Setting Stone is my first professional fiction credit, a short story published in the Professor Bernice Summerfield 10th anniversary anthology, A Life of Surprises.
In addition to the publication details and blurb, I've provided some background notes for the story, as well as the original pitch (which differs a little from the final story).
Paul Cornell, Justin Richards and Daniel O'Mahony have also contributed some notes for their stories.
Professor Bernice Summerfield - A Life of Surprises
Edited by Paul Cornell
Published by Big Finish (2002)
Professor Bernice Summerfield, interstellar archaeologist, adventurer, romantic and drinker, has had either one very big life or a number of only slightly smaller ones.
This anthology contains stories from many times and places across her long career, ranging from the starkly dramatic, through the thrilling, to the hilarious.
It links Bernice to her roots, as well as sending her forward into new adventures. And it celebrates a decade of Bernice in print. Cheers!
Over 300,000 Bernice Summerfield novels sold in ten years!
21 brand-new short-stories and an in-depth essay all about Benny and her extended family: Jason, her ex-husband and all-round git; Irving Braxiatel, enigmatic owner of the Braxiatel Collection, a planetoid which houses a fantastic art and artefact gallery; Adrian Wall, the Killoran architect and builder and father of Peter, Benny's half-human, half-Killoran baby (although she wasn't actually occupying her body when he was conceived). Confused? Imagine how they all feel.
- The Shape of the Hole - Paul Cornell
- Kill the Mouse! - Daniel O'Mahony
- Solar Max and the Seven-Handed Snake-Mother - Kate Orman
- A Mutual Friend - Terrance Dicks
- Alien Planets and You - Dave Stone
- Something Broken - Paul Ebbs
- The Collection - Peter Anghelides
- Setting Stone - Mark Stevens
- Time's Team - David McIntee
- Beedlemania - Nev Fountain
- The All-Seeing Eye - Justin Richards
- And Then Again - Robert Shearman
- Cuckoo - Stephen Fewell
- A la Recherche de Temps Perdu - David Bailey
- Squadborronfell - Nick Walters
- Taken by the Muses - Steve Lyons
- The Spartacus Syndrome - Jonathan Morris
- Might - Neil Corry
- Paydirt - Lance Parkin
- Dear Friend - Jim Sangster
- Afterword - Lloyd Rose
Reviews for Setting Stone
"This one works entirely on the evocative mood it sets, and it does it fabulously. Great serious Benny story."
"I really liked this. The backstory of the Doctor, his companion and the Silurians is quite nice, although it naturally overshadows the present-day part of the story."
"A very good piece that is very emotive. So good in fact that even though I didn't follow completely what was happening I still enjoyed it."
"This is another story that makes reference to the Doctor... and to the morally ambiguous nature of some of the Seventh Doctor's adventures. Here, the archaeologist Benny comes across the remains of a civilization she helped bring down, lo those many centuries ago. Bittersweet, but pretty good."
I've been really pleased with the public reaction to A Life of Surprises, and by the team atmosphere amongst the writers. It felt wonderful to realise I suddenly had an idea for a story, and had something I wanted to say again in this genre. Writing it took me back to the glory days of the NAs. I'm very grateful to have had the opportunity to pull all of Bernice's life together between two covers.
'The All-Seeing Eye' is a bit different from my usual stuff. There are several reasons for this. First, short stories are a good place to do something different - it's less of a risk if you like. The writer has less space in which to sustain the story, and the reader has less time to have to put up with it.
Second, in an anthology that has so many stories in it, it's harder to stand out and do something different. Sharing a book with so many other excellent authors means that diversity is built in.
And third, while I very much wanted to contribute, I was extremely busy with other things. So a good way to convince myself that I should make the time and that it was worth the effort was to 'use' the story as a shortcut to some other stuff I was writing. That 'other stuff' is actually a series of children's books called 'The Invisible Detective,' and one of the things I'm trying to do with that series is to sustain two separate but related narrative developments. So structuring 'All-Seeing Eye' in the same way - albeit with vastly differet subject matter - was a good way of practising the technique and also learning what could work and what was less effective.
As far as Benny herself goes, I wanted to write a story in which she had to own up to herself about how she really finds life. She's a bit of a paradox, is Benny - not unlike the Doctor himself - the most awful things happen to her and yet she maintains an optimistic, almost child-like love of life. Her sarcasm, I've always thought, is something she hides this behind - perhaps because she's afraid that if she admits she's having fun, then the magic of life will evaporate...
'Kill the Mouse' is about Benny being real and ordinary and shying away from the mantle of 'heroine of space & time' that the universe seems to want to foist on her even though it doesn't fit (or not that well anyway). The idea for this didn't come to me until very close to the deadline for proposal submissions. I've had the setting in mind for a long time (it's alluded to in my story 'Heart of Glass' in 'The Dead Men Diaries') but didn't really know what Bernice would be able to do once I got her there, except possibly dig holes. The spark for the finished story came late and randomly but it seemed to work. There's now a small cabal of Benny fans who attempt to tear off their own faces whenever I come near them. I'm assuming they mean it as a compliment.
What I originally planned was an idea called 'Bathtime for Benny'. The Braxiatel collection is under attack for some reason and only Benny can save the day, except that she's treating herself to a long soak and can't be bothered to get out of the tub. This is a great high concept but presented some practical problems, mainly that the action would be limited to people walking in and out of Benny's bathroom and interrupting her reverie - great stuff on stage but lousy in print. Astute readers would have noticed that I'd half-inched the plot from 'Judge Dredd' anyway and pointed out that, while there's something inherently amusing about the idea of Dredd in the bath, it would be nothing special for Benny. After all, she spends most of her adventures dreaming of her next quick dip. So I'm saving that one for an audio where it might work and I can get away with all the gratuitous nudity in the world.
At the end of October 2001, Paul Cornell announced a writing competition in the Yahoo DowngAmongtheDeadMen discussion group. Unpublished writers were invited to submit proposals for the Bernice Summerfield tenth anniversary anthology, A Life of Surprises, the prize being a slot reserved for a lucky competition winner.
Naturally, I jumped at the chance. Like many other Doctor Who fans with an interest in writing, contributing to the Whoniverse in a professional, literary capacity was something I'd aspired to for some time. I had submitted a New Adventures proposal, back in the summer of 1993, that got as far as Rebecca Levene's desk. The rejection letter, which arrived eighteen months later, was three pages long and full of encouragement. It took me a few more years to get round to a second submission, a Missing Adventures proposal, which met with an encouraging response and a request to send more sample chapters plus a revised outline. Unfortunately Virgin lost their license to publish Doctor Who novels before I could turn my work in, so the novel remained unwritten.
I started drifting away from the Who scene a short while after that and never really felt the urge to submit something to BBC Books. It wasn't until Big Finish arrived on the scene and revitalised my interest in the show, through their audio plays, that I started to think about writing some Doctor Who fiction once again.
To cut an increasingly long story short, both myself and a mysterious individual by the name of Simon Wellwood won the Benny competition. Paul couldn't decide between the two of us and found enough room to squeeze us both into the anthology. It later transpired that Simon Wellwood was none other than Stephen Fewell, perhaps better known to Big Finish fans as the actor who portrays Jason Kane in the Benny audio plays!
With the anthology getting tight for space, Paul asked Stephen and I to cut our stories in half to 2,500 words. I knew the only way to accomplish this would be to reluctantly cut out all the Kessi stuff and rewrite them as brief vignettes to build the background story. Even so, it was becoming difficult to maintain the integrity of the original story within the shorter word count. Fortunately Paul managed to find some extra word space for Stephen and I, giving our stories some much needed breathing space. I finally delivered my 3,300 word story to Paul at the end of February. The first draft was fine, no rewrites required. Hurrah! I cracked open a Budweiser to celebrate.
As you can see from the outline below, the basic essence of the plot remains more or less intact, although the prose samples bear little resemblance to anything in the final story. Setting Stone was originally intended to be set within the Dellah era and feature an appearance from Emile. I changed this for the final story, setting it within the more recent Collection continuity. I was sorry to see Emile go, but gained some comfort in the knowledge that Matthew Stone intended to feature him in his own submission. Unfortunately Matthew reluctantly dropped out of the anthology a short while later, which (as far as my memory serves) left the anthology Emile-less.
I'm very proud of my first piece of professional fiction. Given the restrictions, I think the story managed to hold together very well. The shorter word count may have even resulted in a stronger story, helping focus the prose to deliver a more dream-like experience. I don't think there's anything I'd change if I had to write it all over again. (Well, apart from a typo in which Joseph refers to Adrian Wall as "Mister Summerfield". It wasn't in my final draft, honest!)
I was now bitten by the Who writing bug.
This is the original proposal I submitted for the competition.
Professor Bernice Summerfield becomes a reluctant surrogate mother to Nina, a feral child found wandering amidst the ruins of a derelict city on an abandoned planet. Bernice and her small team try to determine where this girl comes from and why a number of irreparable statues hold a particular fascination for her.
The Empire must fall. Kessiunia, the Emperor's youngest niece, attempts to flee from the carnage of an ambushed Imperial cavalcade, but the renegade guardsmen responsible for this coup aren't too far behind.
Bernice tells Nina a fairy tale. This sparks distant memories in Nina, who conveys her feelings and emotions to Bernice through drawings. Her fascination with the statues remains absolute, so Bernice decides a return trip to the ruins may shed some light on matters.
Kessiunia's family are gathered up for the Stone Setting ritual. The Seers seal the still-living bodies of the Imperial family within stone. These statues are fated to stand vigil for all eternity and witness the execution of those who profited from their dynasty. As Kessiunia is led to her fate, two spectators depart from the scene by means of a tall blue box.
Nina points to a statue that lies on the ground, smashed to pieces. It used to be her brother. She used to be a statue too, but she can't remember how and why. Bernice is initially reluctant to reveal her complicity in the fate of Nina/Kessiunia's family.
Outside, on a hilltop overlooking what remains of Nina's ancestry, she tells Bernice of the glory of her uncle's Empire. Bernice opens up to Nina, explaining the part she had to play in her past -- that a greater good did come of her family's death. Nina remains silent throughout this revelation. Bernice notices that the young girl has reverted to her statuesque form, destined to stand proud over her ancestry once more.
Bernice Summerfield sample prose
All things considered, little Nina's decision to stick a fork in Emile's neck wasn't entirely unexpected.
The theatricals swiftly followed, as the young man let out an alarmingly feminine squeal and threw himself out of his seat with a melodramatic flourish, clutching at his throat.
'I'm dying!' he wailed. 'Save me, Benny!'
I had two options here, one of which involved a significant amount of raucous laughter, but I chose the more tactful approach, slipping out of my own seat to kneel beside Emile's writhing form on the refectory floor.
'Well, she missed all your vital organs and appendages,' I said, inspecting his neck. 'Looks like it was just your head. Nothing important.'
Emile sheepishly accepted my arm for support as I hauled him to his feet, and then quickly cast a withering glance in the direction of his attacker. 'Your psychotic little friend got any more tricks up her sleeve?'
'No, only forks.' I said. 'Besides, it's just her way of getting to know you. But then you do have a certain "stab me repeatedly" quality about you at times.'
Nina had been observing the aftermath of her violent outburst with an eerie detachment, ferocious brown eyes betraying no hint of remorse, pleasure or even understanding of what she'd just done. Now she just sat there, staring into the middle distance, chewing on the remains of the fork she'd used to get to know Emile.
I suppose I'd better tell you a bit more about Nina — at least as much as any of us have been able to ascertain. They told us that Kalpol was deserted, abandoned and hostile. An unlanced boil at the arse end of space, as Hooper liked to put it, usually at the dinner table. A Class Four civilisation had apparently thrived here, many thousands of years ago, but a big, messy war got in the way. You know the score — billions of fatalities, orbital bombardments, strategic planetary relocation, blah-dee-blah. By the time the radiation levels were low enough to allow exploration, no one with any style or credibility wanted to touch anything less than a Class Six.
So, naturally, we went there.
And discovered this strange little girl wandering amidst the ruins of a two thousand year-old city, her clothes torn to ribbons and skin blackened by dirt.
Kessi sample prose
Kessi giggled as the elephant beneath her lurched forward, sending the other occupants of the basket sprawling into one another.
'Isn't this fun?' she cried, ducking out of the umbrella's shade to peer around the shoulders of the rider up front, straining to catch a glimpse of the cavalcade in motion. Beads of perspiration instantly formed on her forehead, but she dismissed them with the back of her hand and reached for her telescope.
A young handmaid, her face paled by the notion of entrusting their lives to the colossal beasts, attempted to bring her charge back into the shade.
'Please, you'll catch the sun.'
However, Kessi's attention remained elsewhere. She raised the telescope to her eye, being careful not to catch the blazing sun, and surveyed the spectacle before her. She counted a line of nine elephants snaking away from her own, and a quick glance over her shoulder revealed a further four. They lumbered along the mountain pass at a surprisingly agile pace, huge soles slapping against the compact dirt, the pendants of blue and mauve affixed to their baskets snapping in their wake, teased by a gentle breeze. Just as orderly were the Imperial guards who rode in formation beside them, their sparkling breastplates clanking and scraping in response to the motion of their mounts.
'Wouldn't you rather be riding up front with your brothers and sisters?' the handmaid asked.
Kessi shrugged. 'All they do is fidget and fuss,' she said, discarding her telescope in favour of reclining in the opulent cushions that padded the basket's interior.
She lay there for half an hour, occasionally indulging in a conversation with her retainer concerning the visual splendour of the Boreal Falls — the eventual destination of their cavalcade — or of the elephants she'd seen in schoolbooks, before finally nodding off as the heat and giddy excitement took their toll.
She awoke a short while thereafter, briefly blinded by the early afternoon sun.
The elephant had come to a halt.
Something was wrong.
Stirred into full lucidity by the butterflies in her stomach, Kessi rushed to the side of the basket to join her handmaid. The two of them peered over the wickerwork to spy the mounted Imperial guards below in a state of some agitation. Their horses fidgeted nervously, scuffing clouds of dirt into air.
'Are we there yet?' Kessi enquired of the nearest guardsman, knowing that they were still far from the Falls.
The young soldier glanced up the girl, helmet briefly shimmering as it caught the sun. He seemed as if he was about to speak when a cry rang out from somewhere far to the front of the cavalcade.
A rider was galloping along the long wall of elephants at a frightening pace, a huge billowing pillow of dust in his wake. It was an Imperial guard, that much was certain, but his sword was drawn.
The cry rang out once more.
'Riders, front and arms!'
The cavalcade was under attack.
Kessi's handmaid let out a deafening shriek and collapsed into the pillows behind her. At first, the little girl didn't quite know how to respond to this sudden change of events, but managed to gather enough composure to call out to the young soldier once more.
'You, soldier! What is happening?'
From this distance, it was obvious to Kessi that the poor lad had turned quite pale. His horse turned a complete circle as he struggled to retrieve a sword from the scabbard on his belt. His fellow guardsmen, suitably more experienced in the matters of combat, had already brought their weapons to bear and advanced some fifty yards up the pass.
Kessi realised that they now represented her only means of defence less the other guardsmen fail. The young soldier let out a nervous cry, cursing his incompetence. His mount snorted sympathetically.
A sudden flicker of movement pulled Kessi's eyes to the trees on the opposite side of the pass.
The soldier's horse let out a nervous whinny, its rider still struggling with his scabbard, oblivious to what was now happening.
A figure dressed in a cloak the colour of the dirt was now sprinting out of the trees, heading directly towards the young lad. Something shiny in the figure's hand caught the sun.
Kessi almost let out a cry of despair, her mind's eye having already extrapolated a violent end to this brief encounter, but managed to suppress it through fear of drawing attention to herself.
Soundlessly, the cloaked figure collided with the young soldier in a quick, vicious blur. A small, red cloud briefly blossomed and the soldier toppled from his mount, his head rolling away at a tangent.