Revisiting Dickens (and FREE e-book!)
I recently undertook the challenge of writing a sequel to Charles Dickens’ classic story, “A Christmas Carol”. You may think that writing a short story revisiting some of the best known characters in English literature would be quite simple, but this has been the most challenging story I’ve ever written.
(You can read and download this story from the Internet Archive!)
Before I explain why, I need to give you some background on why I started this project. Writing sequels to classic literature isn’t exactly common for me, someone who hasn’t ever written so much as a piece of fan fiction. (I tried once, couldn’t get past page two, and scrapped the whole thing.) I will admit, I’ve made up plenty of “fan fiction”, but it has never escaped my head onto the page. It’s just not something I care to put on paper.
The trouble is, I had a dream – one of those really awesome dreams that you wake up from and think “that would make a really cool book!” Of course, given fifteen minutes of daylight and a cup of coffee, the dream starts to look rather insane, and you decide not to describe it to your editor.
I don’t remember much about this dream, actually, except that in it, I was Ebenezer Scrooge, having some grand adventure helping the poor. The details are completely lost to the annuls of forgotten dreams (right along with about twenty-eight mystery novels and two or three ideas for world peace). All I remembered by time I got to my coffee was “what did happen to old Scrooge?”
Ideas like that have a way of nibbling at your brain until you do something with them. I kept ignoring it until one day, about four months later, I heard a phrase in my head: “Scrooge was very much alive, to begin with.”
I scrambled for my laptop and clattered out the first five pages of Another Christmas Carol. I knew what I wanted to happen: one Christmas Day, five years after the original story, Ebenezer Scrooge doesn’t show up for Fred’s dinner party. This sets off a frantic search by his friends, including Fred, Bob, and a no-longer-very-tiny Tim. As I sent the characters out into the snow of a chilly Christmas Day evening, I hit a massive roadblock: where WAS Scrooge? I had a vague idea, but nothing definite enough to write with. I was stuck.
Making the whole project more challenging was an artistic decision I made right out of the gate: if this was a true sequel to A Christmas Carol, I needed to write it as Charles Dickens would have. I had never written in omniscient POV before, having been trained to write from a single character’s perspective, end of discussion. Besides that, Dickens tended to stop and describe anything he deemed important in great detail. Anyone familiar with my writing process knows that description is an elusive skill for me.
Thankfully, I had a few things going for me. Dickens had the unusual style of only “looking into” one character’s head at a time, and otherwise remaining in the semi-omniscient perspective of the storyteller. This also allowed him to almost carry on a conversation with the reader, pointing out details otherwise hidden from the characters.
Dickens also possessed a rather strange sense of humor, not unlike my own. For example, in the first stave of the original book, he describes Scrooge’s unoccupied dressing gown as “leaning up against the wall with a rather suspicious attitude,” as if the garment itself were a conspirator in the haunting. Dickens works are peppered with such bits of humor.
I have the unusual ability to pick up on other authors’ voices, usually “absorbing” bits of their style into my own. This very blog started shortly after I had read Letters of E.B. White, and his rhythm became heavily incorporated into my own. In the case of Dickens, it wasn’t a short trip to pick up his voice.
As I started writing the second stave of Another Christmas Carol, almost a year after writing the first, I realized that I was losing track of what Dickens wrote in A Christmas Carol in contrast with the countless adaptations. To write a true sequel, I would need to ensure I was working from the source material, and nothing else.
My first step then, was to re-read the original story, which I did – four times.
Back to Victorian England
In my mind, there is little difference between researching for a historical fiction and researching for a history report. If anything, historical fiction is harder, since it necessitates far more unusual bits of knowledge. To make the research a little easier, I decided to establish 1843 (when A Christmas Carol was originally published) as the year in which the original story took place. Five years later, then, placed my story in 1848.
Scrooge, I figured, would certainly be concerned for the poor – a cause quite appropriately borrowed from Charles Dickens himself – and would want to do more than simply give money to charity. Given the joy with which he surprised Bob Cratchit and Nephew Fred in the last stave, Scrooge would want to bless others in person! London had no shortage of people in need, but in the mid-1800s, none were more in need than the forgotten masses that inhabited the slums.
I stumbled across a fantastic map of London from 1868, which allowed me to retrace some places Dickens mentioned in the original book. Bob Cratchit, upon leaving work, returned home to Camden Town, passing Cornhill in the process. Scrooge, meanwhile, visited the exchange as part of his work day. This places Scrooge’s office solidly in Cheapside, and his home within walking distance.
From there, I began to search for slums within range. One name on the map leapt out at me: Whitechapel. In 1888, this area would become infamous for the Jack the Ripper murders. Just adjacent, north across Bethnel Green Road, sat The Old Nichols, one of the most infamous slums of East London. Additional research brought up an 1889 poverty map detailing The Old Nichols street layout.
As I kept writing, I found myself having to cross-check the laws, current events, inventions, and customs of Victorian London in 1848. I learned more than I could ever write down, including the history of matches, Midwifery, Poor Law, charity (and the lack thereof), apprenticeships, Victorian money, family incomes…and the list goes on.
One current event I allude to is the Cholera Outbreak of 1848, which hit the East London slums particularly hard. No one realized at the time that cholera was a water-bourne illness, and London’s lack of a proper sanitation system made the illness spread faster.
On a happier note, I refer to the publication of Dombey and Sons by Charles Dickens in late 1848. I enjoy putting little paradoxes into my books, especially ones that blur the line between author and story. Having the characters acknowledge the (impossible) existence of their original author is quite delightful to me.
Casting the Characters
In re-reading the story, I realized that Dickens had left a lot to the imagination. For one thing, he sucked at character descriptions as much as I do. A building, a street, a peculiar outfit, those he would describe in great detail. A face? Hardly.
Not only that, but Dickens also wrote with archetypes. Some literary experts say that Dickens wrote grotesque caricatures in most of his books (and having read Nicholas Nickleby, which I love, I have to agree), but that A Christmas Carol saw characters that were far less extreme in their design.
Dickens, quite likely, wanted his readers to identify with Scrooge on some level, so the lessons of the spirits about generosity would hit home. It apparently worked, but with an interesting side-effect: it left a lot of room for various actor interpretations of the characters.
I could already clearly see my own versions of the characters, which were undeniably influenced by various film versions.
Fred was the first I could identify. His mannerisms were influenced primarily by Steven Mackintosh, who filled the role in A Muppet Christmas Carol. It is never said in the book what Fred does, but given his apparent social standing, I placed him in trade like his Uncle. I figure he had done a bit of traveling in his business. Although more a man of the world than before, he retained his upbeat personality.
Next on the list was Bob Cratchit, who would be the only obvious person that Scrooge would have brought on as a partner in my story. Truth be told, I don’t like most portrayals of Bob that I have seen. I always picked up on some inherent inner strength in that character, which is lost in the various trembling interpretations of Scrooge’s faithful clerk. The version of Bob that best displays that strength, I think, was that of David Warner (across from George C. Scott).
Looking back now, I realize that Susannah York, who played Mrs. Cratchit in that film, heavily influenced my version of Bob’s wife.
Scrooge himself was tricker to pin down. I finally realized, about three days after finishing the story, that my version was a peculiar mix of George C. Scott’s ferocity, Alistair Sim’s humor, and just a dash of Michael Caine. I think the most important characteristic of the reformed Scrooge is that he didn’t become an addled, sentimental fool. He was still a man of business, only now he used his talents for the good of others. I enjoyed showing the two aspects of his personality – lighthearted congeniality and strict seriousness – playing off of one another. There is likely a little of myself in Scrooge too, seeing as my dream about being him was what started this whole thing in the first place.
Of all the original characters that reappear in Another Christmas Carol, Old Joe is one of my favorites. In case you don’t remember, the Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come showed Scrooge the scene of Old Joe buying Scrooge’s few personal effects (including the bedcurtains) from the charwoman, laundress, and undertaker. Without revealing exactly how Old Joe appears in Another Christmas Carol, I will say that his character was influenced in part by Miles Malleson (Scrooge, 1951), and surprisingly in part by the spider version in A Muppet Christmas Carol. I think you’ll see a little of both in my version.
Without Further Ado…
Although Another Christmas Carol was one of the most challenging books I’ve ever written, it has also been one of the most enjoyable. If you’ve never read Dickens’ original A Christmas Carol, you can find it for free on Project Gutenberg.
You can find my sequel, Another Christmas Carol, on the Internet Archive. It’s licensed under CC-ND 4.0, so if you enjoy it, please share it with friends!
Merry Christmas, and God bless us everyone!