The Story Behind Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’

Marley was dead: to begin with.  There is no doubt whatever about that.  The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner.  Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to.  Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

All in all, 1843 was not a good year for Charles Dickens, especially late 1843.  American Notes, a narrative about Dickens’ travels to Canada & the United States, sold well the previous year.  In 1843, sales slumped.  Feeling that Dickens was poking fun at them, Americans steered away from the book.

In 1843, Dickens published Martin Chuzzlewitt.  Like other books, it was released through newspapers in chapter-by-chapter installments. English readers lost interest quickly.  Americans, already irritated, only became more annoyed.

Dickens’ reputation as a best-selling author took a hit.  So did his income. He had mouths to feed – 4 children with a 5th on the way – and writing was his primary source of revenue.  By late 1843, things were looking bleak.

Charles Dickens had been poor before.  In 1824, when he was twelve, his father was imprisoned.  John Dickens had run into debt.  Unable to pay his debtors, all his household goods – furniture included – were sold and John was incarcerated at Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison. Ultimately forced to give up their home, Charles’ mother and siblings moved into prison with his father.  To sustain himself, Charles pawned his own possessions, left school, and found alternate lodging.  He worked for meager wages in a boot-blacking factory, pasting labels onto pots of blacking.

The experience affected Dickens’ entire life.  Keenly aware of the social injustices and terrible working conditions facing the poor, especially children, Dickens advocated for change.  He toured the Cornish tin mines, wrote articles, and challenged parliamentarians to do something.

In the fall of 1843, Dickens travelled from London to Manchester to speak about child labour and the plight of the poor at a fundraiser.  On October 5 , 1843, he spoke to a capacity crowd at the Manchester Athenaeum.  The sight of healthy, well-fed people in the audience contrasted sharply with the poor, overburdened subjects of his lecture.  With Christmas not far off, the contrast cut even deeper.

With two books on the wane, with the plight of the poor so evident, and with the Christmas season drawing near, Dickens plotted a new novel during his three days in Manchester.  When he returned to London, he started writing.  Within six weeks, he had a complete manuscript.

Released on the 19th of December in 1843, A Christmas Carol was an immediate success on a number of fronts. The book breathed life into Dickens’ fading career and restored his reputation.  The cast of characters echoed the deep divisions of society and highlighted the appalling conditions facing the poor. The tale of retribution rang true and reinforced the spirit of Christmas giving.

All the elements of success fit except one.  The book did little to buffer Dickens’ sagging income. The first edition was too lavish, the price was too low, and Dickens’ profit was marginal.

The rest, as they say, is history. Dickens’ story of tight-fisted, mean-spirited Ebenezer Scrooge’s conversion to generosity and congeniality is a Christmas classic, told and retold now for almost 175 years.

Are there lessons to be learned from Dickens’ experience for those who write?  Probably there many, but for me, one stands out.  Dickens wrote about something that deeply mattered to him.  Passion drove his story, and that is evident on every page.  Find your passion – the subject you can’t wait to explore, the message you just have to deliver – and while you may not write in the style of Dickens, chances are that you will be able to write like the dickens.

For more about Charles Dickens check http://www.dickensfellowship.org

This post was adapted from another at Larry Verstraete’s The Story Behind blog.

For Larry Verstraete, an award-winning author of books for young people, writing is all about the journey and often the perfect writing storm occurs when high adventure, science and history converge. An advocate for literacy, Larry often visits schools and libraries to share his passion.

My Year of MYRCA

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This past year the Manitoba Young Readers Choice Award (MYRCA) celebrated its 25th anniversary. Each year for a quarter century now, grade 5 to 8 students across the province have been offered 15 to 18 shortlisted Canadian novels to read, discuss, and assess. In mid-April, students who have read or heard read a minimum of 3 titles vote for their favourite. Votes are collected, tabulated, and when the dust settles a MYRCA winner and two Honor Book winners are announced.

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This year, my mystery-adventure novel, Missing in Paradise, was among 17 other honoured titles on the 2015-2016 MYRCA shortlist. My book didn’t win. That honor went to Kenneth Oppel for his wonderful novel, The Boundless. But, as with many things in life, winning isn’t everything. In my case, it was definitely the journey that counted.

Here are a few highlights from my banner year:

Early May, 2015– The shortlist for 2016 is announced. I see names I recognize – icons like Eric Walters, Deborah Ellis, Kenneth Oppel & Jennifer Dance. Wow!  I  am on the same list.

AT Ste Anne School in Ste Anne, Manitoba
                      At Ste Anne School in Ste Anne, Manitoba

October 19-21, 2015 – On a MYRCA blitz sponsored through grants by the Manitoba Arts Council, I visit schools in Carmen, Ste. Anne & Richter. City or rural, kids everywhere share a common bond over books, but for many rural students meeting a ‘real live’ author is first-time experience. As MYRCA’s ambassador I spread the word of its merits, hoping to hook teacher-librarians not already involved in the program.

At the Roundtable-MYRCA event
                          Hopping tables at the MYRCA-Roundtable event

 

With fellow authors Melinda Friesen, Suzanne Costigan, Gabriel Goldstone Deborah Froese
               With fellow authors Melinda Friesen, Suzanne Costigan,                                      Gabriel Goldstone & Deborah Froese

October 21, 2015 – At a combined MYRCA & Winnipeg Children’s Literature Roundtable dinner event, I sit at a table with 7 others. Some are teachers, others students , librarians, parents. We engage in a lively discussion about reading, writing, school, travel… A half-hour later, I move to another table. A new group. A half-hour later yet another move, another group. It’s a unique experience – readers of books meeting the people who write them, and finding common ground in their love of stories.

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December 16, 2015 – Walking into the library of École Saint-Avila during lunch break, I am floored by what I find. Sixty-five students are involved in the school’s MYRCA program. It’s a huge number! In collaboration with the teacher-librarian, two parents spearhead the operation. The kids are totally hooked. Many have already read more than their required quota and are eager for more.

MYRCA Display at Ralph Maybank School
               MYRCA Display at Ralph Maybank School

Feb. 10, 2016 – An email arrives from the mother of a home-schooled student. Her son has read my book and has a suggestion. At the one point, my main characters use a home-made metal detector. He’s researched the topic and found a website with detailed information. Could I add the link to my author website? I write back. Certainly and thank you my resourceful reader.

April 2016 – After an author visit, a grade six student lingers, waiting for others to leave before approaching. He describes his favourite scene from the book, then high-fives me for “doing such a good job” . Later, his teacher tells me that he has Aspergers. She’s surprised by his response. Normally, he is detached and rarely engages, but this time…. Somehow this time, it was different.

So there you have it. A few highlights from my MYRCA journey. The goal of the program is to promote literacy by celebrating the best in Canadian literature. As an author, I saw evidence of literacy at each stop – eager readers gobbling up books, speaking of characters and plots that resonated with them, and networking with the writers who crafted the stories they love.

Considering the 400 plus titles offered by MYRCA over its 25 year history, and the thousands of young readers involved in the program, MYRCA has achieved its goal in spectacular fashion.

Congratulations MYRCA on 25 outstanding years!

For Larry Verstraete, an award-winning author of books for young people, writing is all about the journey and often the perfect writing storm occurs when high adventure, science and history converge. An advocate for literacy, Larry often visits schools and libraries to share his passion.

Story’s Little White Lies

134170985_istockphoto_thinkstockIt’s funny how as a writer I find myself becoming, at times, a better oral story teller. I just caught myself retelling a small scenario from church to my husband and simplifying some of the details to make a better verbal impact and a greater punchline.

Huh. Did I just lie? Did I just go against everything I’ve been taught all my life and tell a Lie?

Interesting. And all the more so because it’s becoming a bit of a habit.

There’s nothing worse than listening to someone tell a story and having them use a lot of “sort-of’s” and “kind-of’s,” or “a little bit’s.” Or describing something as “like a this thing–well, no, maybe it was more like a that–” They try to get the details just so and for many things, like telling how father’s iridectomy went, the details count. After all you don’t want Aunt Bertha passing the story to Uncle Curt and suddenly father’s iridectomy becomes a triple bypass complicated by a plantar’s wart and his body odor and he had an out of body experience in the midst of it.story-fun

If your child’s teacher calls to tell you your child spit on the janitor’s head, you better hope she’s not fiddling the truth, when your child only sneezed on the water fountain.

Nooo, we don’t want that sort of false retelling. And when the boss says you’re getting a $10 an hour raise and you open your next paycheck to find a 10 cents a day decrease— well there’s h— oops, certainly something to pay.

So how do we tell a story for the sake of a good story? Cause I know I’m not alone.

Because I’ve caught myself altering the strict truth of story simply for love of telling it well. I doubt I’m the only one. Let’s hope I’m not heading for perdition. Story gets into ones blood. It’s been part of civilization ever since—ever. Like since the first cave-men with no language, spoken or written, played charades to tell each other what happened out in the fields that day. of course they’re gonna swap the details to out-do one another.storytelling

What does fiddling the facts comes from? Perhaps some of us get tired of listening to stories from people who have to reclaim every detail, important or not, that slow down the story and cause you to lose interest. The tension is stretched to uselessness by constant correcting themselves or telling too much back-story in a backwards manner, whether it pertains or not.

Or it’s because, as of we writers, the editing of the written word, the maximizing of each phrase to carry the story, the careful choosing of words to say more than they do at face value, has taught us to edit more carefully the spoken story too.

It’s the essence that counts. The overall effect. The end result. Carried only by choice details, not all and sundry.story1

 

So what if the little boy in church today actually hummed a different tune than the Star Wars Theme song? If not, it was certainly a lot like it and created the same impact–a wave of tittering in the rows nearest him. So later when I told my husband, it would have lost the giggle factor if I’d out loud speculated if that’s what song it really was. The acoustic quality of the tale would have failed entirely, thus vetoing the point of the tale.

And it was funny. The little guy belted out that tune right during a pause.AA_New_Logo♫ ♯♪ Dun da da DUN dun, dunta da Daaaa…♫ ♯♪

Christina’s motto is:
“Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?” (George Bernard Shaw)

Give Them Wings

Being a creative person, I get asked a lot, “How do you have such great ideas?”

There’s a few ways. I keep my eyes peeled. Not just at other people’s creativity, but at nature, patterns, colour combinations that please the eye, those that don’t—I observe people, places, things. And I listen too.

Yes it helps to have a natural bent towards creativity, but like anything, it can lay dormant, or be developed.adult-15814_640

One thing I have found true in both creative arts and creative writing, that ideas develop by doing. Again as with anything—practice-practice-practice.

Most projects I tackle, whether it’s sewing, or woodworking, or writing, start with a single idea, a vision, a spark. By the time I’m done, it has usually become quite different. Why?

In the doing, as I go along, I get more ideas because maybe a technical glitch has changed the vision, or I’ve come across something I hadn’t anticipated until I got right down to the details, and so I’ve adjusted the original plan to improve things, or as I fiddle with materials or words, I discover that if I use this instead of that then I can add the thingy to the whatsit and really make the project pop.drawing-board-670027_1280

Ideas occasionally fall from trees, but they need to be fed to grow. One must toss them around, chew them up, spit them out, and rearrange. The perfect sewing project rarely exists. Often one must take in a pattern here and there to make it fit.

An architect can have a great idea for a house, but perhaps the property is too narrow. He has to shuffle it around, change the layout to get it to work.

When moving into a new home, we have to fit all our old furnishings into a completely different space and organize it sensibly. That also requires a type of creativity and some rethinking before we get it right.

So with writing. I have found that the best points and connections and subtleties in my stories come from being immersed in the writing, completely unplanned. somewhere deep inside, the subconscious mind takes all your knowledge and observations and feeds them where they’re needed if we give it the chance. If I never take that original idea and start brainstorming and working it like a baker kneads dough, I would never progress.cargo-jet-108882_1280

The world progresses on ideas that were just tiny sparks. Take your favorite ideas and be bold enough to give them wings..

Christina’s motto is:
“Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?” (George Bernard Shaw)

I Love to Read Month: Celebrating Books and Writers

I-love-to-read-buttonIn Manitoba, where I live, February is “I Love to Read” month.  It’s a time when books are celebrated in schools, libraries and homes, when the benefits of reading are touted, and when readers of all ages are encouraged to hunker down with a good book during one of our coldest months.  Other regions around the globe offer their own versions of “I Love to Read” from British Columbia’s “D.E.A.R.”  (Drop Everything and Read) in April to the United States’ “Get Caught Reading” in May.  Whatever the name or month, the focus is the same – celebrating books and acknowledging the power they have to transform us.
Writers should celebrate, too.  We craft words and create the worlds that readers inhabit, and so “I Love to Read” and its close cousins are very much a tribute to those who write.  But since reading is the focus, perhaps it’s also a good time to reflect on our roots.  How and why did we become writers?  Did books influence our choices?  Does reading still influence us today?
In my case, books and reading played a huge role in shaping the writer I am now. Although I cannot recall being read to by my parents or siblings, I remember the first time a book totally transported me to another time and place. I was in grade 4.  The teacher – wise in the ways of keeping a restless group of children attentive – read a mystery novel to the class. I don’t recall the title or the author, but I remember the plot – a thrilling whodunit about a boy detective who solved a kidnap-murder case.  I hung on to every word and groaned with the rest of the class when the teacher closed the book at the end of each chapter.  Because of that experience, I became a voracious reader and the seeds of storytelling magic took root.
Read Aloud DailyWhen I became a middle grade teacher – then later a parent – I followed my grade 4 teacher’s lead. I read to my students and my own children daily. From a literacy-development point of view, I knew it was the correct thing to do.  Numerous research studies espouse the benefits of reading aloud to youngsters, even to those of high school age, but – I can admit it now – boosting reading comprehension was never my primary motive. I simply wanted for my students and children, the same experience I had myself in grade 4 – the glorious out-of-body feeling of being one with a community of others, all lost together in a gripping story that defies time and place.
I read aloud from a diverse menu. The Giver by Lois Lowry for its perspectives on society gone astray…Jesper by Carol Matas for its portrayal of moral dilemmas in wartime Europe… Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, for a heart-searing Southern story about a boy and his two dogs, Old Dan and Little Ann…Silverwing by Kenneth Oppel so we could follow Shade, a silverwing bat, on his epic journey towards maturity.
Best Christmas pageant everNot every offering was a heavyweight.  Each year, with the approach of the holiday season, I carved time out of the busy day to read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson– a lighthearted account of sheep and shepherds running amuck at the annual community production.  As one, we chuckled as disaster unfolded then high-fived one another later when it was averted.
Books have always played an important role in my life.  I wouldn’t be the person I am today without them.  But what about you?  What books transformed you?  How?  Why? I’d really like to know.
Other posts you might enjoy:
The Kid Inside
Say What, Mary Poppins?  Wise Words for the New Year
Making a Difference for Writers on a Shoestring Budget
Larry Verstraete (www.larryverstraete.com) is the author of 14 books for youngsters, the most recent being Missing in Paradise, his first middle grade novel. Currently he is searching for the next great idea.
For Larry Verstraete, an award-winning author of books for young people, writing is all about the journey and often the perfect writing storm occurs when high adventure, science and history converge. An advocate for literacy, Larry often visits schools and libraries to share his passion.
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