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23 March 2009

Stories that Cry Out for Discussion


My friend and fellow writer Penny Williamson and I spent a wonderful afternoon Saturday at a party of Dorothy Dunnett readers (that's Penny and me left in Edinburgh, on a trip where we went to a Dunnett-related conference). Dunnett readers tend to be a fun, well-read, and extraordinarily nice group of people. Over tea and wine and a delicious array of food Saturday we talked about books by Dunnett and others as well as favorite television series.

There’s something about Dunnett’s books that particularly lends them to discussion and analysis. They’re so complex and multi-layered. The books aren’t mysteries, but there are mysteries running through both the Lymond Chronicle and the House of Niccoló which provide endless food for debate and speculation. Even now both series are finished, plenty of unresolved questions remain. Add to that vivid historical context, rich literary allusions, and a fascinating cast of characters, and it’s hard to read Dunnett and not want to talk about the books. As we discussed at the party Saturday, in the dark ages before the internet, we all had long lists of questions we wanted to pour over with other Dunnett readers. For a long time, the only other Dunnett reader I knew was my mom. We would discuss and debate the books all the time. Penny and I first became friends because we both loved Dunnett books. We’d spend long lunches talking over the Lymond Chronicle and debating what might happen next in the House of Niccoló.

Through my Dunnett friends, I’m also involved in a discussion group of Dunnett readers who watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer (you’d be amazed at the parallels :-) ). Leaving the party Saturday, I found myself pondering what it is about certain stories that seem to particularly lend themselves to discussion. Ongoing story arcs are a big part of it, so book and television series both lend themselves to reader and viewer discussions, online and in person. Dunnett's series and BVTS both have complicated, ongoing stories, with plenty of questions about who’s real agenda is what, who will end up with whom, how characters may have been related to other characters in the past, and a host of other mysteries. Not to mention books, episodes, and seasons that end with nerve-wracking cliff hangers.

Another important element is characters one comes to care about and root for. Sometimes, particularly when there are romantic triangles, the rival merits of the characters becomes a topic of discussion. I recall a number of debates over Gelis verus Kathi in the House of Niccoló or Angel versus Spike on BVTS.

The X-Files and Alias also lend themselves to discussion , as does Lost (I’m watching last week’s episode as I write this and will probably have to rewatch it to make sure I didn’t miss a vital clue). I think the more a series, television or book, has an going mytharc (to use an X-Files term), with story and character development that extends from episode to episode or book to book, the more it becomes something one doesn't watch/read and enjoy but something one wants to talk about and explore. The mystery series I talk about the most with fellow readers may wrap up the central mystery within a book but the continuing characters have plenty of ongoing issues that stretch from book to book. Elizabeth George’s Lynley/Havers series, Laurie King’s Mary Russell series, and C.S. Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyr series all come to mind. When I finish one of the books, I inevitably want to talk about it (particularly the in the case of the recent George and Harris books which left lots of unresolved questions). Though they aren’t mysteries, but the same is true of Lauren's Pink Carnation series. There are always questions that linger at the end book, whether it’s about the identity of villains, Colin and Eloise, or the Pink Carnation herself.

Another thing all these series have in common is vivid, richly-detailed world-building, whether it’s Dunnett's 15th and the 16th century Europe and beyond, suburban Sunnydale, Mulder & Scully’s conspiracy-rife FBI, Sydney Bristow’s CIA and the Alliance, an island that moves back and forth in time (and goodness knows what else), Lynley & Havers’s Scotland Yard, Holmes & Russell’s 20s Britain and beyond filled with puzzles and adventures, Sebastian St. Cyr’s dark Regency London, or the Pink Carnation's adventure-filled Napoleonic Europe. They’re all worlds I enjoy visiting, filled with characters I enjoy spending time with.

Do you have favorite series, whether literary or on television, that lend themselves particularly to discussion? Do you seek out friends to talk them over with? What elements in series do you find particularly good topics for analysis?

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18 Comments:

Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Provocative post, Tracy. I started reading Dunnett about 10 years ago, right about the time I started writing professionally. And I found her writing had much to chew on. I was constantly challenged by her vocabulary and frequently found myself running to the OED. Since then I have used her as Exhibit A when editors ask me to "dumb down" (my phrase, not theirs) the vocabulary in my historical fiction, in particular, as they're afraid it zooms over readers' heads and takes them out of the book. I have consistently maintained that life is a perpetual learning process and that if a reader comes across an unfamiliar word -- they should look it up, which thereby enriches not detracts, from their experience of the novel.

Dunnett never "dumbs down" for a hypothetical editor's focus grouped idea of the lowest common denominator of reader.

I know I didn't answer your question, Tracy, but your homage to Dunnett's craft sparked this random musing.

And, yes, I certainly agree with you about Lauren's fabulous Pink Carnation series. I love her world(s) and never want to leave them.

6:10 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful point, Amanda! Not only does Dunnett use words that have one running to the OED, she peppers her books with quotes (frequently in medieval French). I think that's another reason people want to discuss the books--the language makes them that much more layered and open to interpretation.

9:45 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

plenty of questions about who’s real agenda is what...

I guess another way to say this is that it's possible to tell a story in such a way that it becomes necessary to ask, "is this the only story?" and then to understand that a minor character might have an entirely other, equally compelling, story, based upon the same events.

I love it when series' are able to take that turn along the way of their arcs and arcs upon arcs. Joss Whedon gets close to this vision -- a community of fully-realized selves becomes as much a vision of world-building as the immediacy of geography, politics, clothes and furniture. A world populated by OTHER CONSCIOUSNESSES, who, we are charged with believing, are as real as ourselves.

In Buffy, we had world-building that was just the right kind of utopian.

10:29 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

That's another great point, Pam. I was thinking this morning that what all the series I mentioned have in common is a community of interesting, fully-realized characters, and I know many people who follow one of the series avidly but whose favorite character is not the protagonist/s. That too makes for interesting discussion, as readers/viewers debate the story from different perspectives. The more real and vivid the world and the characters, the more one is inclined to imagine what happens off the page/screen.

10:50 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

I still consider BTVS the best series on TV -- for the fully developed characters (though I still have some issues with Willow), an amazing story arc and the best series final episode I have ever seen.

In books -- my hands down favorite is Lois McMaster Bujold Vorkosigan novels -- one of the few series I have read more than once. Her lead characters deal with hard issues, make mistakes and learn from them. I am delighted to find other fans of Miles Vorkosigan, a man I love to read about but one who drive me nuts in real life.

I like Miles so much that I have developed a secondary character in my Kiss series that is modeled on him with thanks to Bujold in my author's notes.

Dorothy Sayers Lord Peter Whimsy/Harriet Vane stories and JD Robb In Death series are two other series that are worth discussing on several levels.

AND how could I forget, the Harry Potter books which are a great way to connect with kids from 10 to 70.

I watch a LOT of police procedurals on TV but hardly ever want to discuss them with anyone -- they are pure escape for me.

Thanks for the post, Tracy -- what a fun subject

4:41 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

A lot of Dunnett readers also seem to be Bujold readers, Mary (as well as BVTS watchers). I've read and really enjoyed one Bujold book (A Civi Campaign) and keep meaning to read more (I am forever horribly behind on reading).

I also love talking about Sayers' Peter & Harriet books. I read them way before the internet, but I'd discuss them endlessly with my mom. I read the books out of order. I'll be forever grateful to my dad, because after I finished "Have His Carcase," the first I read, on a Sunday, he drove me half an hour to a book store where I was able to find "Busman's Honeymoon" and start it right away. I then read "Strong Poison" and "Gaudy Night" last. Laurie King has a lot of conscious parallels to Sayers' in her Mary Russell books, so online Russell discussions frequently include Sayers.

I think the difference with police procedurals is that even though there are continuing charactes, there don't tend to be ongoing story arcs or as many layers of subtext, both of which lend themselves to discussion topics.

4:50 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I have just started the Harris / St Cyr series and I find them fascinating. I am a big fan of the Lymond Chronicles and read them once when I was entirely too young and then later again in college. Sayers' Lord Peter books are another favorite of mine.

A contemporary series that is on my must buy list is Preston Douglas and Lincoln Childs Pendergast series. I happened upon it by chance ( my Mom saw a book in a box of take one books in the local sit and gossip restaurant and brought it to me saying "This looks like something you would read.") The book was Still Life with Crows and it was amazing. I immediately went out and found the rest of the books and have been a fan ever since. There is so much that you learn in each book that is part of the larger puzzle and what I love most is that these guys do their research - historical, scientific, literary, you name it and I learn something fantastic with each book I read. And the people I know who have read them are always ready to discuss, speculate and / or argue about them.

7:35 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Aren't the St. Cyr books compelling, Louisa? I first read the Lymond Chronicles the summer between high school and college and devoured them in just a few weeks (I remember sitting curled up on the couch all day, having a hard time tearing myself away for dinner, reading in the back seat of the car on a family outing, etc...). I told my mom she had to read them (because I so wanted to talk about them). It took her a while to get in to "The Game of Kings," but eventually she was as hooked as I was. I tried to introduce a lot of other friends to the series with no luck. It was such a delight to meet Penny and have someone else to talk Dunnett with.

I've heard of the Pendergast books but don't know much about them. Are they fantasy?

7:44 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

No Tracey, the Pendergast series is a combination Southern gothic family history, FBI thriller, science fiction now and arcane history. Have you ever seen the movie The Relic? It was based on one of the Pendergast books, although the film left Agent Pendergast out of it. Big mistake. He is an absolutely fascinating character. His character is one part genius, one part FBI agent, one part tragic hero and one part Regency style gentleman living in modern day America.

8:22 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for the description, Louisa! The books sounds fascinating. I haven't seen "The Relic," but I'm still trying to get my head round filming a book and leaving out the central character...

9:21 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I know! Everyone else in the film is in the book, but they just wrote Pendergast out of it. Perhaps because they couldn't find anyone to portray him. Who would portray Pendergast on film is a source of HUGE contention amongst the fans of this series.

2:35 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

But then, who would portray our favorite literary characters is always a source of contention, because these discussions show how similarly readers will imagine these characters -- and how dissimilarly.

3:49 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I find literary casting discussions fascinating because they reveal so much about how different people see different characters (often the choices speak to personality and demeanor as well as looks). That's what I find so fun about the Story Casting website. As a writer, I'm also intrigued by casting suggestions for my own books, because it shows how differently different readers read the same book (going back to my post a while ago about the reader as story-teller). And also, because it's fun to day dream about one's books being filmed :-).

4:16 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I am always fascinated by how people see our favorite characters, i.e. the Darcy wars! And I actually have a cast picked out for each of my books. I keep it in my notebook/Bible for each book where I keep all of my notes, floor plans, ideas, etc. There is always the danger when one sells the movie rights to a book that the director's vision bears no resemblance to your own. As I recall Anne Rice did NOT want Tom Cruise to play Lestat, but Interview with the Vampire is one of the few Tom Cruise movies I own.

5:11 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I have a list for my books too, because I mentalyl cast them as I start to write them. It's a great way for me to get a sense of the character (not just how they look but walk, mannerisms, tone of voice). It was particularly helpful when I wrote with my mom because it ensured we shared the same vision of the character. Some times it took us a while to settle on the right actor, and sometimes even on my own, I find I can't get the character rigth until I find the right actor (that happened with Gisele in "Beneatha Silent Moon").

Once a book is actually optioned and filmed, though, the director's vision takes over.

Wasn't Anne Rice fairly pleased with Tom Cruise's performance when she finally saw the movie? I liked him in it.

5:19 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Yes, from all accounts she WAS pleased with his performance. I think the words "stunned and pleasantly surprised" were how she described her reaction. I loved him in it. As I said, I am not a big fan of his work, but I think Lestat was some of his absolute finest work. He and Brad Pitt had great onscreen chemistry.

7:17 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

She wanted Rutger Hauer. Who might have been very good, but Cruise was really quite terrific. Pitt was good. And Kirsten Dunst was scary-wonderful.

9:56 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I agree--I liked the movie a lot and liked all the actors in it. Admittedly, I haven't read the books, but I saw the movie with two different friends who had, and they both liked it.

10:46 PM  

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