Latest Blog Posts

Literary Archaeology: The Unexpected Night: Eclipses and HistFic

By Jon Black

2017 Eclipse at totality. Steelville, Missouri.

On August 21, 2017, millions of people in the United States witnessed a total solar eclipse. In the days leading up the event, eclipse-talk dominated watercooler conversations, social media, and even the national news. That eclipses command such attention in a scientific and technological era, when their processes and mechanics are fully understood, testifies to the grip such displays of cosmic forces have on us. One can only imagining how profound such events were during times and places lacking the paradigm to understand what was transpiring in the heavens above them.

All of that is a long, flowery way to say that the recent eclipse gave me an easy topic for this fortnight’s HistFic blog. Because of the significance ascribed to them, eclipses can be a powerful element in historical fiction. They, of course, offer an unforgettable backdrop for events. But it would be easy to take them one step further, making them a major plot point within a story.

At the Beginning

The ruins of Ugarit, site of the earliest known record of a solar eclipse.

For peoples with no understand of celestial mechanics, the disappearance of the sun was, understandably, an awe-inspiring, profound, and often terrifying event. Eclipses were often intended as divine omens or portents. The context of an eclipse recorded by Herodotus was a battle between the Lydians and Medes. Interpreting the eclipse as the gods’ displeasure with their warring, the armies sat down their weapons and made peace (to whatever extent we can take Herodotus at face value). An eclipse witnessed in China during 1302 BC was interpreted to mean the emperor had lost divine favor. He had abstain from meat and engage in other rituals to restore the sun … and his favor with the Celestial Court.

While it would take us beyond HistFic into the realm of time travel, historical fantasy, or alt-history … a character with foreknowledge of an eclipse (or the ability to accurately predict one) would appear to wield phenomenal and likely supernatural powers in pre-modern world before heliocentrism, the scientific method, or calculus.

The first conclusively recorded solar eclipse, written in cuneiform on clay tables from ancient Mesopotamia, occurred on May 3, 1375 BC (Coincidently, 3,090 years to the day before the first verifiably predicted eclipse).

Predicting Eclipses

Diagram of Eclipse, Georg von Peurbach, 15th Century

Herodotus (an entertaining but not always reliable source) alleges that the philosopher Thales of Miletus successfully predicted an eclipse (see above). No information is offered by Herodotus regarding how the prediction was made and considerable skepticism exists regarding this assertion. But, if true, it was likely the eclipse of May 28, 585 BC.

Early Chinese astronomers placed considerable emphasis on eclipses. Attempts to understand them were underway by the Warring States Period of the First century BC. The Chinese deduced the cause of Solar Eclipses by 20 BC and there is evidence they could predict eclipses with some reliability by the Third century AD and could even estimate the fraction of coverage by the Fourth century. 

The first absolutely verifiable prediction, however, was by Edmond Halley (of Halley’s Comet fame) who predicted a May 3, 1715 event visible over Britain and northern Europe.

Map of Halley’s 1715 Eclipse.

A Selection of Eclipses

The historicity of some of the eclipses presented below is debatable. Nevertheless, because they were (or are) widely believed in and constituted part of a cultural worldview for various peoples at various points in time they have been included along with their better documented counterparts.

July 31, 1063 BC, China. Another eclipse recorded by Chinese astronomers (no word if the emperor had to go vegetarian this time).

June 15, 763 BC, Mesopotamia. Documented by Assyrian astronomers at Nineveh.

33 AD, the Levant:  The darkness described as occurring during the Crucifixion of Jesus has long been interpreted by some people as referencing a literal solar eclipse. From the 16th to 19th centuries, it was fashionable among amateur (and not so amateur) astronomers and theologians alike to try to establish Good Friday’s exact date by dating the eclipse.

569 AD, Arabian Peninsula: The Quran records a total solar eclipse at the birth of Mohammed. Interestingly, Muslims traditionally do not ascribe any special portent to the celestial event, with Mohammed himself ascribed to have said “the sun and moon do not suffer eclipse for anyone’s life or death.”

1100 AD, North Africa. A total solar eclipse was described by Arab scientist and astronomer Ibn Yunus from his observatory near Cairo.

1131 AD: A solar eclipse is associated with the death of Henry I of England. Historian William of Malmesbury wrote that the “hideous darkness” unnerved the English people. More contemporary historians have speculated that chaos and social unrest sparked by the eclipse may have caused or deepened the civil war following Henry’s death.

June 8, 1918: Japan, the Pacific, and Western US. Occurring amidst the Spanish Influenza Epidemic and with WWI still in full swing, even a thoroughly modern person might be forgiven for thinking this eclipse a dire portent (Attention writers of period horror!).

[PHOTO 5: Painting of 1918 event by American Artist Howard Russel Butler. 

Painting of 1918 event by American Artist Howard Russel Butler.

May 29, 1919: South America to Africa. Occurring at a time when causes of eclipses were understood and their prediction well established, this event remains notable for helping confirm Einstein’s theory of general relatively. With the sun’s light obscured, scientists were able to measure the distortion of light from other stars caused by the sun’s gravity.

February 26, 1979: US Pacific Northwest and Northern Great Plains. The last total solar eclipse visible in the US prior to 2017, this event created unprecedented multi-state traffic jams along interstates and highways as Americans took the roads to journey toward to totality. For writers, such a situation provides a fertile ground for Kerouacian chance encounters with almost every type of person possibility on the road, yet not going anywhere fast.

Leading up to the 2017 eclipse, speculation was rife that a larger population (nearly 90 million greater than in 1980) and ease of access to online information about the eclipse might lead to even more titanic traffic snarls. This proved not to be the case. One plausible interpretation is that the internet was an actually an asset rather than a liability. Dependent only on limited media coverage and word of mouth about the eclipse and with no equivalent of online maps or navigation apps, the 1979 event may have put more people onto fewer roads compared with today.

Photo of 1919 Eclipse taken by the expedition of Sir Arthur Eddington from the island of Principe.

Soph Watches Classic Doctor Who – The Keys of Marinus  (Part 3 of 3)

By Sophie Iles

The end is nigh! The Key of Marinus quest is almost over, but with a slight hitch. Ian’s being framed for murder and the last micro key has been stolen. Welcome my friends, to the final part of this adventure looking at The Sentence of Death and the Keys of Marinus. I like this serial, but I do feel that the end gets slightly rushed, but I feel that a lot with Terry Nation’s stories — at least these few that I’ve seen. Let’s go through this and find out for ourselves?

As per our cliffhanger, Ian has been set up for murder and theft, found knocked on the head on the floor by the body, fingers all over the murder weapon: a mace, locked in a vault, which he can’t have been allowed access to, where the micro key has been stolen. With all these thoughts in hand he must be guilty. It doesn’t help that in the lovely city of Millennius, the legal system is “guilty until proven innocent”. Doesn’t that make you feel a little uneasy? We after all know the truth, our audience hoping that someone will find evidence to prove his innocence

Of course, they’ve yet to reunite with the Doctor who we’ve not seen for two episodes.

Welcome back Doctor!

When he does turn up there is a little bit of fanfare of course, Susan practically tackles him, and once again you can really see there’s been so much development since these characters met, even between Susan and the Doctor, perhaps, dare I say it, having Ian and Barbara around have left him open up to his more sensitive side?

IAN: Doctor!
SUSAN: Grandfather!
BARBARA: How did you get here? ALTOS: We looked everywhere.
SUSAN: I’m just glad we’re back together again.
DOCTOR: Yes, so am I, dear child. So am I. However, we have some important work to attend to. Excuse me. Chesterton, you and I must have a talk.
IAN: We haven’t much time for a talk, Doctor. In a moment I’ve got to go in there and face an accusation of murder. I need a man to defend me.
DOCTOR: I am that man.

Alas, they still have hard work to do, as Ian needs to be proved innocent, even if the poor man who was murdered, Epiram was a friend of Altos’s, also sent to get the key by Arbitan, makes no difference. Concrete evidence is what they need. Which is why the Doctor promotes himself to defend Ian in court.

This episode really does prove how valuable the Doctor is to the team, despite the fact he’s not been around for almost an hour of this serial, here he is using logic to figure out that the murderer was either the relief guard who found Ian — or in cahoots with him. On meeting said relief guard, Aydan, they discover he’s a bit tetchy, doesn’t like them talking to his wife Kala and when they leave they stay by the door to see him hit her.

So, with this information at hand they pull a trick, claiming the fake micro key is the one they found in Aydan’s office when they call Sabetha for a witness. Aydan’s reaction shows his guilt, but before he can implement anyone else in the crime, he is killed in the courtroom by an unknown assassin. As Kala cries over her dead husband, all of this feeling very little like  a Doctor Who story and more like a satire of any court room case I’ve ever seen, they still believe Ian is guilty, with no proof that he isn’t the one who’s in league with Aydan.

Whoever killed the lad too is stirred up by it, because not long later, The Doctor still trying to plead for more time to find evidence, Barbara gets a phone call (though it looks more like a hairbrush but you’ve got to love 60’s predictions of future technology) claiming that they have Susan and are going to kill her. This ends Sentence of Death, which actually on it’s own is a fine episode, showing a lot of strong moments, but sadly, it’s the second part that I feel rushes through to the conclusion.

Barbara gets a distressing phone call from Susan….

The Keys of Marinus shows us, once again as she has done plenty of times this serial, Barbara takes charge of hopeless situations. She decides not to distract the Doctor, but to try and find Susan herself with the help of Altos and Sabetha, tying the link that perhaps Kala might know Susan’s kidnapper if it was someone her husband’s dealt with. On talking to her however, she cries and exclaims she doesn’t know anything…and without realising it implicates herself in the crime!

KALA: I know of no one. My husband was very secretive. He never told me who he saw or where he went. Now, please, Aydan is dead. If he committed a crime, he’s paid for it. He’s dead, but I’ll have to live with the memory of his crime for the rest of my life.
BARBARA: I’m sorry, but you see, you’re our only help.
KALA: Leave me alone. Leave me alone. I do understand and I sympathise with you. You must have been sick with worry since you spoke to Susan, but I just can’t help you. I know nothing.
BARBARA: I’m sorry.
ALTOS: Come on.
BARBARA: Please understand, we had to try. Goodbye.

After they’ve left she has the lightbulb moment, they never even mentioned about the telephone call to the wife, and therefore she’s the culprit behind the kidnapping! The three of them then sneak back in the flat just before she can murder Susan, to the relief of everybody capturing her.

The next sequence is one of my favourites, Ian has been tried for the murder, and he’s waiting on his sentence, and The Doctor can do nothing but sit and try to wrack his brain. He looks rather upset to have failed Ian, and the development of The First Doctor in this moment, is so heart breaking. A man who’s always rushing off to the next adventure, never staying in one place, and up until very recently had no love for the human’s he’s absconded away on his time machine and yet, despite the fact Ian is sentenced to death, he won’t give up on him or in clearing his name. Though Barbara is about to ring, and change the course of this scenario, the reaction of the Doctor being told to leave, still makes me incredibly proud of him.

TARRON: It’s time to leave, sir.
DOCTOR: Leave? I can’t leave now. I must find new evidence and re-open the case…

The Doctor who failed Ian Chesterton…

But with the revelation that Kala murdered her husband, Susan said that her accomplice would be “along to collect the key” and the Doctor finally realises a way to trap the murderer, because he claims he knew all along where the key was hidden, inside the murder weapon itself.

So, when they catch the prosecutor red handed trying to steal it alone with Tarron of Millennius’s police guard. They not only have the key, but they also have Ian safe and sound back with them so they can return to Arbitan.

Whilst Susan, Ian, Barbara and the Doctor say their goodbyes, Sabetha and Altos go on ahead, to find what was their home with Arbitan taken over by the Voord, and by Yarkek, their leader. He is dressed as Arbitan in his robes, and interrogates the pair about the micro key and it’s whereabouts. Sabetha tries to claim that Altos means nothing to her to save him, but it doesn’t work, and Yartek threatens to hurt the other if he doesn’t get any answers.

The Voord at this point really are a great villain, but with only ten minutes left of the episode, it’s clear that everything is going to be summed up fairly quickly and makes them lacking in reality.

Susan, Ian, Barbara and the Doctor arrive back in the building too with their travel dials, and when they reunite in the corridor, (it is one of the sweetest examples of the friendship of this group might i add) they end up splitting up in search of their new friends and for Arbitan after they attacked by a Voord soldier again. Ian takes the key, and has been told explicitly not to give it over unless he’s absolutely sure, but when he and Susan find Yartek, the Voord claims that it really is him but he is dying of a horrid disease and so covers his hood. For a long and rather annoying moment, I am sure that Ian believes the rouse — until he questions Yartek about Altos when he claims to believe Sabetha had picked up the young man on her adventure, when he in fact had been his assistant.

But even with that, Ian makes sure to leave on a good note. He gives over a key alright, but it’s the dummy key. A key that Sabetha warns will disturb the computer and set it to destroy the building, the supercomputer and everyone inside with it. They all get out of the labyrinth of a building just in time, where Altos and Sabetha hand in hand plan to return to Millennius to live together, whilst the Doctor and his companions have places next to visit.

It’s a lovely way to end the serial, Barbara looking off longingly as their new friends go off to start off somewhere new, whilst Ian taps her shoulder gently to join him in the TARDIS. They’ve settled into this life now of danger and adventure, and it shows despite the obvious wishes to return back to home. It’s a nice ending, but it is still incredibly rushed at the end which for me is it’s only downfall.

So, what’s next week? It’s another historical of course! Join us next week to watch the Aztecs, and how Doctor’s first ever real efforts to make sure they don’t meddle with history starts to take shape.

As for this weeks doodle? You have Sabetha standing up to Yartek. Enjoy!

PS: If you like the idea of the Voord, one of my favourite First Doctor Big Finish Stories is Domain of the Voord and I think it’s one of my favourite Big Finish stories, elaborating on Voord history, lifestyle and religion and some very exciting and terrifying adventures with relatives of Yarket involved.

Longdog Library: Ain’t No Witch – Hoodoo and the Blues

By John Linford Grant

Never let it be said that the Longdog Library is limited in its scope. For example, you might not know that it includes sundry volumes on hoodoo and conjure-work, kept carefully surrounded by a circle of Hot-Foot Powder. I’ve always had an abiding interest in the Cunning Folk of Europe, the hedge-wizards, wise women and others, often Christian (though not always), who could be called upon for protection against curses, hexes and blights. In the US, whilst Wicca, historical witchcraft, and voodoo or vodun, are fascinating in themselves, the real roots that interest me there are those of hoodoo, which is something different.

“Because sometimes I’m waitin’ at the crossroads, but I does it how I choose,” said Mamma Lucy. “I ain’t one of your mamalois, Voodoo girls or Sant-eria ladies, liftin’ their skirts when you come callin’, neither.”
John Linwood Grant, ‘Tales of the last Edwardian’

Historically, as with many of the Cunning Folk, the guiding principle for most hoodoo was belief in God and the Bible. Where Caribbean and New Orleans spiritual movements blended Catholic saints with African belief systems, a lot of hoodoo folk were Protestant in one form or another. Voodoo and hoodoo get confused, but they ain’t the same.

You might call hoodoo a dominant blend of African beliefs, with threads of European herb and symbolic lore pulled in as well. Much conjure-work links back to Ewe and Fon lore from West Africa. If it was a predominantly black road, it didn’t automatically exclude whites, because it slowly blended with folklore from European immigrants, especially Germanic ones. It came from the big slave plantations, but it spread into communities through freedmen and women, and had resonances for many poor and disenfranchised people. It absorbed elements of Native American herbalism, and became its own thing. Root-work is one other name, from the use of medicinal or magical roots and herbs.

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), the black novelist and folklorist, wrote a study of Afro-American folklore, including discussion of hoodoo, root work and conjuration in her 1935 collection of tales, ‘Mules and Men’. One crossover example is ‘The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses’, a magical text allegedly written by Moses, passed down as hidden portions of the Old Testament. A grimoire, a collection of magical incantations and seals, the text circulated in Germany from at least the 1700s, passed through immigrants such as the Pennsylvania Dutch, and entered both white general folklore and black Christian hoodoo.

One of Manly Wade Wellman’s books

The writer Manly Wade Wellman also slipped in to my mind when I came across a copy of  ‘Pow-wows, or The Long Lost Friend’. This book crops up in a number of Wellman’s stories. This is another genuine ‘grimoire’ from the 1820s, by one Johann Georg Hohman, and was originally called Der Lange Verborgene Freund.

“Bind,” he said to someone over me. “Bind, bind. Unless you can count the stars, or the drops in the ocean, be bound.”
It was a spell-saying. “From the Long Lost Friend?” I asked.
M W Wellman, ‘Vandy Vandy’, (1953)

‘The Long Lost Friend’ is a mixture of spells, charms and remedies for everyday use. Like the Books of Moses, it initially entered hoodoo through the Pennsylvanian Dutch and other groups of Germanic origin. It crossed relatively easily into hoodoo because it also puts Christianity in the driving seat and emphasis belief in the Bible as core. ‘Pow-wows’ was added to later editions, in reference to real or supposed Native American practices.

“The book has remained quite popular among practitioners of Hoodoo… James Foster noted that many shops in Harlem and Brooklyn stocked The Long Lost Friend in 1957.”
–Daniel Harms, ‘The Long Lost Friend: A 19th Century American Grimoire’ (2012)

And if you write about hoodoo from around the early 20th Century, you can’t avoid the blues. You also can’t avoid Aunt Caroline Dye. Despite her association with hoodoo, Caroline Dye was a psychic, a fortune-teller –  there’s less evidence of her performing root-work, setting up actual spells. People went to her for readings, and they went in their thousands.

Aunt Caroline Dye

She was born to enslaved parents in Jackson County, Arkansas – or in Spartanburg, South Carolina. There are different versions, both of her origins and her death. The earliest suggestion of her birth is 1810, which seems unlikely, and the more accepted one is in the 1840s. As Caroline Tracy, a name which seems to have come from her family’s original owners (a phrase which should never have had to be typed), she married Martin Dye of Sulphur Rock, some time after the American Civil War.

Called “one of the most celebrated women ever to live in the Midsouth”, she is said to have died September 26th, 1918 (which would have made her 108 years old – or, more likely, in her seventies). She is buried in Jackson County. Caroline Dye was supposed to have the ‘second sight’ even when she was young, but became famous for being a seer after the Dyes set up home in Newport, Arkansas, around 1900. 

Despite the dates above, others such as catherine yronwode of have compiled evidence that suggests Caroline Dye may have been around longer. One of the problems is that there are mentions of her in music which suggest she was alive in 1930, when Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band recorded their song about her. This details Dye’s hometown as Newport News, in Virginia, but the song’s music and a verse was lifted from the band’s 1927 song Newport News Blues, so that was probably just convenient (or locally popular).

Others have spoken as if she was around until 1936-37. This may have been the general remembrance of a notable figure. It may even have been complicated by the tendency for famous ‘names’ in fortune-telling and hoodoo to be adopted by later practitioners. So there may have been a second ‘Caroline Dye’, no relation but using her reputation.

Dye was ‘the gypsy’ in the 1914 song “The St. Louis Blues,” according to W.C. Handy, who wrote it.  He later names her directly, in his 1923 song “Sundown Blues.”

For I’m going to Newport
I mean Newport Arkansaw
I’m going there to see Aunt Car’line Dye
Why she’s a reader
And I need her
Law! Law! Law! She reads your fortune, and her cards don’t lie.
I’ll put some ashes in my sweet Papa’s bed,
So he can’t slip out, Hoodoo in his bread

In 1937, Johnny/Johnnie Temple named her again in his Hoodoo Woman song:

Well, I’m going to Newport,
          just to see Aunt Caroline Dye
Well, I’m going to Newport,
        just to see Aunt Caroline Dye
She’s a fortune teller, hooo, Lord,
        she sure don’t tell no lie

She also crops up in “Wang Dang Doodle,” (1960) by Howlin’ Wolf and Koko Taylor. This is a curious song about rowdy merry-making. It borrows from black oral history, including lesbian nicknames of earlier times. The original reference to Fast Talkin’ Fannie, for example, used a word other than Talkin’.

Dye would read futures and make predictions. Her most commonly quoted method was using cards, as in Handy’s lyrics. It’s said that she wouldn’t help in romantic matters, though, and told people that they should sort their own love lives out. She did offer to find lost people, lost cattle and other items through reading her deck, or through her visions.

“Going to go see Aunt Caroline” became a common saying among black people of the time, and as she grew famous, she became respected by many whites as well. She reportedly died a landowner with substantial fortune. In the 1960s, Will Shade from the Memphis Jug Band spoke of her having wider powers. He said of her:

“White and Colored would go to her. You sick in bed, she raise the sick. Conjure, Hoodoo, that’s what some people say, but that’s what some people call it, conjure.”

Interview by Paul Oliver, ‘Conversation with the Blues’.
“Seven Sisters ain’t nowhere wit’ Aunt Caroline Dye; she was the onliest one could break the record with the hoodoo.”
— ibid

The Seven Sisters were supposed sisters in 1920’s New Orleans. As usual, controversy surrounds their nature. Some say they were genuine sisters, others that they were just seven women working together, and it’s even been claimed that they were one woman in different guises. The name also crosses concepts of seventh sons and seventh daughters being special. And as with Caroline Dye, they were well known for their psychic abilities or clairvoyance.

They tell me Seven Sisters in New Orleans that can really fix a man up right
They tell me Seven Sisters in New Orleans that can really fix a man up right
And I’m headed for New Orleans, Louisiana, I’m travelin’ both day and night.
They tell me they’ve been hung, been bled, and been crucified
They tell me they’ve been hung, been bled, and been crucified
But I just want enough help to stand on the water and rule the tide.

As to hoodoo itself, apart from mid-century and later commentaries, it’s interesting to read earlier writers. One source is Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858 – 1932), an African-American author, essayist, political activist and lawyer. Chesnutt was born in Cleveland, Ohio, his parents being ‘free persons of color’ from North Carolina. His position was odd – Chesnutt was legally white in some States, black in others. In a shameful time of Jim Crow laws in America, many state had a ‘one drop’ rule, which meant that even if you had only a single grandparent or great-grandparent who was black, you could be discriminated against. North Carolina adopted ‘one drop’ legislation in 1923. Chesnutt’s paternal grandfather was known to be a white slaveholder, and he would have had other white ancestors. Despite his outward appearance, he identified as African American, and never chose to be known as white.

Charles Waddell Chesnutt

Here’s a passage from his essay ‘Superstitions & Folklore of the South’:

“Conjuration: The only professional conjure doctor whom I met was old Uncle Jim Davis, with whom I arranged a personal interview. He came to see me one evening, but almost immediately upon his arrival a minister called. The powers of light prevailed over those of darkness, and Jim was dismissed until a later time, with a commission to prepare for me a conjure ‘hand’ or good luck charm, of which, he informed some of the children about the house, who were much interested in the proceedings, I was very much in need. I subsequently secured the charm, for which, considering its potency, the small sum of silver it cost me was no extravagant outlay. It is a very small bag of roots and herbs, and, if used according to directions, is guaranteed to insure me good luck and ‘keep me from losing my job’. The directions require it to be wet with spirits nine mornings in succession, to be carried on the person, in a pocket on the right hand side, care being taken that it does not come in contact with any tobacco.”
Modern Culture, volume 13. 1901

His collection ‘The Conjure Woman’ (1899) is available on-line, and also includes the full essay

There is one problem with writing about hoodoo, by the way. It’s difficult to get right, and yet sometimes difficult to get wrong. People did make up ‘spells’ to suit them. There are so many variants, and styles of traditional conjure-work can be personal to a practitioner, or peculiar to a geographical area. The terminology varies across the States, and some branches came from passed-down pamphlets, others through family word of mouth.

So be careful, now.

One of John Linwood Grant’s Mamma Lucy stories, “Hoodoo Man,” is in the 18thWall Productions anthology Speakeasies and Spiritualists, curated by Nicole Petit. His new collection A Persistence of Geraniums & Other Worrying Tales is available on Amazon.

Having You Readers Hanging On A Hook

M.H. Norris

A few months ago, I wrote a post about The Vinyl Detective: Written In Dead Wax by Andrew Cartmel. And if you didn’t take my advice then to come and read it, I suggest you do so now.

Seriously go to the bookstore, buy it, and then come back. I’ll be here.

One thing Cartmel does in the book is that it has two parts (like a vinyl record has two sides). It was a cliffhanger worth of a penultimate episode of a television show. Like I said before but I’m going to say again, Cartmel has a fantastic way of weaving all these threads together to make the beautiful tapestry that is The Vinyl Detective: Written In Dead Wax.

Recently, I was working on something and doing so on a very tight deadline. To attempt to keep myself from getting overwhelmed (you can ask James–I wasn’t overly successful at times) I tried breaking it down into sections.

Going from section to section, I wanted to link them all together with hooks. Sometimes it was a struggle. With a hook inside a story, do you want to go big and bad or do you want to do something smaller yet compelling to press your readers forward.

How can you get your readers holding your book at 3AM unable to sleep because they’re so involved in your story?

That’s the golden question, isn’t it?

Here’s some things I’ve either learned or observed about hooks.

Learn from Television

I’ve been watching NCIS through for the first time, these last few months, and made it to Season 11 in the last week. The Season 10 cliffhanger was interesting; it utilized a time jump to leave you hanging.

Not particularly caring what time it was (luckily it wasn’t too late), I of course hit “next episode” to watch the Season 11 premiere. They took most of the episode to resolve the cliffhanger. It worked really well. It kept you on the edge of your seat, wanting to know what happens. Keep in Mind this is an advanced tactic. It can easily be done poorly. James has thrown books out which skip over the dramatic event, playing with revealing elements of it, instead of exploring it outright. Don’t join these books in James’ trash. But it is an option.

Television lives and dies by its hooks, which convince you the show really is worth sitting through those commercials for. Strong hooks can keep your readers, well, reading.

When considering how to insert hooks into your story, use television shows as an example. The space between commercials in a television show are called Acts. It used to be that shows were set on a four act structure but in the last five years or so, shows have been moving to six. Each of the acts have their own little cliffhanger that gets you to stay through the commercials to see what happens.

How Does this Apply to Prose Writing?

There is the idea that you need to hook your reader in the first chapter of your book. From there the trick is to find reasons to keep people reading–find the hooks to keep them reading. Just because you keep them past Chapter One doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to keep them the whole book.

I have sat down a book, partially read. Sometimes it’s because of writing errors–sometimes, they haven’t given me a reason to keep reading.

The most common form I’ve seen in fiction is chapter to chapter hooks. Often times, people will read to the end of the chapter, and then sit the book down. You need to be their reason to pick it back up

Another thing I often ask myself is why should readers care? Why should they keep reading?

What can be used as a hook?

1) Plot Points

This is the most common type of hook. You end the chapter with a new plot point. In my own writing, I often use this in the form of killing yet another character (though in Notches I also used it for kidnappings as well).

Even if you don’t outline, you’ve got a general sense of where this story is going to go. In the instance of Midnight, I had a bunch of plot points:

  • New Murders
  • Key Clues
  • Introduction of Suspects
  • The Climax
  • The Fall-Out

Sometimes, transitioning from one point to another can help you use plot points as hooks.

2) Character Beats

Regularly relegated to the B-story, character moments can serve as hooks. This is especially handy in a series where you’ve set questions about a character and are ready to answer them.

Often, a revealing character moment can be more powerful than plot point. What is happening to your characters in your story?

In my short story, “All that Jazz” (from the brilliant Nicole Petit’s Speakeasies and Spiritualists), I close every section on a hook. Most of these hooks relate to Margaret’s stress and mental state. She witnessed a particularly gory murder, and as she tries to solve it the images and emotions keep getting thrown back at her. This was much more impacting than having another new dead body every few pages.


Often, stress is put on hooking your readers in and making sure that they stay from cover to cover and story to story.

By weaving in things to hook your reader, to keep them reading scene to scene, chapter to chapter you will hook them in.

Soph Watches Classic Doctor Who – The Keys of Marinus  (Part 2 of 3)

By Sophie Iles

So, next up on our list is our next part of our quest. In case you missed last week’s here’s the rundown. The Doctor and his crew have been asked by Arbitan or rather, blackmailed, to track down the Keys of Marinus. These keys are scattered across the planet Marinus and they are using travel dials that have been set to plan their journey across the planet to find them. They found the first key of the four that they need to get to activate the super computer to prevent the invasion of the Voord, a creepy alien race, so now the team have gone on during their next adventure…The Screaming Jungle.

Susan’s disturbed by the screaming jungle…

Susan, Barbara and Ian have arrived at their second location with two friends they’ve picked up along the way, Sebetha, Arbitan’s daughter and his assistant Atlos, but Susan is already freaking out the moment they arrive. She can hear something that everyone else can’t in this jungle in it’s simply freaking her out. After some consoling, Barbara and Susan have a moment where she tries to learn what she heard but Susan can’t place it only that the noise was horrible and terrifying. We also learn that Susan rushed off ahead because she can’t bare goodbyes because the Doctor was going ahead on his own to get the last key, (It’s really no surprise as this seems to be a ongoing family trait as we learn in later years) and was concerned to know if the Doctor was alright when she disappeared, and Barbara assured her he seemed find.

What’s really interesting to me about this serial is this is also the first time that we’ve seen the companions act on their own for an entire episode without the Doctor, and actually, as Classic Who proves time and time again, they are more than capable on their own. This moment also shows these two lovely women conversing in a manner they couldn’t with the Doctor around where Barbara is wishing that Ian wasn’t so protective, but also understand it in a nice piece of dialogue and a smug smile from Susan at the end:

BARBARA: I do wish Ian wouldn’t treat us like Dresden china.
SUSAN: I think it’s nice the way he looks after us all the time.
BARBARA: Yes, I know, but just once in awhile…
SUSAN: You rebel.

Whilst in this horrific jungle, Barbara finds the micro key they’re looking for, but alas, it’s obviously a trap and she gets stolen behind a revolving wall. The best part about this action is that even in danger, screaming as the wall takes her away, Barbara still throws them back the micro key she found. Good ole’ Barbara Wright doesn’t miss a trick as usual and obviously Ian is so determined to get her, that Ian stays in this place to help rescue her whilst Susan, Altos and Sebetha go on to the third location. It’s not until after Altos and Susan have gone are the group aware that Barbara’s find is actually a fake…but Sebetha goes on ahead to help the others, which gives us fourteen minutes of material of just Ian and Barbara working things out for themselves in a land of booby traps, (queueing my thinking about The Goonies whenever that word is mentioned.)

After almost being murdered by one of these booby trap, whilst Ian is locked in a cell, Barbara is saved by the traps creator Darrius, who trying to find out why she wants the mirco key. Again, I’m thrown back to my childhood Sundays of watching The Last Crusade on repeat as the Knight asks Indy why he seeks the Holy Grail, except imagine Indy wrapped in a net trying to explain himself…

DARRIUS: Who are you? What interest have you in the keys?
BARBARA: Look, I can’t talk to you like this. Let me go.
DARRIUS: Are you a Voord? You do not resemble their race and yet
BARBARA: Arbitan sent us.
DARRIUS: That is a lie.

Whilst Barbara explains Arbitan sent them, the old man is strangled by one of the jungle’s creepers and he dies before he can truly explain himself or the whereabouts of the micro key, leaving just a few words about whispering and darkness and a strange set of letters. This leaves Ian and Barbara having to manage on their own, becoming a little detective team. The chemistry between the characters is wonderful to watch as always, Barbara chiding Ian about getting excited about the man’s scientific experiments, which Ian tends to shut down Barbara’s outside the box thinking because of his own scientific logic. Despite their differences in approach It’s really fun to watch how these two work out a problem, and finally they’re able to find the key under pressure as the jungle tries to kill them when they understand that the code was actually the name of a chemical and not a code at all. 

Though I might add on the rewatch, the whispering jungle, which then tries to kill them does sound like a terrifying version of the TARDIS take off.

So, micro key in hand they finally turn their travel dials to the next location, but they’ve jumped from the frying pan into the fire…Well, when I say fire, I mean ice. Welcome to Episode four, The Snows of Terror.

Out of the frying pan, into the freezer

Ian and Barbara enter a new sub zero freezing temperature, where it’s so cold they are basically freezing to death, laying together on the ground, Ian begging Barbara not to fall asleep, reaching out his hand. Alas, they both collapse to the ground, and would be dead if not for the stranger that arrives to save them.

Barbara wakes up to Vasor, their creepy savior, who rubs her hands to help make sure she recovers from her temporary frostbite, and he really is creepy, and even if Barbara isn’t frightened I certainly would be but when a jungle and radiative monsters have tried to kill you, you can either be afraid of everything or feel prepared to fight everyone, and I personally believe Barbara is the latter.

VASOR: Your friend is here. He still sleeps. Your hand is slightly frostbitten. Put it in mine. We must help your friend like this too. Rub the hand slowly, like this. Yes? Understand? Are you afraid of me?
VASOR: Last year I broke the back of a wolf with my bare hands. I’m Vasar. Most men fear me, so I have few visitors. There, see? The blood is beginning to return.

Ian wakes, and they learn that Altos was looking for Susan and Sebetha and worried Ian decides he should go out and look for him and help find the girls, whilst Barbara stay with their creepy savior. Something I as an audience member is against from the get go. Sure enough, my instincts were right because Vasor has some of Sebetha’s micro key necklace and their time travel dials in his draw, whilst Ian finds Altos left for dead in the snow, and blames Vasor for it. The two men rush back to save Barbara just in the nick of time, outnumbering the trapper 3-1 and demand he help them find Susan and Sebetha, whom he reports are in a cave that he abandoned them in so he could steal their things. Vasor is made to lead them to the cave, but the tough hunter tells them all that he is afraid of the cave because of demons…and nevertheless, Ian wont let him get off the hook that easily.

Despite the fact they are on their own, Susan and Sebetha appear to be doing well for themselves, even though their fire has run out They decide to try and leave the cave but realise they’re lost and decide to just keep travelling deeper into the mountain. Sebetha is a good influence on Susan as they look around, and finally are reunited with the rest of their party as they all get across a rope bridge, which then Vasor breaks and runs away so they can’t leave.

Ian is annoyed with himself that he didn’t keep an eye on the trapper, but once again Barbara is level headed and suggests they’ll find a way out, even to Ian’s frustration knowing she’s right. There’s something about Barbara that makes her a good center for the group as even when confronted with possible danger, she questions everything and everyone with a good authoritative voice and she’s a wonderful sounding board for everyone, and still creating what I believe is the archetype companion we know to date.

Barbara, Susan and Sebetha meet the Ice Knights.

They meet the frozen knights, standing in the caves, the demons that Vasor probably heard of guarding the key they require which trapped in a block of ice, and so they must find a way to get it. Using the piping in the cave from a volcanic sprint (guess who found the piping, the wonderful Miss Wright, of course) they are able to melt the ice but in doing so defrost the ice knights too. Luckily, Ian and Altos have made a bridge of tree trunks to cross the chasm that Vasor had left from stranded across but it’s not that stable and there needs to be time for it to freeze so it’s easier for them all to cross…but time is now against them with enemies on their tail!

So now it’s Susan’s turn to shine now (all my children have done so well this serial!), bravely crossing the tree trunks on her own to attach the bridge, whilst Ian stops the de-iced knights by getting them stuck behind blocking the exit of ice bravely. It doesn’t stop the soldiers for long, but it’s long enough for Susan to repair the bridge and for everyone to get across safely.

They return to Vasor, to retrieve their things, and use the travel dial to escape, leaving the horrified Vasor to deal with the ice soldiers who he always saw as demons, which rightly so gets him killed.

They twist their travel dials, to move forward to their last location and retrieve their last key, and to finally meet up with the Doctor, but Ian’s travel dial lands him into a world of trouble, another frying pan moment, as he finds a dead body and knocked out next to it, with someone framing him for the crime in the process.

What will happen next week? Will the Doctor be of any help? How will Ian explain hismelf out of this one? Next week we’ll be looking at the final two episodes of this serial: The Sentence of Death and The Keys of Marinus.

But as I try to do every week, it’s not over yet. Here’s my doodle of Ian in his Marco Polo gear which he is also wearing throughout this serial too: 

Soph Watches Classic Doctor Who – The Keys of Marinus  (Part 1 of 3)

By Sophie Iles

This is a great serial, there’s no doubt about it. This story gives us action, there’s creepy enemies, Barbara looks stunning even in rags and is bad ass, and after the sad lack of being able to watch Marco Polo, we get a very put together TARDIS team, who have moved on quite drastically since the End of Destruction.   

Lets see what happens and pick over some favourite bits. I am going to do this over three parts, just because a six-part format really should warrant the time and the love it deserves.

After landing the TARDIS, the team go outside to check out their new location, Ian is wearing his remnant outfit from Marco Polo, which as now that serial is missing it makes me long even more for that missing story. But alas, onwards we go to see Marinus.

It looks like a normal beach that they’ve landed on until they discover that there’s class on the beaches and the sea is actually acid, which is actually pretty terrifying. Susan, Ian and Barbara only realise this together with the fortunate accident that Susan’s shoe falls in a tidal pool and they watch it disintegrate. Ian gives her his shoes to wear so she can safely recover some shoes from the TARDIS and off she scarpers. This did make me laugh when the Doctor chids Ian for not bringing his shoes when Susan could have worn them when the old dog catches up to them after his own exploring on the beach discovers the glass. They may be friends now  but his jibes at Ian are always entertaining.

DOCTOR: Sea of acid. Astonishing. You know, in all my travels I’ve never come across anything like this before. However, Susan wasn’t harmed, anyway.
BARBARA: She was a bit frightened of losing her shoes, but she’s gone back to the ship for another pair.
DOCTOR: Yes, and if you’d had your shoes on, my boy, you could have lent her hers. You mustn’t get sloppy in your habits, you know.

They look round to discover that there is a massive building not far away, which they are keen to explore together when Susan gets back, but she instead finds footprints and decides to follow them.

The Voord, Terry Nation’s newest monster….

Now, we finally get to meet the Voord as between these scenes they’ve been trying to get into the TARDIS and failed, and are now going to be our main enemy for this serial. These beings were Terry Nation’s second attempted at bug eyed monsters which, though doesn’t carry over to be as successful as the Daleks in future, I still found them pretty strange and frightening. They look like men in black rubber suits and flippers, with a strange triangular helmet so it covers their faces entirely. We don’t know what they look like inside the black suit either, as whilst waiting for Susan, the other three find a ripped suit and a broken one man submarine — which they assumed meant he was destroyed by the acid so there was no way of surviving the sea of death.

They’ve waited for Susan long enough, and decide she must have gone to look at the building herself. It is so fascinating to see just how easy they accept this fact, when just in An Unearthly Child, The Doctor or Susan wouldn’t have really let each other out of their sight!

The Doctor, Ian and Barbara looking for Susan….

But yes, on we go, to the city, whilst our audience is aware of the Voord, our central players only have an inkling that someone else is with them on this planet, and they start following her footprints to the building. A building that has quite a few secret entrances. One by one, the team get split up by revolving walls. We see Susan almost stabbed by a knife wielding Voord, but she is saved by an elderly man in a white hood, who then in turn is saved by Ian and the group are reunited so as to finally get to the bones of what is going to happen in this serial.

This man is called Arbitan and he is the Keeper of the Conscience of Marinus, a computer that keeps peace and order across the planet. It’s power eliminates evil thoughts but the Voord, in particular a Voord named Yartek has worked out how to control the computer if he can get hold of it, but Arbitan has figured out how to prevent that from happening, to upgrade it, but they need the keys to active the upgrade. To protect it, these five remaining keys are spread across the planet, as he has one on him at all times, and that even though he even sent his daughter and many others to collect said keys but she and the others has not returned and so he begs the team’s help.

The Doctor refuses to help. This after all is a Doctor who doesn’t want to get involved just yet, that only does these heroic deeds by design of their own survival ala The Daleks. Sure enough, when they return to the TARDIS they can’t get into it, a force-field covers it. Arbitan is now making them do this quest under force, or as the Doctor calls it sheer blackmail.

So, The Doctor doesn’t have much choice in the matter after all that. They are all given travel dials, something that seems to be the influence of the time travel teleportation bracelets we have in the NuWho era, which whisks them towards their first adventure and the first key. Unbeknownst to our travelers however we watch Arbitan fall to the hands of Yartek, with the Voord taking over the building and the computer whilst leaving a good cliffhanger that when the team arrive, Barbara is nowhere to be scene, and there’s blood on her travel dial.  

Fortunately, Barbara seems more than fine when they rush to her aid. She’s actually relaxing on a chaise lounge, looking as merry as ever. The trappings and world they have been sent too is beautiful, and that a man named Altos lets them know that this is the city of Morphoton, an advanced and pacific society. Whilst Ian and the Doctor are completely skeptical at first, they are one round by food and wine and the promise of tinkering in a science lab. Things really are just too good to be true however, when Barbara wakes the following morning to discover their trappings are really just rags and dirt.

Now this is one of my favorite serials for bad-ass Barbara moments. We’ve seen her stand up to the Doctor, we’ve seen her work things out in the Edge of Destruction, but in this moment she’s basically on her own. Her friends have all been seduced just as she was by whatever power that this town has, and despite her telling them they don’t believe her. It turns out that in the night there is a hypnotic pulse that was sent through them all, but Barbara’s disk slipped off so that it didn’t take effect on her. She appeals to her friends greatly, but to no avail. So, she’s going to have to figure it out by herself. The big bad here are called the Brains of Morphoton, which are terrifying creatures, brains on stalks that have grown out of their bodies because they were no longer needed and are hypnotising the entire city.

DOCTOR: Here, drink this.
BARBARA: No, it’s filthy!
DOCTOR: Now you’ve broken it.
IAN: Barbara, what’s got into you?
BARBARA: Why can’t you see?
DOCTOR: This is going to test our host’s patience, you know. It’s one of a set.

Barbara keeps trying to appeal to the others but they just laugh and wave her off, so Altos tries to take her away from her friends to his masters but she able to gets away from him and discovers Sabetha the slave girl. It’s there she realises, because Barbara has the powers of the deduction that we can only dream of and she’s greater than she’s ever given credit for, that this young woman is the daughter of Arbitan that went missing looking for the key, when she has said key around her neck. She tries to break the hypnotic hold on her, but fails, it’s only when Altos arrives to try and take Sabetha away at the Brains orders that she knocks him out and so Barbara runs promising she’ll come back for the girl.

Like I said, for Barbara, this is one of her strongest moments in the series and as a Barbara fan I couldn’t be prouder.

Barbara tries to go back to her friends, to explain what she found, and runs into Ian. Who she hugs, but alas, despite the tender moment he is also being controlled by the Brains of Morphoton, and he takes her to the masters who make him try to strangle her to death. As a fan of these two teachers, watching this scene is horrifying, as Barbara begs for Ian to stop and control himself, but alas, Barbara fights back, but not before breaking the machinery as she escapes his hold to break the hypnotic spell on Ian and their enemy with it. the Brain of Morphoton chanting ‘Kill Her’ the whole  is utterly terrifying and only gets louder and louder in agony and desperation when she starts destroying the machine that keeps them alive.

A hypnotised Ian has hold of Barbara for the Brains of Morphoton.

For me, the heartache comes afterwards, as we don’t know just how much Ian remembers but as he cries out when the Brains are also destroyed, he asks where he is before rushing and hugging Barbara, who comforts him and tells him everything will be alright. She really is a great role model for future companions here, and perhaps what inspired strong women in the role in the years to come.

Everyone and everything is back to normal on Morphoton, the TARDIS team have their first key of Marinus and everyone has regained their memories. It turns out that Altos and Sabetha were both on the hunt for the keys also, so they join the time travelling party to continue what they started. They decide to split up, The Doctor to forth to get the fourth key, whilst the rest of them, to Susan’s dismay go to get the second key. In a bid to not have to say goodbye to her grandfather again, she teleports early, but this results in a cliffhanger where she’s stood screaming….

And that’s all we have time for! Overall, the episodes are good, and set up a really good structure for six part episodes as they continue for the rest of the Classic Who era, if anything, there’s almost too much story here for two episodes and it could have easily been seven like the Daleks. Still, as our heroes do not know yet of Arbitan’s fate we have still yet to see just how they will deal with that as time goes on….

Next week we look at The Screaming Jungle and the Snows of Terror, as we search for the remaining keys and whilst we wait, here’s a doodle of the TARDIS Team!

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.