After Downton: Try These Great Period Drama Series

After Downton: Try These Great Period Drama Series

General Writing

When Downton Abbey, Series 1 finished last spring, I was bereft. To cope, I embarked on a period drama frenzy. These were my favorites. Perhaps they will fill the void for you, too.

Click on the title to go to part 1 if it’s on YouTube, but most are streaming on Netflix as well.

The Forsyte Saga. When you get to the end of series 1, you’ll need to watch series 2. Trust me. A highly charged miniseries that follows the intrigues and scandals of a landed middle class London family, and the one woman who will turn their world upside-down.  Adapted from the novel by John Galsworthy.

North and South. Who knew the Industrial Revolution could provide so much opportunity for intrigue and romance? Basically, this is Pride & Prejudice, but it’s also about LABOR UNIONS. There’s an Elizabeth Bennett named Margaret Hale, and a Mr. Darcy, here called Mr. Thornton, played by Richard Armitrage, and he’s every bit as smoldering, growling, and mesmerizing as Colin Firth.  Adapted from the novel by Elizabeth Gaskell.

South Riding. A fiery young headmistress Sarah Burton brings her modern ideas to the conservative girls’ school in depression-era Yorkshire, sparking conflict — and attraction — with Robert Carne, a stubborn, brooding landowner mired in a troubled past.  Based on the novel by Winifred Holtby. Like North & South, a fascinating example of how a good love story can make a politically-minded novel sing.

The Way We Live Now. This adaptation of the Trollope novel is a satire of the financial scandals of the 1870’s, but it speaks perfectly to our 99% times, too. Again: Romance + Social Commentary = Love Stories that “Matter”

Wives and Daughters.  Adaptation of another Gaskell novel. Note: Gaskell died just before completing the book. She was obviously aiming at a happy ending, and the writer has supplied the lost denouement with surprise and style. 

Bleak House  Gillian Anderson leads this ensemble cast. Charles Dickens’ complex tale of young love, murder, and the quest for a mystery-man’s identity unfolds in this adaptation by screenwriter Andrew Davies. Bleak House features some of the most famous plot twists in literary history, including a case of spontaneous human combustion and an inheritance dispute tied up for generations in the dysfunctional English courts.

Is it bad to admit that at a certain point, I was watching so many of these things that I could recognize recycled dresses and country estates?

Sense and Sensibility 2008  This one’s not on YouTube. You’ve probably seen the 1995 version directed by Ang Lee. But this one’s wonderful, too, esp. because Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley) is Edward Ferrars.

What all these have in common is that they’re adaptations, and this, gentle reader, is why Downton Abbey succeeds so well. It is not an adaptation. Downton Abbey is Dallas with corsets and British accents. On the spectrum between “soap opera” and “serious drama,” it falls toward the latter only by virtue of its aristocratic setting.

Most of the series I’ve listed above are based on books of serious literature, which contain romantic subplots along with social commentary, as does Downton Abbey. But Downton, on the other hand, need not have any fidelity to a source text written long ago when narrative was simply a whole lot pokier. Downton Abbey may look like a Merchant Ivory film, but it “reads” as fast as Hunger Games.

That’s why we love it. 

Take My Survey about Novels in MFA Programs

Take My Survey about Novels in MFA Programs

CW Programs

“Of all the ambient commonplaces about MFA programs, perhaps the only accurate one is that the programs are organized around the story form.” Chad Harbach said this in his n+1/Slate essay, “MFA or NYC?” Do you think he’s right? I want to know. I’ve created two Survey Monkey surveys, one for faculty, one for students (past and present).

Survey for Graduate Faculty

Survey for MFA Students (Past and Present)

Remember: this is about graduate creative writing programs, not undergraduate.

Because your response will be anonymous, I hope you will provide honest answers. 

Survey Sample 

  • True or False: It is unreasonable to expect an MFA student to complete a publishable novel during an MFA program.
  • True or False: The best way to learn how to write fiction is develop some level of mastery over the short story before moving on to novels.
  • True or False: It is the responsibility of MFA programs to “professionalize” students about the business of fiction writing.
  • True or False: Mentoring a novelist takes more of a faculty’s limited time than mentoring students in other genres and forms.

Each survey asks 10 questions requiring a simple True or False answer. Each survey asks the same questions. And I’ll be honest here: one of the things I’m curious about is whether there’s a disconnect between what MFA faculty believe they are doing and what students perceive.   Continue reading

Weekly Words

Weekly Words

Teaching Writing

I require my novel-writing students to turn in 2,250 words a week for 12 weeks. If they turn in the words, they get 25 points. If they don’t turn in the words (or turn in less than 2,250), they don’t get 25 points. Simple as that.  

Why 2,250 words?

Because 3 x 750 = 2,250. Which means that students can meet their Weekly Words quota by sitting down and using just three times a week. If I’m on a roll and I just write without censoring myself, I can write 750 words in about 30 minutes. Which means that all it takes to stay on schedule is about 1.5 to 2 hours of writing per week. And if they can’t manage that, well…  

Continue reading

How to turn stories into a novel, or vice versa

How to turn stories into a novel, or vice versa

Teaching Writing

If you’re looking for a way to turn a novel into short stories or (more likely) turn stories into a novel, try these activities.

Novels into Stories

1.) Read “The Beau Monde of Mrs. Bridge,” a short story by Evan S. Connell published in The Paris Review 10, Fall 1955

2.) Take a good look at this short story. If you’ve read the book, then you know that Mrs. Bridge the novel is comprised of 117 titled vignettes. But “Mrs Bridge” the short story pre-dates the novel. “Beau Monde” the short story contains 12 of the eventual novel’s vignettes (in this order: 61, 39, 37, 60, 91, 99, 84, 86, 18, 102, 41, plus one titled “Equality” not found in the novel).

3.) Pretend for a moment that you are Evan S. Connell. You wrote the short story “Beau Monde” because you wanted to satirize the small-minded racial and class politics of your hometown. And you did that. Quite successfully. It’s just out in this new magazine called The Paris Review. But now what? Maybe you’re not quite done with this Mrs. Bridge. What about her husband? How did they meet? What would happen if this very American couple went on a European tour? What of her children? How will she respond when they grow up and challenge her worldview? And what about her best friend, Grace Barron? You open up the pleats. You write more vignettes. Most fit on a single piece of typing paper. They’re more than scenes, but less than chapters. They’re what Mark Oppenheimer in The Believer calls “chapterlets.” In fifty years or so, people might call them “flash fictions.” Each vignette is a building block, a movable unit, a piece of paper. You lay them out on the floor, tape them to the walls, trying to figure out how they go together.

This is exactly what I wanted to do when I finished the book: tear out the pages and lay them on the floor, tape them to the walls. I wanted them to be tangible, detachable things. So, I used post-it notes to create a thumbnail sketch of each vignette. This really didn’t take that long because I’d just read the book. A few hours.   Continue reading