A Public History of Secret Histories (2)

Yesterday I wrote, in maddeningly-opaque-spoiler-free fashion, about the general ideas behind Secret Histories and what kind of book I wanted it to be. Today, a little bit about how, knowing what book I wanted, I arrived at the stories and authors in the book.

Putting together a book is like bringing together a team to do any big job – even though the authors wouldn’t be working with each other, they bring different contributions to the whole.

Firstly, I knew there were a list of people who, should I ask and should they accept, would deliver good stories to length and deadline and to whatever specifications I tossed their way, who were also popular, critically acclaimed authors of Who and related stuff in their own right who could write Benny and co in character and continuity without any real guidance. Basically, the absolute pros. They would provide the core of the book, and allow me to take a few risks on my other commissions, knowing that I had a handful of good stories in the bank that would need limited editorial input.

Having been around the Who writing block for a decade, I was in the useful (albeit frankly tragic) position of having a social circle rammed with writers for the Who books, Benny range etc. As this was my first book as editor, I also had the newbie’s luxury of pulling in a few favours, knowing that my friends would want to help me out on my first collection. However, I didn’t want to press gang in anyone who genuinely didn’t want to do the book, so my invite was pretty open and clear that I was happy to be turned down – you don’t get good stories out of people who aren’t creatively inspired by what they’re doing, after all.

In the end, a few people did turn me down politely, mainly on the grounds that they didn’t feel they had anything to say with the Bennyverse, or were concentrating on other creative avenues.

However, I did get a good stable of great writers with good track records to provide the spine of the book – Lance Parkin, who has been a friend of mine since around the time he was pitching Just War and whose vision of Benny overlaps with mine almost totally; Eddie Robson, at that time producer of the range and a fan of the character since the late 90s; Mark Michalowski, whose first Doctor Who book came out the same month as my first solo novel, Hope; and Nick Wallace, who had written two excellent Bernice Summerfield scripts in recent years as well as editing a well-reviewed short story collection, Collected Works.

With all four on board, that was more than half of the book in the bank. More, if you counted the framing sequence I was planning to write. That still left a substantial chunk of words still to commission.

I talked in the previous post about the New Adventures editorial ethos, and one of the best remembered parts of that was the commitment to new or less well-established writers. I knew from the start any short story collection I did was going to include writers that were perhaps less well-known than the names above, but who deserved wider exposure. A couple sprang to mind relatively early:

I’ve known Jim Smith since we were both at university in Central London, had flat-shared with him for absolutely ages, and (along with the aforementioned Eddie Robson and my Twilight of the Gods co-writer Jon de Burgh Miller) co-founded Shiny Shelf with him. Jim had recently penned The Adventure of the Diogenes Damsel, an audio where Bernice had teamed up with Mycroft Holmes (played by David Warner in full effect), and it had received a rapturous critical response from the fans. I’d liked it a lot, with the minor caveat that the plot didn’t have room for us to actually see (or rather hear) Mycroft and Benny solve a mystery. I’d been reading a lot of Case Closed at the time, and so was very keen on the classic locked room mystery story.

So, in one of those cases where self interest (both in terms of what I wanted to read, and adding a good selling point to Secret Histories that would attract fan attention) and altruism (in terms of giving Jim a stage to show what he could do as a prose fiction writer) collide perfectly, I was determined to get Jim to write a new Mycroft and Benny story, the only stipulation being that they should solve a mystery. I’m glad to say that my hunch was right, and interest in this story so far has been high – interest which will be rewarded, as the final story is great.

Another writer I wanted to work with was Richard Freeman, who I’d met at one of Exeter University’s Microcons, where he would give fascinating presentations on his career as a Fortean zoologist, travelling the world hunting for monsters. Richard has a voice and concerns that are different to the average Doctor Who fan writer – he’s highly knowledgeable in regards to myths from around the world, and has a fine grasp of anthropological detail. Richard’s contribution is completely different to most Bernice stories, and provides a fascinating insight into a long lost culture. It’s also a tense adventure story, packed with vivid imagery. Richard is also, to the best of my knowledge, the only author in the book whose fee went into paying for an expedition to Sumatra.

Paul Farnsworth is one of my absolute favourite writers of Who fan fiction, from back when ‘fan fiction’ just meant stories written by fans, rather than outpourings of adolescent romantic fantasies. His contributions to zines like Matrix, Circus, Silver Carrier and others were smart, well-written, endlessly inventive and often laugh-out-loud funny. When I approached Paul, who I’ve never known personally, Secret Histories was high on historical and war stories, and low on punchy, funny, weird SF stuff. That was what I asked Paul to bring to the book. I wasn’t to be disappointed.

Finally, I’d heard rumours on the grape vine that Stuart Douglas and Paul Magrs, who were editing Iris Wildthyme and the Celestial Omnibus, had found someone great in their slush pile, a writer who had instantly stood out from the other submissions as a funny, clever new voice. As the Omnibus had yet to be published at the time, I shamelessly asked Stuart if I could take a look at this story as I was very interested in finding new, preferably slightly crazed voices for Secret Histories. Stuart kindly agreed, sending me Cody Schell’s story of masked wrestling superheroes and killer pinatas, and I realised this was exactly the kind of bloody lunatic I wanted, a writer whose ideas were big, but who also wrote with charm and character.

While he was at it, Stuart also put me in touch with Jonathan Dennis, a writer who I had been aware of but whose work I’d never read. Having seen Jonathan’s story for the Omnibus, I also approached him. My brief for both Cody and Jonathan was the same as it was for Paul – I wanted weird, alien shit. Cody and Jonathan both delivered stories that portray distinct alien cultures, each with a high concept that has character consequences for Benny. They’re both very funny as well.

With that, the writing crew for Secret Histories was complete. I think it’s a good mix – some familiar, popular contributors to the Bernice Summerfield range (all of whom who have also written acclaimed Doctor Who stories, which doesn’t do any harm), and some distinct, newer voices who the Benny readership may not have heard of.

There’s some war stories, some history, some anthropology, and a mystery. There’s Earth, a weird part of deep space, and a few odd alien planets with their own interesting cultures.

There are adventures not just for Bernice, but for Adrian and Peter (one of my favourite characters in the range, by the way) too.

There’s young Benny, Braxiatel Collection-era Benny, and some material that’s set right between Secret Origins and whatever comes next.

(Although I hasten to add that you need to know absolutely no continuity to enjoy the book – all relationships and references are fully explained for the complete newbie, and both the book and individual stories stand alone.)

So please buy Secret Histories, either on its own or as part of the 2009 deal. The book is out in December this year, just in time for Christmas.

Ta!

Mark

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October 16, 2009. Tags: , , . Uncategorized.

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