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Books, TV

Playing with Pride and Prejudice

I’ve finally started digging into the pileup of Christmas movies on my DVR. Last night’s was an old Lifetime one, The 12 Men of Christmas, which is basically a retelling of Pride and Prejudice — a PR exec who lost her job and seems to have been blackballed from other agencies after she caught her boss making out with her fiancé at the office Christmas party takes a desperation job of promoting a small Montana town as a site for corporate retreats. She gets off on the wrong foot with one of the locals, and Pride and Prejudice ensues, with the external plot centering around her idea to raise money for the local search and rescue squad by doing a sexy calendar involving the men on the squad. Of course, “Mr. Darcy” is against it because it’s beneath his dignity, and it doesn’t help that “Mr. Wickham” is gung-ho.

And then my bedtime listening was the last part of an audio drama of Pride and Prejudice. Which seems to have led to my waking thought this morning being to wonder if anyone’s ever done a gender-flipped version of this story. I’m not sure it would work in the original setting because so much of the plot involves gender politics — the precarious situation of Lizzie’s family because they were all girls and the estate was entailed, which required them all to make good marriages; the scandal of the elopement, which affected the woman’s family more than the man’s. But it would be interesting to play with the idea of the woman being proud and aloof and the man taking an instant dislike that skews his discernment about anything anyone says about her.

Next thing I know, I’ve got a TV Christmas movie playing out in my head — there’s a family with five sons who run a ski lodge. They’re barely keeping the business afloat and need a huge influx of cash. Then they learn that a wealthy woman (maybe a movie star or rock star?) has rented a chalet in town. Maybe they could get her to invest in their lodge — or, since she seems to hit it off with the oldest son, they might end up with a cash infusion in another way. Unfortunately, her haughty best friend gets off on the wrong foot with the second oldest son, who then hears some nasty rumors about her from one of the guests staying at his lodge — a guest who’s actually a con artist who scams the youngest brother.

Hmm, maybe I’ve got my next Christmas story right there. But for it to be me, I’d have to find a way to add a dash of magic. I was thinking I’d have to write it in third person, or else write it from Mr. Lizzie’s perspective, but then it occurred to me that this story from Ms. Darcy’s perspective might be interesting. To some extent, part of the fun of the original story is not knowing what’s really going on in Darcy’s head, so we only see him the way Lizzie sees him, but it might be fun to flip that around and be in the Darcy character’s head, with all the “what is wrong with these people?” that surely must be going on.

There’s a conference in a ski resort town (though not during ski season) that I’ve been thinking about going to next year. That would be a great opportunity to research this story. I’m not sure it has to be at a ski resort, but that was the setting that occurred to me and where I see it playing out.

Books

Updating Classics

I’ve developed a habit of listening to audio dramas before I go to sleep at night. I find that they’re a good way of bridging the awake and asleep modes — a little time with the lights out but the brain still somewhat on, and then I fall asleep much more quickly after that night’s episode is over. The BBC web site is full of these, and a lot are classic literature, so I get to refresh my knowledge of some of these stories, or else experience them for the first time.

Recently, I listened to a version of Jane Eyre, and after that there was Jane Austen’s Emma, and then Pride and Prejudice. That got me started thinking — there have been modern versions, updatings of Emma (Clueless) and Pride and Prejudice (Bridget Jones’s Diary, among many others), but has there been one of Jane Eyre? I know there have been other books inspired by elements of it (I even used the governess and employer with a secret in Rebel Mechanics), but they usually take place in a Victorian-like setting, not in modern times. It’s not just that comedies work better than more serious dramas for updating, since there have been a lot of modern versions of Romeo and Juliet, for instance (West Side Story, Twilight).

You really couldn’t just stick the plot of Jane Eyre into modern times because it would fall apart. Divorce is more common and socially acceptable, and there are treatments for mental illness, so the mad wife in the attic as an impediment to remarriage wouldn’t be an issue. I did manage to strain my brain to come up with a way to kind of get the same effect in a modern setting, but then I started wondering if it’s a story that should be updated. It’s very much a story of its time and place.

When you look at the stories that get retold and put into current settings, it tends to be the ones that have an element of universality to them. There will probably always be people who think they know it all while they’re actually oblivious to the damage they’re doing by trying to “help” others, so you can take the plot of Emma and put it into almost any time and place (hmmm, now I want to do the space opera version). Ditto with Pride and Prejudice — bad first impressions are always going to happen. Not all of Austen’s novels get updated. A lot of the plot of Sense and Sensibility falls apart when there’s no real social stigma to a man breaking an engagement, though I think the emotion vs. reason, and there being positives and negatives about both, theme is universal enough that you could probably do something with it, even if the plot had to be changed somewhat to find some other reason Elinor and Edward can’t just get together. Mansfield Park is very much of its time and place and would be hard to put into a new setting because its themes aren’t that universal.

If you look at themes in Jane Eyre, while the mad wife in the attic is very specific to that story, I think the theme of Jane’s resilience and her awareness of her own standards is something that could hold up in any situation. As desperate and vulnerable as her situation is, she holds true to her values, refusing to live as man and wife with Rochester when she’d know it wasn’t true and that he had another wife, and then refusing to marry St. John Rivers just as a cover for them to do missionary work together while living like a brother and sister, because that marriage wouldn’t be true, either. Maybe that story could be moved into the workplace, where someone who desperately needs a job won’t compromise with employers who want her to cross ethical lines, and her stand on that makes one of her employers realize he needs to change his ways.

And now I think I may have a possible plot for a future Christmas story — kind of A Christmas Carol (one that gets updated a lot) meets Jane Eyre.

Books

This Year’s Spooky Classic: Dracula

During all my travels, I had a chance to do some reading. Last year, I decided I should read a spooky classic in October, and I decided to continue that as a tradition. This year’s book was the original Dracula, by Bram Stoker. No, I hadn’t read it before. I’ve never been a big fan of horror or of vampires.

I must say that the book was nothing like what I expected. Has there ever been a movie version that was all that faithful to the book? Because the book is nothing like most of the popular culture depictions I’ve seen of that story.

For one thing, it plays out to some extent more like a detective story or mystery, with the various letters and journal entries giving us pieces of the puzzle as all the characters see parts of what’s going on. We, the readers, have to read between the lines to figure out what’s happening. Then when they put their heads together and sort out all those pieces, it’s about finding and tracking down the villain and figuring out what to do about it. Almost all the “horror” is totally offstage, and Dracula himself affects everyone but is seldom actually present. So I enjoyed it far more than I expected to. I love books that aren’t written in straight narrative but that are put together from letters and other sources. In this case, compiling all this information into a coherent narrative is actually part of the plot, because it’s only when the information is put together in the proper order that they figure it out. The book itself is essentially the compilation the characters put together. It’s an interesting structure for a novel.

But the main thing I love is the character of Mina. She’s a wonderful example to look to for people who want to write strong female characters in a historical setting. She’s totally appropriate to her time (given that the novel was contemporary when it was written) and doesn’t feel like a 21st century character plunked into that setting, but at the same time she’s dynamic and active in a way that modern audiences can relate to. She’s not out physically kicking ass and taking down much larger men, but she’s the one who has a lot to do with bringing down Dracula, using her knowledge of stenography, typewriting and organizing, and she keeps a clear enough head to use the psychic connection Dracula forces on her to track his movements. The men recognize her abilities, even as they act like men of their time — and that even figures into the plot when keeping her safe by keeping her out of the action turns out to work against them because that leaves her vulnerable.

I may even end up reading this one again to analyze the structure and characterization, now that I know how the story comes out.

Books

Recent Reading

I’ve been so busy lately, and it’s only getting worse! Last week, I finished the book I was working on and sent it to my agent Monday. I’ve already started a new book and have written 8,000 words — all in one day. Now I want to top that number, so we’ll see what I manage to do today. Then I have an event every other weekend until November. This weekend is FenCon in the Dallas area. I have a weekend off after that, and then I’m going to the Missouri Library Association conference. I get a weekend off, and then I’m going to Necronomicon in Tampa. I get a weekend off, and then I’m going to the World Fantasy Convention in San Antonio. Probably not the best time to start writing a new book, but I’m behind and am trying to get back on schedule. A few 8,000-word days will help.

But I have also made time for reading and discovered a new-to-me series, the Sanctuary books by Carol Berg. These are set in an Italian Renaissance-like society in which the magical people consider themselves superior to the “ordinaries” and set themselves apart to the point of having strict rules about interacting with nonmagical people. They even wear masks while in public because it’s forbidden for nonmagical people to see their faces. In the first book, Dust and Light, our hero, a young artist, finds himself suddenly demoted from his job painting portraits of the elite and sent to work for the city’s coroner, using his magical talent to paint a subject’s true self to create portraits of the dead for use in identifying them and possibly solving their murders. That’s bad enough for him, but things go downhill from there as his life is totally upended by a vast conspiracy. It seems his talent has an element he wasn’t aware of — he not only paints his subject’s true self, but things from that person’s history also tend to show up in his paintings. That means some interesting things showed up in his portraits of the elite that they would rather not be made public.

It’s hard to talk about the second book, Ash and Silver, without spoiling the first one, but it does involve one of my favorite fantasy tropes, memory loss. More specifically, the question of what would you be if you didn’t know who you were? (I’m not a fan of the more romance novel style amnesia plots, but I love it when magic is used to erase identity. Go figure.) There’s an order of magical knights, and part of their training is to have their identity and memories associated with their identity erased so that they focus on training without personal baggage like status, loyalties or history. After training, they get their memories back so they can decide whether to enter the order for good or return to their old lives. I find that a really interesting concept because it’s all about these men discovering who they really are in the course of training and choosing who they want to be.

These are definitely “put your characters in a tree and throw rocks at them” books, so sometimes they got a bit intense with the hero’s suffering. I just wanted to give the poor guy a time out to rest and have a cookie and not have everyone scheming against him for maybe five minutes. So, perhaps not the best read if you’re feeling stressed and can’t deal with suffering, unless that sort of thing puts your own life in perspective. There were parts I kind of had to to read from between my fingers, and I ended up flipping to the end to make sure things would be okay before I could continue reading. On the other hand, that’s a good sign that I was invested in the character. It was fascinating watching him grow from all he endured and figure out who he could and couldn’t trust.

Apparently, these books are set in the same universe as one of her other series, so I’ll have to look for those. The worldbuilding is really intricate, and I’m intrigued by that world.

Meanwhile, I’ve found myself wondering if there’s a market for whimsical, tame, low-stress adventures for reading when you’re too stressed to deal with life-and-death sakes in fiction. There are days when I’d be all about an entire book about playing with a basket of puppies, because that’s about all the stress I can take at the end of the day.

Books

Recent Reading: Twists on Fairy Tales

It’s been a while since I discussed recent reading, mostly because I’ve been reading for awards consideration lately, which means not everything I read recently has really been according to my personal taste. But I have read a really lovely short story collection, The Starlit Wood, edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe. This is a book of retellings of fairy tales, putting the familiar tales in different settings, sometimes even in different genres, mixing them up, putting a new spin on them. Some of the retellings are science fiction, some are still fantasy, but a different kind of fantasy. Some put the tales into a different culture.

I haven’t always been a big fan of short stories. If I’m really into a story and its characters, I want more, so I don’t find the short story very satisfying. However, I’ve recently rediscovered the form, and I enjoy being able to read a whole story, start to finish, in one sitting. It’s nice to read and complete something in my bedtime reading. This book was great for airplane reading on my recent trip, and then I finished the last few stories last week. The nice thing about a collection like this is that if one thing isn’t entirely to my taste, the next one probably will be.

You’ve probably heard of most of the authors in this collection, and one of the stories won the Nebula Award. What I enjoyed was trying to figure out which story was being retold — and it wasn’t always obvious. The authors’ notes about inspirations were put at the end of each story, which I appreciated. That allowed me to face the story on my own terms and try to figure it out before I saw what the author wanted to say. Of course, that makes it a challenge to discuss any particular story and what I liked about it without giving away the source, so I won’t.

I’d recommend picking up this collection if you’re a fan of fairy tales.

I have to say that reading it and thinking about what I’d have written if I were the kind of author who ever got invited to participate in this wort of thing has given me an idea for a story that I now want to play with. If they ever do Back to the Starlit Wood and think about inviting me, I’ll be ready.

Books

Discovering Fantasy

The other day, the Skiffy and Fanty podcast asked on Twitter what work of fantasy we read as children got us into the genre.

I had to really think about that. I know I read fantasy books from a very early age, starting with fairy tales and moving on to various chapter books. I know I liked books that had magic, witches, ghosts, traveling to other worlds, talking animals, and that sort of thing. I definitely went through a “witch” phase in second grade, probably because Bewitched reruns ran every evening after the news on one of our local stations, and it was mandatory viewing among all the girls in my neighborhood. I went through the library looking for any book with the word “witch” or “magic” in the title. I know I read The Horse and His Boy, from the Chronicles of Narnia, sometime in second or third grade because I was in a horse phase and went through the library checking out every book with the word “horse” in the title or a picture of a horse on the cover. I read The Hobbit in fourth grade because our teacher was reading it out loud to the class every day after recess, a chapter at a time, and I got impatient with that, got the book from the library, and read the whole thing. I read a lot of the Oz books during this time, as well.

But it didn’t occur to me that this was a particular type of book, that this was a type of book I liked, and that I wanted to find more books of this type. There were topics I liked, but I didn’t think of putting all the topics together into categories. I just liked books, period. I was the same way with mysteries. I loved them, particularly the various mystery series that were written for girls, like Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, and Cherry Ames. I did recognize that these were series because they were all about the same character, but I didn’t think in terms of them all fitting into the same category.

I think I first discovered genre in science fiction. I’d read books about spaceships, robots, and aliens before, but I didn’t think of them as a “genre.” Then I saw Star Wars early in fourth grade and became utterly obsessed. I re-read the novelization dozens of times, then my parents gave me one of Alan Dean Foster’s Flinx books (not knowing Foster wrote the Star Wars novelization, so they had no idea how good a transition that really was), telling me it was a similar kind of story and I might like it if I liked Star Wars, and I started to be aware that there was a category of books like that, so I looked for more science fiction.

Early in sixth grade, for some reason I don’t quite recall, I had to meet up with my mother at her office after school. I felt very grown-up catching the shuttle bus from the neighborhood where my school was to the part of the base where my mom’s office was. I had to wait at the office until my mom got off work, and she’d bought a book for me to read to pass the time: The Silver Chair, by C.S. Lewis. I was totally and utterly captivated. That book contains all the elements that to this day are my literary catnip. It was a portal fantasy, in which kids from our world got sent to a magical fairy tale-like world. It was a quest story, so our characters were on an epic road trip with a serious goal at the end. They ran into fantastic creatures and got into and out of scrapes. The two kids barely knew each other at the beginning but were friends by the end. A fun twist that I didn’t realize was a fun twist at the time was that they weren’t rescuing a damsel in distress. It was a prince who was in distress. After I read that book, I wanted more like that. I read the rest of the series, hopelessly out of order, and realized that the “horse” book I’d read when I was younger was part of it, but as obsessed as I became with Narnia, what I really wanted was more books like The Silver Chair, and the rest of the series wasn’t quite it. That’s how I discovered that fantasy was a genre, and I could find more books with no connection to each other but that still had these elements I liked. I went from there to The Lord of the Rings and Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series. I got back into the Oz books, now reading them specifically as fantasy.

I think I was at a prime age and in a prime location for discovering fantasy. At 11, I wanted adventure and magic, but I was just starting to be aware of romance and liked that many fantasy books had that element, but always secondary to the adventure. These books were like the fairy tales I’d enjoyed as a small child, but with more going on. Meanwhile, we were living in Germany at the time, where there was a castle on top of just about every hill. Our weekend-afternoon walks were to the ruined castle on top of the hill that overlooked our neighborhood. This made it so easy to imagine the fantasy worlds and even easier to imagine stepping through a portal in one of those castle walls to find myself in another time and place.

Come to think of it, the book I’m working on now may as well be my Silver Chair. We’ve got a pair of young people who barely know each other traveling to another world where they have a serious mission to carry out, and they’re friends after going through adventures together. I really can’t get enough of this kind of story.