Thursday, July 19, 2007

Here and now stories? Not so much

Came to a curious realisation the other day: I almost never write stories set in the present. Among all my novels, audio dramas, graphic novels and TV spec scripts, hardly any of them feature contemporary settings - and those that do usually feature some twist to take them one step beyond reality. You want Second World War tales? No problem. Need a murder mystery set 500 years in the past, or a page-turning story about extortionists in the English Civil War? Easy peasy. Alternative histories, near future thrillers, sidesteps from realities - they're my stock in trade.

Partly this is a product of where past jobs have led me. I edited science fiction comics for a decade, so when I went freelance my contacts were in similar genres. One job leads to another when you're self-employed, thanks to word of mouth among editors, producers and those with the power to commission. I've had 18 novels published and the settings include: the 22nd century; the 1970s; the 1950s; an alternate reality 2004; the 27th century; the Second World War; and a middle ages fantasy empire. Bizarrely, my Nightmare on Elm Street novel is the only novel I've written set here and now.

Audio dramas? More science fiction, for the most part, although my Sapphire & Steel and Sarah Jane Smith stories all had contemporary settings. Indeed, the SJS audios deliberately adopted a torn from the headlines sensibilities, taking inspiration from newspaper clippings I'd collected over the years, to ground the drama and give it some verisimilitude. My radio play was about human drama - no spaceships, no alien worshipping cults, just ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

I write comics featuring a costumed hero called the Phantom, also known as the Ghost Who Walks. Twenty-one successive generations have fought tyranny and injustice as the Phantom, and I usually find myself writing the historical tales. I'm more comfortable scripting the Phantom when he's battling crime in another time, perhaps due to the character's 1930s pulp sensibilities; he seems a more natural fit for tales set in the past. It helps that I enjoy researching historical settings, finding a niche into which I can insert my narratives, opportunities for tall tales to be told.

Even on my MA screenwriting course, I've tended to create stories set anywhere but here and now. My short film script Danny's Toys? Between the wars. The TV pilot I wrote on the mentoring project? Taking Liberties is a near future thriller, set in a Britain that's just inroduced identity cards for all. My final project takes places in Glasgow during the summer of 1940, as the Second World War hits home for the first time. All of which begs an obvious question: why don't I write contemporary tales?

I'm not sure. I guess the past, the future and alternative versions of today provide a distance from the everyday. I can use them to create allegories for contemporary issues and study modern problems through the prism of the past or the future. My final project examines the treatment of immigrants in Glasgow during the Second World War, but it's also a metaphor for the way asylum seekers and minorities are treated today. The story's also got a lot of personal resonance for me.

I've lived in Britain for seventeen and a half years, but I don't have a British passport. I didn't grow up watching Blue Peter or Tiswas, I lack many of the cultural reference points that are ingrained in people around me. I'll always feel like I'm one step removed in the UK, but that displacement's even more pronounced when I go back to New Zealand for a visit. I recognise the places, but I don't belong there anymore either. Still, a little distance is a useful thing when you're a writer. Gives you objectivity. Perhaps that's why I draw away from the contemporary. I enjoy the objectivity other settings provide.

1 comment:

Jason Arnopp said...

Well, ain't that the damndest thing: I tend to write overwhelmingly in the here and now. Hadn't consciously realised this before, but all three of the screenplays I'm developing for the Agents Pack are contemporarily-set. And so are my two full-length movie scripts.

If - no, when! - I write a Doctor Who TV screenplay, I'd hate to get a historical (I'd struggle through with it, mind!). It'd be present-day or futuristic for me, given the choice.

Between us, good sir, we cover all bases. To put it plainly, we rock.