The Right Thing

There was a gaping hole in television that parked itself between California and New York. It was a the size of an orange 1969 Dodge Charger, and its drivers were Bo and Luke.

As I was finishing a project for Norman Lear, I was approached by producer Phil Mandelker, who was interested in writing a TV show about runaways. He asked what I’d written, and I told him about a movie I’d done called Moonrunners. He said he’d have a look at it, and hurried to call me after watching it. He said, “Stop writing what you’re writing for me. I want you to write something like Moonrunners for television.” He asked if I could make it funny. I told him, sure, I could—that was the easy part.

Before I knew it, I was creating an iconoclastic show that all of Middle America was waiting to see. The ratings skyrocketed by the second week, and by the tenth episode we were number one in the country.

Some people think only hillbillies watched Dukes of Hazzard. Hardly true. One story about moral lessons learned from Dukes that has stuck with me for years is of a philosophy professor at Wofford College in South Carolina. Once a year, the professor arrives at class dressed as Boss Hogg, complete with a white suit and white hat. He uses the costume to make a point about moral dilemmas: A frequent theme in Dukes is to pause during the middle of a chase scene. The guys will ask each other and themselves, “Is this right? Should we be doing this?” And the guys asking are the criminals! There is irony and humor in that, but the deeper meaning is that all of us at one time or another stop and ask ourselves that same question.

When we can do that with a show about car chases, we know we’re reaching the deeper universal element of right and wrong that lives in us all.

Just last year, I received a letter from a fan. He and his mother were going to a Dukes of Hazzard festival in Tennessee. He was driving late at night to get to the festival, when their car broke down three hours away from their destination. The son turns to his mother and asks, “What would Bo and Luke do?”

It’s clear to me, after chatting with many Dukes fans over the years, that the question of integrity and morality comes into play every time. There is frequently a meaningful conversation about the lesson the show taught, about right and wrong.

I hope you’re inspired to pause and ask yourself, “Is this the right thing to do?” I look forward to hearing when you’ve done this and how it’s turned out for you.


Every Character Matters

I began my writing career in journalism as an investigative reporter. Eventually, I wrote one-act plays, and the transition from journalism to playwriting wasn’t as bumpy as you might think. From there, I moved into television.

Of all the television work I undertook, miniseries were my favorite to write. They have a defined beginning, middle and end. They’re steadily fast paced and culminate swiftly. There’s no time to waste. While there was more to my television career, it was predominately replete with writing, and I liked that a lot.

Shortly after my last television job, before I had a chance to know it was happening, I found myself writing my first novel. It didn’t occur to me to write a book, until it did, and the transition was seamless

Miniseries gather momentum and I enjoy the swiftness with which we get to know characters, so I chose to write novels this way. By the time you’ve finished the second chapter, you know who everyone is; they all have a purpose for being there, and everyone – even the thugs – have at least a little good in them.

In “Fugue,” my second and latest novel, every chapter is laid out like a piece of music. There’s a rhythm to the paragraphs that echoes the structure of classical composition. My background in music helped this along, but a lot of it was luck. It felt easy, which is a blessing because most of my writing is more an act of sprezzatura, or effortful nonchalance—difficult and challenging with the appearance of simplicity and ease.

Now that I’m well into my third novel, a stylistic pattern is well under way, in that I operate on two levels: Every book I write has an element of mystery, and there is something to learn. I write what I know (borrowing from Twain), and find the subject interesting. I hope you do, too.



The General Lee

My grandfather, Franklin, of whom Uncle Jesse was based said, “Never debate with one whom you must first educate; you’ll both lose.”

The discussion about the Confederate flag is impassioned and acrimonious, and I don’t want to heighten the tension or offend, defend, preach or justify.

Growing up in the South, I had an experience with the Confederate flag that perhaps those who reside outside the South may not understand. Family, friends, neighbors and local business owners had no attachment to racism or white supremacy, but many – most – did fly the flag from their porches. Seeing the flag flying was ordinary and uneventful yet seeped in culture. It represented not slavery nor racism, but Southern heritage—much like sweet tea, cobbler, playing country music on the back porch, or multiple dialects. It was unique to its setting, found almost everywhere, and most definitely not a symbol of racism.

To have it placed on the roof of the General Lee was not politically profound; it defined the culture of Hazzard County, which had nothing to do with racial superiority. And while “Southern lifestyle” is entangled with controversial definitions, the one referred to here crosses racial lines—I shared this experience with black and white friends throughout my lifetime.

My family history is entangled; two brothers fought on opposite sides of the Civil War and my great, great grandfather, Anthony McGill, owned slaves. One year before the war started, McGill became a Baptist Abolitionist, and as such, no longer had slaves under the dictates of his faith. Two of the then former slaves moved north, while another two, a couple, chose to stay on the plantation with McGill. They were sharecroppers, the first in the county, and were buried in our family graveyard after a long life of farming with my family. Generations later, we were active in the Civil Rights movement.

None of this is to mark my place with a particular opinion. I’m laying out my experience, not for an expiation of wrong-doing, because I am not a racist; it is merely to establish discourse and personal clarity. I hope you’ll join me in conversation and help deepen my understanding of all angles and thoughts on the matter.


Four Fictional Characters I Wish I’d Created

characters bannerAs writers, we all dream of creating a character who is so identifiable, so real to the audience that people start following that character’s story as if he or she were part of the family. It is what we live for as creators. I’ll start this out with a caveat – there are infinitely more than four characters that I wish I’d created. But, these four immediately come to mind when I try to narrow down my favorite fictional characters of film and print.

Jack Bauer
Jack’s Back! Need I say more? One of the most complex characters I’ve ever had the joy of watching on television. Of course, having the luxury of multiple seasons of 24 to build up the character’s back story certainly helps, but the name Jack Bauer is synonymous to fans with badass-ness, angst, grit, ingenuity, loyalty and otherworld survival skills. Kiefer Sutherland is absolutely brilliant as Jack, only adding to the rich depth of the character’s struggles, pain, deep suffering and dogged determination to save the world — whether the world wants to be saved or not. Everybody say it with me, “DAMMIT!!” (Sorry … if you don’t watch 24 you won’t get that)

Jason Bourne
Like Jack Bauer, the Jason Bourne character only grows in depth with every page of every book. A highly skilled CIA assassin with extreme memory loss – yeah, what could go wrong there? Brought to life brilliantly in the Bourne Series by the late Robert Ludlum, and then carried expertly into the new millennium by Eric Van Lustbader, Jason Bourne is the quintessential character that you 1) root for, and 2) should be scared to death of. A hero with serious trust issues and a license to kill. When a character like Jason Bourne is brought to life to the extent that he can capture a fan base spanning multiple decades and multiple novels, the writer(s) have done a masterful job of “playing God.”

Jane Tennison
Of all the wonderful TV detectives, Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison from the Prime Suspect series may be my favorite. Played by the incomparable Helen Mirren, Tennison is one of the first Detective Chief Inspectors in Greater London’s Metro Police Service. As such, she must negotiate the land mines of the male-dominated profession and those who are outright hoping for her failure. Jane Tennison is not only the smartest person in the room; she may be the most insecure. And, if her job weren’t stressful enough, she must constantly find a way to maintain stable relationships outside of work. A genius character in an equally genius series. If you have never seen it – go stream it today!

And, just to show my sensitive side – I thought I’d throw in some comedy as well. And, it’s not just one character in this case – I couldn’t narrow down to just one from this comedic masterpiece.

The Entire Character Ensemble of Frasier
I still watch the reruns. Every time I come across Frasier playing on my TV, I stop what I’m doing and I watch. And I laugh until I cry. The brilliance of the Frasier/Niles quirky, nutty dynamic is played to absolute perfection by Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce. Two psychiatrists with considerably more quirks than their patients. And to round out the nutfest: the lovable producer Roz Doyle, played by Peri Gilpin; the moon bat physical therapist Daphne Moon, played by Jane Leeves; and the curmudgeon dad Marty Crane, played so hilariously by John Mahoney – God what a brilliantly funny show/cast/concept. If I’m around 50 years from now, that show will still be on TV (if there is TV) and I’ll still watch every hilarious minute! WOW – I would love to have been a fly on the wall at some of those table readings!

As I said at the outset, there is no way to narrow my list to four memorable characters. I could list 4000. God I love to create. Here’s to the creators!

50 Shades of Great

I have been extremely blessed to have a career in writing for the better part of my life. Starting out as a director at a news station in Atlanta, I never imagined that one day I would be writing novels – after spending three decades in TV and film. Making the jump from TV to novels has literally been the most liberating experience in my creative existence as a writer.

I feel like the shackles have been removed. There are no budgets for my stories. If I want my character to go from Santa Barbara to Paris, it just takes a few taps on my keyboard. And best of all – I don’t get a call from the studio head two hours later telling me global excursions from California to France are not in the budget. Writing novels has given me total creative license to kill who I want, when I want, how I want and where I want. Ok, that sounds better in my head than it looks on my computer screen 🙂 But, with that freedom comes a sense of walking a new rope without a net.

The point is that my writing career has taken me to many, many stops – from Atlanta to Hazzard County to Los Angeles and beyond. I have made life long friends through my writing. And now, in this next phase of my writing career, I’m making new friends. But, I do feel like I’m starting over – learning a new craft, and wondering if my writing chops from another entertainment medium will translate to novels. I believe that they will – but as writers, we are constantly hoping that we aren’t out of ideas. That we still have something to say that people will want to hear … or read. I’m completely humbled by the kind words I constantly receive from Dukes fans, and from folks who are probably just amazed that I’m still upright and kicking. And, I’m incredibly impressed by the authors I’ve learned about who are writing series of novels and building fan bases that rival anything I’ve ever seen in TV and film. You are ALL my heroes and my inspiration.

I read a quote today from E.L. James – “I’m not a great writer.” That made me laugh out loud. Untold millions of folks would argue otherwise dear! It also got me to thinking – what constitutes “great” writing? To me, great writing is simply great storytelling. Nothing more and nothing less. Taste, style, genre, and any other moniker don’t really matter. Great stories are great stories – PERIOD. And, Ms. James, if you can write a story (or a trilogy) that millions of people clamor to read – and will line up to see when your story moves to the silver screen – you are a pretty great writer in my book! 50 Shades of Great!


Templar Combat Prowess

When Templars fought in the Crusades they are sometimes mistakenly pictured as a large army. In reality, Templar forces were much smaller than other Crusader armies. But Templars, highly disciplined and effective fighters, were used in smaller units at the point of attack or rear guard.  They were the elite Special Forces and Combat Ops of their day.

It was not uncommon for from five to ten Templar Knights and 20 to 40 men at arms to defend a fortress and hold it indefinitely against a siege army of thousands. The Templar combat code was simple: they could not retreat unless outnumbered by more than three to one.

Templar cavalry was legendary and unmatched by either Saracen or Crusader forces.  Every Templar Knight went into combat with three chargers held for him by a man at arms. This allowed the Templar to change to a fresh mount, giving him great advantage in one-on-one fighting. Their horses were so revered that a Templar Knight could be excused from Mass (there were five per day) if they needed to care for their horses. They were never excused for any other reason, except personal illness.

Conflict and Hope


Given the seemingly endless conflicts between Islam, Judaism and Christianity — can the three ever creatively work together?

 In doing extensive research for my book “Twist of Time,” I discovered a very interesting answer to that question:  they have in the past with astonishing results.

 Remarkably, this occurred during intensive warfare; first, in the 1100’s  Crusades, and secondly, in the 1400’s under the rein of the Islamic Moors in Spain, both which pale the current War on Terrorism. In these separate periods Islamic, Hebrew and Christian scientists and scholars working together made brilliant breakthroughs in mathematics, medicine, optics, and astronomy.  They also translated Greek literature that strongly influenced the later Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment.

 In my novel “Twist of Time,” Thomas, a contemporary monk with a controversial past, falls in love with Kate, a homicide detective. Driving the novel is a diary written in 1314 by a Templar monk on a suicide mission. The diary is stolen and for the next 700 years whenever it reappears there are a series of murders. 

 Thomas, a Celtic scholar, has been hired to translate the diary. But the courier bringing it to him is murdered. True to the “curse” there are more homicides. Now Thomas and Kate must follow the diary, retracing the Templar’s flight before Thomas becomes the next victim. Pursuing them are powerful cartels that will kill to get the diary and discover its secrets.

 So, in researching a novel you never know what you will discover – even a glimmer of hope in these troubled times.

My Favorite BOSS HOGG Story

One of the joys in creating a television series is the actors you get the pleasure to work with — and the things you learn about them along the way.  In “Dukes of Hazzard” Boss Hogg was played by Sorrell Booke, who could not have been more different from the character he portrayed.

Sorrell was a sophisticated intellect. He studied drama at Yale and had a distinguished career on the stage and in feature films. He was also full of surprises – one in particular stands out.

 “Dukes” was filmed at Warner Brothers and its soundstage was popular with visiting dignitaries. On one occasion a group from the Soviet Union were watching the filming. Sorrell, dressed in full character as Boss Hogg, white suit and all, was doing a scene. During the break he was told who the Soviet visitors were.  He went to them and began conversing with the entire entourage in flawless Russian, much to their great surprise – and ours.

 We later discovered that he not only spoke Russian, Sorrell was actually quite fluent in several languages, including Yiddish and Japanese.

 It was something his “Dukes” fans would have loved to see.  Rest in peace my dear friend – you are missed!


If you are a man and have been turned down by women over  50 percent of the time – REJOICE. You may be a writer and not know it. The same applies to women except they seem to have a considerably better batting average in relationships. However, the first rule in being a writer is not whether you have talent – but your ability to take rejection up to 90 percent of the time.  That is the average for even successful writers. So, give it a shot. What can you lose? If you can cope with rejection you are half way there. Should you have any writing talent it will show sooner or later. Well, that is the theory.

I wrote “Twist of Time” a romantic thriller, and though there is heavy action, there is also a strong love story, which involves a renegade monk who is enmeshed in a forbidden love affair with a lady homicide detective. But it is getting harder and harder to write sex or intimate love scenes because the reading public is much more sophisticated and knowing, due to the proliferation Adult sites and cable TV. That said, the most successful erotic themed novels that now focus on specialized sex: Example: S&M and Domination, would not have been so accessible several years ago.  Of course there were (S&M) novels, the most famous being  “The Story of O” which came out in the fifties, but its reading public was not main line. It was not even published in this country; it could only be purchased in England, France and Germany. It would appear that the influence today of the Adult sites and Cable shows have, on the one hand, given the authors more flexibility, but on the other, have made the task of writing erotic/sensuous scenes more difficult.


The Odd Connection Between the Dukes of Hazzard and Twist of Time

There is an odd connection between “Dukes of Hazzard” – the television series I created – and my novel “Twist of Time,” which is a high action romantic thriller. “Twist of Time” is about Thomas, a renegade monk with a mysterious past, who must solve 700 years of serial murders before he becomes the next victim. In addition, Thomas is locked in a forbidden love affair with Kate, a homicide detective.  So, like the Duke boys, Thomas breaks all the rules to get results, even though he is a monk.

When I created “Dukes” I drew upon my family (Uncle Jesse was based on my grandfather Franklyn ) as well as some of the boys I grew up with, who for fun and adventure, drove moonshine in the Kentucky hills.  In the same way the Dukes were raised by Uncle Jesse, Thomas the monk, was raised by his Grandfather in Scotland where he became a Celtic scholar.

In “Twist of Time” Thomas is hired to translate a 14th century diary written by a Templar Knight who was on a suicide mission. The diary disappeared. For the next 700 years every time it re-appeared there were serial murders.  Now, Thomas is marked to be the next victim.  How many times were those Duke boys targeted by Boss Hogg?

To solve the mystery and stay alive, Thomas and Kate must follow clues in the diary, which takes them to England, France and Scotland as they retrace the path of the doomed Templar.  All the while they are being chased by two illegal cartels that are after the diary and will kill to get it.  I seem to recall a few Dukes episodes where the boys were being chased by “illegal cartels” – ok, maybe not quite so illegal, but cartels none the less.

So I guess the moral to this story is don’t be surprised when something you are writing now bears more than just a passing family resemblance to something you’ve penned in your recent past.