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 Teaching Writing

“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.  

Should take just a minute or two. Please consider the questions carefully, answer, and then (this is important) please share this post widely via social media so that I can gather a range of responses.

I’m doing this in preparation for my AWP panel, “A Novel Problem: Moving from “Story” to “Book” in the MFA Program,” which is scheduled for Thursday, March 1 from 12:00-1:15 PM in the Lake Michigan Room at the Hilton Chicago. I’m moderating, and the panelists are, David Haynes, Patricia Henley, Sheila O’Connor, and Elizabeth Stuckey-French. I will share the results of the survey at the panel in Chicago.

So: help me out here. Take the survey. Share it with your friends and colleagues. And let the discussion begin.

Description of the Panel

Short stories are often our main pedagogical tools, but the book is the primary unit of literary production. When are apprentice writers “ready” to write novels, and how do we review them in a workshop setting? How can we create courses that encourage students to move toward and complete book projects? This panel will explore the challenges of accommodating the novel or the novel-in-stories within the structure of an MFA program and in the classroom.

Statement of Merit

A recent essay on this topic by the panel’s organizer prompted a good deal of response. Some claim that MFA programs are subtly (or deliberately) “anti-novel.” That theory is disproved by the faculty panelists, who have experience mentoring in MFA program settings. They will share their best practices with the audience. 


Here’s a brief list of other articles that have come out in the last year or so related to the topic of our panel: 

Brian Joseph Davis,  “Why MFA Programs Matter.” Huffington Post.

Anelise Chen. “On Blowing My Load: Thoughts from Inside the MFA Ponzi Scheme.” The Rumpus.

John Stazinski, “A Novel Approach: Learning to Write More than Stories.” Poets & Writers, the January/February 2012 issue, print only. 

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…  

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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.  


4.) Now you do it. Using index cards or post its, summarize each vignette. Use different colors to trace different “through lines” and subplots.

You  can do it by character:

  • Ruth in red. 
  • Douglas in green. 
  • Carolyn in yellow. 
  • Mr. Bridge in blue. 
  • Grace Barron in purple.
  • etc.

Or do it by subject matter:

  • Self-improvement. 
  • Americans in Paris. 
  • The Car. 
  • The Help
  • When the Children Start Dating

5.) Move the cards around. That’s the point. Lay out a line of red cards, followed by a line of yellow cards, followed by a line of blue, etc. See how the book would read less like a novel and more like linked stories if you followed one character, one plot layer, one color at a time.

When I did this activity, I realized that the way I had written fiction for many years was to take it color by color, one plot layer or subplot at a time.

Or to use another analogy: If you handed me the 117 vignettes of Mrs. Bridge out of order, I would have made piles—one for each character, then maybe smaller piles within the large ones. And that would have been my book manuscript. Hey, that’s almost exactly what my first book WAS.

I thought: Maybe a novel could be fashioned from stories by breaking up the piles and laying them out chronologically?

I considered re-typing Mrs. Bridge word for word, or xeroxing the entire book, just to test my theory, to see if these extracted stories would actually read like stories.

Confession: I have done this before with two short stories: “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, which I xeroxed, cut up and reassembled into “The Jimmy Cross Parts” and the “Alpha Company Parts,” and with Ethan Canin’s “The Year of Getting to Know Us,” which I reassembled into chronological order.

Then I realized that I didn’t have to retype or xerox Mrs. Bridge. The full text of Mrs. Bridge is available online. You don’t want to know how excited I was about this. 

6.) Now, extract some short stories from the novel. Go back to your groupings of colored post-its, find the corresponding text online, then cut and paste it into a Word document.

For example: I extracted one short story from the novel called “Etiquette Lessons.” It’s the story of Carolyn’s friendship with Alice Jones, alternated with vignettes of Mrs. Bridge “teaching” her children about manners and “teaching” her children about race and class. The climax of the story is a scene late in the novel when Mrs. Bridge wonders why her daughter uses a racial epithet and mentions her childhood friend Alice Jones who “looks very black” these days.

7.) If you can reverse engineer Mrs. Bridge, envision this novel as stories which were pulled apart, rearranged, and turned into a novel, then maybe it’s possible to forward engineer your own novel narrative from all those short stories sitting on your hard drive.

Stories into a Novel

Backstory: When I was finishing The Circus in Winter, a few agents read the manuscript. One said, “I will take you on if you let me help you turn these linked stories into a novel.” I said I’d think about it. A few days later, another agent got back to me and said, “I think you should write the book you want to write.” That’s the agent I chose, and I’m glad I did, but if I’m being totally honest here, and I am, I was also relieved that I wouldn’t have to figure out how to turn my stories into a novel. I didn’t think it was possible.

Backstory: Flashforward ten years. A group of college students adapts my book into a musical—and they find a linear storyline in my book. They broke up my piles of stories, laid them out chronologically, and focused on the events of the first five stories. They gave the narrative its “clock,” its basetime (a few months), decided that the flood would be the climax, followed by the denouement. Beginning, middle, end. Badda bing. Badda boom.


If they can do it, so can you.

The traditional musical has a familiar structure. There are two acts. Certain kinds of songs happen at certain times. The audience expects this structure, but the artists who make a musical must plug exciting and surprising variables into this structure.


Now, trust me, there is no “formula” for a novel, but generally, we think of it in terms of a Three-Act Structure.


Now: find some linked stories, such as the last three stories in Patricia Henley’s Other Heartbreaks (“Skylark,” “Emma Compartmentalizes in Ireland,” and “Ephemera”).

  1. List all the events (25-30) that transpire in chronological order.
  2. Imagine cutting the stories up, moving the pieces around into a more linear or chronological narrative, like Mrs. Bridge.
  3. Consider a flashforward prologue to begin the novel. Describe the structure of this pretend novel–where it starts, where it ends.
  4. It might help to decide first what the climax will be–and work backwards and forwards from there. You might be interested in reading this interview with Henley, in which she confirms that “Other Heartbreaks” WAS a novel that she broke apart and turned into linked stories.
  5. Henley is visiting Ball State on February 15, and my students are eager to hear her talk about writing novels, writing stories, and writing novels that turn into stories.
  6. Or try this with The Things They Carried. Or with Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Please understand: I’m not saying those books should be anything other than their own wonderful selves. 

Please understand: Malcolm Cowley did exactly what I’m suggesting when he cut up, chronologically assembled, and edited The Portable Faulkner. And thank God he did. In his now-famous introduction, Cowley writes: “All the cycles or sagas are closely interconnected. It is as if each new book or story was a chord or segment of a total situation always existing in the author’s mind.”

Screenshot 2014-09-07 13.03.55Screenshot 2014-09-07 13.04.03

Then: take a few of your own stories that are (or could be) linked. Repeat 1-6 above.


My novel-writing students did these activities. When I asked them, “What did you learn this week,” one woman said, “I have to figure out a way to SEE my novel, to visualize it.”

Another said, “It really matters what you decide to put first,  but you probably won’t write the book in the order that it will eventually be read in. I have to stop worrying about my first chapter.”