Pop Culture as Writing Workshop

I first met Tansy Rayner Roberts at Melbourne World Con in 1999. Tansy had just won the Inaugural George Turner $10,000 fiction prize with a book she had written when she was 19. (She was  20). Tansy and I have kept in touch. We’re both member of the ROR writing group. Since then Tansy has married had two children, completed her PHD, won more awards for her writing and currently has a fantasy series Creature Court, published with Voyager Australia.

Watch out for the give-away question at the end.


The best thing about fantasy is that you can pour anything into it.  When I was teaching creative writing to teenagers, I would encourage them to write a ‘list of awesome’ – bullet points about things they loved or were interested in or obsessed with.  Then to put as much of that into their writing, because if you’re writing about things you adore, it’s so much easier to get words on the page.

I think the shades of Tolkien and Lewis and the similar grand old scholars of the genres make new writers feel like the only inspirational sources they should be thinking are those of the academic variety: historical battles, medieval poetry, linguistics, cartography, and other Terribly Serious things.  I’m not knocking history – I have a PhD in Classics and am deeply steeped in academic traditions – but I also think you can learn a lot from writing in reaction to modern pop culture.

My Creature Court trilogy, (Book one:Power and Majesty), was inspired by my obsessive attachment to the Ancient Roman festival calendar, by my visit to the city of Rome, and my interest in what life was like for ordinary people during the Blitz, when you never knew when the sky would next open up and let bombs fall on your street, or the one next to yours.  But it was also pushed along by the important question that came to me: what if Buffy had a job?  Not just a little part time job.  What if the ‘chosen one’ wasn’t a 15 year old farmboy or 16 year old cheerleader, but a woman who already had her life settled.  How do you balance slaying (or insert other save-the-world type activity here) with an actual career?

Then there was the House of Eliot.  I like to say that my books were inspired by my love of the 1920’s, which is true, but my love of the 1920’s came from the TV costume drama about two young women who found independence by starting their own fashion house.  I haven’t watched it for years, of course, but just as I based the city of Aufleur on my sketchy memories of tramping around Rome with my honey,  I took what I loved from The House of Eliot (women working together, costume detail, flappers and beads) and made it my own.

I had a theory about fanfic once, that the reason a medium like TV produces so much, whereas only a few books inspire a serious fan writing community, is that fanfic comes from the empty places between stories – from the parts a reader finds unsatisfactory, but also from the gaps where they can see the story they want waiting to be told.  (the biggest exception to this, Harry Potter, was a perfect breeding ground for fanfic because Rowling created such an inspiring and enchanting world, and then firmly kept her readers from seeing more than a thin slice of it in every book)  TV and movies are already lacking something that books give us: that personal touch of being inside a character’s head.  They also often confine themselves to a format, so that it’s easy to be inspired towards fanfic simply by wondering what is happening over there, just out of sight, or after the credits have rolled.

Of course, if TV or movies or any other form of pop culture inspires you, you don’t HAVE to write fanfic.  You can pour your questions and responses into original fiction as well.  Writing a short story which was sparked off by an episode of your favourite TV show can be as satisfying as one sparked off by a painting you saw in a gallery, or a song that turned up on the radio, or a view out an unexpected window.

The short story I am most proud of writing in recent years, “The Patrician,” was inspired by one of those gaps in story – a a question about a popular trope that started bothering me more and more, until I had to write about it.   The trope in question was the love story between an eternal or incredibly long lived character (usually the man) and a teenage girl who is utterly special in some way but still, let’s face it, a teenage girl.  Buffy and Angel, the Doctor and Rose, Edward and Bella…

Now, I’m in my early thirties and I already stare in alarm at today’s teenagers.  They are not my people.  So even though I… well okay I didn’t ship any of the above couples but I did enjoy two out of three stories involving them.  But the idea of those couples only works if vampires, Time Lords and other eternals are as shallow and youth/beauty obsessed as Hollywood casting agents, and that’s the bit I don’t buy.  They <em>have</em> eternal youth and beauty, so why would they value it, especially with the long historical perspective they have?  Surely if you’ve been alive for several centuries, you’re more likely to be interested in someone you can have a decent conversation with, than someone who has barely outlived the mayflies.

So I wrote my own version of the story, which is not that story at all, but made sense to me, and it became “The Patrician,” about an eternal warrior from Roman times, ridding the world of monsters, and entirely failing to fall in love with a teenage girl until she had the sense to grow up and then some.  In the same collection I wrote a story that reinvented certain female relatives of Roman emperors as something akin to superheroes, one which gave a Mary Shelley and her sister a far more dangerous poet to run away with, and one which put the vampire myth in togas and an airship over futuristic Sydney.

The downside of pop culture being a terribly inspirational thing, of course, is that I can’t watch anything awesome without thinking of ways to apply them to my work.  I could natter for hours about the clever use of structure and unreliable narrators in How I Met Your Mother, or point of view in Skins, or pace in Downton Abbey or the all-important cliffhanger in Doctor Who.  Television is totally my writing workshop!

I must remember to print this out and read it to my accountant when time comes to justify whether or not my DVD purchases for the year are tax deductible…

Tansy is giving away a copy of book two of her Creature Court trilogy, Shattered City. The give-away question is:

When you were a kid growing up, what SF/Fantasy TV shows inspired you?


Tansy Rayner Roberts is the author of the Creature Court trilogy (Harper Voyager).  The first volume in the trilogy, Power and Majesty (2010), won the Ditmar for Best Novel, and Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel.  The second volume, The Shattered City (2011) was released in April.  Tansy also has a boutique collection of short stories, Love and Romanpunk, available from Twelfth Planet Press.  You can hear her talk about industry news, gossip, pop culture and books at the Galactic Suburbia podcast.

32 thoughts on “Pop Culture as Writing Workshop

  1. Hey Tansy,

    Nice post. I take as much inspiration from TV as from anywhere. Like you, I liked some Dr Who (not all I have to say). But I also loved Monkey, the Japanese production of the Chinese legend which was dubbed into English by the BBC and only ever popular in Australia. I was recently in China and managed to pick up a full set of Journey to the West ( 4 vols) which Monkey was based on.

    Oh, and Red Dwarf – I was a bit older then though.

    Also loved Twin Peaks. It’s a bit dated now but I can still watch it. I have DVDs of all the shows I loved as a kid. Now my kids watch them – maybe not TP so much.

    1. I remember my kids watching Monkey. There were some really weird (for my Western perception) shows about NInjas when I was a kid. Ninjas who could jumped across roofs and fight while running through the air.
      It’s interesting how our perception of what is normal changes.

    2. The thing I took away from Monkey was my first moment of genderfloomp – SO MANY conversations in the playground about whether Tripitaka was a boy or a girl, it did our heads in.

      I will be fascinated to see the film Neil Gaiman is working on, based on the Journey to the West story. Considering he is a writer who has spent his whole career dangling his feet in pop culture inspirations…

      Red Dwarf was hugely influential on me, too. I once tried to plot a story that did the same thing but with an all female cast. I wasn’t a sophisticated enough writer then to get away with it (I think I was 12, and the only way I could think of differentiating between female characters was giving them different colour hair) but some day, some day…

      1. Neil Gaiman takes on Monkey? I had no idea but I can’t wait. I think we can safely assume there won’t be much resemblence to the TV show however.

        And Tripitaka was so a girl…

    3. Ha, my sister and I made ourselves Monkey sticks(broom handles painted black with yellow ends). That was a great show!

    4. Ooh, Monkey! That was fun. And the whole was Tripitaka male or female question…

      Some of my other favorites were the Robotech cartoon series (I sat through the miseries of Australian morning cartoon shows for that), Dr Who, The Goodies… Let’s see, there was also the BBC Narnia series. Oh good grief, what a stroll through memory lane that is.

      1. Was that the one that had Tom Baker as Puddleglum from The Silver Chair? That was the first role I saw him in after Dr Who

  2. When I was a kid growing up? Before 10, we didn’t have a TV, so I suppose after that — and there wasn’t much then.

    The Wizard of Oz, of course, came every year. Mr. Ed? A horse is a horse of course, of course…. The Munsters, The Addams Family. Star Trek (when it was new!). Twilight Zone, the Jetsons, the Outer Limits, My Favorite Martian. Bewitched! The Man from UNCLE, Mission: Impossible, and probably others… huh, more than I would have thought before I started making a list.

    inspired? Frankly, I think they all did! After all, right there in black-and-white, there was another world in our living room! And you are there…

    1. Mike, I remember all those shows. Back in those days there wasn’t much one and if you missed it, you missed it. You never knew what the TV station was going to do with our favourite shows. Anything that was unusual got slotted on late at night and moved around at the drop of a hat.

      1. Yep. Big three networks in the US for a long time, and if they didn’t have it, tough. Then we started getting … UHF? VHF was the base, right? Anyway, the odd channels with numbers like 25 and 43 and such.

        Oh! Saturday night Creature Features! Somewhere along the way, they had SF, Horror, and such on at midnight. Those were great, too.

      2. Mike, when I was growing up we had about 5 channels here in Australia. One was the ABC (publicly funded) and the other three were commercial. But they’d skimp and show repeats of Gilligan’s Island, Hogan’s Heros, Bewitched (I never knew she had a boy) and I Dream of Jeanie. Lots of football.

        It was a desert.

    2. I am really enjoying introducing my 6 year old to some of these classics, especially Bewitched (though it has to come with my own personal genderfail commentary, of course). Next up, The Addams Family!

  3. I grew up without a TV until I was 16, and the only SciFi I remember watching as a teenager was my Aunt’s collection of the original Dr. Who – which scared me silly. I’m not sure why, the only other movie to affect me that way was Aliens (which I still can’t watch).

    1. Sanborntonfarm, Aliens is really Scary!
      And when I was little my mother wouldn’t let us watch Doctor Who, so I’d go to the kid’s up the road and watch it at their place.

      1. There was a great show on when I was a kid called The Tomorrow People. It had a similar format to Dr Who and I think was written by some of the same people. But all the stars were young people.

        One of the reasons, I think, that all so often people who ‘become special’ do so so often in puberty, is because this is an understood time of change for us all and we can all imagine(and probably did) how it all could be so much worse than what we actually go through. Plus this is the time where we really develop our ethical framework, where our boundaries expand, and we stretch our thinking outside the rules and manners instilled in us by our parents. Actions and behaviors stop being black and white ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’, and we become more nuanced in our thinking.

      2. Bredan said: ‘Actions and behaviors stop being black and white ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’, and we become more nuanced in our thinking.’

        Good point. It is also the time of riskiest behaviour until the brain matures at around 25. I was reading an article on the children of Ku Klux Kland members. At 8 and 10 they parrotted what their parents said. At 15 they had black friends.

  4. Most if the inspiration I get from film and TV tends, not to be stories, but techniques. I think the fact there is a remove in the creative process means for me, while I will enjoy watching, I don’t enter into the world(with the exception of Monkey mentioned above).

    I will look at some great FX or good story telling and think how I could use that if I were to produce my own visual media(I so want to see The Dark Is Rising’ done properly as a film), but there tends to be very little cross-over.

    1. I think because I teach script and storyboarding I’m always analysing how the story is conveyed in film and TV series. It does translate across for me in the sense that I’ll think – with that bit of violence right there, they raised the stakes and suddenly every action the protagonist takes is fraught with danger.

      1. Have you tried going the other way? For example, for practice, write up a scene or something from a movie, tv show, or even a cartoon (The Penguins from Madagascar? Sean the Sheep? Why not!). I do this sometimes, and often notice (a) it’s HARD to figure out what to do with that establishing shot or other “background” visuals — it takes so many words to do that (b) “He remembered” or “he thought” can do such a nice job of letting us slide into the character’s head without massive flashbacks. Fun to try, anyway, and helps point up the differences in the media.

      2. This is true, Mike. I’m always trying to explain to the students that you can’t do introspection and, other than flashbacks, you can’t have people recall events. I try to get across the use of symbolism to convey growth of character or change of mind, or making a decision.

      3. Mike, I think that studying the art of adaptation is a great way to learn & understand different writing techniques. I’m fascinated by different adapted versions of the same work for that reason – like, you can rail against a play of Pride and Prejudice which only has 3 Bennet sisters, or you can look closely at why that’s a necessary narrative sacrifice… and it’s not just to save on cast members! Borrowing stories isn’t just handy for source material, it’s a way of better understanding how stories work.

  5. Remember the Thundercats? I used to draw pictures of them when I was a kid…poorly. I wrote my first fanfic about Lion-O. It’s since been lost (thankfully) but I’ll never forget the feeling of Lion-O’s victory over Mumm-Ra, especially since I got to write it. It was awesome.

      1. Battle of the Planets and there was another one…Starblazers, about a battleship flying through space. I was flicking through the foreign movies section on a plane recently and I found a live-action movie version called Space Battleship Yamato.

        I was totally blown away.

      2. Oh the edits they had to make to make Yamato suitable for children. The ships Dr who in the Japanese was constantly drinking saki is suddenly getting drunk on water etc.

        I was surprised to learn that The Goodies also had to be edited for Australian audiences although some bits suddenly made more sense when I finally saw the uncut versions. The Goodies were apparently quite shocked that a show that was on after 9pm on the BBC was being used for kids entertainment.

  6. OK, my favourite TV show growing up would have to be Bewitched. Don’t get me started on the whole, she’s a witch but now that she married a mortal man she has to clean the house by hand thing.

    1. Oh Rowena, I KNOW. The show is redeemed at least partially by the fact that she rarely does in fact do it by hand, but the way Darrin shames her, especially in the early episodes, is hard to take.

      It’s for this reason that I actually (controversially) prefer the later eps, which are either just Samantha and her kids, or feature the less strident Darrin. The original was a great performer but his character was a right ****. (insert your own noun)

  7. Coming in a bit late. One of my major sources of story ideas of late is music. I’ll be listening to a song and some bit of imagery, some character concept, or some emotion will just take hold and ooh, there’s a story in that.

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