A Public History of Secret Histories (1)

A while ago, I mentioned Secret Histories, the short-story collection I’ve been editing for Big Finish’s Bernice Summerfield range. As the book is out in a few weeks time, and I’ve just finished working through the proofs (cover coming soon, promise, although you can see a little preview of Adrian Salmon’s cover art in issue 8 of BF’s free pdf mag Vortex), now seemed like a good time to talk a bit more about the book, provide some background and do a little sales pitch.

As with all these things, the ideas for Secret Histories came from various places and had been stewing for varying periods of time.

There was an idea for a Benny novel that I’d had since the Virgin New Adventures featuring the character in the late 90s, which I’d dabbled with as a possible audio or novella in the last couple of years but which, in the end, became the framing sequence for this book, a vehicle to tell stories within as well as a story in its own right. As is also typical of my writing, what had started out as a deeply serious idea about deeply serious things ended up turning into something a lot lighter, still with drama but a bit more optimistic and fantastical. So that was my framing sequence and hook for the book, as described in the blurb.

Then there was a bundle of ideas for short stories spread across a period of late 19th/early 20th century history: at one point I was considering whether the whole book should be about Benny and her friends being lost in time, having different adventures in the same year and finally coming together, but that was too restrictive, at least partially because of the next paragraph, and so the visit into time is a mini-arc threaded through a few stories in the book rather than the whole focus. (The macguffin I used for this section came from a Fortean Times article I’d read a while ago, and which had really stayed with me. I also had a couple of very loose images and ideas for stories in this bit which I doled out to writers to take or discard as they wished.)

I wanted to avoid standard SF adventure stories, and encourage the writers to be more creative than doing familiar Doctor Who story types with a female archeologist instead of a Time Lord. Bernice is a character who may fall into adventures, but she isn’t a superhero or detective who saves worlds and solves murders as her bread and butter – she’s a smart, normal person who works for money to feed her kid, and whose line of work just happens to take her to dangerous and odd places around the universe, frequently getting her into trouble. That, to me, is a lot more freeing than the requirement to have epic heroism and massive baddies to take down. There should be action, and drama, and threat, of course, but there could also be weird stuff that pushed the button marked ‘imagination’ rather than ‘action’.

(If that last one sounds like a hark back to the New Adventures and the editorial ethos of those books, then yes, that was entirely deliberate.)

Because I wanted the authors to let their imaginations run a bit, as well as having the space to do the kind of characterisation, travelogue and observational humour that Bernice does best, I wanted longer stories. Initially, the plan was to have six or seven long stories that would have more depth than the usual 4000/5000 word short stories, but not feel like the truncated novels that the novella format can often lead to. (That a smaller list of contributors to wrangle would make the project a bit easier to manage wouldn’t do any harm either.) In the end for various reasons including the time constraints of some contributors, and a wealth of good pitches to choose from, we ended up with nine stories not including the framing sequence.

(As is the way of these things the stories found their own length – some proved to be very tight narratives built around a strong central idea that came in quite compactly written, while others expanded and some hit their wordcount dead on. In the end I got what I wanted – a set of more substantial stories that are long enough to make their mark but are still very much well-formed stories rather than bonzai novels.)

So that was the format. All it needed was authors and stories. I had ideas about that, which I’ll discuss in part 2 tomorrow.

In the meantime, you can pre-order Secret Histories from here, or get it in a bundle with the rest of this year’s Bernice output (including CD plays by a lot of Secret Histories contributors, including myself!) here.

Mark

PS – Bonus content for the day is a little ramble about the dominant art style of 1990s 2000AD.

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October 15, 2009. Tags: , , , . Uncategorized.

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