Fanfiction . net explicity says one should't use the chapters to write notes and comments but my background in science makes me really want to write this "Not a Chapter", in hopes to kindle a discussion or two, share a few ideas that stayed in the pipeline, and avoid anyone thinking of the word "plagiarism".
As I've mentioned a few times before, I am not a native English speaker. Spanish is my only first language, the one whose grammar of my thoughts use, the one that works as cultural sieve to my sensibility; the only one I spoke until well into my teens. English and French are firm second languages in the machinery of my mind and there isn't much I can do about it.
It was first disheartening and then eye opening to come into terms with the fact that try as I may I will never be able to master those languages, and writing this piece in English is, in some senses, a fool's errand. Dialogues and situations may sound jarring, protracted or simply wrong, not matching the characters I wanted to create. This frustrates me to no end, so I tried to focus on plot instead. I hope it worked out well for you.
The Spanish version has, at the moment this is being written, only two readers. I chose English to reach a wider audience, which at the moment I finish publishing this Modern Take I estimate to be somewhere from fifty to seventy-five people. Every reader is important in his or her own individuality, but it's also true that low number of visitors makes one wonder if it's worth the effort.
The original novel is narrated by an omniscient third person. In my view this style has two big drawbacks: 1. It's a little bossy, not allowing the reader to draw her/his own conclusions about each character, and 2. It must explicit nuances of relationships. It can be done wonderfully, of course, but I don't feel I'm up to that challenge and that it would take many words to do, particularly when relationships are not reciprocal (Margaret and Edith; John and Daniel). This is why I preferred the first person, and I quite randomly chose a few characters to have voices and a few others not to (most notably, Henry).
I thought my idea to be original but halfway writing this story I found out it had already been done in the novel "Rules of attraction" by Brett Easton Ellis. Oh well, much better then. An established writer found out it can be done and that it works. Thank you, Mr. Ellis!
In my first drafts we didn't get to hear John's thoughts until the very end of the story, but when I started publishing I realized it would be very much Mr. Darcy of him (in Pride and Prejudice every time Elizabeth realizes about how wrong she's been about Mr. Darcy the reader is forced to reread the past chapters). It would have shed new light to most of the events related before, giving them new meaning, and I thought it was not a good idea for fan fiction.
Correct me if I'm mistaken here, but I think that readers of fan fiction mostly like to read new things about their favorite characters and not just be left in the dark and guessing with what they already know. Still, I didn't want to write again John's reaction after being rejected. Chapter "Mother and son" is just masterful!
The problem with choosing this style is that my shortcomings as an ESL speaker are more obvious. My guess is that this must have had British readers setting their teeth on edge, but that's just gut feeling from me (or common sense, actually).
The original novel has several layers and deals with many topics, some of which are still current, some are very far from my own personal experience, and some are old but can be updated.
Religion is one subject that appears time and again but here I avoided it altogether in hopes to respect it. My Mr. Hale is not a minister but a scholar; my Mrs. Hale is deeply spiritual but her religion is never stated. This is where my own personal story makes itself glimpse through my words, or lack of them.
The north and south relationship stated in the title, which pretty much sums up the essence of the conflicts between Mr. Thornton and Margaret at the beginning of the book is another topic I would have liked to but couldn't get into. I know England is a large country and its areas still have distinct sounds and idiosyncrasies, but I don't really know how to be truthful here. This is why I had Margaret to have been educated in a shielded environment (boarding school and women's only college) and so have a stark contrast with her new environment and especially John, but still I think I might have sounded a little judgmental and (horror of horrors) stereotyped in my depiction of her ideas at the beginning of the story.
If I happen to have a former boarding school and/or women's college student among my readers: I hope you didn't find my ignorance offensive.
Class conflict is one amazing, truly outstanding topic of the original story, which has evolved in this past century and a half (think this was written before Marx and Engels' ideas) so it needs a little updating. I think it's fair to think that issues pertaining to women (or parents in general), and/or new immigrants in the workplace could take its place. I used women and very lightly, but I truly think it can be done really well and truthful to the original.
Human relationships is a timeless subject, and I think the novel deals very well with how the characters (especially Mr. Thornton) experiences love, passion and despair. I think that needs little updating, or none at all. However, I would have liked to see a little more into other characters, who, in my view, are depicted very superficially.
Marriage is the one topic that's completely outdated in my view. Discussing marriage for love or convenience just doesn't fit modern literature in western cultures (not that it doesn't happen, but it would require moving our characters to other geographical setting).
I drew inspiration from a thousand sources to create the characters and situations of this piece. The obvious one is the original novel, "North and South" by Elizabeth Gaskell.
For personal views and stories I'd credit blogs PostSecret and Letters Of Note. Margaret's views on being adopted are based on a message sent by someone named Candace and published on PostSecret during July 2012.
For the male characters' voices (Daniel Donaldson, John Thornton, Frederick and Richard Hale) I thought of movies based on Nicholas Hornby's books, as well as websites AskMen and Art of Manliness.
For Daniel's voice I thought of Greg Wyshynsky's team at hockey blog PuckDaddy, and Howard Wolowicz from The Big Bang Theory.
In early drafts Daniel described his friendship with John using Michael Landsberg's words in a heartwrenching piece in memory of hockey player Wade Belak: "Despite our many differences, we bonded right away, a friendship based on a mutual ability to make the other laugh. Men show contempt with insults and affection with harsher insults. Wade and I had a no limit, no safe area, no boundaries and never hurt feelings. I loved him for that. And I know he felt the same way." Most of Daniel's first drafts didn't make the cut to the final version and this is the only one I regret.
For Richard Hale and Mr. West I thought about Javier Marías books, particularly "Corazón tan blanco" y "Mañana en la batalla piensa en mí" ("A heart so white" and "Tomorrow in the battle think on me"). I didn't take details, just thought about them.
Adam West's humor is based on Garrison Keillor's books and radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion". We don't hear his thoughts but the moment he arrives Margaret says "They threatened to challenge me to play scrabble to death, or to sleep - whichever came first". I imagine Keillor saying a thing like that.
Richard Hale's comment "This is why this part of England is called Darkshire" was inspired by a post by blogger Jane Brocket (Yarnstorm), fittingly titled "north and south".
John's words of admiration for Margaret, the first words we hear straight from him, are based on hockey journalist Risto Pakarinen (From the desk of Risto Pakarinen): "How I kneed her". These words are wonderful: "There she was, this young woman with a great hair and a posture that defined confidence. I had never spoken to her (before...) But she didn't go unnoticed. Not with the way she carried herself".
John's views of the world and his attitude towards Margaret, in which love manifest itself as an urge to fix whatever is wrong with her life if it's in his hands, are based on a beautiful piece by blogger Jon Armstrong (Blurbomat): "The second time around", in which he discusses his wife's depression (note: I've just checked it and he seems to have edited it taking out the parts I remembered best... oh well). John's description of his father's depression, retold by Daniel, as a "soul-eating disease" are words by blogger Heather Armstrong (Dooce) in the piece titled "Drama".
The last we hear from him, his thoughts on being a parent, are heavily inspired on Jeff Atwood (Coding Horror): "On parenthood", and the comments left by users.
I'm a big fan of Mad Men's Don Draper; I drew inspiration for Bessy and John's relationship in Peggy Olsen and Don Draper. It's not well developed but it would have followed those lines.
For the female characters' voices I thought a bit of myself (ha!). I pictured Edith Shaw as having Gwyneth Paltrow's charisma and used articles of her website (Goop) for her voice and details of her personal life. Bertha Dixon and Maria Hale are shamelessly based on people I know (who, incidentally, don't know each other). Bessy Higgins is the one who sounds more like me. I tried to have Margaret based as much as possible on the original Margaret, although I hoped to give her a more 21st century voice.
I attempted to give Sylvia Bell an artist's voice, she's based on interviews I've read and heard of ballet dancers. Her story, a young single mother giving up her baby for adoption, becoming (sort of) famous and reuniting many years later was inspired by Irish actress Sinéad Cusack (she played Mrs. Thornton in the BBC version) and Canadian singer songwriter Joni Mitchell's own real stories. Some of her thoughts are inspired, although I'm embarrassed to admit this because of the difference of quality of the source and my version, on Kate Inglis' writings (Sweet and Salty), but none in particular.
The writing of the chapter "One night with two suns" is based on the letter by Anaïs Nin (Letters of Note): "Sex does not thrive on monotony" and the film "Lucía y el sexo". I heard the music of that film, by Alberto Iglesias, while I wrote the chapter. The words "she is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen" and "her body engloves mine" were inspired by the novel "More than love letters" by Rosy Thornton (which in turn was inspired by North and South itself).
Margaret's words "Life is unspeakably kind" were taken from Kristan Higgins' "Fools rush in".
I first heard of Postman's Park in the film "Closer" but I actually remembered about it thanks to a post by Mike Dash (The Smithsonian's Blogs: Past Imperfect): "On Heroic Self-Sacrifice: a London Park Devoted to Those Most Worth Remembering", and the unlikely titled tourist guide "Nothing to see here".
Character and plot changes and adaptations:
I had Margaret to be an adoptive daughter for two purposes: to explain the difference of temperament with the rest of her family, and her receiving a sudden inheritance. I just don't think it's believable that an old friend of your father just leaves you a heap of money because he liked your face - sounds like there were favors exchanged and I don't like that. The character traits part works well in fiction but if it were real life I'd say it's crap.
When John first meets the Hales he's so impressed by Margaret that he has the wallpaper of their new home changed for one of better taste. Here I had him just making a few calls behind scenes so they would get internet connection immediately instead of waiting for two weeks (which don't think it's too believable these days, anyway). It's not obvious and we still haven't heard his voice at this point, so it gets quite lost.
I gave John a secret desire to become a father to provide him with an extra plot device to relate to Bessy Higgins better (and to make him a little more appealing to us, readers, as if that was necessary - this is womens' fiction through and through). I hope it sounded realistic and smooth to you.
I only saw the first episode of the BBC adaptation (I'm not even sure how far I went into the second, if at all). What I saw was enough to second everyone out there who believes Richard Armitage's performance of Mr. Thornton simply perfect (also, his physical resemblance to Gaskell description is uncanny - correct that, downright spooky). There is, however, a dark note he brought to his performance I'm not sure it reflects in my piece. Only Bessy and Daniel are witness to John's less-than-nice moments, Margaret is too but she misunderstands them, so in all, John's personality is quite complex in his lights and shades and the style I chose (the many first person voices) doesn't truly show him. I think.
I felt it was unfair to the craft of being an actor in general, and to Armitage's in particular, to mix two characters as different as Mr. Thornton and Sir Guy of Gisborne just because they were played by the same individual. Maybe I'm on my own here, but I think the most outstanding qualities of each character are quite contradictory: while Mr. Thornton sees himself and his business as just another part of Milton's economic machinery, Sir Guy of Gisborne seems to be guided by greed and thirst for power. So one would selflessly aim for the greater good and the other just machiavellian to get his own desires meet... not a good comparison, then. I'm still thinking over that one.
Margaret here is a little older than the original, where she is even more remarkable and yet believable. This is based on Daniela Denby-Ashe, who was not as young as Gaskell's Margaret and whom I thought to be excellent (at least in the first episode) of BBC's series. I didn't use Denby-Ashe's physical appearance but the original one, which is remarked a few times through the book. I gave Margaret a college degree but couldn't give her a career and I'm sorry for that.
Sylvia Bell is one of the big changes I made so I could have the story unchanged. I took the last name from the original Mr. Bell, who's the one to make Margaret rich, and I named her Sylvia as an allusion to poet Sylvia Plath and the book "The bell jar". I've always thought she had to be an artist; a writer would have been too obvious for Margaret to realize about Sylvia's feelings in her body of work, and a dancer would have had the expression of her art too ephemeral. A painter may make it a little more open for interpretation for Margaret. To complete Mr. Bell's role as money manager I gave her a sentimental partner, Melanie (whom I've always imagined to be a lot like Martha Stewart). I needed Melanie to be a woman for the conversation where Sylvia first learns about John Thornton; I felt that description had to be made from a female point of view, to counterbalance the previous descriptions made by Richard Hale and Daniel's. I had no other reason to make them lesbians; perhaps just because lesbian women exist?
Daniel Donaldson is another big change that doesn't change a thing; I just think Mrs. Thornton being so close to her son wouldn't work well in a modern setting. Still, Daniel's role for most of the story is to provide a narrating voice that's not John's and when he does help the plot advance it's almost by accident. However, while he takes over Mrs. Thornton's role in most of the story, he made her necessary when we have John's point of view of what happened between he and Margaret. Daniel simply couldn't have been that person, and Hannah Thornton just imposed herself.
Bessy Higgins is the morphed character I liked best. As someone mentioned, it's good that she doesn't die and I gave her the plots involving Nicholas Higgins and the Boucher family, and while we don't get to see her a lot I tried to make her gutsy to counterbalance Margaret as a female strong character. But then I realized John deals with his own mother (we got only two glimpses of her and she really came out very easily), Melanie Sanders, Margaret and Bessy herself, so he's pretty much surrounded by strong women. Ops.
I gave Dixon a first name, Bertha, and had to adapt her being a servant to a loyal close friend. Long after I had published the chapters where she is introduced I thought she might have been a relative to Richard Hale (maybe a cousin or even a sister), who was school friends with Maria Hale and that's how the Hales first met. That would explain her familiarity with the Hale household, but that was just an afterthought.
I changed Edith's husband name from Sholto to Ian, because Sholto sounds really unusual these days. I made Sholto / Ian to be close friends and colleagues with Henry but not siblings, to make it a little less incestuous.
I made Henry Rowan gay and come out the closet just for the purpose of recreating John believing Margaret to be in a romantic relationship with someone who is close, but not just close "like that". In the original it's her brother Frederick, in my version is a gay Henry. The original Henry was probably quite straight.
Mr. Thornton Sr.'s suicide is not a source of shame in my piece but a result of a depressive crisis not discussed by his family, and understood differently by each member. It parallels the story of someone very close to me and I simply cannot pass judgment like the original book does.
Fanny Thornton's frivolity does not equal stupidity or meanness; matter of fact I believe the original one to have had quite a few tough abandonment issues and my modern take just gives them a name. Neither does Edith's self-centeredness, whose affection for Margaret is strong and true (I've been in Edith's shoes more often than Margaret's). Henry's lack of congeniality doesn't mean he's a prick or a loser; I thought these four characters deserved better treatment than they received in the original.
Anna Shaw is the only one I didn't improve but Margaret says at least something very good of her (being a good shopper, finding things in the right size, cut, color and style, which shows she's both generous and perceptive).
In the original story, when Margaret leaves Milton she sends John a book. For some reason I wanted it to be an inkwell. Why not a paperweight, a pen, a statuette or even another book? I have no clue, but the inkwell has been there since the first drafts. I even had to improvise the scene where the inkwell is introduced just for that purpose (which, by the way, is told by Mr. King-of-Denial Hale and has Margaret ogling John. Did you catch that one?)
I used sports as a means to showing the competitive side of the characters. I think it's a modern arena of interaction that didn't exist until quite recently, which is at the same very advanced (everyone abiding by rules, women and men in the same spaces) and very primitive too (come on, do I have to explain this one?)
The situations equalling the riot, the first marriage proposal and the whole affair of Frederick and the police inquest are really washed down in my version. I tried to instill them with some psychological tension but I'm not sure this story stands on its own, meaning, if a reader unfamiliar with the original would make any sense of it. Not sure at all.
Plot twists I thought about but didn't use:
Gaskell uses feminine adjectives for Mr. Hale at least 3 times in her story, so in an early draft I had Mr. Hale to be a closeted gay and Mrs. Hale to leave him. The first version of his funeral was told by Mrs. Hale and there she explained that he was in platonic love with someone else who had died before, but was not explicit. But I realized then that Mrs. Hale's death is quite important in the first plot and a divorce just wouldn't have worked as well.
I also thought about Margaret being somewhat of a specialist regarding domestic violence and to have Bessy Higgins killed by a violent boyfriend, but it was too dark and my attempts sounded unconvincing.
I thought of Margaret not giving John the money, just staying in Milton for a long time and going to his office to say goodbye, after which he'd go to her home and they would have a long conversation and she would declare his love for him. Then again, the challenge of sticking to the original was too enticing (and safe) to include a change like this one.
I also shifted the chronological order of events around quite a bit but Gaskell knew best.
I wrote a little scene where John leaves his class and chats with Margaret while she shows him out, and they both laugh and get very cuddly but it's immediately revealed that it's all in his imagination (an idea I developed in another story, "In the solitude of her room") but it didn't fit and wasn't too original. Instead I had John being a total mess by leaving Margaret midsentence at the pub (but following her home and keeping the straw of her drink), and being rude to her at the stadium (and regretting it and avoiding her from then on).
Unfortunately I had to leave out quite a few jokes. When John and Melanie meet for the loan, John jokes he's so sleep deprived and distracted that he almost signs the restaurant's menu instead the agreement. I also had him making some mime, wordless jokes to Margaret the first weekend they spend together, but they didn't fit well. You have no idea of how sorry I am for that.
(We always need a conclusion)
North and South is a very strong novel containing many plot devices and character situations that can be translated quite well into other times, and probably other cultures. I would love to read a version happening right before First World War in which Margaret is a suffragette, or one during the sixties where Margaret is a bit of a flower girl and John is quite the opposite, but I'm too far from being able to write it.
Ball is in your court, people. Play or kill!