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Type ‘untold story’ into an Amazon and the search engine returns more than 8,000 results. The phrase is frequently coupled with a title to create a marketing hook: ‘Read this book and you’ll get another angle on the story.’ Marketers know that the ‘untold story’ subtitle sells books, and so they apply them to books.With true stories, the results are mixed: sometimes you get an important new slant on affairs; sometimes the untold story is merely gossip and exploitation. But occasionally, an author explores an untold story in fiction – and that can result in an exceptional story indeed.

To consider how we, as the audience, engage with the untold story, consider two very innovative retellings of popular stories: Wicked and Pan.

Wicked

In Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (1995) author Gregory Maguire used the classic L. Frank Baum novel of 1900, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and its sequels, to explore political, social and ethical facets of the nature of good and evil. The book sparked imagination of lyricist and composer Stephen Lawrence Schwartz, who brought the story to the musical theatre stage, and since them millions of people worldwide have experienced an entirely different take on the well-known story. Through the retelling, you see the witches of Oz in an entirely new light. Two unlikely friends, Elphaba and Glinda, fall in love with the same man. The rivalry that ensues and their differing take on the Wizard’s corruption see their friendship disintegrate and the two stand at polar opposites: Glinda as ‘the Good’ and Elphaba as ‘the Wicked Witch of the West’. But as the story shows, Glinda isn’t as good as her name suggests, and as for Elphaba – well, there are powerful, moving reasons for all she does. The context of the  story makes it impossible to ever watch the original film or read the original books again and interpret her as you once did – as purely, one-dimensionally wicked.

Pan

There have been several movie based on the classic book PeterPan. An early 1990s one, Hook, had fun playing with the archetypal roles of Peter and Hook. But a new film, Pan, set to release in 2015, is delving deeper to tell the untold story of the two characters, and how they came to be sworn enemies. Judging by the trailer, like Glinda and Elphaba, there was once more than enmity between this pair.

The draw

So what is it that entices us to engage with a retelling? I think it’s several factors:

  • We love to solve puzzles. Authors leave plenty of unanswered questions in their books – because that’s good fiction! You follow the golden rule of writing to include only that information that is essential for developing the story and the main characters. So many little facts are unwritten; especially about minor characters.
  • We love to be surprised by clever twists. When I first saw Wicked, I clapped heartily at the curtain call – not just for the cast and the orchestra, but for the writers. How clever! I kept thinking. The twists delighted me.
  • We love to find the good in the evil.It’s natural to want to find the best in people, and caricatures of pure evil like Captain Hook and the Wicked Witch of the West are unsettling. The untold story helps you separate the act from the person – a character may do evil things, but the reason for his or her action is what’s really important. The extra dimension humanises the demon. In reading or watching the untold story, we find realism in the fiction.

The untold story fascinates me, especially when I’m writing my own fiction. There are always characters that I wish I could explore more. Morgana, the exotic dancer in Burning Embers, is a good example – she’s ‘the other woman’, but I know she’s so much more than that!

What do you think? Do you enjoy new versions of stories? New perspectives and angles? To see a character subverted?

The blue plaque scheme in the UK is one of my favourite historical initiatives. It began in London, launched in 1867 by the Royal Society of Arts, as a means of connecting sites with people of historical interest. The first plaque was unveiled at 24 Holles Street, Cavendish Square, the birthplace of Lord Byron. Since then, some 900 plaques have been established in London alone – and plenty more in the wider country – to mark the places that mattered to all kinds of people: from statesmen to soldiers, architects to inventors. But the ones that have always most captured my imagination are those relating to people in the arts. To stand before a house in which an admired author wrote is moving. You realise that the person who in your mind has become legendary was once a real person, once stood right here. The connection is powerful. Inspirational.

When it comes to literary heritage, a precedent has been set for not only marking the residences of writers but preserving them too. Many are looked after by the National Trust, and open to the public: you can visit, for example, Beatrice Potter’s 17th-century farmhouse, Hill Top, and Agatha Christie’s holiday place with a view, Greenway. Other homes have been made into museums: Jane Austen’s, for instance, and Wordsworth’s.

Now, The Blake Society is calling for donations to help it save the home of William Blake. A little cottage on the Sussex coast in Felpham, it is a place of huge historical import.It’s where the write penned the seminal poem ‘Jerusalem’, which became the lyrics for the English hymn so loved it’s a permanent and proud element of the programme at every Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall:

The Blake Society wants to buy the cottage and preserve it as a place of inspiration for writers and ‘anyone who shares with Blake a belief that imagination is Britain’s gift and duty to the world’. But the price tag is £520,000, and the charity has to raise all that money by the end of today! In the UK, you can support the cause by texting FEET11 followed by a number from 1 to 9 (which will determine how much money is taken, from £1–9) to 70070.

What struck me most about The Blake Society’s plea for support this week were these words in a statement from Tim Heath, chair of society: ‘Blake is unusual in our culture in that he’s everywhere and nowhere – he’s had great lasting influence but has no home here.’ We have a duty, surely, to commemorate those who contributed to our modern lives, through all aspects. I’d love to see more plaques. I’d love to imagine a future in which one can walk around a town or city for an hour, looking up at buildings and learning, and feeling connected to the late and great.

There’s romance, and then there’s romance that incorporates dance and makes you feel like Baby in Dirty Dancing.

There’s a good reason why most good romance films incorporate a dance between the lovers at some point – there is no clearer, more evocative way to convey passion and vulnerability than through dance.

As MarthaGraham said, ‘Dance is the hidden language of the soul.’ The limits of language fall away. Distance diminishes. Conventions are cast off. Touch is permitted, and sensual. The rhythm of the heart is deafening. The world falls away, and all that exists is two people, dancing.

Dance is the medium through which lovers may explore, define and develop their relationship. Take this scene from my novel The Echoes of Love:

And then – then Paolo was before her. The crowd seemed to melt away and all she saw were those burning sapphire eyes that never left her face as he moved intently towards her. Venetia caught her breath as a curious lifting sensation blossomed inside her at the sight of him. He gave as formal a bow as if she was a great lady and this a ceremonial occasion.

‘You’re going to dance,’ he almost whispered in his low baritone voice as he took her hand and drew her firmly towards him.

Whatever might be happening inside her, in her rational mind Venetia knew she must never allow him, or any other person, to establish this sort of ascendancy over her.  … So although she allowed his pull on her hand to draw her slightly forwards, she looked him straight in the eye and smiled.

‘Yes, I probably am going to dance – if someone asks me.’

‘But that, divina, is exactly what I’m doing.’

Her head went up as a rebellious flame lit the amber irises. ‘It’s exactly what you are not doing. You’re telling me, which I thought we’d established I’m allergic to.’

Paolo’s eyes still held hers; devilish, amused eyes, showing he was entertained rather than offended by Venetia’s remonstrations.

‘One does have to be precise with you, I see.’

She was pleased that she had been able to assert her feelings, despite his unnerving effect on her; but also found herself relieved that he hadn’t taken umbrage.

‘It’s advisable, as a rule, to be precise, don’t you think?’

He laughed and almost swung her off her feet into his arms, and she surrendered to him, letting him draw her away. He held her close, with his head bent so that his lean, brown cheek was lightly touching hers. Like a knowing reprise, the familiar sound of Mina’s ‘Il Cielo in una Stanza’ floated around them once more, as it had done the first night they met in the San Marco café.  Their steps in perfect accord, moving together as one, they gave themselves up to the nostalgic love song. They danced in silence, their eyes never meeting, lulled by Mina’s warm voice, the gently pulsating rhythm and its soaring violins, like two people in a dream. Only Paolo’s arms spoke, clasping Venetia closer and closer, and her body responded, yielding to him. His hand hardly brushed against her bare shoulders, but his feathery touch scorched her to the core and her whole being came alive. Pressing herself against the tautly muscled length of him, Venetia felt his need for her and the heat of desire flooded her. An involuntary sigh floated from her lips and so, slowly, he drew her even further into his embrace. She felt as if she was slowly spinning and falling, and he with her, as if they were both being pulled by a current they could not resist, even if they had tried.

In romantic dance, so many customs apply – the most interesting of which, I find, is the dominance of the man. The man asks, the lady accepts. The man leads, the lady follows. But here, Paolo goes beyond asking – ‘You’re going to dance,’ he tells Venetia. And while deep down Venetia may find such alpha-male behavior rather attractive, she can’t possibly allow him to take the upper hand so easily, and nor will the romantic in her accept his deviation from the rules. So she makes it clear that he should ask, not tell. And then… well, and then somehow before she knows it they’re dancing – he’s gone beyond telling and simply swung her off her feet, and she’s surrendered. Because who can resist a man who wants to dance?

Like two animals engaged in a mating ritual, the time for making a show and fighting a corner is over – now, they have entered into the spell cast by the dance. A quietness, a calm descends; the thin sheen of the bubble surrounds them. For Venetia, especially, ‘surrender’ is the key word. All her struggle for independence, all her insistence on being respected as a strong equal, all the fear of feeling for Paolo, the dance cannot contain that. All it can contain is two people dancing with hearts beating as one; with souls connecting and melding.

But what happens when the music ends? There is a moment of entranced silence, and then the spell is broken. Paolo leaves. Venetia is alone. But the change that was been wrought through a single dance is immeasurable in its impact. There is no taking back a dance,and both lovers will always wish they could go back to that moment and live in it.

So there you have it, the romance of dance. The magic of that moment you’re dancing, and then the way it makes you feel every time you drift into memories. We may not let our feelings out like her, but deep down we’re all like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady – when the partner is right, we could dance all night.

How many women, since he first found fame on ER, have fantasised about marrying George Clooney? Well, it was British-Lebanese human rights lawyer AmalAlamuddin who finally had the honour last week. And the location for the most high-profile wedding since William and Kate? Venice.

The wedding festivities, which spanned a weekend, were spread across Venetian landmarks I remember well from my visits to the city.

  • The Belmond Hotel Cipriani: A luxury hotel on the island of Giudecca, opened in 1958 by Giuseppe Cipriani, of Harry’s Bar and the Bellini cocktail fame. Its website proclaims: “Venice: a glorious, theatrical experience that touches all the senses. And if Venice is a theatre, the Belmond Hotel Cipriani is the Royal Box.”
  • The Aman Canal Grande Venice:A seven-star resort within the 450-year-old Palazzo Papadopoli, where the couple were married by Walter Veltroni, the former mayor of Rome, on the seafront at sunset under an arch of white roses.

The couple and their guests travelled by boat on the canals to events, creating an exciting spectacle for onlookers (and something of a challenge for women disembarking in tight dresses and high heels!). Here’s a glimpse of George en route to the ceremony:

Of course, Venice was the obvious choice as a sublimely romantic setting – that is why I situated my novel The Echoes of Love there. But it was a brave choice, for it’s hardly a secluded and private destination. And the price tag was certainly a heft one, reported to be $8 million.

Of the many people celebrating the wedding in the city – from the bride and groom’s family and friends to the many fans who flocked to the city– certainly the tourist office was abuzz. Media reports suggest that international coverage of the wedding drove up hotel prices in the city by more than 20 per cent last week, and the increase in visitors is sure to continue with the world’s former most eligible bachelor having secured Venice’s reputation as the city of love. Already several companies specialise in Venice-based weddings for romantics, and no doubt these will do very well from the Clooney connection.

The wedding got me thinking about Venetia and Paolo in The Echoes of Love. They meet in Venice, and begin to fall in love in Venice. Were I writing a sequel to the book incorporating a wedding, would I place it in Venice? I love the thought of a stunning backdrop for their nuptials. But I’m not surethat Venice would entirely suit Venetia and Paolo. The intense quality of their love calls for seclusion, I think, and a view rich in nature more than architecture. Perhaps, instead,the grounds of Paolo’s home in Tuscany, Miraggio, on a cliff top overlooking the sea.

What do you think? Would Venice be the ideal setting for your wedding (past or future)? Do you love the idea of being amid historic buildings and the buzz of people, or do you prefer intimacy and quiet? Has the Clooney wedding got you itching to visit Venice? I would love to know your thoughts.

Have you heard of new publishing innovation The Chatsfield? If you’re thinking That sounds like a cross between a Chesterfield, the swanky couch, and Chatsworth, the stately home, you’re not far off the mark.  In a nutshell, The Chatsfieldis a fictional online luxury hotel, a ‘world of style, spectacle and scandal’.

It’s the brainchild of publisher Mills & Boon (owned by Harlequin). The Author magazine writes of the publisher: ‘Few… have given so much pleasure to so many readers… This is partly because they are willing to move with the times and readers’ changing requirements.” The Chatsfield, though, does more than move with the times – it’s breaking new ground.

The Chatsfield online story world brings together hundreds of bits of digital content – Facebook, YouTube, blogs, short stories, emails and Twitter – stemming from the more traditional format of the novel. This isn’t linear storytelling; it’s up to the readers to piece together the story based on the various snippets – the ultimate ‘show, don’t tell’, forcing the readers to reach their own conclusions. Readers can interact live with characters – they can even leave voicemails for them and email them, and receive responses. The publisher says that the most popular characters will be developed further.

So who are the characters? The Telegraph describes a few:

The main character is an executive assistant called Jessie Loe, who after an embarrassing break up accepts a challenge from her best friend to stay single for three months.

Other residents of the hotel include a gorgeous barman with a dark past, a chambermaid with a side line that brings her huge amounts of cash, and a permanent resident in the penthouse who throws the wildest parties to avoid thinking about a sad event from the past.

The publisher says:

The intriguing nature of a hotel is that anyone can come and stay. From politicians to footballers, to newlyweds or stag parties… there are always scandalous stories to tell, and who better to tell them than the people who see all the spectacle; the staff.

Mills & Boon say they have ‘taken traditional storytelling and turned it on its head, to get the attention of their audience in the digital spaces where they are already hanging out and being entertained’. They’ve dubbed the venture ‘social storytelling’, and they say that ‘no publisher has done anything like this before with transmedia storytelling – it’s a global first’ (source: the Guardian).

What stands out about the initiative, I think, is the sheer breadth of media employed, but also its ability to really engage the reader. Readers can have a say in the development of the story world – they can set up a profile and even write their own stories and share them on the website. And then you have the myriad marketing opportunities this publishing platform creates: it’s reported that brands like cosmetics company Glossybox, hotel chain Taj Hotel and dating site Cupid.com are already on board, adding a ‘real-world element for the consumer’.

The publisher’s managing director, Tim Cooper, says, ‘We don’t really know how this project will end or where it will take us – but isn’t that the whole point of a great story?’Personally, I think this is a very exciting move, and it has the scope to go a long way and to herald a whole wave of development in digital publishing. It’s already got me thinking about how I could unify my own story worlds and create a hub where readers can engage digitally and enjoy more content than the novels themselves. Inspirational!

If you’re intrigued by the TheChatsfield, take a look at the trailer, a character-led video.

The hotel is currently closed for business, but will reopen soon. Visit www.thechatsfield.com to register your interest.

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