Update: It’s April 2022, and I’ve just refreshed this post to include the ABBA story that closed off last year. It was a slow year for DW fiction, largely because I was finishing the novel. Still, you take what you can get.
I recently finished a wonderful book called The Night Circus. It features, close to its conclusion, a seemingly minor character lecturing another on the importance of stories. “Someone needs to tell those tales,” he says. “When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There’s magic in that. It’s in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict.”
Sometimes you write because you have the idea. Other times, you write because there’s a project, or simply because you need to, and the idea comes when you’ve brainstormed and head-scratched and run down a hundred different scenarios, none of them particularly good. And then sometimes the scenario will evolve out of a seed of an idea, reworked into something tangible and even, dare we say it, quite good. And sometimes it won’t, and you’ll go for a walk or brush the kitchen floor and wait for some unsuspecting narrative spark to drift past that you can pluck from the air. Most of all the process of writing is not always pleasant. Sometimes it is arduous and laboured and you press on, head to the wind, hand shielding your eyes against the storm, secure in the knowledge of nothing except the fact that this is not your best work, but at least it is work, and it is easier to rewrite a mess than it is a blank page.
But writing fiction using TV characters is the MFI (sorry, Ikea; I’m showing my age) of story construction. The characters come pre-assembled: you just have to put them together. You still have the job of establishing a setting – and, unless you’re playing it really safe, a supporting cast – but much of the work is done for you, the arduous task of establishing likeable protagonists already completed long ago by your intended audience. From one perspective it is cheating. From another, it is a template to enable ease of use, allowing you more time to concentrate on the story. Pick one.
I will, as a general principle, leave the character development to the novels: when I’m writing short fiction, it tends to be about Doctor Who. This particular collection spans a little over four years. Some of it is better than others: that’s as it should be. If every tale was only as good as the one that came before then we’d have a problem (if it was worse than the one that came before, we’d have a serious problem). There are Ice Warriors and Weeping Angels; the Doctor tangles with disgruntled matriarchs and angry villagers and, more than once, himself. You will have your favourites – I have mine. You don’t get to hear what they are. But you do get to read the stories. Enjoy them.
Sleep No More: Behind The Scenes
(Brian of Morbius, November 2015)
We start, ironically, with something that isn’t really a story at all, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. To give a little context: in late 2015 I was burned out, bummed out and very nearly wanted out. Doctor Who had lost its sheen, and I spent most of series 9 drumming my fingers on a table top (in a rather irritating four-beat pattern) waiting for it to end. I’m over it now, but those were dark days. To cope with a lackluster and occasionally frustrating series I began to get creative in my reviews, and this one – which tackles, ironically, an episode I’ve come to rather enjoy – is perhaps the silliest of the lot, being one of those fictionalised fly-on-the-wall documentary type things that became big business the moment Ricky Gervais first stepped foot into Wernham Hogg. It would be interesting to find out whether any conversations like the ones depicted ever actually took place. I’d be willing to bet there were at least a couple.
(The Doctor Who Companion, December 2016)
Write a Christmas-themed short story for The Doctor Who Companion? In 1500 words? No problem. Mostly. In this seasonal tale the Third Doctor is visited on Christmas Eve by a couple of spirits, with an obvious TARDIS-related twist. What I like about this is the stripped back Aristotle-esque nature of the setting: getting in and telling a story in one room and getting out again is something I really don’t do very often, so it was fun to rise to that particular self-imposed challenge. Oh, and there are jokes about vol-au-vents, because you always have to have a joke about vol-au-vents.
Day of the Dead
(The Doctor Who Companion, October 2017)
The year after the run of Christmassy stories over at the DWC, the site’s fiction editor organised a Halloween project. The brief was simple: write a story about a monster in which the Doctor does not feature at all. One of the most challenging things about this was finding a way to bring the Angels to life and make them scary when everyone already knows what they are – everyone, that is, except for the poor sap who encounters them. This is ramshackle in places, but I think it just about hangs together. If you forward it on, you have to promise not to give away the ending.
The Twelfth Doctor Gets A Phone Call
(The Doctor Who Companion, August 2018)
I’ve often wondered about the first time we see Peter Capaldi. His unanticipated blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in ‘Day of the Doctor’ – “No, sir – all thirteen!” – was one of the show’s key talking points, if only because you never hear about it again. It’s always possible that the Twelfth Doctor just turned up, knowing that was where he needed to be and when, but I’ve always liked to think that his immediate predecessor got in touch – something that could likely only happen once he knew there would be another Doctor coming along, which should give you some idea as to when this all takes place. The whole thing is a bit meta, but I quite like doing meta; it keeps me sane in between all the fan bitching.
Love That In A Family Dwells
(The Doctor Who Companion, December 2018)
We don’t get Christmas specials any more, it seems. We certainly didn’t last year, a schedule change that caused a great deal of fuss amongst the online community, most of whom were suitably disgruntled that they would have to spend December 25th actually hanging out with family members rather than simply crashing in front of the TV. I seem to have been one of the few people who wasn’t bothered – I never enjoy Christmas Day episodes because when you’re in my line of work there is a sudden and immediate urge to blog about them, something I’ve frankly never wanted to do after several sherries and a bucket load of mince pies. New Year’s Day is a much better candidate, although I accept that I’m in a minority.
Anyway, to plug the gap between Ranskoor and ‘Resolution’, I came up with this, which tells the story of what happens when the Doctor and her fam visit…look, you’ll just have to read the thing and find out, won’t you? One advantage of doing a story which is deliberately comic in tone is that you can advance the plot and cram in all sorts of expository information simply by including as many unexpected non-sequiteurs as possible: it’s a creative risk, but it works, provided you get the tone just right. I still don’t know if I did, but it was one of those occasions where I actually enjoyed the writing process, as opposed to simply having written. Those moments are gold dust, and must be seized without fear.
A Martian Sends A Postcard Home
(The Doctor Who Companion, August 2019)
Every summer, when we can, my family and I head down to the same camping field on the coast of Pembrokeshire. There we’ll indulge in campfire singalongs, quaff the local ale and spend hours on the beach looking for starfish and crabs. It usually buckets it down at least once, the clouds rolling in off the Irish Sea like an advancing invasion force, but you’re in Wales, and you basically come to expect it. In any case, that particular location (right down to a reasonably accurate depiction of its topography) is the setting for this little tale involving a lost Ice Warrior who winds up shipwrecked and blunders into, of all things, a village fete. Does the Doctor make an appearance? You’ll have to keep reading to find out – but it’s not a spoiler to reveal that several of the supporting characters are named after DWC staff, something I still don’t think they’ve noticed.
(Brian of Morbius, October 2019)
Emily and I celebrated fifteen years of marriage this autumn. I still remember that morning as if it were yesterday: rising, sleepily as we both drove to separate houses in Reading to prepare; the argument I had with the insurance company, ripe and bruising after the argument we’d had with my aunt the previous evening over the reception place markings. Eating brioche with the best man and his wife in their housing estate semi, the pacing in the vestry when she was ten minutes late, and then that thrilled, anticipated moment where you see her walking down the aisle, at her most radiant. On balance, it was a good day.
The wedding of Harriet and Nick does not go to plan. But they might get their happy ending, thanks to an unexpected interruption. This was written in a rush job, and it shows, but it hangs together by the thread of a poorly-tied ribbon long enough to load it into the back of the car to open after the honeymoon. A disclaimer: Nick is not based on me, and Harriet is not based on Emily, and while Harriet’s mother was cut from the cloth of a real person, that person was not my mother-in-law. Probably.
Furby From The Deep
(The Doctor Who Companion, December 2019)
It’s the UNIT Christmas party, and the Third Doctor is reluctantly in attendance – along with Jo, the Brigadier, Yates, Benton and some sinister-looking toys. What could possibly go wrong? I’ve been wanting to write this for years – I even started it once, but there were technical problems and it was necessary to begin again from scratch. The intent was always to make it feel like something Terrance Dicks might have churned out, which means it concentrates more on the story it’s telling than the way it’s being told: Dicks had a flair for prose but was never one for literary flourishes, except where they were really needed. Does it feel like him? Probably not, but it has a beginning and a middle and an end, which is perhaps the best you can hope for. This will take you a while, so I strongly advise making a cup of tea first.
(Brian of Morbius, April 2020)
It was inevitable that we’d get a story about Covid. This skates around the issue, rather than confronting it head on: there is nothing more dull than a story that is actively about a pandemic, so it becomes the setting rather than the subject. Instead I wanted to do a two-hander, more of a conversation piece than anything else, which gave the Doctor and Graham the chance to catch up and perhaps heal some of the scars left by that awkward encounter they had at the end of ‘Can You Hear Me?’. Inevitably this meant inventing a prison break, and I suspect that this will age like milk, but you do what you can.
This was a deeply personal story for a number of reasons, none of which I’ll be divulging here – but there was a catharsis in the writing process and it enabled me to exorcise a couple of lingering demons. I guess you could call that a win, even though it didn’t really feel like it, but maybe that’s 2020 in a nutshell. Ilkley Moor is, by the way, a splendid place, and well worth a visit.
The Memory of Trees
(The Doctor Who Companion, August 2020)
Holidays as we knew them went up the spout this year, but my family and I did get to Alton Towers in the summer, where we finally persuaded Daniel onto Nemesis (he loved it, as I knew he would). It was during the visit that Emily – organiser and route planner and gatherer of strange information – elected to show us the abandoned toilet block which is the talk of the online discussion groups, and it was while we were down there that I realised this is exactly where the Doctor would choose to park his TARDIS. I’d already decided to have them visit the Towers, and I knew it had to be Twelve, with Clara – series 9 Clara, lest you were wondering – trailing along in his wake. (Actually it’s the other way round, at least to begin with, but never mind that now.) The Staffordshire estate may be home to some of the finest rollercoasters in the land but it’s also steeped in history, and has inspired a few spooky tales of its own. The tale of the chained oak seemed an obvious place to start, and there was never any real need to move very far away from it.
Not to give anything away, but it’ll become apparent as you reach the end of this that there is an unwritten companion story that fills in the gaps, waiting and lurking and anxious to be told. I might get around to it next year.
Hic Manebimus Optime
(Brian of Morbius / The Doctor Who Companion, December 2020)
They say a sad tale’s best for winter. This is not a sad tale. And at the same time, it is: one of those ambivalent mood pieces couched in uncertainty, a pile of good things and bad things. When asked by Phil if I wanted to contribute to the inaugural Doctor Who Companion storybook (themed – inevitably – around companions), there was only one story I wanted to tell, and that’s the tale of the Ponds’ Christmas tradition. What does it say about this couple, I wondered, that they set the table every December 25th, for a man who never arrives? What does it say about him? What does it say about them? The results aren’t exactly cheery, but I actually had a lot of fun writing this, because there’s great narrative satisfaction in skating around an awkward conversation that almost but doesn’t quite turn into an argument. You have to keep balanced on a knife edge, and if you’ll excuse the pun, that’s a brilliant way of staying sharp.
Chase The Shadows Away
(Brian of Morbius / The Doctor Who Companion, December 2021)
They say the planet’s heating up, but in 2021 hell froze over twice. First, Christopher Eccleston recorded and released his first Big Finish stories, returning to a role he’d not touched in fifteen years. Second, we got a new ABBA album: Voyage may not have exactly been up there with The Visitors, but it was affable and sparky and fun; four old pros showing they still had it. The story that grew out of that began life as something very different – an elderly woman, loosely based on my aunt, seeing out her last days in a hospice, much as my aunt had done that autumn, only to be visited by a ghost from the past. It was heart-rending and poignant and utterly shit. So I decided to do something a little less maudlin and a bit more fun, which is why you have Peter Capaldi running riot in Stockholm, trying to get the band back together. Well, he’s got a time machine…
The Night Circus is one of my all-time favorite books. I am always thrilled when others find it.