Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Excavating A Genre 1 - The Book List

I am a cross-genre writer.  You could even say that I am a low-brow literary writer, in that I like popular/commercial storytelling -- I like movies, and TV and comic books and kids' stories and various kinds of pulp fiction from the past -- but I also like experimenting with it and mixing it up/  I like to take a literary writer's approach to it.

My goal as a writer is to be sui generis -- of my own type. I am my genre.  This upsets genre purists, but like Pop-eye, I yam what I yam. (Toot!)

And yeah, much to the detriment of my success as a writer: one of my favorite things is to take genres and tropes that I find boring or clichéed or dated or over-done and pull them apart and find something wonderful about them -- and put them back together in a way that I like.

That's why you'll see me talk about flawed, non-masterpieces here as often as great classics.  Mining for diamonds in the rough is something I enjoy.

And I write about it here because 1.) it interests me, and 2.) I do think that the methods I use can be useful to more conventional writers who may not want to invent their own genre, but do want to find their voice -- the unique thing in their own imagination that sets them apart from others in their genre.

Last year I created the Story Game (best place to start with that is probably the index post at the end of the Situation Game) to this end.

Orphans On Trains

The project I am wrapped up in now was spawned by a bout of nostalgia last fall, in which I noticed a certain pattern of many stand-alone books I read as a kid.  These weren't always the best books I'd ever read, but there was something about them that stuck with me, when some of my favorite books have faded.

Furthermore, I find that I use the the tropes from these stories within many of my own stories. (Just as I usually have some aspect of mystery in them too.)  And this particular batch of stories is old-fashioned and really suit the retro world of The Serial. (I.e. the silent movie era inspired world of The Misplaced Hero, and Misplaced Baroness.)  So I'm thinking developing a junior version of that world (which I'll tell you about later).

The first thing I noticed about what these stories had in common was that they started with a journey of someone; usually a child, bravely (though often fearfully) heading alone into an unknown situation. Often involuntarily.  The protagonists were often orphans or virtual orphans (i.e. parents suffering from a disease or misfortune that made them unable to care for the kid). 

There are a few variations, and I'm going to explore the books that interest me and figure out if they actually constitute more than a theme or trope -- if they rise to a formula or genre. (And in the meantime, I'll talk about several types of similar genre/tropes that overlap with this.)

Here is a list of some of those books.  Some are classics, but many of them are lost, out of print and hard to find, but those of you of a certain age may have read them too.  I'm going to talk about these off and on for a while here on the blog. For the lesser known books I have included a line about how the book fits into the theme. And also in some cases, links to where you can buy the books at Amazon or download from Gutenberg project.

Understood Betsy - An over-protected orphan city girl, who is sent to live with easy going country relatives in New England. (Don't buy any commercial ebooks of this -- most are rip-offs of the Gutenberg version.)

The Avion My Uncle Flew - a boy from Wyoming whose single father gets a job in France after the war. The kid unwillingly learns French and solves a mystery involving spies and the murder of a prize pig. (Out of print, but available used at Amazon.)

Emil and the Detectives - a boy traveling alone is robbed and must track the villain down with the help of people he meets. (Best version with original illustrations at Amazon.)

For Love of a Donkey - an orphan, her donkey, and the old man sent to take her to an orphanage, walk across post-war Germany in order to save the donkey. (Out of Print, available used at Amazon., and also available to read online only at The Internet Archive's Open Library.)

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase - a "poor relation" is sent to live with her rich cousin. Melodrama and adventure ensues. (In print and available at Amazon and other ebook and paper book retailers and your local library.)

Unknown Title/Author - Story about an orphan girl taking a buckboard and driving across the outback of Australia.

Unknown Title/Author - a girl sent out west to live with relatives in a fort. (Post Indian Wars)

The Railway Children - A family sent to live in the country after their father is disgraced and arrested. (Available everywhere, including free at Project Gutenberg.  Also a really nice free audiobook at Librivox.)

More famous and classic books with similar pattern:

Oliver Twist
King Of The Wind
Jane Eyre
Lemony Snicket

The first thing these books have in common is a theme, and that theme is most reflected in Understood Betsy -- the book that spawned these thoughts in me. It's a rather more quaint and wholesome book than I liked as a kid. (As a kid, I despised Bonanza in favor of the more gritty High Chaparral, for instance.) But I found that I actually liked it when I read it, and elements of it stuck with me.

So, as I mentioned above, I really do have to tear it apart and find out why that wholesome book was so memorable to me.

And that's where we'll start next time -- likely on Friday. (I'll be posting these on Wednesdays and/or Fridays.)

See you in the funny papers.


Cora Buhlert said...

I just wanted to let you know how happy I am to see some love for Erich Kästner and "Emil and the Detectives".

Erich Kästner's books (many of whom are variations on the "orphans on a train" theme) were still staples of childhood reading when I was a kid, even though they were about 50 years old at that point. They somewhat faded from public consciousness fairly soon thereafter, probably due to children's lit becoming more dominated by international bestsellers rather than local classics.

The Daring Novelist said...

And I just realized that the only copy I have on hand is in French, which I can parse out, but is not good for reading. I might have to see if I can find an English copy....

Cora Buhlert said...

I didn't even know Erich Kästner had been translated at all, since hardly anybody outside the German speaking world seems to have heard of him.

The Daring Novelist said...

Disney made a movie of Emil and the Detectives in 1964. So the book got a lot more play when I was a kid.

Also, because it had been translated into a lot of different languages, it was popular in language classes. (Hence the reason I have it in French.)

It's probably still reasonably well known in language arts education, but I suspect largely forgotten in general in the U.S.