Sunday, 12 September 2010

What the Dickens?

Back in the heady days of September 2007, at the start of my adventures in writing, I had just read DickensHard Times as part of my plan to catch up with some of the classics. I read it while on a family holiday in Cornwall, during which we made our regular visit to the circus at Newquay. The disappointment of the novel for me was the mention of Sleary’s Circus, from where Sissy originates, and yet not have the circus perform within its pages.

Some sub-conscious neuron firing with the above information gave me the idea of a story about a Victorian circus (awesome, eh?). The main character would be a young orphan (surprise), and the acts themselves would be highly unusual; no specific ideas, just that they would be unusual. Ideas flashed before me left, right and centre, and my little notebook became filled with characters, plot points, and even quotes. I did a little research on Victorian London, and even more ideas flooded the little grey cells.

Healthy neurons, not mine (

During the next three years, bringing us up to the present, I have had a more than a dozen serious novel ideas, something similar for movies, plus a healthy selection of short story collections, radio plays, television series, and graphic novels. But none is as far advanced as Yellow Ostriches, the title for my Victorian circus novel, which is why I selected it for my Master’s Degree Project.

However, there is one thing concerning the novel pressing at the back of my mind: how on Earth do you write a Victorian novel without being accused of presenting nothing more than a Dickens pastiche?

This is a particularly thorny issue because 1. Dickens wrote about the period while living in it – he has ultimate authenticity; 2. He was prolific, and wrote about virtually every aspect of existence at that time; 3. He is still in print, so has been read almost everyone who can read English; 4. The #@!!&? was a genius.

Charles Dickens, the #@!!&? (Sydney Morning Herald)

I have written several passages including character descriptions and dialogue, and it all sounds like a modernised, pale imitation of the master.

So, this crunch time. I have a back-up novel that I would like to write even more than Yellow Ostriches, but it is nowhere near as well developed. I believe the story to be a unique take on a particular theme. It is very slightly SF, but no more so than a typical David Mitchell or Kazuo Ishiguro. But at least it’s set mostly in contemporary times, rather than Hard Times, so with any luck it will have my voice, and not Dickens’.

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