arc, who fought against the English.  His writings suggest that he would have had no problem accepting a God who favored justice over nationalities.

Having suffered greatly from thirst during the heat of the battle, Nuno erected a small chapel to be built and ordered that a pitcher water be kept there for thirsty travelers.  That chapel and the offer of free water remain to this day. Nearby, there remains a small monument that he erected in memory two of his own brothers who, seeing that Nuno was vastly outnumbered, died opposing him in battle with never fulfilled hopes of obtaining some land or title from the Castilian king.

As peace returned to Portugal, Nuno joined his close friend, Prince Henry the Navigator, in promoting mathematics, rudimentary science, and geographical understanding.  In doing this, he helped shelter many Jews and Moslems who were in danger of expulsion from Portugal.  He joined the Queen in a campaign to restore morality and marital fidelity to the royal court.  Finally, after the death of his wife, when his daughter reached the age of majority, he renounced all of his titles, built a monastery for the Carmelite religious order in Lisbon, and then entered that order as a lowly brother spending his remaining years under a vow of poverty as the monastery gate keeper.  During his lifetime, Nuno acquired incredible wealth, but by the time he died, he had given all of it to religious and charitable projects, one third of his fortune went to support children orphaned during Portugal’s wars to maintain independence.  Though he was known for his courage and brilliant military strategy, he grew to hate war and is remembered in Portugal as The Peacemaker. On April 1, 1431, at the monastery in Lisbon that he built and joined, Nuno died while his brother monks read the passion of Christ to him from the Scriptures.  Almost six centuries later, in 2009, Nuno was declared a saint of the Catholic Church by Pope Benedict XVI.

Based on the reports of his humility written by his contemporaries, I suspect Nuno would not like care for the many statues and monuments bearing his image that can now be seen throughout his native Portugal. His model of charity for the weak and marginalized has inspired the formation religious confraternities named for him in both Europe and North America and an orphanage chapel bearing his name now exits in Mexico. In life, Nuno preferred obscurity to fame. He believed that any good he may have accomplished was the work of his God. His worldview seems to have been less “God is on our side” and more “we can do nothing at all without him”.   It was a remarkable outlook for a man of his era and perhaps one that would be helpful in our own age.  I suspect no small number of Kurds, Palestinians, Tibetans and Basques would admire his firm belief in justice of national self-determination.  I believe that our world would benefit greatly from his example of humility and less boasting that God is on our side. I believe that we will never be able to fully grasp the significance of the ripples that just one human life can spread through time.

St. Nuno was an extraordinary individual whose contribution to both secular and religious history, while not altogether forgotten, has been largely ignored. We cannot imagine what course history would have taken had he died in battle, but he remains to me both an inspiration and a striking example of courage, humility, and the unfathomable value of every human life.


T.R. Heinan is the author of L’immortalité: Madam Lalaurie and the Voodoo Queen, a reflection on justice and compassion set in the historical context of a haunting 19th century New Orleans legend.http://www.amazon.com/LImmortalite-Madame-Lalaurie-Voodoo-Queen/dp/0615634710

How a Serial Killer’s Family Helped Saved the Nation By T. R. Heinan

1-New Orleans 046

How a Serial Killer’s Family Helped Saved the Nation

By T. R. Heinan

This year marks the bicentennial of one of the most decisive battles in American military history, the Battle of New Orleans. The War of 1812 is sometimes called “the forgotten war” and it is not uncommon to hear that the Battle of New Orleans was fought after the war was actually over. In fact, while the Treaty of Ghent was signed on December 24, 1814 and the final British assault did not occur until January 8, 1815, the treaty specifically provided that fighting would continue until the treaty had been ratified and exchanged, something that did not occur until February.

The British hope was for the war to end with the British in possession of the City of New Orleans. This would allow them to control traffic on the Mississippi. The fledgling American nation had been humiliated by one military defeat after another throughout the war. Except for some ports in New England, the entire coastline was now successfully blockaded, and the Americans were defeated on the Great Lakes. The British plan to turn the States into a helpless island surrounded by His Majesty’s naval might only lacked control of the Mississippi River.

The White House had been burned, American ports of entry were targeted for destruction, and there was confidence in London that the commercial sector in the former colonies would soon demand an end to their experiment with independence. To accomplish this end, the Crown sent Sir Edmund Pakenham with an armada of fifty ships and a force of 11,000 soldiers, sailors, and marines to capture New Orleans.

President James Madison ordered General Andrew Jackson to the Crescent City.   Jackson did not arrived until December 1, 1814. He required an interpreter to help him communicate with the largely French speaking population as he hastily assembled a small opposition force consisting of French and Spanish Creoles, free men of color, slaves, German famers, frontiersmen, militia, regular soldiers and a significant company of pirates.

Witness to these events was thirty-nine year old Delphine Macarty Blanque, pregnant with her fourth child and married to her second husband, Jean Pierre Blanque. The Blanques lived near Conti on Royal Street, two doors down from where Brennan’s Restaurant now stands. Their townhouse was next to the Bank of Louisiana, of which Jean Blanque was a director. Their summers where spent at the Blanque Plantation located on the Mississippi near the Macarty Plantation owned by Delphine’s family. Jean did quite well as a merchant, banker and member of the Louisiana Legislature, but his best source of income was as a silent partner of the most notorious pirates of the Caribbean, Jean and Pierre Lafitte.

Since January 1, 1808 it had been illegal to import new slaves into the United States. The new law played right into the hands of Jean Blanque and the Lafitte brothers.   There was big money to be made in the smuggling of ‘black ivory.” By 1814, the United States government was after Jean Lafitte; his brother Pierre was already in jail, and Jean Blanque had been found guilty and fined for smuggling coffee. Louisiana Governor William Claiborne offered a $500 award for the capture of Jean Lafitte. The pirate responded by offering $1,500 for the capture of the governor.

The British, knowing that Lafitte had ships, canons and hundreds of trained men, approached the pirate, offering funds and the rank of captain if he would join them in their attack on the Americans. Lafitte asked for some time to think it over. After weighing his options, Lafitte dispatched letters to Jean Blanque, including one addressed to Governor Claiborne, revealing the British plans and offering to join the American forces. The letters were rushed to Delphine Macarty Blanque’s husband, arriving in less than 24 hours after a trip through the swamps that would normally take three days. Blanque, while insisting that he barely knew Lafitte, beseeched the Louisiana authorities to take advantage of the offer.

Claiborne assumed it was a trick, an attempt to free Jean’s brother Pierre from prison. He ordered an attack on the pirate’s headquarters. Jackson didn’t think he could accept the aid off an outlaw, but was furious that Claiborne had attacked the pirates, fearing that this would push them to accept the British offer. Blanque continued to plead with the legislature and New Orleans safety officials. In a matter of days Jackson realized how unprepared New Orleans still remained.   He had only two actual fighting ships on the river, both seriously undermanned. The pirates could help there. More importantly they had cannons, big powerful cannons, and men experienced at using them. After a meeting with Lafitte on Royal Street, Andrew Jackson decided to accept Lafitte’s offer.

During his reconnaissance, Jackson found the place he would make his stand. His headquarters, and the final battleground was to be the childhood home of Jean Blanque’s wife, Delphine Macarty Blanque. The Macarty Plantation, just a short distance downriver from New Orleans, still remained in the family and was still being operated by her cousin. Jackson dug in there and had Lafitte’s heavy ship guns brought onshore. When the British attack came it was fast and furious. Jackson’s headquarters at the Macarty plantation house was struck by cannon fire nearly 100 times in just ten minutes. Most of the British fire was aimed too high however, and the superiority of the American gunners, assisted by Lafitte’s pirates, surprised both sides.

The British suffered 2,459 casualties. American losses were remarkably few. Sir Edmund Pakenham was dead and his forces were forced to retreat.

The sudden and complete defeat of the invaders not only prevented British control of the Mississippi, it became a defining and unifying moment in American history, proving that the new nation had both the will and the ability to bring its people together in defense of their constitutional government and independence. The history, legends, and fame of Andrew Jackson and Jean Lafitte have become part of the American story.

The wife of Jean Blanque whose family plantation became Jackson’s battleground and whose husband brought Lafitte’s offer of assistance to the Americans is also remembered today, but not because of the events that took place while she was married to Blanque. She is remembered for what she did with her third husband, Dr. Louis Lalaurie.

Each year thousands of tourists go to visit her final home in New Orleans at 1140 Royal Street. A new generation has learned her name from Kathy Bates’ excellent, though historically inaccurate, portrayal of her on American Horror Story. She is remembered today for the torture and brutal murder of her slaves in the attic of New Orleans most “haunted house”. She is Madame Delphine Macarty Blanque Lalaurie.


T.R. Heinan is the author of L’immortalité: Madam Lalaurie and the Voodoo Queen, a reflection on justice and compassion set in the historical context of a popular 19th century New Orleans legend. http://www.amazon.com/LImmortalite-Madame-Lalaurie-Voodoo-Queen/dp/0615634710

The Gentle King in our Midst By T. R. Heinan


 On April 6, 1984, hell supplanted purgatory in the African nation of Rwanda. That day, news of the president’s assassination became the catalyst for one of the most horrific, shameful, and grotesque crimes of the 20th century.  In less than 100 days, nearly a million Tutsi and moderate Hutu men, women and children in Rwanda were hacked to death with machetes or riddled with bullets, while U.N. “peacekeepers” stood ideally by and world leaders refused to intervene.

What made this massacre – this genocide – so difficult to understand was that this was not a religious war.  Both sides claimed to be Christians.  Indeed, it required identity cards to distinguish one group from the other.  Anthropologists and historians still can’t agree on whether the Tutsi and the Hutu peoples originated as different tribes or as different social castes within one populace.  For years, it was even possible for some Hutu to become Tutsi.  All that changed after Belgium seized control of Rwanda during World War I. In 1935, the Belgians introduced identity cards, labeling each resident as members of this or that group.  It was a classic divide and conquer strategy that segregated and prevented further movement between classes.

Like many of its European neighbors, Belgium colonized distant lands in order collect taxes and to exploit the rich local resources.  In Rwanda, that meant coffee, the second most profitable legal commodity on the world market, exceeded in dollar value only by oil. The Belgian government also seemed obsessed with racial and ethnic classifications.  They began to treat Tutsis as superior to Hutus, claiming that Tutsis had more “European features”.  This was a policy that would clash with the dream of Rwanda’s future King Kigeli V.  He was a man who viewed his role to serve as “father to both the Tutsi and the Hutu”, a king who would encourage intermarriage among the groups in his homeland so that they “can become one people again”.

One cannot help but wonder if the bloodshed of 1984 might have been prevented. Instead of clinging to the last vestiges of colonial power and continuing to thwart independence, what if Belgium had released Rwanda from its grasp?  How would history have played out if the Europeans had not engineered the expulsion of Rwanda’s last legitimate and lawful king? Rwanda’s gentle king was forced from power, but the people of Rwanda did not choose to end their monarchy, that decision was imposed on them by a foreign power.

King Kigeli V came to the Rwandan throne in 1959 when his (quite healthy) brother suddenly dropped dead after being given an injection by a mysterious substitute for his regular physician. The former king had been preparing to go to New York to demand independence for his country at the United Nations.  Whether his death was a murder or a “medical accident” may never be known.  There was no autopsy. What is known is that the royal family immediately recognized that Belgium could use this vacancy on the throne to impose a regent of their own choice, thereby seizing total control.  To prevent that from happening, King Kigeli V was crowned on the same day as his brother’s funeral, keeping alive the Rwandan tradition that “not a day should pass with a vacant throne”.  Perhaps no one was as surprised by this coronation as the new 23 year old king, who had to be summoned from his family farm for the event.

In November, 1959, young King Kigeli traveled to the Congo to meet with U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold.  While he was out of his country, a coup d’état supported by the Belgian military took place, and King Kigeli was forcibly and illegally prevented from returning home.  Having never been legitimately removed by his own people, and lacking any honest, independently monitored vote, Kigeli V remains in exile to this day as the legitimate King of Rwanda.  While the U.N. General Assembly stipulated that the Belgian government should allow his return, Belgium ignored the U.N. action and posted guards on the border of Rwanda to arrest him.  Indeed, he was arrested when he attempted to return to Rwanda to oversee free elections.

Most Americans are unaware that this king has been living in Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., since the United States granted him political asylum in 1992.  A friend of the late Nelson Mandela, His Majesty is a giant of a man both physically (he stands over 7 feet tall) and morally.  He tried, unsuccessfully, to warn the United Nations in advance about the impending slaughter in 1994 and since then he has established and now heads the King Kigeli Foundation in order to foster humanitarian initiatives on behalf of Rwandese refugees. While he lives quite modestly, he continues to travel and speak on behalf of Rwandan refugees, in support of various humanitarian efforts, and for reconciliation between all ethnic groups.

This writer has enjoyed meeting, speaking and traveling with King Kigeli.  We have a common religious devotion to Saint Nuno, the Portuguese patron of orphaned children, and we share  investiture in three of the same royal orders of knighthood.  In 2009, His Majesty honored me with a medal and I had the privilege of receiving him into the Royal and Venerable Confraternity of St. Nuno, of which I am Comrade Major.  King Kigeli is a prayerful, devout Catholic, a kind, modest, humble gentlemen, and a tireless spokesman for the cause of peace. It is inspiring to be with him.

In America, we chose our own independence from monarchy, but even more, we continue to celebrate our freedom from colonialism. That said, one has to think that the people of Rwanda could have fared much better under a constitutional monarchy headed by their beloved king than under the harsh regimes forced upon them by power brokers and colonialists in Europe and America.


H.R.H. King Kigeli V with the author


T.R. Heinan is the author of L’immortalité: Madam Lalaurie and the Voodoo Queen, a reflection on justice and compassion set in the historical context of a popular 19th century New Orleans legend. http://www.amazon.com/LImmortalite-Madame-Lalaurie-Voodoo-Queen/dp/0615634710

Lessons from a Journalist and a Bishop By T. R. Heinan


  The stack of bananas I was hiding behind would do nothing to stop the shower of bullets that were whizzing through the air, but I prayed that they would keep me out of sight.  I hunkered down next to the young man who had been assigned to protect me during my visit to Guatemala.  The military and a group of revolutionaries kept up the firefight for about ten minutes.  It seemed like an eternity as I watched a pool of blood ooze from beneath a young boy whose body lay just ten feet from the fruit stand that had suddenly become my hideout in a crowded public market.


  Twenty-three years have passed, but I still think about that horrible day.  I was in Guatemala City to produce the first in a series of promotional videos for a mission society. The two people who helped bring me there never knew each other and I doubt that either ever knew how great their influence had been in shaping my life. One was an Italian missionary priest, the other a White House television correspondent.


  Bishop Constantino Luna lived as an orphan in Italy before becoming a Franciscan priest.  Much of his life was spent in China, before the revolution.  When the communists took over, Bishop Luna was imprisoned in China and sentence to death.  Through what only could be seen as divine Providence, he was able to escape China and eventually became the first bishop of Zacapa, Guatemala.  Fluent in seven languages, he spent his “retirement” years traveling the world, often with me at his side, to serve the poor, preach peace, and promote the mission society that he and I co-founded.  He was my best friend.


  Nancy Dickerson was my cousin, but during my formative years, she was more like a big sister. For a few years as a toddler, during her mother’s illness, my own mother was her caretaker.  In 1990, Nancy was on the board of directors of a well-known charity, one that rescued teens from local and international sex trafficking.  She was also a pioneer in broadcasting, paving the way for women in previously all-male world of radio and television news broadcasting.  Her son, John, who himself became a White House correspondent, did a masterful job of writing her biography, On Her Trail, My Mother Nancy Dickerson, TV News’ First Woman Star (Simon and Schuster, 2006). John managed to tell her story with humor and without it becoming a puff piece, although he missed or glossed over a few significant details about her early life.  For those who enjoy biographies, it’s a very good read.


  Nancy used her influence to get her/me the rights to use some great network video footage, so I was visiting Bishop Luna in Guatemala to fill in the gaps in order to release a documentary about our project to rescue homeless children living in a Guatemala garbage dump.


  Traveling with Bishop Luna was always a humbling experience.  He flew with me from Europe to the United States and Central America, preached with me in California, Illinois, Wisconsin and New Jersey, and never carried any more luggage than a small gym bag containing an extra well-worn black cassock, some socks, underwear, and a supply of religious medals to hand out to children. At home, he slept on a simple cot next to a bookcase made from bricks and wooden slats.


  After college, Nancy went to Washington, not with a background in journalism but with a college major in Portuguese.  She attracted attention in Washington as soon as she arrived. I can remember a tabloid photo of her in Georgetown dating a pre-Jackie JFK, “Washington’s most eligible bachelor”. I believe she was still a  Senate staffer at the time.  With guidance from Edward R. Murrow, she began to produce radio, then television.  It wasn’t easy for a woman to gain legitimacy in broadcasting back then and Nancy faced harassment, tolerated innuendo, and smiled graciously at JoAnne Worley’s suggestive comedic impersonations of her after it was rumored that Lyndon Johnson fancied her.  She weathered it all and dared to prove that women could be taken seriously in news broadcasting. Eventually, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were calling her for advice. In 1989, she married former Deputy Secretary of State and Goldman Sachs Co-Chair John Whitehead.


  Both Nancy and Bishop Luna taught me that professionalism in everything you do was important, that it was possible to be in solidarity with all kinds of people without exaggerating their virtues or focusing on their frailties, that prayer mattered, that truth mattered, that polarization and extremism are dangerous, and that both the most powerful and the most marginalized members of the human race need friendship and compassion.


  It has been my privilege to know many interesting people during my life, but I would have to say that a TV correspondent who called me her “little brother: and a bishop who called me “friend” are the ones who did the most to teach me to just be myself with everyone, to dare to try new things, and to recognize the humanity and God’s face in everyone I meet.


T.R. Heinan is the author of L’immortalité: Madam Lalaurie and the Voodoo Queen, a reflection on the need for compassion set in the historical context of 19th century New Orleans.http://www.amazon.com/LImmortalite-Madame-Lalaurie-Voodoo-Queen/dp/0615634710

How Building an Orphanage Refreshed the Writing Lessons I Learned from Hollywood. By T. R. Heinan, author of L’immortalité: Madame Lalaurie and the Voodoo Queen

T.R. Heinen (Small)“They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and transfer to one called Cemeteries, and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!”

Those aren’t the very first words spoken in Tennessee Williams’ play, Streetcar Named Desire, but they do function as the “opening line.”  Few, if any, writers have been able to capture the theme of a story so succinctly and completely as soon as the curtain opens, or the camera FADES IN, depending on whether we reference the play or the film.

I no longer fund motion pictures.  Today, my primary job is to find funding for an orphanage that I helped to build in a small Mexican town, just across the border from Arizona.  In fact, it was my move from the world of finance to a life as a lay missioner that led me back to finding a great story and writing my first piece of historic fiction.   I’ll get to that in a minute, but first let me share some of what I discovered while reading screenplays. If you ever want to write fiction, here are some basics that can help you develop your story.

Writing screenplays is quite different than writing a novel.  In a screenplay, the writer has to let the photography, the graphics, and the actors tell the story.  The novelist has to craft a description of every place, person, object and emotion in his narrative. Both in novels and in screenplays, however, it is critical to capture (or at least hint at) the theme of the story at the very beginning.  You need to introduce your theme, your inciting incident and your major characters as soon as you can.

I wrote a book that is about people in New Orleans seeking immortality, life after death.  It begins in a cemetery at 7 p.m.  That’s the hour when Bourbon Street is closed to vehicular traffic for the multitude of tourists who celebrate the City of Saints with cheap plastic beads and frozen drinks in go-cups. I open my story with a simple line, “New Orleans was coming alive.”  In a graveyard setting, that line captures the theme with just five words.

Before the saints come marching in, I should note that it is the end, not the beginning, of a story that should be the first thing every writer considers.  You can’t get there if you don’t know where you are going!  A good writer knows exactly where he or she wants to go, and has a pretty good idea of what it will look like on arrival, before considering how to begin or what to stuff in between.  More often than not when selecting scripts, I would give a story the “5 and 10 treatment,” reading the first five pages and the last ten, before deciding if it was worth any more of my time.

This brings me to the final chapter in my own life story.  Things changed in Hollywood and I moved on to career managing investment portfolios for many of the same people I met while reviewing scripts. Years passed, but eventually the day came when I could finally spend my time and good fortune on something I had wanted to do for years…help kids.  Today, I work with some of the most tragic cases in the chaos America calls its southern border.  My orphanage gets children who have watched their parents die of dehydration in the desert. Others are abandoned by single mothers who simply can’t feed them.  Still others are the victims of unspeakable physical and sexual abuse.

One day, the police brought us a group of grade school aged little girls. Their mother had tried to sell them into prostitution. I loved my work but the stress of meeting so many broken children was taking its toll.  That was the day I knew that I couldn’t continue to look at sick, burned, raped, and beaten children seven days a week.  I needed to spend at least one day doing and thinking about something that had nothing to do with the orphans.  I took a short vacation, went to New Orleans, and decided that when I got home I would spend every Monday writing fiction.  In short, writing became a way to protect my own mental health. It now allows me to return to my mission on Tuesday refreshed and renewed. It also gives me the opportunity to put into practice some of what I had learned years ago about telling a good story.

It’s no secret that many (perhaps most) of the successful films through the years tend to follow Joseph Campbell’s “myth structure.”  If you aren’t familiar with the Hero’s Journey, Google the topic and learn it before you write another word of fiction. It has worked for writers for centuries, long before Campbell ever described it.  The 17 steps in this structure will help you design a story that will keep your reader’s attention.  One caveat here, the Hero’s Journey doesn’t work well unless you plan to have a happy ending, but maestros like Spielberg have found ways to adapt it even to sad or tragic endings.

I believe so-called “pantsers,” those who claim to write without any outline, either fail in their efforts to write, or succeed because  years of honing their craft has made myth structure a part of their subconscious writing technique.  Sometimes, too much structure, too rigid an outline, can stifle creativity and suffocate the natural flow of your story, but if you want to write powerful fiction, understanding Myth Structure is one of the important arrows you’ll need in your quiver.  The steps in the Hero’s Journey can appear quite obvious, as they do in Star Wars or the Wizard of OZ.  More often they are subtle and lurking just out of sight beneath the surface, but if you hear people  raving about a book, a film or a stage play, each step is probably there.  All the steps are fairly easy to spot in my book, L’immortalité, where I use New Orleans’ Pirates Alley as my own “yellow brick road.”

Another thing that I learned by reading scripts was the importance of Syd Field’s paradigm.  Understanding plot points and where to place them is essential to telling a great story.  This isn’t just true for screenplays, you NEED to understand this for novels and short stories, as well.  A carefully structured narrative will keep readers engaged.  If you are new to writing fiction, I strongly urge you to read Syd Field’s The Foundations of Screenwriting, even if you never plan to write a screenplay.  If you are a novice, you may want to begin your outline with a transparency.  Simply place your inciting incident, plot points (or twists as some call them), midpoint, and resolution on a clear plastic sheet over the steps from the Hero’s Journey.  If nothing else, this short exercise will help you to see where you need to go in order to move your story forward.

Moving forward, always moving forward, is the third lesson I learned from motion pictures.  Too many books get put aside because the author fails to make sure that each scene moves the story forward and that the end of each scene provides a motive to turn to the next page.  Unless a scene pushes the story forward, CUT IT OUT.  Unless a scene ends with a prompt, such as a foreboding image, a revelation, an important decision, a surprise, an unanswered question or the announcement of a critical event, think about re-writing it.

Fiction is about tension.  Hitchcock once said that the dull parts in fiction are the parts without trouble. You (and your readers) don’t want dull parts, so cut them out.  Don’t fail to check for the repetitive use of words (computers now make this task quite simple).  Don’t let anybody tell you to “dumb it down.”  Tennessee Williams knew that some in his audience would be unfamiliar with NOLA’s street names and transit system, but he didn’t let that keep him from writing a great opening line. Everybody…absolutely everybody…needs an editor, but don’t ever let an editor tell you that your vocabulary is too rich for your readers.  It can be too sappy, too crude, too dated, too graphic, or too repetitive, but never too “difficult,” even if you write YA books.

The more you write, the better you’ll get. I still spend every Monday writing and continue to find ways to improve on my craft.  I still work six days a week keeping an orphanage in operation.  Fiction is a streetcar I’m glad I decided to ride and, hopefully, my work with homeless, abandoned and abused kids will, in the end, be my trolley pass to the Elysian Fields.

If you enjoy T.R.’s writing, check out http://www.l-immortalite-madame-lalaurie-and-the-voodoo-queen.com/