Just Like in the Movies: Celluloid’s Mitochondrial Eve – The Lost Woman Who Gave Movies the First Screen Story

Micah S. Harris

Who was Alice Guy-Blaché?  Quite simply the mother of movies that tell stories.   This visionary French woman, while still young and working as a secretary, was the first to realize the narrative potential of film. That you have, quite possibly, never heard of her is THE gross injustice in the history of cinema.

Alice Guy-Blaché

Alice Guy-Blaché belongs in the same pantheon of film pioneers such as the Lumières, Griffith, W.K.L. Dickson, Edison, Méliès, and Edwin S. Porter. So, step aside like gentlemen, boys, and let’s give Alice Guy-Blaché her proper, prominent place in movie history.

Alice was a woman of several cinematic firsts, but chief among them is that she is the first person who ever sat down to create a story with the intent that it would be told by projected images on a screen. More, she was the first to take movie storytelling as a “calling,”—and the first to tackle film with the specific agenda of pursuing and exploring its narrative possibilities.

More, she was the first screenwriter to take the reins of her own story material from behind the camera.  You see, Alice also invented modern movie directing, making her the first auteur, almost forty years before Preston Sturges pioneered the role of “writer/director” in Hollywood, and roughly a half-century before her native France’s “New Wave.”

In short, Alice’s DNA is all over modern movie storytelling. But, why, then, you rightly may wonder, have I (probably) never heard of her? Who was cinema storytelling’s Mitochondrial Eve?

Fortunately, she can indeed be found, though she has been the victim of recurrent, aggressive efforts to see that she vanish into the mists of antiquity. Not only have her films been credited in the history books to other people—who never directed a film a day in their lives—but while she was still making them, a colleague tried to have her pushed aside once she all but single-handedly had gotten her employees’ film business up and running and profitable. To say nothing of the head of the studio’s workshop, who went out on a cold winter’s night, took an axe to the standing sets of her film (then in production), and made firewood out of them.

Alice Guy-Blaché on the set of “The Life of Christ”

Alice did not begin by wishing to make movies. She simply wanted a job. While barely more than a girl, she found herself the sole caretaker of her elderly mother, after her father’s death and her sisters’ marriages. A friend suggested to her mother that the eighteen-year old might be able to support them if she learned the marketable new skill of shorthand typewriting (the late nineteenth century equivalent of a woman armed with Macintosh Apple savvy in the ‘80s).

Seeking work as a secretary, one of the businesses she called upon was the Gaumont Brothers’ company.  They were pioneers in early movie technology. Paramount on their agenda was to discover a way to shift the accessibility of moving images through a solitary peephole to that of projecting them on a screen for group enjoyment.

Initially hesitant to hire her because of her age, her prospective employer became charmed by Alice’s combination of girlishness and wit during their job interview (when he mentioned his concern about handing over such important duties to someone so young, the quick Alice replied “I will get over that” to which he laughed and responded “Yes, alas, you will”).  Alice left with the job.

The Gaumonts’ company were beaten in their race to project movies by the rival Lumière Brothers. Alice and her employers were among the viewers at the historic March 22, 1895 first showing of a movie on a screen for an audience (she remembered seeing the Lumières hanging up the sheet that was used).

Alice recalls only seeing one of their series of films that day, that of the workers exiting the factory. Apparently, this was the only short shown on that historic date, the rest of the films, including “The Sprinkler Sprinkled”—the first movie with a plot—were apparently not yet part of the Lumières itinerary. If this is the case, there is no evolutionary link between their creation of screen narrative and the first story conceived for the screen.

In fact, the Lumières’ “The Sprinkler Sprinkled” immediately became, shall we say, genetically isolated at the genesis of film storytelling—an Adam with no Eve. Many months after Alice saw the Lumières’ work in a truncated presentation, Georges Méliès got full exposure at their first public showing in December of the same year. What impressed Méliès, though, was the theatrical magic potential of the movies, not that the Lumières’ had unveiled a new medium for storytelling.

As Charles Darwin might phrase it, Méliès own movie narratives that followed appeared “incidentally,” primarily as a mechanism to showcase his special effects and not “the point” of the thing. If he advanced the scope of movie storytelling along the way…well, that was nice, too.  And, despite their continuing charm, pioneering film techniques, and iconic imagery, Méliès’ staginess made them an evolutionary dead end in how to tell a story on the big screen.

Fortunately, Alice Guy-Blaché conceived…but not, as so often has been the case, because she found the new boy on the block fascinating. He (“the new boy” being the Lumière brothers “Workers Exiting the Lumière Factory” film in this analogy) only had the advantage of being the only boy on the block.

Still from “The Fairy of the Cabbages”

Which is enough to get a girl’s attention, but that will only get you so far. Not to say Alice wasn’t impressed by this attention-grabbing male specimen…she was impressed with how utterly lacking in imagination it was in its use of this exciting new medium. She feared film would be regulated to merely documenting factual, mundane occurrences. Alice alone saw the potential for putting entertaining stories on film.

I would venture that Alice first grasped the storytelling possibilities of film because this particular woman 1) long had a love of literature (her father had run a bookshop in Chile) and a background in amateur theater, and 2) she brought in a perception outside the common, myopic, left brain orientation of those men laboring in the emerging medium.  There were no males interested in making stories with the movies at their very beginning because their concerns were all technical.

Thus, the narrative possibilities went right by the Lumière Brothers, Alice’s employees the Gaumont Brothers, Thomas Edison, and, to some extent, even George Méliès—who was more concerned about special effects than stories, and certainly more so than the  characters. Alice Guy-Blaché first brought the right side of the brain to movie making.

Alice approached her employers with this idea. They gave her permission to use their equipment to shoot her film…as long as it did not interfere with her secretarial duties. And by Spring of the next year, she was at work on the “The Fairy of the Cabbages,” the longest running movie made at this time (around an entire minute).

Alice Guy-Blaché created the genre of movie storytelling on her lunch hour. Though, more accurately, it was a series of lunch hours which she took to film the short story she conceived around the answer to that age-old question, “where do babies come from?” The answer, of course, being the cabbage patch.

The film is lost (though she remade it twice and at least parts of those versions are available for viewing). To judge from the revisions, the story’s exposition is established by showing a young couple longingly watching a mother with her baby. Presumably, they are unable to conceive. A fairy appears in a nearby cabbage patch. This is a fairy on a mission, one of those of the “intervention-on-behalf-of miserable-humans” variety favored by fairies everywhere. Through a magic dance, she conjures a baby beneath a cabbage, where, for some reason, the wistful mother will be certain to come across it.

Perhaps because she habitually sits among the cabbages and peas? Alas, this bit of plot resolution is lost with the rest of the original version.

Now, this is fairy tale material to be sure, but, I would argue that with only the second movie to be made with a narrative, Alice brought the first psychological realism to a movie character. It wasn’t King Lear, and it was pretty basic psychology (she did only have a minute, after all), but one might argue that her “Fairy of the Cabbages” did for the movies, even in a small way, what Samuel Richardson’s Pamela did for the novel back in 1740.

Interestingly, what Alice Guy-Blaché offers here, in the second narrative tale ever put to film, is in some ways the inverse of the first.

The Lumières’ fictional tale is stereotypically masculine in its subject matter : a story of physical pain, a testosterone-fueled aggressive one, whose slapstick and conflict resolution do, in fact, give us cinema’s first chase scene.

Alice’s story, by contrast, is preoccupied with child bearing and birth, a concern for women in a way that is outside the ken of men. Because the young woman cannot conceive, the pain here is primarily emotional and psychological, that is to say internal conflict, and the story is about relationships—particularly family ones.

So, here we have the first two movies to ever tell a story, one by men, one by a woman. And, in accord with the sex of either’s creator, the Lumière’s movie is exactly the kind of story at the theater many men still tend to enjoy as men and Alice Guy-Blaché’s movie exactly the kind many women enjoy almost 125 years later. Alice’s film also features a dance number as part of the plot resolution, foreshadowing its use in turning the course of countless romantic conflicts in the sundry cinematic musical romances to come.

Alice Guy-Blaché’s “Fairy of the Cabbages” is all very “girly” and it is extremely unlikely that the thought would have ever entered the Lumière brothers’ heads to make anything like it. As unlikely as Alice would have, left on her own in her initial outing, come up with the first “action movie” as they did.

To say the subject matter of “The Fairy of the Cabbages” was stereotypically feminine is not to say that Alice Guy-Blaché was. Her contribution to the developing movie industry was not a pretty face and figure to be filmed. She was, as I said, an auteur, working behind the camera.  She was also a businesswoman, and, to this day, the only woman to have owned her own movie studio.

And when she began, the right for women to vote in France was still fifty years away. The turn of the twentieth-century was very much a man’s world—but she thrived on a particular turf: the fledgling movie industry.  She understood the technical aspects of filmmaking—cinematography, mise en scene and special effects processes—and explored the scope and range and possibilities they presented in conveying a narrative in ways a book or the stage could not.

As can still be seen in her 36 minute, 1906 epic The Life of Christ, Alice evolved past her contemporary George Méliès. There is much of Méliès’ type of presentation here, to be sure. But Christ’s walking on the water scene, done with a location filmed ocean, is an uniquely quiet kind of cinematic spectacle.

Alice figured out how to execute the scene technically, and it is distinctly her cinematic vision. It conveys the Son of God’s power over nature with serenity.  No one ever accused Méliès of “quiet” or “serenity.” The scene of Joseph and Mary among the pyramids and Sphinx during their flight to Egypt remains jaw-dropping imagery (foreshadowing some of director Ken Rusell’s retro-visual sense eighty years later).

Méliès’ evolutionary line of movie storytelling rather Neanderthaled-out. And, as I said earlier, the Lumière Brothers’ premiere narrative film appears genetically isolated from everyone else. Alice evolved.

But all of the above’s contemporary, Britain’s James Williamson, represented the appearance of the Cro-Magnon line of movie storytelling, with his short films Fire! (1901) and Stop Thief (also 1901). That is to say, movie stories first told in an early, if rudimentary so, modern style.

Still from “The Life of Christ”

If the mother of cinematic storytelling, with no evolutionary link to the Lumière brothers’ “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” was an act of special creation, well…the new movie industry still needed its mitochondrial Adam for its Eve.

That Adam would be the complementary visionary to Alice, the American Edwin S. Porter, the immediate descendent in the James Williamson evolutionary line. Porter carried Williamson’s species of moving storytelling forward while Williamson himself devolved back to Méliès’ methods with “The Little Match Girl.”

Porter’s The Great Train Robbery in 1903 was immediately perceived as something excitingly new because of its still-recognizably modern cinematic techniques employed in telling the story. Porter brought something as necessary to the movie genome as needed as Alice’s introduction of visual narrative storytelling, if visual narrative storytelling was going to survive.

But first, there had to be movie stories to tell. It does take two, after all, and a movie maternity test reveals the forgotten Alice Guy-Blaché’s DNA is inextricably combined with Porter’s in every frame of every story created specifically for the big screen today.

Soph Watches Classic Doctor Who – The Edge of Destruction

By Sophie Iles

This serial is something else. I really mean it. After stories like the Daleks and the Unearthly Child, you expect a bit of a pattern. We certainly do in the New Who world, this however is something completely different (Sorry Monty Python, but I couldn’t help myself) and because of that again makes it another favourite of mine.

The backstory to that is quite simple. A friend of mine sat me down, brandished her DVD copy at me and told me that this episode is unique and one of her favourites. The reason for this was that David Whitaker had only two days to write this story, with the pressure of the BBC wanting to do a thirteen episode run, with the limitations that due to budget they could only have the story take place in the TARDIS and only with the main cast. They had to fill this two week lull in their shooting schedule with something, and this is what we got.

Even with all those limitations, this strange story still is able to tug at my heartstrings just because the clever Mr. Whitaker saw as an opportunity to explore these much loved characters. Let’s see what the plot has in store.

After the Doctor tries to set the coordinates to move the TARDIS on after their adventure with the Daleks, there’s a sudden explosion, and everyone falls about and collapses. Barbara, Ian and Susan wake with memory issues, forgetting where they are or who their friends are, before finding the Doctor with a nasty cut on his head. Susan freaks out, but Barbara who seems the most normal at that moment starts trying to fix the Doctor’s wound. Ian sounds floaty, and Susan keeps complaining about the back of her head hurting. Already, everything is terribly weird and we haven’t got a clue how this has started or why.

The Doctor wakes, a bandage now on his head, also disorientated, and all of a sudden it’s finally apparent that this is the first time since they’ve stepped foot in the TARDIS they’ve had any time to think about their predicament. Ian and Barbara don’t trust the Doctor, and the Doctor doesn’t trust them back, making for some suspicious interactions particularly from the time lord. It appears he’s starting to suspect that it was the humans who had caused the problems with his TARDIS. This isn’t even to mention Susan’s erratic behaviour, looking violently at them and ending up stabbing a chair with scissors and being overall threatening to her former teachers in the process. This scene actually had the BBC pouring in letters of complaint, and I’m not surprised. I jumped out of my skin on my first viewing.

Susan’s actions with the scissors caused a lot of complaints.

Poor Barbara seems to be the only person with any sort of common sense or grounding in the episode, as she battles with a strange acting Ian, a suspicious Doctor and Susan being odd too. Even the TARDIS seems odd, only showing pictures on the scanner of what appears to be previous places they’ve been, opening doors and closing them on their own and producing water in bags instead of in cups, whilst also not showing that there’s any faults in the TARDIS on it’s fault locator. (PS: I would love the fault locator to come back one day. If you’re reading this Chibnall…)

Finally the Doctor makes his accusations, which he’s clearly been building towards. He blames Ian and Barbara for the whole affair, being knocked out and the state the TARDIS is in, with the theory that they wanted to blackmail him to get them home. The results produce a very unhappy Barbara pointing out some very important moments in the story so far, and is one of those famous scenes in Doctor Who history that just shows how valuable a companion really is to this crotchety time lord:

BARBARA: How dare you! Do you realise, you stupid old man, that you’d have died in the Cave of Skulls if Ian hadn’t made fire for you?
BARBARA: And what about what we went through against the Daleks? Not just for us, but for you and Susan too. And all because you tricked us into going down to the city.
BARBARA: Accuse us? You ought to go down on your hands and knees and thank us. But gratitude’s the last thing you’ll ever have, or any sort of common sense either.

Barbara ends this point by suddenly holding her head and screaming, everyone holding their head as all of a sudden, time melts away inside the TARDIS, the clocks and their watches literally melting, which Ian rightly points out couldn’t be their doing even if they had wanted the Doctor to take them home. 

Into frame pops the Doctor again, brandishing water on a tray very calmly despite this previous note, telling them they should all just sleep on the problem, and you’re immediately suspicious. Did the Doctor just completely deny that time was melting in front of them? (I did say this was a trip guys, I wasn’t joking.) This seems pretty ordinary, everyone goes off to bed, and not surprisingly the water was drugged to make them all sleep, apart from the Doctor. It’s apparent that all he wants to do is get those pesky humans away from his TARDIS so he can figure things out.

And it just leads to Ian strangling him — though it’s actually him just trying to stop the Doctor from doing something foolish — either way that’s what it appears, causing a pretty creepy cliffhanger. I wouldn’t have wanted to be the child to watch that episode unable to escape of the horror of what was happening on screen; that someone was strangling the Doctor.

He really doesn’t hate you that much, Doctor…

The second episode deals with Barbara once again, much like in the Daleks having a good head on her shoulders. Whilst the Doctor is ready to kick Ian and Barbara out of the TARDIS, she suggests that perhaps everything that’s happening is because the TARDIS is warning them about something. That the reason why they’re all acting funny, that the console is trying to hurt them, that it’s showing time melting — is because there’s a bigger threat at work.

It’s really the first time we see the TARDIS as anything but a machine, and this is obviously exploited in later episodes, to personally my complete joy. With Barbara figuring all this out, the TARDIS lets us know by causing little light explosions, that in fact the TARDIS is close to plunging back to the beginning of time and its own destruction. They only have so much time to figure out what’s causing the problem before they all die, and it takes the four of them together to ask the right questions and it’s the first time we really see them work as a team since the Dalek episode where they are trapped together.

And honestly, I was cheering them on. The rewatch had me cheering the Doctor finally understanding what it was that caused the ship to be faulty, Ian asking all the right questions, Susan checking the fault locator whilst Barbara kept putting everything together. It was a real triumphant moment to watch.

Just an added thing before we look at the end of this episode is talking about Hartnell’s performance as the Doctor. Honestly, I love his Doctor so much, and it’s in this episode that he really shines and gets an added wow factor. When we are so used to seeing him struggle with his lines, this episode has a soliloquy of the Doctor discussing the formation of the solar system. It’s an outstanding moment, and great fun to watch as you really feel he finally understands what’s happening. A real must watch for those who are getting into watching the First Doctor stories.

Though, perhaps it’s most amusing that in the end of it, it all happened because the Doctor pressed a switch and it got stuck. That’s right folks. A jammed switch is the reason for all this chaos, but look what it caused? By the end of the episode, the four travellers are talking to each other as though they are all on some sort of vacation instead of it feeling like two separate groups of people being forced together for adventures.

DOCTOR: Yes, I suppose it’s the injustice that’s upsetting you, and when I made a threat to put you off the ship it must have affected you very deeply.
BARBARA: What do you care what I think or feel?
DOCTOR: As we learn about each other, so we learn about ourselves.
BARBARA: Perhaps.
DOCTOR: Oh, yes. Because I accused you unjustly, you were determined to prove me wrong. So, you put your mind to the problem and, luckily, you solved it.

This quote truly is part of my favourite moment in the serial when the Doctor is talking to Barbara, their interaction speaks volumes of the Doctor growing to understand humans, and in turn  his companions understanding him. I love just how sweetly Barbara smiles at him when he offers to help her put on her new coat to explore outside. It’s a sign of true progression of these characters, basically becoming a little family.

And it honestly makes me want to love this team so much more than I already do.

This week as promised, my related doodle is a picture of the Doctor with a bandage on his head. Next week I’m going to discover Marco Polo, because as I have the novel, we can have a look at what we have left of this well liked serial!

Literary Archaeology: Uncurling the Armadillo: Reflections from ArmadilloCon

By Jon Black

The first weekend in August, I had the privilege of attending ArmadilloCon, an annual literary convention in Austin aimed specifically at writers and serious fans. While focused on Science Fiction and Fantasy, many of its sessions and panels can benefit HisFic writers as well. This week’s blog post is a distillation of take-aways from some of my favorite sessions from the convention.

Your author at ArmadilloCon 2017

Writing Golden Age Fiction Today

The Future We Think We Deserve

One of the panelists observed (I’m paraphrasing here) “Golden Age sci-fi is set ‘in the future we think we deserve’ not ‘the future we actually get.’”

That kind of emphasis on tone applies to writing about the past as well as the future. Certain eras naturally lend themselves to certain tones. As with Golden Age Sci-Fi, the Renaissance, for example, is easy to paint as a hopeful period of unlimited opportunity. Ditto the Industrial Revolution, though it often comes with the question of “Progress at what Price?” Examination of that era’s environmental, social, and other consequences makes it virtually a mirror of our own era. Conversely, with the Dark Ages/Early Middle Ages, it is easy to revel in tales of the center not holding, of disintegration and despair.

That having been said, a tale that bucks the natural tone of an era (for example, a Dark Ages tale, focusing on what can be salvaged or on bringing light forth from the darkness) can be very rewarding, but requires a steady hand and masterful execution.

Social Media for Writers.

I’ve been to tons of sessions on this topic. We all have. But this was the best I’ve seen, notably for the straightforward, unambiguous feedback from panelists. Two big takeaways: First, rather than rushing to maximize the number of friends/followers, focus on quality of online relationships. One hundred people with whom you meaningfully interact are more important that 5,000 people who scroll past your posts. Second, none of the panelists found the returns on paying to boost social media posts worth the expense.

Frodo had Samwise, Han had Chewie

Buddies, Sidekicks, or Ensemble Cast?

This session focused on buddies, sidekicks, and ensemble casts. The primary distinction between the first two is a question of capability and liability. The third category depends largely on how challenges are overcome. Buddies are relatively equal both in terms of capabilities and liabilities. A sidekick is clearly less competent than his or her main character. This can be a question of liability rather than competence. The intellectually brilliant academic who requires constant rescuing by the man/woman of action may still be a sidekick.

In Ensemble Casts, regardless of the number of protagonists and their overall level of competence, they regularly alternate “saving the day.”

Many writers have discovered themselves in the positon of finding sidekicks more enjoyable and entertaining to write than main characters. Panelists stress that perfectly normal, and not every such character is suitable for a main protagonist or antagonist.

Libraries and Librarians as Protagonists

Amazing stories.

This panel discussed at length the role of librarians (and archivists) as gatekeepers and dispensers of knowledge. I was more interested by the discussion of libraries themselves. Panelists advanced the idea that libraries remain popular in fiction because discovering a lost text in some musty old repository is inherently more atmospheric than finding the information online. I’m not sure I agree. Even more importantly, in 2017, I don’t think having characters always discovering their vital clues in that matter rings true. As authors, we need to develop techniques for making our characters’ online research and discovery exciting, too.

Planning and Writing a Series and Serial Killers: Books that Ended a Series  

I’m combining two panels with similar themes. I attended with considerable enthusiasm as I currently in the midst of navigating my way through the second novel in the Bel Nemeton series and finding that a second book presents some challenges that are new to me.

There was little consistency between panelists regarding what had worked for them in planning and writing their series. All the usual differences between pantsing and planning, for instance, emerged: now on the scale of an entire series rather than a single work. One point of agreement was the importance of ensuring that editors/publishers are on the same page as the author regarding the overall vision for the series.

Over the course of the session, panelists concluded that a “series” could really refer to three different things. First are books with a consistent universe and cast of characters but that are otherwise completely stand-alone narratives. Examples include much of Star Trek and Dr. Who cannon (both TV and novelizations). Second are series where each book presents a related but largely independent story arc, such as The Chronicles of Narnia. Third are series where each book tells one part of a single multi-book plot arc. The most celebrated example of the later is the Lord of the Rings.

While not arguing that any one definition of series was superior, they agreed it was best to choose one and stick with it throughout a series.

Another pitfall discussed was increasing focus on secondary characters at the expense of main characters as the series progresses. Panelists agreed that, while it was possible to transform secondary characters into new main characters over the course of a series, it was an extremely challenging thing to do.

Religious Horror and Horrific Religion

Pea soup, anyone?

Some of the most influential (and just plain terrifying) horror deals with explicitly religious themes. Think The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby. This session put forward the fascinating notion that one reason religion and horror work so well together is that they utilize nearly identical narrative vocabulary to tell diametrically opposed stories. Elements such as returning from the dead, mysterious events defying presumed laws of physics, and omniscience or precognition are staples of both religion and horror. And, of course, an author aware of this duality can deploy it deliberately to his or her advantage. 

Cartography and Maps in Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Howard’s Map of Hyperboria

Maps have often been the icing on the cake for many great fantasy works. The renderings of Tolkien’s Middle Earth or C.S. Lewis’s Narnia are as instantly recognizable as they are beloved. Even authors not interested in incorporating them into works may find them useful tools for plotting action and keeping it consistent. Robert E. Howard used this approach, creating a functional map of Hyperboria (later reproduced in a fancier version sometimes included in Conan novels) as well as his lesser known map of El Borak’s Central Asia. The fussily precise Lovecraft produced a similar map of Arkham for his own use in keeping his tales consistent.

Sci-Fi has been less fertile for maps, various maps Herbert’s Arrakis being the most notable exception. One reason for the sparsity of sci-fi maps may be the lack of conventions for interplanetary and interstellar cartography.

On a personal note, I have to add this was the most enjoyable and professional useful con I’ve attended, if you’re remotely in the area, I would encourage you to seriously encourage attending next year.

If Walls Could Talk: Crafting Characters your Audience will Stick With

M.H. Norris

I once was reading a book about screenwriting and throughout the book, they provided different examples of shows. Their reader should go and see the actual examples.

One show was Commander In Chief. It ran for one season, the year after The West Wing went off air. It’s currently on Hulu.

Tentatively, I would recommend you take a look. Whether you are interested in screenwriting or just writing in general, there’s lessons to be learned from this show.

Initially, my assumption was that the show went off air because it is nowhere near as well-done as The West Wing. In the shadow of that show, it folded. I’m not entirely sold that that didn’t play a factor, but it’s not the only reason the show had such a short run.

Commander in Chief is fascinating to me. The writing is actually, except for one thing, sold. It’s witty,  they did their research.

But the one thing is what killed them.

After watching twenty-two episodes, I discovered that, as the finale faded to black, that there wasn’t a single character that I cared about.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. People come to your story for the premise, but they’re going to stay (and come back again and again) for your characters.

1) Make Sure They’re Well-Rounded

There’s nothing worse than a story full of flat characters. You’re going to have them–background characters who really are just there to move a plot forward (the officer who greets your investigator as they walk up to a crime scene, a witness who saw something relatively unimportant, things like this).

These characters have no depth, but we also barely see them. If they even receive a name, you forget it ten pages later and it doesn’t matter.

But your main characters, even the ones on the side, need to be fleshed out, well-rounded. Make the characters seem real, thus allowing the stakes of your story to seem that much more real.

2) Establish Reasons for What they Do

For those of you wanting to argue suspension of belief, it only goes but so far. You have to be careful with that. It is not something to depend on.

Let’s use Psych as an example here.

Shawn Spencer is extremely intelligent and extremely observant. But, if you aren’t looking for his tells, you won’t see it underneath the joking exterior, except for rare moments he lets it out.

His near-perfect photographic memory? His father helped him develop it since he was a small child, same with his impressive deductive ability.

The way he remembers pretty much everything he hears? He inherited his Mother’s tonal memory.

All theses extraordinary abilities he displays are justified throughout the series. And they aren’t in your face about it either. He hides them behind humor and childish activities and all of these make up his character.

3) Make Your Readers Care

When I finished watching Commander in Chief, I realized something. I didn’t care about any of the characters. I wasn’t emotionally invested. I was okay with the show being over.

The trick with writing is to hook your readers. One way to do that is with solid characters. These are the people who are bringing the story in your head to life in the pages (or e-readers) in your reader’s hands.

I have asked myself, why should someone care?

As writers, we care because the story is our baby. It’s something we’ve spent hours upon hours on. But sometimes that causes our judgment to be clouded and we don’t see mistakes in our own writing or we don’t see that this character needs improvement.

It even applies to characters. Why should people care about your character, their hopes, their dreams, their fears?

Answer that and you are well on your way.

People may come for your premise, but chances are they’ll stay for your characters.

Soph Watches Classic Doctor Who – The Daleks (Part 2 of 2)

By Sophie Iles

With five episodes to talk about, you’ll probably suspect this to be rather daunting to write. The last two episodes after all had a lot going on, and with five more episodes to review, how can you possible summarise it without it being a novel length? Well, I think I’m just about going to manage it, and that’s because, for me, this is where the Daleks serial comes under fire compared to its predecessor The Unearthly Child. Today I will be looking at The Escape, The Ambush, The Expedition, The Ordeal, and The Rescue.

We last saw Susan preparing herself to leave the TARDIS with these anti radiation drugs to save her family and friends under her arm, again to leave the safety of the TARDIS and return to the rather terrifying dead jungle where apparently horrid mutations called the Thals live in.

But when Susan steps back out there, preparing for the worst, she does meet a Thal, but not the kind of monster she’s expecting. Who she meets instead is al tall blonde adonis is probably the best way to describe Alydon. For a ‘mutated’ human he’s almost sickeningly kind, and Susan’s darling face lights up and comes to trust him and so do the audience in turn. It is after all much easier for us to trust this guy than the Daleks with their scary exteriors. It turns out that the Thals didn’t even know the Daleks still existed, and that they have been using the drugs to survive out in the jungle, something that they were kind enough to offer to our TARDIS crew.

Susan meets Alydon, one of the Thals.

She’s escorted by her new friend through the jungle to make it back to the city safely, and Alydon even gives her more drugs to make sure that there’s enough for the Daleks and her companions just in case they steal their stash. He explains that they hope to make a treaty with the Daleks because their race despite farming some of the land are running out of food and need help. Already we are sympathetic towards them and when Susan returns to her party she tells them all about Alydon.

The Daleks however, the cunning lot, have been listening in and we see for the first time their true intent when it comes to the Thals. Quite simply they want them dead. They want to trick them. It’s here we see the Dalek’s truest colours and it’s a colour we recognise every time we see them again. They hate everything that isn’t them, and their old enemy must be destroyed.

Susan is asked by the Daleks to write a message of peace for the Thals, to indicate that they will help them grow new food, and the Thal leader called Temmosus, is sure that this will lead to good fortune, but Alydon is suspicious, even with Susan’s signature at the bottom. They decide to meet the Daleks as planned, unaware of the fate that will before them.  

Susan writes a message for the Thals from the Daleks.

Meanwhile our main characters are no longer in a state of illness what’s left for them is curiosity and thirst to escape. Barbara, Ian and the Doctor come to the conclusion the Daleks were listening to their conversation about the Thals and how they wanted Susan’s help in the first place. It leads to a really fun scene where they pretend to have an argument and rip out the camera feed on the wall of their cell. For those just tuning in it could very well look like the Doctor being his arrogant self but fortunately even the Doctor sees that this is a bad sign. It means now they can talk together and work through an escape plan together without the Daleks noticing. So begins my favourite part of the serial.

The companions show their worth their weight in gold. In comes Barbara, cool as you please, taking mud off Susan’s shoes so they can create mud to blind the Dalek’s eyestalk. It’s even Ian that has the idea of how to stop The Daleks using Alydon’s cloak to cut off the Daleks connection to the floor. I fear that both these ideas would probably not be credited to a companion today and a far more Doctor-ish solution to a problem. Something that just shows really just how this television show has changed over the years. It’s the teamwork of this episode, that is really lovely to watch, even if for the time being is just because they need each other to survive.

Their plan to escape is a success of course! They capture a Dalek and with some very clever film making wrap the monster inside the metal casing in Alydon’s cloak so we never fully see what the Dalek looks like, before Ian steps inside to pretend. I still love that Ian Chesterton is still not only the first person to pretend to be a Dalek — something that becomes a recurring theme in New Who it seems — but as far as I’m currently aware, the only individual to be shot by a Dalek and live. He even has to do the horrid monotone voice, and despite themselves everyone laughs at his impersonation.

This leads us nicely into the next episode. The Thals on their way to meet the Daleks to sign this peace treaty whilst our TARDIS team try to escape. They’re able to convince the Daleks just long enough to get Barbara, Susan and the Doctor into a lift back up to the surface and away from their cells, but poor Ian is still in the Dalek casing, hoping to catch the lift after them.

For a few horrid and tense seconds, we don’t know what his fate will be, and they don’t want to leave him alone, but because the action man he was hired for is sticking round for a few adventures yet, he gets into the lift just in time and is met with a running hug by Barbara. What a sweet pair they make!

Now, to get out of the city, but Ian wants to warn the Thals they are walking into a trap, and just in the nick of time the science teacher is able to warn them of the Daleks betrayal, but not before Temmosus is killed in the process.

Now we have these two groups together, The Doctor with his companions and The Thals in their camp, making decisions on how to proceed. They know now to what lengths the Daleks will kill the Thals, but they are no longer a warrior race and stick with pacifism. Also, The Doctor explains that the fluid ink, the piece of machinery the Doctor originally claimed was needed to be filled with mercury and his fake reasoning to get into the city was now in the Dalek’s possession and without it they can’t leave in the TARDIS.

Either way, they have to go back into the city, but they still have to convince The Thals to help them.

IAN: I will not allow you to use the Thals to fight for us.
DOCTOR: Are you challenging me?
IAN: Yes, I am.
BARBARA: Do I have any say in this?
IAN: Of course you do.
BARBARA: Well I think the Doctor’s right and I want to get out of here.
IAN: I am sorry, I’m not having anyone’s death on my conscience.
BARBARA: Except mine and Susan’s and the Doctor’s?

These scenes are fascinating to watch because it’s Ian and Susan who stand opposed to Barbara and the Doctor in the argument. Ian doesn’t want to ask pacifists to fight if they don’t want to, whilst Barbara and the Doctor point out that without their help they are probably going to be killed. It’s the first time we see Ian and Barbara on opposing sides, considering how they’ve already been supporting each other previously, and for the first time sees Barbara in a vein of self interest we’ve never seen before. Ian’s morally good action hero hat hasn’t wavered but also knows that without their help, the deaths of his friends and himself is also on the line. It is a very difficult choice to make.

The Doctor and his companions bickering in the Thal Camp.

Finally, because the bickering is getting them nowhere, Ian decides that the only way the Thals will help them is if they see there’s something in it for them.  Ian uses the Thal’s emotions against them. He claims that maybe they could trade one of the Thals, Dyoni for the fluid ink they need instead of any fighting needed. As Dyoni is Alydon’s intended partner, this makes him angry, and he hits Ian in the face and Ian shows them that fighting to protect their loved ones is something they must do because the Daleks will find a way of destroying them. It’s a powerful trick, but it works. Soon, they groups are working together to get into the Dalek City.

Now for me, this is where the serial starts to fall down a tad. There’s been a lot going on, a lot of intensity and darkness and worry for our characters, but when this plan starts to unfold for me it takes a long time. Also, because of the necessary inclusion of the Thals to the story, I feel like the separation of Susan and the Doctor and thus Ian and Barbara going on the expedition to find another way into the city means it loses the charm of their interactions.

Though that might be my bias, but even Ian and Barbara seem split even whilst they explore, as Barbara seems to spend time with another Thal, Ganatus, than with Ian, almost as though they’re trying to make a point but haven’t expressed what the point was? Perhaps they didn’t want to see Barbara who at this point is a strong independent woman be reliable on her friend, and want her to be helped by dashing alien instead? Either way, the change in dynamic seems strange, and despite a number of Thals being killed in the episodes that follow on the journey, I suspect it’s that feeling of watching a red shirt in Star Trek, if someone’s going to get the chop it’s not going to be our leads so each death doesn’t hit that hard because of it. It doesn’t help that their side of the journey doesn’t fully conclude until our last episode aswell so everything is still dragging out until then, which seems strange after the time jumps previously with Susan in the jungle and her journey to the TARDIS.

Whilst The Expedition is happening, The Daleks who took some of the anti radiation medicine are falling ill, proving their theory that they actually thrived off the radiation now instead of becoming sick by it. That they could radiate the planet again with another bomb and wipe out the Thals entirely. Meanwhile, The Doctor and Susan get themselves kidnapped by the Daleks whilst they’re out breaking their short circuits and causing trouble to be the decoy for the other party, with the hope of being the Daleks main focus they won’t notice Ian, Barbara and the Thals coming in the back door.

We finally come to the final chapter of our story, Ian and Barbara’s team run into Alydon’s team of Thals in the city, and they all decide to save the Doctor and Susan together in the control room. A fight ensues, and the Daleks overcome with surprise are defeated, but not without causing more Thal deaths. The TARDIS team are reunited and unharmed and have the fluid ink and they can finally leave Skaro.

As a serial, it’s not bad. I really loved watching the first three episodes again, but by the time I was watching the final three it all really seemed to drag for me. The Daleks are worth it however, a really awesome introduction to these horrid creatures, and such a massive part of their mythology as time continues the Daleks are seen twice more in William Hartnell’s era, and though I have yet to watch them they play a massive part in the rest of the Doctor’s classic era stories. I am more than just a little excited to see how these mutations continues to entertain and terrifying children throughout the classic era.

Next week tune in as we discuss The Edge of Destruction! What exactly is Susan doing with those scissors? What is going on with the TARDIS and why does it feel like we’re watching a very surreal one act play?

Also, my doodle for this week is again very quick I’m afraid, this is due to the fact I’m not actually with my drawing materials at the moment, but here’s a snapshot of Susan outside the TARDIS!

If Walls Could Talk: Musings From Under The Ice Pack

M.H. Norris

About six weeks ago, I started Krav Maga lessons as a way to get into shape. I’ve found the lessons to be a fun challenge.

How many crutches M.H. needs. (“And also a pile of crutches” – Nadya Peek)

I’m sure you’re wondering, what does this have to do with writing, Mary Helen?

Well. Most Tuesdays on The Time Travel Nexus, I write a weekly television-related post. Usually news, sometimes multiple stories, sometimes I fixate on one. Mondays and Thursdays usually find me at the gym, training, and this past Monday was no different. After a meeting with James to work on an upcoming short story, I found myself cutting it close to class and figured I would write yesterday’s post when I got home.

This is the part of this post where I put a note to consider submitting columns in advance.

This is also the part where I acknowledge I rarely follow this advice.

I arrived at class with minutes to spare and we begin. During one of the exercises we do (in fact, I feel the need to note for dramatic effect–we do this particular exercise every single class) I went to dodge, felt something pop in my ankle, and down I went.

First off, let me tell you that it HURT.

I sat down, watched the rest of class, and ended up calling for a ride to take me home so I wouldn’t have to drive.

And as I put ice on my ankle and wanted nothing more to lay down, I realized something.

I didn’t have a post for The Time Travel Nexus.

Between, Tina Marie Delucia, William Martin, James, and me, we worked to figure out how to make it work, to reach our goals.

The result?

We ended up with a stockpile of posts for The Time Travel Nexus. They really stepped it up.

Writing is often thought of as a solitary activity. You sit for hours at your computer typing away at the work of art you are creating.

But it’s far from it.

Writers need editors, publishers, other writers to bounce ideas off of. We need our friends and family to encourage us, to cheer us on, to understand why we say no to plans when a deadline looms ever nearer. When I joined The Time Travel Nexus, we were a team of three. Now we number around a dozen and are looking for new writers (you can find the information here). No matter what the fashion, writing is a team sport.

Especially when you’re sitting with your foot propped up, wrapped in an ace blanket.

Technically, the goal of this column week to week is for me to share what’s going on with my writing. Sometimes, I extend that to commentating on things I’ve seen or read recently.

What I’m currently going through right now is learning that sometimes, it’s important that I push myself to write even if I don’t feel like it. Stephen King mentions in “On Writing” that he writes every, single day – Christmas and his birthday included.

I have often confessed that I don’t have that kind of discipline.

But sometimes I have to push myself. After all, as a writer it is important I meet my deadlines. And with pushing myself, comes the satisfaction of overcoming obstacles to complete the task.

Worthy of Stories: Voynich

By J Patrick Allen

On a sunny day in 1912, an eccentric book dealer named Wilfred Voynich walked in to a Jesuit college in Italy. What he purchased there would confound antiquarians, historians, and linguistics professors for decades to come: A 246 page book of apparent antiquity containing bizarre images of imaginary plants, bathing women, and occult diagrams.

This archaeological curiosity would become known to the world as the Voynich Manuscript.

Thanks to the miracle of radio carbon dating, we can trace the beginning of the Manuscript’s story to the fifteenth century (somewhere between the years of 1404 and 1438), though who penned it is a mystery. We know that it was at least two authors and a separate illustrator. Thus, the Manuscript was a collaborative work—but of what?

That has been the subject of popular and wild speculation for years. Theories abound from magical texts penned by such stars of history as John Dee and Roger Bacon to extra-terrestrial influence. Far more mundane, some have speculated an attempt to create a written form of a now-dead spoken language, and a codex of that language’s culture. What truly fascinates me, dear reader, is just how thoroughly the book has confounded cryptographers and linguistic scientists. For decades, we inched no closer to truly understanding the manuscript than we were when the whole mess began.

The book’s history is almost as colorful as its pages. Alchemists and doctors, a Pope, and renowned scholars. One of its previous owners has a crater on the moon named after him for his contributions to science. Colleges have held the manuscript, and it was “liberated” from Catholic ownership by the troops of Padre della Patria, Victor Emmanuel, King of Sardinia and Italy. Men of power and learning have long been attracted to its literally arcane allure.

What do we know about the Manuscript?

Its purpose is now believed by many to be medicinal in purpose, utilizing that fascinating Renaissance belief that a truly holistic understanding of the natural world encompassed the physical sciences as well as the occult. It is a book of three parts: Botanical, astrological, and… something else. Alchemical? The last is not truly clear. It illustrates hundreds of nude, possibly pregnant, women residing in baths. In turn, these baths are built in to vessels that greatly resemble illustrations of the kinds of alchemical alembics and sundries found in other manuscripts of the time.

The most exciting thing about the manuscript—something I was unaware of until beginning research for this blog—is that we have the beginnings of a decryption. Stephen Bax, a professor of Modern Languages and Liguistics at the Open University of Britain believes he’s found Rosetta stones scattered throughout the text: Familiar groupings of characters that could potentially be identified with known constellations and plants. Through continued study, he believes that one day we may be able to fully transcribe and read the Manuscript in English.

Who made the Manuscript, and for what cause? Cloistered monks? Italian Witches? Martians? What ever the answers may be, the Voynich Manuscript is certainly worthy of stories.

Further Reading:

Soph Watches Classic Doctor Who – The Daleks (Part 1 of 2)

By Sophie Iles

This week in this series we get to our first really meaty serial of Doctor Who, which to this day leaves a lasting mark on our favourite Time Lord as this serial introduces us to Terry Nation’s Daleks for the very first time. As this is a seven episode epic, I’m going to only talk about the first two episodes, which I think considering the fact the rest of serial drags out a lot and the story dynamic changes from the beginning of episode three it’s a good place to stop. This means in this article I will be talking about The Dead Planet and The Survivors and even with just these two episodes there is a lot to talk about…

The Dead Planet is as creepy as it’s supposed to be, an introduction to what in the future will be classed as the planet Skaro, the home planet of the Daleks. The episode is also as simple as it sounds, introducing what will be quite a formulaic approach to Doctor Who in the future, landing on a planet, exploring it and getting into trouble. Something that happens here for the first time.

Not without a little meddling from the Doctor however, but I’ll get to that soon enough…

When they first arrive Ian, Barbara, Susan and the Doctor are fascinated and terrified admittedly by the place and its stone cold death like manner. They are unaware that the radiation on the planet is incredibly high and causing them to slowly become sick, and discover that there is a city past the jungle they had landed in. With some meddling from the Doctor, they decide to go take a look in the city, but not before Susan believes she was touched by someone in the forest, and that a strange box of vials was left outside their TARDIS…something unfortunately they put on the ship before continuing their adventures.  

It is in this city we meet the Daleks, a race that Whovians need no introduction to these days. They have been in the show many times in the last fifty years but now is the first time the Doctor meets them on screen; the metal casing and the balls formed on the outside, the toilet plunger tool for a weapon and of course the blaster gun and its creepy eyestalk — and that’s without the voice barking in a vibrating tone ordering about our heroes. I’ll be honest, the point of view shot cliffhanger when a Dalek is heading towards Barbara is one of my favourite cliffhangers in the entirety of Doctor Who.

Barbara Wright meets a Dalek for the first time.

Before I skip on to the story chunks of the next episode I really do love the first episode because there are some beautiful character moments in The Dead Planet with each character, so let’s have a good look at those.

Firstly, The Doctor’s curiosity is something that we are familiar with in the show. This is the first time we really see it in action. At first, the Dead Planet interests him but not enough to stay for a long period — until they see the city off into the distance. This changes everything. This even leads the Doctor to even temporarily break the TARDIS on purpose, and lie to all his passengers so they are all forced to go explore the city just for his gain. If only he had checked the radiation counter again, there wouldn’t be the certain danger that followed…perhaps he’d might not be so foolish…

Meanwhile Ian and Barbara’s moment come two fold in this episode over two conversations, firstly, Ian’s bold acceptance that this is how it’s going to be whilst travelling with the Doctor is apparent. Compared to the first time he steps out of the TARDIS, dazed and bewildered and completely skeptical, here he is taking the new adventure in his stride. Barbara is less enthusiastic this time. She had obviously hoped for Earth, she clearly hopes for something she is able to recognise. After all their first adventure was cavemen and no matter how foreign they seem, it is something she had probably read about as a history teacher. Dying planets and metal creatures are something far out of her understanding and it puts her at a disadvantage.

IAN: Try not to be too upset
BABARA: I counted so much on just going back to things I recognise and trust. But here there’s nothing to rely on. Nothing.
IAN: Well, there’s me. Barbara, all I ask you to do is believe, really believe, we’ll go back. We will, you know.
BARBARA: I wish I was more like you. I’m afraid I’m a very unwilling adventurer.
IAN: I’m not exactly reveling in it myself.

It’s the conversation about trust that I love so much in this episode. They can’t trust in anything but each other in that moment. They can’t even trust the Doctor yet (which he’s obviously made apparent the cheeky alien that he is) and Susan is still learning so they can go in blind to these exploits but at least they’re not alone and I think in some mad way — this is something I love about having more than one companion in the TARDIS, and something that I think sometimes lacks in the New Who series, that feeling of togetherness. The Doctor is an alien, and no matter how many pop culture references he makes or how much he will eventually love Earth, the companion is always the one who has to be on the back foot and so the idea that it’s okay to be scared and at least we have each other feels like a very powerful message to me, for all age groups and all different types of relationships. That, or I’m really just a big softie myself.

Lastly we have Susan and her adoration of the nature that she finds on the planet which is another favourite moment of mine; not to mention her sadness when Ian breaks said flower, accidentally when Barbara screams in fright at a dead metal creature. We are so focused on Ian and Barbara’s fear about not getting home and here is Susan finding beauty even on this sad and lonely planet. Basically what I’m saying here is Susan Foreman must be protected at all costs and her role only gets better as the episodes go on.

The Dead Planet leads neatly into the next episode The Survivors, where we watch as the TARDIS team are captured by the Daleks and are all suffering from radiation sickness, the Doctor more than the others. It finally comes out that he was lying to get the team in the city in the first place and Ian and Barbara don’t even have the energy left to be upset. The Doctor is basically dying for all of the episode and the feeling of intensity just grows and grows as it’s unsure how any of them will survive.

It becomes clear that the Daleks believe they are something to do with The Thals, a ‘mutated’ race that live out in the jungle. But The Doctor explains to their captors they are just travellers and so The Daleks confirm that the box that was left near their TARDIS is the drugs they need to survive. They decide they will let one of them go to get the item in question so they can cure their ailment and protect themselves against the radiation. Ian wants to go of course, but thanks to his being a heroic fool at the beginning of the episode, the Daleks shot at him and temporarily paralyzed his legs. Despite Ian’s displeasure at doing so, and Barbara’s insistence that she’s just a child, Ian tells Susan it is up to her to save the day. This young time lady who before this point has probably not had to do anything like this before, scared to death and visibly shaking, as her teachers and her grandfather are dying in a Dalek cell has no choice but to take up the mantel. She goes back out into the terrible jungle to try and get back to the TARDIS and get the vials they need.

The Doctor being interrogated by the Daleks for the first time.

As Ian recovers with his legs, he like Barbara and the Doctor continue to suffer with the radiation sickness and its dark nature actually made me cry at the screen for Susan to succeed like I was watching a football game. Susan runs through the forest for a few screen minutes before to everyone’s relief she gets to the TARDIS, gets the drugs and almost decides to wait there. We hear Ian’s sick voice as a memory to tell her to come straight back and then she opens the doors again and leads us straight into another cliffhanger moment, back out into the jungle.   

You can’t help but be hooked by this point, even though I have seen this episodes that follow, the questions still fall on the tip of my tongue: What will happen next? Will she meet the ‘mutated’ Thals? How will they escape the Daleks? Will the drugs actually help or will it make things worse? Will Susan get back in time? You can’t help but wonder what the families thought as they watched this for the first time around their television sets in the 1960s and it’s that sort of intrigue and passion that I believe keeps these stories alive fifty years later.

Next week, we learn about how Daleks hold objects, we meet the Thals, we watch our favourite TARDIS crew trick a Dalek and watch as we get a tiny glimmer of what the original Dalek mutation looked like and see just how they get away from Planet Skaro together out of the firing pan and into another proverbial fire that is The Edge of Destruction.

There’s no doodle this week, but instead have a picture of me pretending to be Ian in The Survivors holding my legs back in April at the Doctor Who Experience:

Longdog Library: 1893 – The Year of The Nesbit

By John Linwood Grant

Today for the Longdog Library we browse some Victorian oddities, and end up going supernatural and historical at the same time. Why? Well, because every fine library should contain a selection of classic books from the year 1893. Trust me. They may not all be brilliant – or, indeed, entirely readable – but many of them are certainly odd.

For example, published that year you have Byron Alden Brooks’s ‘Earth Revisited’, one of those end-of-the-century Utopian novels. Early SF, basically, though with a lot of spiritualism thrown in.  Brooks, incidentally, is credited as inventing the first typewriter where you could shift between upper and lower case. Also in 1893, H Rider Haggard published what he considered to be the last of his decent books, Montezuma’s Daughter, though I’m not sure I’d recommend that one.

Then there’s Hartman the Anarchist, or the Doom of the Great City, by Edward Fawcett, brother of the explorer Percy Fawcett – who disappeared looking for the Lost City of Z (recently filmed). The illustrated 1893 version of this tale of anarchists, socialists, giant airships and the like is often overlooked, but always worth a browse, especially when London is set ablaze from the air.

Or how about Anatole France’s At the Sign of the Reine Pédauque, which tells of the struggles of a young meat-turner amongst alchemists and wicked uncles? Part of the novel draws on ‘Comte de Gabalis’, a 17th-century French occult book by the Abbé de Villars, and the main alchemist is on the hunt for salamanders. The magickal kind, not the newt-like fellers.

However, we covered a lot of men in our previous outing, so let’s pick out a female writer who had two collections published in that same year. Do you remember those heady days? We laughed, we shared brandy by the Seine, and you were sick in a gendarme’s hat. We snuggled close and read E Nesbit’s scary tales. Later that year, the First Matabele War started in South Africa, so we went back to knitting socks for the missionaries. The Nesbit carried on, to some acclaim.

Edith Nesbit

Edith Nesbit (1858-1924) was a typical British housewife of her time. Oh, apart from:

  • Her friendship with Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist dissident
  • The fact that she adopted two children fathered by her first husband, and let the mother live with them as secretary
  • Her Marxist-socialist beliefs and involvement in founding the Fabian Society
  • The seventy or eighty books she wrote or co-wrote
  • Her political lecture tours, which included the London School of Economics

Strange, then, that nowadays she is best known as a children’s author, the woman who wrote the Railway Children, The Five Children and It, the Bastable series and the Enchanted Castle. Not that these have been without influence. Her children’s stories are referenced in C S Lewis’s Narnia series; Noel Coward and J B Priestley both admired her work.

Gore Vidal wrote in the New York Review of Books, in 1964:

There are those who consider The Enchanted Castle Nesbit’s best book. J. B. Priestley has made a good case for it, and there is something strange about the book which sets it off from the bright world of the early stories. Four children encounter magic in the gardens of a great deserted house. The mood is midnight. Statues of dinosaurs come alive in the moonlight, the gods of Olympus hold a revel, Pan’s song is heard. Then things go inexplicably wrong. The children decide to give a play. Wanting an audience, they create a number of creatures out of old clothes, pillows, brooms, umbrellas. To their horror, as the curtain falls, there is a ghastly applause. The creatures have come alive, and they prove to be most disagreeable.

(Yalding Towers, incidentally, from the Enchanted Castle, is a setting in Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.)

Her approach to writing children was less sentimental than many, making her legacy more important. Some call her the first of the modern children’s fantasists, escaping the twee or moral tales of earlier Victorian writers. As a result, adaptations and derivations continued long after her death.  The Psammead stories are well known. Jenny Agutter’s career (see also further down) was boosted by her performances in two adaptations of The Railway Children (1968 and 1970), which allowed her to have less clothes on in Walkabout (1971) and Logan’s Run (1976). These latter two films certainly influenced many teenagers. Ahem.

And Michael Moorcock wrote a series of books with an adult Oswald Bastable (The Warlord of the Air, The Land Leviathan, The Steel Tsar), drawing partially on Nesbit’s Fabian views of where the British Empire should be going.

But to the point. E Nesbit wrote four collections of ghost or supernatural tales. Something Wrong (1893), Grim Tales (1893), Tales Told in the Twilight (1897) and Fear (1910). Naomi Alderman wrote, of Nesbit’s ghost stories:

“There is darkness in the corners of these stories, like that gathering shadow – ordinary callousness turning into something more disturbing.”  Guardian Arts (2016)

Her ghost stories are variable. Some contain musings which could have been left out, others evoke a worrying mood but don’t exactly scare. However, when she gets it right, she is excellent, with a less “period” style than some of her contemporaries, and she can be truly chilling. She evokes images of the dead who are determined (or cursed) to keep going long after the grave has beckoned. And when I say images, I mean not only intangible revenants but also too, too solid dead flesh. In fact, she has a penchant for corporeal returns, which places her firmly in the horror genre.

As I can’t go into every scary E Nesbit story here, you might start in 1893 with her volume ‘Grim Tales’. This collection includes two of her most anthologised stories, ‘John Charrington’s Wedding’ and ‘Man-Size in Marble’.

  • The Ebony Frame
  • John Charrington’s Wedding
  • Uncle Abraham’s Romance
  • The Mystery Of The Semi-Detached
  • From The Dead
  • Man-Size In Marble
  • The Mass For The Dead

Within ‘Grim Tales’ you will find questions of the nature of love – the selfish and the selfless aspects of love are both explored. There are many unhappy endings, yet also sad visions of what might have been – and what might have been avoided. And as suggested earlier, you will find the determination of the dead to wreak damage. Things walk when they should not…

You could buy the book, but Grim Tales is also available free from Project Gutenberg, as is The Enchanted Castle (for children) mentioned above. Add them to your library one way or another.

If Walls Could Talk: The Arrowverse According to M.H. Norris and Mark Twain

M.H. Norris

I had fun going through Doctor Who’s Series 10 finale with Mark Twain’s rules of storytelling. I felt the Arrowverse deserved the same treatment. When I initially planned this post, I had only one rule in mind. But by searching through the rules to find the specific one I wanted, I found that the Arrowverse shows, The Flash, in particular, has violated several.

Before we begin, let me define terms for those of you who aren’t familiar with the term Arrowverse. The Arrowverse is made up of four television shows based off of various DC Comics: Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl. All four shows air on The CW and have a habit of crossing in and out of each other on various occasions.

Background established, let’s examine the mistakes that these four shows have made.

4) They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there

Honest truth, most of the shows do well with this. The Flash is the one that drops the ball, with Iris West in particular.

If you take a hard honest at the first three seasons of the show, you’ll see that her sole purpose is to create drama. Her character has done nothing to move the story forward, and she has no character traits outside of “creating drama.”

When writing characters, make sure they serve a purpose a purpose within the story. They have to move the story forward. They cannot take it back in an attempt to create angst and drama. There are few things that will turn your audience off like forced drama.

6) They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.

Once again, this goes to The Flash. With Barry temporarily out of the picture, someone has to take the lead on Team Flash. There are three characters who could take that role, all of whom make sense within the story that the creative team has set. There is one character that does not, Iris.

Yet, when the show returns back she is leading Team Flash. I’ve not-so-jokingly said that this is their attempt to give this character purpose.

These two rules play hand in hand with each other. The character must serve a purpose and they must fit the role you’re giving them.

In this example, nothing in Iris’ time on the show has justified the decision to let her lead Team Flash. These sorts of snap decisions, even if made with the intent of giving a character purpose, will turn off your audience.

Another example is Kara Danvers from Supergirl

From what was said, Kara is going to spend some time having a pity party over the fact that due to the events of the season finale her boyfriend had to leave Earth, never to return. This girl seems to be taking her forced breakup harder than she’s taking the death of her planet and people.

In fact, the so-called theme of the season is “what does it mean to be human?” A sensible measure of grief would be a great place to start.

Supergirl–who is supposed to be a strong, independent woman–is having a pity party and ditching her alter ego. She’s supposed to be the girl of steel. Instead, all of this is forced drama instead of a natural development to her established characterization.

This rule is about consistent characterization and having your characters not do things that seem out of character. Especially when you are writing a character in a series like these shows do. There’s a difference between letting your character grow and change and having them do something that doesn’t sit right with their character.

Make sure you’re on the right side of that line.

Those are the big two rules that were broken so far. I’m curious to see that if in the upcoming season, the shows course-correct. If you want more of my thoughts on the shows as a whole, check out my article on the Time Travel Nexus. (Speaking of, The Time Travel Nexus is doing an open submission period for new writers. If you are interested in writing about anything and everything time travel, take a look.)