February 25, 2014

Hallmark’s When Calls the Heart: A Diamond In The Coal Dust & Special Interview w/Producer BRIAN BIRD

Photo Credit: Copyright 2013 
Crown Media United States, LLC
If you're crazy about “When Calls the Heart” (Hallmark Channel), then you are in for a treat! We have an exclusive interview with the one of the show’s Executive Producers and Creators, Brian Bird, so read on!

If you have not seen this captivating family drama/romance, allow me to introduce you to When Calls the Heart, a Hallmark Channel original series based on a book by Janette Oke and now in the middle of its 12-week season. This show is brimming with talent including Lori Loughlin, Erin Krakow, Daniel Lissing, and Chelah Horsdal in addition to a large stellar cast.

I’ve been calling it “Love Comes Softly meets Little House.” Though I usually lean more toward Jane Austen than pioneer era romance, I gladly confess that I absolutely adore this series. And I’m not alone. WCTH’s audience has grown quickly and continues to grow each week, and for good reason. It is very well-written, well-cast, and well-acted. Each week, WCTH delivers heart-tugging drama and a superbly developed, chaste love story without being shallow or melodramatic. It's subtle yet powerful—the perfect blend. There is so much to love about this series! The best part: it’s an engaging drama adults can thoroughly enjoy and feel good about watching with their kids. The worst part: waiting an entire week until Saturday. Oh, the hours . . . And when it’s finally here, if only time would stop . . .

HallmarkChannel.com says:
Photo Credit: Copyright 2013 Crown Media United States, LLC

When Calls the Heart tells the captivating story of Elizabeth Thatcher (Erin Krakow), a young teacher accustomed to her high society life, who receives her first classroom assignment in Coal Valley, a small coalmining town where life is simple, but often fraught with challenges. Lori Loughlin (Full House) plays Abigail Stanton, a wife and mother whose husband, the foreman of the mine, along with a dozen other miners, has just been killed in an explosion. The newly widowed women find their faith is tested when they must go to work in the mines to keep a roof over their heads. Elizabeth charms most everyone in Coal Valley, except Constable Jack Thornton (Daniel Lissing) who believes Thatcher’s wealthy father has doomed the lawman’s career by insisting he be assigned in town to protect the shipping magnate’s daughter. Living in a 19th century coal town, Elizabeth will have to learn the ways of the frontier if she wishes to thrive in the rural west on her own. The series is inspired by Janette Oke’s bestselling book series about the Canadian West, and reunites Oke with Executive Producer and Director, Michael Landon, Jr.”

For those who have not yet seen When Calls The Heart:
Coal Valley is a western town full of endearing folks bound together by tragedy and facing challenges, joys, threats, loves, losses, and an uncertain future. At the outset, the town is reeling from the loss of its men in a coal mine explosion. The widows are doing their best to hold their families together and summon the faith and courage they need for their children while grieving their own losses. The women pool their resources to hire a schoolteacher. Challenged by culture shock but eager to help, Miss Elizabeth Thatcher leaves a life of privilege in the city and sets out for the rugged west. She may not be the most suited for pioneer life, nor the most proficient in the kitchen, but she has a tenacious heart of gold and loves to see children thrive and learn.

Constable Jack Thornton, newly assigned to Coal Valley, is rattled by Elizabeth Thatcher’s presence, especially after he realizes the lovely young heiress is the reason he’s been assigned to this dead-end post. But as a Royal Canadian Mountie, he will fulfill his duty to serve and protect, and he takes his job seriously. Elizabeth continues to rattle Jack in more ways than he would like to admit, while Elizabeth finds the Constable stubborn, over-protective, and irritatingly attractive. Working together in various situations, they mix about as well as oil and water. Yet in spite of their differences, you can't miss the crackling chemistry between them.

Photo Credit: Copyright 2013 Crown Media United States, LLC
Meanwhile, the women of Coal Valley continue to deal with one trial after another, like the arrival of babies without a doctor or a midwife in town. Holding worship services in the woods since the church burned down. Welcoming the new miners who have taken their husbands’ jobs by joining them at a town dance. Mysteries, buried secrets, arson, burglary. Confused children grieving for their fathers the only way they know how. And yet, through faith in God, forgiveness, and courage, life goes on, especially if Abigail Stanton has anything to say about it. She is a strong, independent woman to whom everyone turns for advice—Coal Valley’s gracious, steadfast voice of wisdom.
Photo Credit: Copyright 2013 
Crown Media United States, LLC

As the story progresses, Jack accidentally insults Elizabeth while trying to protect her from hurt and fumbles to apologize, revealing his deeper feelings (the one scene in all of DVR history that ranks the highest number of rewinds and replays. Just a guess.). Elizabeth also struggles with the confusing direction her feelings have taken and is forced to decide what she believes to be true about love, faith, and trust. Of course we know there is more in store for Jack, Elizabeth, and the others, but we fans are fully prepared to hang in there and see them through.

Photo Credit: Copyright 2013 
Crown Media United States, LLC
We admit it---we are thoroughly hooked. There is so much to love about this series. Like a diamond peeking through the coal dust, it’s been an unexpected treasure, a beautiful example of the faith, sacrifice, forgiveness, courage, wisdom, and grace we hope to see in ourselves and instill in our children. The sad paradox is that this show would probably appeal most to people who don’t have cable in their home because of things we don't want our kids to see. I don’t blame you. If viewing the Hallmark Channel is not an option for you, there are other ways to see this series. I’ve included links below for catching up past episodes and also for downloading the entire series online. I am hoping Hallmark will offer the entire series on DVD soon. It’s already at the top of my Christmas list and is something I will enjoy giving away as gifts.

For those who have seen and love the series:
A special treat just for you! Executive Producer and Creator Brian Bird has agreed to an interview about When Calls the Heart and you’ll meet him in a moment. But first, I want to introduce Brian by saying that it was his production journal entry for episode 6 that inspired me to blog about the series:
"I do miss my family, but I feel so blessed to be working on this show. And I can’t wait for the audience to see it. I don’t believe there will be anything like ‘When Calls the Heart’ anywhere else on TV. Yes, this is a family show, but I think we are creating something very radical. In between shots yesterday, I was asking one of our crew if they could think of another show on TV right now a whole family could watch together, and he just scratched his head. I couldn’t come up with an example either. Think about that. There used to be a time when all the networks had ‘family hour’ in prime time every night. Now it seems Hallmark Channel is the only one brave enough to put a show on like this. I pray all the hard work, ours and theirs, will be rewarded with a large audience. This is a real opportunity for people across America to make a loud statement that they are tired of all the vampires, zombies, meth dealers and dead bodies on TV. That they are ready for themes like redemption, courage, sacrifice, forgiveness and hope to rule the airwaves once again."
Well said! I think this sums up the reason people are falling in love with “When Calls The Heart” by the wagonload and want to share it with others!

Photo Credit: Copyright 2013 Crown Media United States, LLC

And now . . . meet “When Calls the Heart” Producer and Creator Brian Bird!

CE: Brian, I’m going straight to the most pressing question since fans are fasting in sackcloth and ashes until we know: Will there be a Season Two?
BB: We know just as much as the fans do about this decision. The truth is it's up to the fans to make their voices heard with Hallmark and with spreading the word with their own friends about this show. That's the way hits are usually born anyway... word of mouth. There are a million choices about what to watch and a lot of cultural noise out to try to break through. One of the best ways to break through all the distractions is if our fans are very noisy themselves about the show. We have made the best show we know how. Now it's up to the culture and the network to decide if they want more.
CE:  We'll make noise! Blitz our neighborhoods with Abigail's delicious scones! Whatever it takes! So are cast and scripts for Season Two already in the works?
BB:  We have plenty of good ideas in the story bank and are ready to begin developing scripts. In season 1 our initial order was for 6 episodes, so that's what we developed ahead of time. And then when we were shooting Episode 3, Hallmark let us know that they wanted the rest of the season's worth, so we jumped into developing those scripts. 
CE:  If there will be a Season Two, does this mean Season One will end on a cliffhanger (NO!)?
BB:  Of course we will have a cliffhanger. In fact, a few of them. It wouldn't be a good season finale without them, right?
CE:  I was afraid of that! Do you see love on the horizon for Abigail? She’s go giving and self-sacrificing, we’d love to see her find love again.
BB:  You're way ahead of us, and it could begin by the end of the season... hint-hint, but there's no spoilers we'll be giving long-term.
CE:  If this isn’t too lengthy to answer: How was Janette Oke’s book adapted into a series of episodes, and how do the show’s creators decide what subplots to add to the story in order to give each episode a “complete” feel within the larger story?
BB:  When Michael and I started out with the first novel in Janette's series, we soon came to realize that as wonderful as the story of Elizabeth Thatcher in Pine Springs was, that world probably wouldn't sustain potentially 100 episodes of a TV series. That's why we decided to add another town and another branch of the family to the storytelling. And Janette Oke felt it was a brilliant way to expand the creative palette. In this way, it became a multi-generational world we could work with. 
CE:  What a blessing to have such mutual agreement on the collaborative process. How much of a role has Janette Oke played in the production of WCTH?
BB:  Janette has been very involved with our creative process. She has read every script and given us notes and ideas along the way. In fact, Janette loved the new world of the series so much she decided to create a series of When Calls the Heart-branded novels following Elizabeth and Mountie Jack in Coal Valley. The first of those novels is now out and is called "Where Courage Calls." A second one is in the works.
CE  What an unexpected bonus! Where does the writing team look for ideas?
BB:  I have been a writer-producer on half-a-dozen network TV series in my career, and the process is always the same in the writers' room. We bring our own life experiences to the table, along with true stories we find out of history (which is very important to a period drama). For instance, in episode 7, we decided to do a dyslexia story because one of our writers went through that experience with her own son, and it seemed like a really fascinating idea to see how we could do that story in a 1910 setting before there was much science about dyslexia. 
CE:  Do you think WCTH brings glory to God? If so, how?
BB:  When I was a writer-producer Touched By An Angel for five seasons, we believed that "water cooler" conversations were started all over America about the some of the great lines the Angels spoke to their "assignments" in the episodes. The angels would quote biblical themes with the people they were helping such as the idea that God loves us and has plans for our welfare. I think we have the opportunity to do something similar with When Calls the Heart, but the goal is just to stir up cravings with the great virtues of western civilization. The fact that some of those themes come from the bible can't be disputed. For instance, in Episode 4, when Reverend Anderson tells Mr. Gowen he's quitting the employ of the company, he says "Where God guides, God provides." I believe those kinds of moments in the show create a stir in viewers' hearts without being preachy, and I must have seen 15 Tweets where people quoted that very line back at us. I think those kinds of moments are faith-lifting. But it's also just good entertainment because its organic to the characters and the world we have created. 
CE:  And it is very well done. The romance between Elizabeth and Jack is also masterfully done. The timing in which it develops (so far) has been superb. Any display of caring between them is subtle, and yet clearly deepens with each episode, regardless of any conflict Jack and Elizabeth may be engaged in (and there have been several). My question is this: How do you time or stretch out a developing romance in a series like this so that it is unhurried and yet still satisfying each week (or at least gives you enough to captivate and bring you back for more)? Does someone on the writing staff have the task of drawing the romance thread throughout the series, or do all the writers have equal share in creating that part of the storyline?
BB:  The chaste romance of Janette Oke's books is one we are committed to, but to be honest, it's the trickiest part of the story-telling. It's actually very challenging to get right. So much of the human experience of courtship involves the thrill of the chase, and we know for the viewers getting Jack and Elizabeth together is becoming an obsession. However, we have to be careful because once that happens, we also believe we let some steam out of the premise of the show a.k.a. "The Moonlighting effect." We don't want it to go too fast, because once they are together we know some in the audience will be deflated. Suffice to say, we have a plan, but it will never be as fast as some want, and it to keep it family and faith-friendly, it can't ever go too far until Jack and Elizabeth one day exchange wedding rings. Tricky stuff given today's cultural norms. Keeping track of it all and pacing it correctly has been a bit of trial and error and I have some very reliable writers who have written lots of romance-dramas helping me get it right. 
CE:  I know the challenge this can be in a novel, so I can't imagine how difficult it is to pull off for an entire series! This makes me appreciate Jack and Elizabeth's love story all the more. 

Fans love the musical score. Has WCTH considered making it available for purchase/Rhapsody download?
BB:  Right now, the score is not available for download, but the music for the episodes has been created by two very talented composers, Emmy-Award-winning Lee Holdridge and Gemini-award-winning John Sereda. We are discussing the possibility of a soundtrack album for Season 1 if the show looks like it will continue. 
CE:  If Hallmark is still undecided about ordering Season Two, what can fans do to convince them we must, must, MUST have more WCTH?
BB:  The Hallmark Channel is in business to put family programming on the the air, but it also has to be able to make money doing it. It's a very simple equation: more viewers mean better advertising rates; fewer viewers mean lower advertising rates. And Hallmark is not in the business of losing money. We believe strongly from the evidence we see on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and other social media that the audience is loving the show. But people have a thousand channels and 10,000 choices of programming available every day. It's very challenging to break through all the noise and distraction of all those choices to get the word out to our potential fans that this show is worthy of their time. Without a giant (and expensive) marketing campaign, we are dependent on our loyal fans to help us spread the word about the show. Hallmark also needs to hear loud and clearly that they desperately want When Calls the Heart to continue. Even more so, regardless of whether the show goes one season or 10, family programming in America is nearing extinction. All the networks used to compete with each other to program family shows every night. That is no longer the case. In fact, I can't think of more than a few examples of family programming on all of television. We are doing something revolutionary, radical. HBO has a branding: "It's not TV, it's HBO." Well, while the rest of the networks are all following HBO over the cliff into dark and depraved and cynical programming, we are standing our ground with something very unique. It's not HBO, it's Hallmark. And if this kind of programming becomes extinct altogether, we only have ourselves to blame.  
CE:  It may be radical, but loyal (aka desperate) fans will do what it takes and believe it can and must be done! Do you know if the series will be available on DVD, and if so, when? (And can I preorder it by the pallet?)
BB:  The series will be released on a series of DVDs, the first one available in Christian bookstores on February 25 and later in all the big-box stores, throughout North America. Each DVD will contain 2 episodes and a series of extras. The first DVD contains episode 1 and 2, along with bonus features of deleted scenes and a very cool three-way conversation between Michael Landon, Janette Oke and me about the series. If, Lord-willing, the show goes into multiple seasons, it will probably be also released in full season collections. 
CE:  Brian, what was your dream, your goal, your vision when you first decided to create a series from the original novel? What is at the “heart” of When Calls the Heart?
BB:  It's Michael’s and my hope that When Calls the Heart can be a show woven through-and-through with the Great Virtues of Western Civilization. Themes such as integrity, honesty, courage, forgiveness, redemption, sacrifice and the golden rule. At the same time we don't want to hit people over the head with the Bible. We believe mankind is wired for these kinds of stories and our feeling is that the most effective way to do this show is to weave these themes into the tapestry because that is the kind of town Coal Valley is. I was talking on the set with one of our crew members about the great cultural loss of families spending time together, eating meals together, even watching TVs together, and he asked me about what families in Coal Valley might have meals together. My answer was "all of them." Michael and I want for people to fall in love with the old-fashioned values (and faith) of Coal Valley because it's exactly the kind of medicine our culture needs right now. The great virtues are an endangered species on TV right now. We want to be preservationists. 
CE:  Thank you for following this call and pressing on!! I understand this series has been nearly eight years in the works, and much of that time, you weren't even certain Hallmark would take it. What kept you going, putting in time, effort, and planning without the certainty your dream would become a reality?
BB:  I probably can't go into all the details about our journey on When Calls the Heart until the series is finished, but trust me, there's a book I could write about the experience that some might even view as a thriller. But suffice to say, this project has been one of perseverance and an attitude of never-give-up, never-say-die and failure is not an option. We are grateful to God and Hallmark for the blessing of getting this show on the air. 
And so are we! Brian, thank you so much for taking time to share your thoughts about this amazing series, and thank you for pursuing this dream. We wish you and Michael and the rest of your team incredible favor and God's finest blessings on this series and in all that the future holds for you!

Friends: Be sure to watch When Calls the Heart **LIVE** (which helps bring us a Season Two!!)  on the Hallmark Channel, Saturdays at 9/8c. You can Tweet live with the cast while you watch using @LoriLoughlin @ErinKrakow @DLissing and #WhenCallstheHeart. And don't forget to SPREAD THE WORD!

Photo Credit: Copyright 2013 Crown Media United States, LLC
For more info:

Production Blog: Directors Michael Landon Jr. and Brian Bird share their personal journal entries during filming that reveal the real “heart” behind When Calls the Heart

Watch missed episodes at:
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February 1, 2014

Observing (okay—Stalking) Life

The writer in me understands the value of taking note of life, creation and beauty to help flesh out stories and characters. The forgetful part of me understands that my memory is about as reliable as a stray tabby. After reading this great post by novelist Karen Schravemade at The Writer’s Alley, I decided it’s time to start carrying a notebook and jotting down observations or thoughts inspired by what’s going on, or those killer flashes of revelation while I’m out and about that I (HA!) think I’ll remember later but never do. If I think about it, there is always some takeaway in any given moment, no matter where I am or who I’m with. Great idea!

SO . . .

Stalker/Author Observation #1:
To celebrate our daughter’s 22nd birthday, we went to a spendier-than-our-norm restaurant in downtown Portland last night. Yes, even I, the moss-gathering metrophobe, went across the river and down into the actual heart of Hipster Weirdness. And I was cool, you would have been proud of me. In all honesty, we (her parents, dual metrophobes) were glad our daughter invited us to a place she enjoyed, because it wrangled us out of our empty (*sniff*) nest. We had THE best time. The company was fun, smart, witty and refreshing. The food was incredible—even though we each opted for the cheap appetizers as our meals since none of us has won the lottery.

My husband and I noticed a couple in their late fifties or early sixties sitting side by side at a tiny table tucked into a dim corner behind us. Every once in a while, I glanced over. Not once did I ever see them talking to each other. They just ate and sipped quietly, their eyes always on the people in the restaurant. At first I thought they might be people watchers. Which is apparently a common pastime, but still seems a little creepy. I mean, mind your own stuff there, you know? But then I got to wondering. Maybe they’re both hopeless introverts in therapy and this is what dual introverts braving a date looks like. That or they’re both bored to death retirees who’ve run out of things to say to each other and watching people eat Peruvian in the Pearl District was #47 on their bucket list. Or since we were blocks from the Portland State campus, it was some kind of psyche experiment. But since our middle son, a Psyche major at PSU, wasn’t with us, I couldn’t verify that one.

Or maybe they were just too tired after a long day to do anything but eat and veg out. I don’t know if there’s anything here for me to work with, but Staring Couple on Dinner Date is going into the notebook. Because you never know when you’ll hit a point while writing a screenplay or song or novel when you need that perfect little a nugget of novelty or spark of realistic oddity.

Or...maybe they were a pair of writers collecting little nuggets of realistic people stuff to use later in a story. 

Oh. Right.

Q: What notebook observations have you made that you've used in writing?



I've published three novels and a novella (more about those on my website.) I've been writing all my life, but decided in 2007 to get serious about being published.

I love action movies and Jane Austen. (she’s dead, I know. I found that out when I tried to get her to endorse my novel)

They let me play Bass guitar and sing in a worship band.

I can produce 4 dozen homemade cinnamon rolls in a flash for a crowd of drooling young adults. Or publishing house editors.

I used to have a Harley. Now we have twenty-something kids. Decent trade, really. The window-rattling grumble isn't quite the same, but we are still enjoying the ride.

I am a proud Grammy. Don't even think about taking candy from my babies.

I hate shopping (Yes, I'm aware that I'm a girl)

I've lived in Oregon all my life, spent time in Eugene (Go DUCKS!), Springfield, Reedsport, and Smith River. Which is not really a town, but a river, about 70 miles long, a tributary of the Umpqua River in southwest Oregon.

Although it's not a town, it is a community with a strong sense of pioneer history. It's cool to say you've lived there, especially if you lived there during the days when you had to take a boat to school. No joke! The old farmhouse my grandfather and my mother grew up in still stands, nestled into a narrow, pasture carpeted valley, complete with a swimmin' hole and its own 'crick'. It may turn up in one of my novels.

There's a rumor that my ancestors had a connection with the Mafia back in Sicily. I used to fantasize as a kid about a big black limo with tinted windows pulling up and whisking me away from school. Ahhh. So THAT'S why I'm having so much trouble conjugating my dangling participles now.

NOT RANDOM: I am challenged by the truth and amazed by the grace of God. And it's either in spite of or because of that grace that I hold a PhD in Learning Stuff the Hard Way.