Category Archives: Writing

On the Release of Battle Scars

My second short story for Big Finish, Doctor Who – Short Trips: Battle Scars, has been released.

To be completely honest, I’m still high as a kite.

The whole thing started very shortly after Alfie Shaw took over as producer of the Short Trips range. I believe this was in April of 2018. In fact, I had just finished listening to an interview with him on the podcast when he contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in doing another story for Big Finish.

I didn’t have to think about this for very long.

He gave me a one or two sentence “brief”. The story would cover a famous gap in Doctor Who history, revealed in the first Ninth Doctor episode, “Rose”. Clive shows Rose a photo of the Daniels family of Southampton plus “friend”. The friend is obviously the Doctor. The family was meant to have sailed on the Titanic but didn’t. Alfie left the whys and wherefores, and basically the entirety of the story, up to me.

As usual, the first step was to write a one page synopsis and seek the approval of the BBC. This took a while, longer than it did for Landbound, but then this was during the transition between Steven Moffat’s team and Chris Chibnall’s. To my surprise, the BBC rejected the original title, which I won’t reveal. We had to come up with a new one. To be honest, I really liked the original title and my attempts to come up with an alternative were probably half-hearted. I had nothing. Finally, Alfie saved the day and suggested “Battle Scars” which fit perfectly.

At first I was going to make Arthur (the father) the Doctor’s main companion. Then I decided it would be more interesting to tell the story from Connie’s point of view. I love Connie. She reminds me of the precocious boy in the movie, Mr. Holmes, who basically rules the roost. In order to better explore the after-effects of war, Arthur is a veteran of the Second Boer War. Later in development, I made William Spence a veteran as well. Two life-long friends driven apart by the war.

Arthur is in the shipping industry to reinforce the theme of the Titanic lurking ominously just out of sight. And, I reasoned, Arthur’s contacts would have helped him score tickets to the Titanic, which must have been in high demand. The Doctor’s driving his fist through the hull of Arthur’s ship is meant to conjure in your mind what the iceberg did to the Titanic.

After three or four drafts, the story was done. Nicholas Briggs recorded the narration in November. From his comments on the podcast, I believe he recorded Harry Draper’s The Last Day at Work on the same day. And, as also mentioned on the podcast, he was just back from last year’s Chicago TARDIS and was still quite jet lagged. Mr. Briggs, it seems, has far more energy than do I.

On August 30th, as I was getting ready for bed, I thought I would check, just in case Battle Scars was available. And to my delight it was! I sat down to listen to it for the first time. Nicholas Briggs is an amazing actor. For a short story, Battle Scars has a lot of characters. He brought each one to life beautifully. I’m so lucky that he was able to narrate both of my Big Finish stories. The production focusses on the narration, providing thoughtful music in between scenes and sound effects that support the story. I loved it. It was everything I’d hoped for and more.

Once again, working with an editor was marvellous. Alfie was a great sounding board and he wisely warned me away from some wrong turns. With his guidance and helpful suggestions, the story ended up much stronger than it would have been.

You have to hand it to the Doctor Who fandom. There’s nothing like it. In any other genre, publishing a story might result in the odd tweet, a handful of reviews, and that would be it. But when Big Finish publishes your Doctor Who story, the Internet lights up with congratulations and thoughtful reviews. I couldn’t be more grateful for the support from the community.

And now, it’s time for me to start working through my queue of great Big Finish releases.

20 Years of Big Finish

This month, Big Finish Productions celebrates 20 years of Doctor Who audio dramas. Quite a milestone. So what does the anniversary mean to me, personally?

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Big Finish has published two of my Doctor Who stories, for which I will always be grateful. This has not only brought my writing to the attention of the Doctor Who community, it’s given me the encouragement to continue writing original fiction.

I’m also grateful for the opportunity that Big Finish has given to classic Doctor Who actors to really shine, and to expand and grow their characters. This is obviously true of Paul McGann, whose Eighth Doctor only appeared in one TV movie (and, years later, in “The Night of the Doctor”). It’s also particularly true of Colin Baker and his Sixth Doctor. As Baker addresses himself in the extras for “The Legacy of Time”, his Doctor wasn’t exactly the most popular back in the day. While playing the Doctor for Big Finish, Baker has had all sorts of opportunities to shine as an actor, while his character has grown into a Doctor we can all love. Besides, you have to admit, it’s a godsend to be able to enjoy a Sixth Doctor story without having to look at his garish clothing choices… I have to say that while I wasn’t a big fan during his TV run, Colin Baker is now one of my favourites.

The same is true of the companions, and the first one that comes to mind is Third Doctor companion Jo Grant, now Jo Jones, married with children and grandchildren and still fighting the good fight. Her reunion with the Third Doctor in “The Legacy of Time”, during which she told him how he’d influenced her post-companion life was very touching.

Then there are the original characters with which Big Finish has enriched the world of Doctor Who. Benny Summerfield. Charlie Pollard. Lucie “bleedin'” Miller. Characters that a lot of us have come to love.

Finally, Big Finish has allowed characters from modern “Who” to continue their adventures. Think River Song. Captain Jack Harkness. The War Doctor. The Tenth Doctor! Actors and characters that we couldn’t get enough of, though now we can get our periodic fix to keep us going.

I have some favourites amongst the rather enormous Big Finish collection of audios. Needless to say, I haven’t purchased every single release. A guy’s gotta eat, after all. But of those that I’ve got my hands on, here are some of my favourites. They’re listed in chronological order of release, not in any particular order of preference.

  • The Sirens of Time. Notable, of course, for being the first Big Finish Doctor Who release, and a multi-Doctor adventure to boot. This release also serves as a yard stick of how far Big Finish has come in twenty years. While The Sirens of Time is very good, later releases have been great. As far as I’m concerned, a modern Big Finish audio is every bit as good as the best TV episodes. The quality of writing, performing, music, sound design is second to none.
  • Zagreus. This is a sentimental favourite as it’s my first Big Finish audio. After spotting the CD case with multiple Doctors in a record store (remember those?), I was entranced by the surreal, dreamlike story in which… well, there’s a lot going on here. And, of course, not all is as it seems. As far as I know, Big Finish have never released anything quite like this one.
  • Doctor Who: Master. A really fascinating, thoughtful story in which the Master and Doctor, well, talk to each other. Sylvester McCoy is the Doctor and Geoffrey Beevers is the Master. You’ll want to listen to this one many times over.
  • The Light at the End. A wonderful multi-Doctor story released to celebrate 50 years of Doctor Who. A particular treat for me was to hear the Fourth and Eighth Doctors going back and forth. Hard to believe that was six years ago now! (Hey, that means the 60th is only four years away…)
  • The War Doctor series. We were truly blessed to get four box sets with John Hurt’s War Doctor before his passing. I don’t think Big Finish has ever topped this series. Each episode in each of the four box sets is outstanding.
  • Falling. This one is my favourite Short Trip hands down, and one of my favourite Big Finish releases. A lovely story by Jonathan Barnes, exquisitely narrated by Anneke Wills. In this story about accepting change, we get a surprising preview of the crisis the First Doctor would find himself in in Twice Upon a Time.
  • The Legacy of Time. Just released this month, this is the big, anniversary celebration release. It’s a story with many Doctors in six stories that seem loosely coupled, but come together in the end beautifully. Of particular note for me is the Guy Adams Third Doctor story, The Sacrifice of Jo Grant, a story that offers some real emotional gut punches. Also of note is that, in this box set, Big Finish has expanded the history of the Time Lords with an important event in their past. Or present. Can’t say much more without spoilers.

In the end, all we can do is to thank Big Finish for their energy and enthusiasm for Doctor Who, and to wish them many more adventures in the future.

On Being Interviewed

Well, that was different. And Exciting. And nerve-wracking .

Within a week, two things happened. First, Doctor Who Magazine expressed an interest in interviewing me for my upcoming story, Doctor Who – Short Trips: Battle Scars. Second, Lucas Testro contacted me about appearing in an episode of his podcast, Doctor Who and the Episodes of Death.

Gulp.

In the end, they were both positive experiences, but very different. The chat with DWM was strictly Q&A and lasted about twenty minutes. The only real stress was in trying to work out what I could say about Battle Scars without giving away too much.

The podcast was a lot of fun. Lucas very kindly gave me a chance to chat about Landbound and Battle Scars, and for the rest, we did a deep dive into “The Beast Below”, Matt Smith’s second episode as the Doctor. Considering that we’d never interacted before, I was pleasantly surprised. It quickly felt like we were a couple of chums doing a chinwag about Doctor Who in a pub somewhere.

You don’t have to listen to Lucas for long to realize that is he obviously a pro, and he did a heck of a lot of research prior to our session. He certainly knows his stuff. But it’s good that someone does. Compared to some of the more devoted in the Doctor Who community, my knowledge of all things Who is comparatively meagre.

I did make one mistake. Prior to our chat, I’d listened to portions of a number of episodes, particularly the one with John Dorney. I became a fan right away and will be listening to the show going forward. Ah, but the mistake. I hadn’t listened to an episode all the way through, you see, and was caught rather flatfooted by Lucas’ question at the end of the podcast. He graciously laughed it off for which I was grateful. If there’s ever a next time, I SHALL BE PREPARED!

As an independent writer, you never know if there’s going to be another one. Another publication. I hope I get a chance to write for Big Finish again, but who knows? And, as of the time of writing, I’ve been singularly unsuccessful in getting any of my original stories published. So, this may be the only time anyone is interested in interviewing me. But that’s okay. With two Doctor Who stories at Big Finish under my belt, I’ve already seen a dream come true. I suspect that, going forward, I’ll always treasure these days, when there was interest in an upcoming story of mine, and when I eagerly awaited to listen to the end result.

Chase after your dreams. You never know where they’ll lead.

Battle Scars

Big Finish Productions have announced Doctor Who – Short Trips: Battle Scars, my second Doctor Who story for the audio drama company. Here’s the synopsis:

Nightmarish memories of the Boer War. Crippling debts. An unconscious stranger in the garden. Arthur Daniels is beset with problems. Little does he know that his proposed solution could be the biggest problem of them all. A voyage to America aboard the RMS Titanic.

I can’t tell you much more than that, but I’m sure I can randomly mention that in the first 9th Doctor adventure, Rose learns that the Daniels family of Southampton were meant to travel on the Titanic but didn’t. She also sees a photo of the family with someone who bears a resemblance to the Doctor.

Needless to say, it’s an honour to have had the opportunity to write for Big Finish. They produce some really really good audio dramas, and not just Doctor Who.

“Battle Scars” is out in July.

Excerpt from Promises, Promises

What follows is an excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Promises, Promises. I started this at least a couple of years ago. I haven’t made a lot of progress. Part of the problem is that I write very slowly, so much so that I’ve focussed on (thus far, unpublished) short stories so that I have something tangible and complete to show for my time.

I keep coming back to this novel, though, in part because I love the characters that inhabit this world. Mind you, given that the novel is of the horror genre, some of these characters will have endings that are a bit less than happy. The interesting thing about coming back to this work repeatedly is that, in the interim, you grow as a writer, and view your earlier prose with completely different eyes.

Please note that I may never finish this, and if I do, I reserve the right to completely retcon this opening scene. Having said all of that, I hope you enjoy it.

#

Promises, Promises

by Selim Ulug

Copyright 2019 by Selim Ulug. All rights reserved. 

#

Jennifer Fern closed her messaging app and put away her phone. It didn’t help. The words felt burned into her retina.

“Hey Jenny, sorry to send this by txt but don’t really want a scene. I don’t think it’s working out. We should probably stop seeing each other. Besides, I’ve met someone and don’t want to see her behind your back so… yeah. It’s for the best. No hard feelings?”

Blinking furiously, as if that would help her unsee what she had seen, she took deep breaths and scanned the pub. It was late afternoon, but early for the supper and after work crowd. There were a couple of people seated at the L-shaped bar with its gleaming, dark mahogany wood. Behind the bar, backing onto the flagstone wall, were open mahogany cupboards filled with assorted bottles of liquor. Throughout the pub, the ceiling was covered with square sections of wood paneling. The bar area, with its high chairs and small tables, was separated from the dining area by a long booth backed by a glass partition. A smattering of people were seated here. Some seemed to be tourists, resting their feet after a day of sight-seeing, judging by the backpacks they’d set to rest on the floor. In the dining area, Jenny noted, where only a couple of tables were currently occupied, Alyssa was leading a couple of men from the host station to one of her tables.

Grabbing a couple of menus, Jenny strode towards them. Fortunately, she was used to putting on her game face regardless of how her day was going. Perhaps, she contemplated, that was why actors made good wait staff.

“Hi, I’m Jenny,” she said, smiling as she wiped the table. “Something to drink?”

“Absolutely,” said one of them. “We’re celebrating.”

“Awesome,” said Jenny. “What’s the occasion? Birthday?”

“Better than that,” said the other man. “We’ve each just purchased our first property.”

“Congratulations! So that sounds to me like a pitcher’s worth of celebrating. Harp, maybe?”

“That’d be perfect, thanks.”

“I’ll get that for you then come back for your food order.”

Noting that Dar followed her with his eyes, Chris smiled and said, “She’s pretty.”

Turning back to Chris, Dar said, “Sure, if you happen to like women that are good-looking and pleasant with a nice smile.”

There was a pause during which Chris and Dar looked at each other, past each other, in silence. Finally, Dar said, “You look as stunned as I feel.”

Laughing, Chris said, “I know, right? I kept looking for something wrong with it. The location, the units, the price, they were almost too good to be true.”

“We were lucky,” said Dar. “It won’t take long before they’re snatched up.”
Jenny returned with a pitcher and two glasses. Dar ordered a curry, Chris a lamb stew.

Chris wasn’t able to eat much of his meal. This was surprising as he was noted for having a big appetite. However, the excitement of the day made it hard to think about food. Beer, on the other hand, was a completely different story.

Dar seemed to have not much more of an appetite, and after taking a few bites of their meals, they both ended up sipping their beers in silence, their attention wandering to the hockey game on the pub’s screens. It was near the end of the first period, and the Senators were already losing to the Leafs 2 to 1. The pub was filling in, the noise level rising considerably.

Jenny cleared away their plates, and they both assured her the dishes had been fine. “In fact,” said Dar, “I told my meal, it’s not you, it’s me.” Jenny laughed and offered coffee and dessert. They declined.

“So,” said Chris, “October first is coming up quickly. “We’ll have to plan this out.”

“I was thinking about that,” said Dar. “With the condo settled, I expect I can head back to Kingston tomorrow. We’ll book a truck for the first. By ‘we’, of course, I mean ‘you’.”

“Thanks,” said Chris. “I’m honoured by the… honour.”

“Don’t mention it,” said Dar. “You bring it down to Kingston, then we load it up, move me into the new place, then pick up your things. Get you out of Kanata and into a proper, civilized setting.”

“Hey,” Chris said. “Lot’s of highly cultured people live in Kanata.” Silence for a time, then he asked, “Will you miss Kingston?”

“For sure,” said Dar. “But Kingston is too small a place not to run into mutual friends, and I’m the bad guy. You should see the looks I get. I’d rather get a fresh start.”

“What about your parents?” said Chris. “Have they mellowed at all?”

Dar shook his head. “Not really. I’ve shamed the family. It was no way for a good Egyptian to behave, and so on and so forth.”

“You’ve been to Egypt just the once, haven’t you?”

“That logic escapes them,” said Dar. “Even though I was born here, they’re Egyptian so I’m Egyptian.”

“I’m really sorry,” Chris said. “You know, really. To have things turn chilly with your family at a time like this must make it so much harder.”

“Yes, well, thank goodness I can heap abuse upon you and get it out of my system,” Dar said.

Chris grinned and raised his glass. Dar did likewise and they clinked their glasses. “To abuse,” Chris said.

“To abuse,” Dar repeated. “May it be harsh and rain down often.”

After taking a couple of swallows, Chris raised his glass again and said, “Well, you’ll have a new job in a new city, living in a new condo. To fresh starts.”

“To fresh starts,” Dar agreed.

Those guys toast each other a lot, Jenny observed. It’s kind of sweet how excited they are. Mind you, here’s me sharing a small apartment with Laurie, who wishes I’d move out. Okay, so I guess I’d be excited too.

Carrying a tray laden with several mugs of beer, Jenny was about to pass by their table when…

She stopped dead in her tracks. She wasn’t in the restaurant any more. Instead she was in a large, dark area with a smudge of light a few feet in front of her. Unlike the bustle in the pub, this place, wherever it was, was deadly silent.

“Hello?” she called, tentatively.

Within the light, dust motes danced about, until they began to coalesce, forming… what? It was formless, and yet it wasn’t. Then Jenny felt goose bumps form on her arms and the hair rise on the back of her neck. Her stomach began to churn so that she felt about to vomit. The amorphous cloud of dust became a face, as large as she was tall, with black eyes and yawning maw displaying sharp, many-rowed teeth. The mouth opened even further and the face began to close the distance between them.

That was when Jenny screamed. She screamed loud and long. She was back in the pub and still she screamed, all thoughts of the tray forgotten. Until she heard the sound of glass breaking, the feel of the liquid soaking into her leggings, and someone yelping in surprise. It was one of the two men, the ones celebrating.

Chris was stunned as he witnessed their server first freeze, then scream, and then dump the contents of her tray onto the floor. What missed the floor landed upon poor Dar, who was drenched in beer.

Wiping his face, Dar looked from the server to Chris. “And an auspicious start it is,” he said.

#

The Perils of the Second Person

In which a dialogue ensues between author and protagonist. When the author lets slip that the protagonist will die, things go from bad to worse.


You walk into the pub, dimly lit, eighties music playing a little louder than you like.

Yes, I’m walking into a pub. Well done. Wouldn’t have known if you hadn’t said. 

After casting glances left and right, the corners of your mouth turn into a frown. She isn’t here.

What? I didn’t come here to meet anyone. Tonight’s the CFL Eastern Final. 

BE QUIET!

Now where was I? Oh yes. She isn’t here, but it’s early, so you take a seat at the bar where you can keep an eye on the entrance.

More like, so I can keep an eye on the TV. Will you just get out of my head for five minutes? Who the hell are you anyway?

Okay, look. Perhaps we need to establish some boundaries. I’m the author. You’re the protagonist. I tell the story, you act it out. It’s not very complicated.

You’re the… You know, for a while I thought I was crazy because I keep hearing this voice in my head. But you’re the crazy one. I wonder what it means when there’s a voice in your head, but the voice is crazy. 

(Counts down from five and takes a deep breath) You order a Sleeman’s and take a sip.

Actually, no. I’m going to order a Guinness tonight, thank you very much. 

“Pint of Guinness,” you say.

What? No. I said Sleeman’s. You were supposed to order Sleeman’s!

Tonight I feel like Guinness. 

Listen. I’ve carefully plotted out this story, in which the reader gradually comes to understand you as we peel away your defences, layer by layer, until, tragically…

Did you say tragically? 

What? No. Of course not. No spoilers. You have to act out each part as if you’ve no foreknowledge of what’s to come.

So how tragic are we talking about? Are the Redblacks going to lose? 

Um, no. Well, yes. But it’s worse than that.

(Sighs) Okay. The love of your life, the woman of your dreams, arrives in the arms of another man.

This woman you talked about that I’ve never seen before? That woman? 

Yes, dammit, that one. And you have seen her, but it was before this story so you don’t remember. Just like you don’t remember your own name, because I haven’t introduced it yet. Look, just run with it all, okay? Can you do that?

So you think I don’t know that my name is Ethan Black?

(Growls)

I’d like to explore this thing about tragedy some more. So this woman comes in with a man. What’s so tragic? 

Well, it’s more what happens next that’s really tragic.

Which is? 

Oh fine! You march to their table where they’ve already ordered a bottle of wine. You smash the bottle on the mans head, then, with the broken top of the bottle, slit your throat. Happy now?

What’s the matter, cat got your tongue?

I was just thinking. You know what I was thinking?

What?

That I’m going to leave this pub and your crummy story. 

No! You can’t do that. I’m the author. You’re the…

Yes, I know. I’m just the lowly protagonist. Bye. 

You get up, put on your coat, and leave the pub, your glass unfinished on the bar. Moments later, all the patrons turn at the sound of screeching brakes and scream as your broken body is tossed upon the pub window. The screams continue as your corpse slides to the ground, leaving streaks of red in in its wake.

Like I said. Tragic.

(With a satisfied smile, takes story and files it away. Nothing worse than a lippy protagonist.)

The Continuity Conundrum

Suppose you’re a writer and you want to write for a rich, established universe. Think Doctor Who, Star Trek, or Star Wars, for example. The question becomes, how do you write something that is original but consistent with all of that backstory?

Let’s stick with Doctor Who for now. The show started over 50 years ago, and although there was that hiatus between 1989 and 2005, that’s still a lot of content. But wait, that’s not all! You also get many books, graphic novels and audio dramas (yay Big Finish!). It’s enough to make your head explode. Unless you’re a Time Lord.

So what’s a poor, human, head-about-to-explode writer to do? Well, we can be grateful that there are websites like http://tardis.wikia.com/wiki/Doctor_Who_Wiki. Here you’ll find just about every fact about Doctor Who that exists. If you search for the Third Doctor, for example, you’ll learn about all his adventures in chronological order across all media. As a resource, this site is invaluable. And yet, there’s still a limit to what you can absorb, and there may be details omitted within a given adventure that contradict something in your writing.

I’m afraid this is one of those posts where I have no brilliant solutions. If you actually owned the property, rather than, say, the BBC owning Doctor Who or CBS owning Star Trek, or Disney owning Star Wars, then you could consider crowdsourcing the story. Put the whole thing online, then act on the feedback you get to make the story better. Andy Weir famously did this with his novel, The Martian, with contributors pointing out sciency things that could use some tightening.

If you’re writing fanfiction, then you can do this by posting the story on fanfiction.net, for example. I posted a very short and hopefully humorous Lord of the Rings story there. Once. It was inspired by a review of one of the Hobbit movies that pointed out that the eagles are a kind of deus ex machina in Tolkien’s writing. As multiple readers pointed out, that premise was fully explored in a YouTube video in which our heroes bypass the whole adventure by simply flying with the ring directly to Mount Doom. Rats. That episode cured me of any further desire to write LotR stories. You’ve really got to know your stuff, especially for that fandom.

Posting content online yourself doesn’t really work if you’re writing commercially for someone’s existing intellectual property. As with most things, I suppose you can only do as much research as you can (and as your deadline permits) and do your best.

PS Have I mentioned that Landbound has been released by Big Finish? Oh.