Home : Archive : TSV 41-50 : TSV 45 : Article

But the Details Aren't Important

Writing Set Piece

By Kate Orman

There are lots of spoilers for Set Piece in this article. Don't read it if you haven't already read the novel!

The Front Cover

The authors of the New Adventures get to suggest scenes for the cover, but we don't have any control over the final art. And for a very good reason: the covers must be completed very quickly, there isn't time for us to be putting in our two cents' worth. Nonetheless, the cover of Set Piece did raise certain questions in the author's mind. Where is Ace's bellybutton? Why is she wearing a cheerleader's outfit? And why does the Ant attacking her bear such a resemblance to Crow T. Robot?

Speaking of resemblances, compare the covers of Set Piece and Hummer [The Left-Handed Hummingbird]: the blue sky, the yellow pyramids, the good guy (on the left) being menaced by the bad guy (on the right). Trying to keep this motif going, I included a pyramid in Sleepy as a joke, and it then expanded to become an important part of the plot. It's strange where you get your ideas from. Remember how the special effects people suggested that Davros might be inside the Emperor Dalek?

The Name

As with Hummer, a bunch of friends came round to read the book out to me. I can't express how helpful this was - they gave up a whole weekend to sit there reading through the manuscript, pointing out errors and making suggestions, while I frantically scribbled on a second copy. Of course, they also spent a fair bit of their time falling around laughing. There's no criticism as effective as a good belly laugh.

Set Piece earned itself a number of alternative names that weekend, including Get Piece (referring to the type of fan fiction in which a character is thoroughly trashed) and Et Piece (for some reason, lots of chickens were et during the Egyptian scenes).

For about a week, the book was called Butterfly Wings, named partly for the Machines of Loving Grace song, but more for the Doctor's (and Ace's) role as the butterfly whose beating wings start a storm. The Butterfly Effect is a recurring motif of the New Adventures; for instance, Kadiatu calls the Doctor 'the butterfly's wing' in Transit.

Rebecca asked me to change it back to Set Piece. The book might better be called Set Pieces, since it consists of a series of set pieces - short, hopefully memorable scenes - but the overall structure isn't very strong. This is partly because I waded in before I'd really worked out the plot (something I've avoided with Sleepy, I think), and partly because a phone call to Ben Aaronovitch when I was about halfway through made me realise I had totally gotten Kadiatu wrong. Like a marathon runner, I hit the wall. I panicked. And it shows in the book.

The title Set Piece also helps promote the red herring - the return of Sutekh. But Set or Sutekh is just a useful metaphor. (I had lots of fun with the other red herring - Ace's death - starting with the Prelude in DWM).

My titles are becoming progressively shorter.


The advantage of putting quotes in is that you can muck about with The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations, the MacMillan Dictionary of Foreign Quotations, and your VCR and so on and tell yourself that you're legitimately working on the novel. I collect quotes and keep them on the computer.

The Traveller

Kyla Ward was a member of the writer's circle which battled their way through Hummer. Rumours of Martians in Epping (ROME) used to meet regularly - fortnightly, I think - to share what we'd written. You'll have seen Brief Encounters by David Carroll and Glenn Langford in DWM. David's New Adventure, Imperfect Copy, very nearly got itself published. ROME no longer meets regularly, alas, though David, Kyla, and myself continue to pursue various projects. The group's members appear in the dedication of Hummer.

Kyla's poem The Traveller appeared in ROME's sole fanzine, Fractal Paisley. It has a relentless forward rhythm, as well as these extraordinary images of moving through the countryside. It provided one of the novel's leitmotifs: 'Go and keep going... don't stop for anything.' (p231)

The Chapter Quotes

I was determined not to put any chess references into Set Piece, but I failed, as you can see from pages 97 and 128, the piece in the title (though Ace is properly a pawn, not a piece), the mention of Senet (a chess-like Egyptian board game)...

I don't quite know where the imaginary quotes came from - they were strange scribblings in my notebook. As the Sixth Doctor said, 'What's the point of a good quotation if you can't change it?' Do you think they're the most pretentious thing in the book, or the (a) (b) (c) (d) (e) scene on page 118, or the use of the second person as the author directly addresses the reader on page 86?

The 'bang, thud' joke was sent to me in a letter by Craig Wellington, a Tasmanian fan, who said his friend Niall Doran had made it up. Which reminds me - I'm indebted to Fiona Simms, who suggested the pillow fight; that's the one scene people always comment on.

The Chapter Titles

The title of the book let me get away with various puns. Initial conditions is short for 'sensitive dependence on initial conditions', a more technical name for the Butterfly Effect. Interesting times is short for 'May you live in interesting times', a curse which has different ethnic origins depending on who you ask. There are two Pet Shop Boys song titles. In Taberna means 'In the Tavern', part of the Carmina Burana. The Oncoming Storm is what the Draconians call the Doctor, according to Love and War. Hurt/Comfort is a type of fan fiction in which a character suffers emotionally or physically and is nursed by another. (Paul [Cornell] used it again in Human Nature.)

I wrote to Atlantic Records when I was writing Hummer to ask permission to use these lines from a song by Yes called Parallels:

It's the beginning of a new love inside
Could be an ever-opening flower

They never wrote back, and my second attempt to include the line was thwarted when the title of Chapter 7 was accidentally shortened from 'Ever-Opening Flower'. (I did manage to get a line from Rush's Tom Sawyer in as the title of Chapter 17, though). The image of a flower growing from someone's shoulder has haunted me for years; I was a bit stunned to hear Lazarus Heart on Sting's album Nothing Like the Sun.

I'm very proud of Raiders of the Lost Akhetaten. It must be obvious that I watched Raiders to get ideas about how Benny could enjoy herself while the Doctor and Ace were off suffering. I draw on films hugely - Ghostbusters and Vibes contributed to Hummer, and there are far too many Aliens quotes in it. Ptanis, anyone?

If you don't get Please do not step on the butterflies, you should read Bradbury's short story A Sound of Thunder, if only so you can get all the jokes about squished butterflies that crop up in science fiction and fantasy (from Doom Patrol to the DWM comic strip).

The Doctor's confusion about the frog and the butterfly (p112) comes from his misquoting Chuang Tse in Snakedance.

Rebecca asked me to remove the following quotes from the beginning of the Third Piece, feeling that they'd make the reader lose their suspension of disbelief:

The best way to get rid of the brat is to have her fall in love, decide that she wants to live a long and peaceful life, forgive the Doctor, and WHAM! Get hit by a speeding truck.
(Rob Cain, posting to rec.arts.drwho, 17 December 1993)

If Ace turns out to be her own great-great-grandmother: I will scream. :-)
(Jon Blum, posting to rec.arts.drwho, 29 January 1994)

Traductions Dangereuses

This is the bit that Nathan wrote:

Kate asked me to translate some of the dialogue and terminology in the Nineteenth Century bits of Set Piece. These bits needed to seem like they were actually taking place in France (or Egypt), rather than the BBC France that City of Death was set in, with its English news reports and Oxbridge-educated counts. It seems to me that most of the French in the book works. And it's not too hard to understand, n'est-ce pas?

There are the obvious French phrases: oui, excusez-moi, que voulez-vous? There are bits of dialogue that are immediately translated for you: Mme Thierry's Je rêve on page 152, and Denon's Ne m'oubliez pas on page 166, for example. And there are lots of words for actual French things: le Comité de Transport, la Garde Nationale, la Semaine Sanglante.

Which is not to deny that some of it is terribly crap, of course. I'm very fond of the expression 'decided to have dîner' on page 69. If you want to pick your own favourite, try looking at pages 106, 128, 141 (nice use of the subjunctive, though), page 202 and the bottom of page 235.

But I'm still proud of the conversation between the Doctor and Kadiatu on page 103, in which she demonstrates how she can understand the local language without a TARDIS or a Universal Translator or some other piece of technological nonsense This is what it means:

'You must have had help. If nothing else, you would have needed French lessons.'
'I landed in M Thierry's apple orchard. He knows that I'm from the future, but everything's okay.'
Someone banged on the trap-door The Doctor looked up and pushed it open a crack. One of Kadiatu's female domestic servants [maids, perhaps?] peered at him. 'Excuse me. M Thierry's carriage has arrived, and there are soldiers outside. Is the mistress there?'

Which brings me to my last point. I fully expected the French I came up with to be riddled with mistakes. I checked and re-checked, but, after all, what did I know about Nineteenth Century French?

More than someone at Virgin, it seems. The question Is the mistress there? in the preceding dialogue was originally Madame est-elle là? Unusual and old-fashioned word order, which someone has kindly corrected to Madame, est-elle là? in the final copy. So the question the maid asks the Doctor has become, Is she there, madam?

See: you thought that not even the NAs would come up with a female Doctor, didn't you?


Me again.

You'll remember from Hummer (what do you mean you didn't read it because the Doctor took drugs?!) that I use unusual punctuation to indicate certain effects - altered states of consciousness, for instance. Rather too often, according to the copy editor of Set Piece. I'm still grumbly that an Emily Dickinson was done to much of the book. Italics were removed; deliberately omitted punctuation was put back in.

In some places, this changes the meaning of the text. Compare the flowing, unpunctuated original version of the end of Chapter 7 (p114) and the staccato, punctuated version that was published:

The Ant loomed over him for a moment, antennae twitching. The metal sensors traced patterns on his face, stroking his mind. It didn't hurt, it was gentle it didn't hurt it was so soft tick buzzing working its way into him gently tock it didn't hurt alarm clock tick ringing buzzing tock get up tick get up tock time to TICK get up TOCK get up

And again with the entirety of Chapter 12 (p173):

fish! was this how a oil on a puddle FISH out of puddle erupting in rainbows water felt? colour swirling away spinning hands and feet TOO FAR away swirling away too far away her HEART was fluttering God! swirl flutter by flutter by Oh God! Oh mother! OH GOD!

Rebecca has asked me to cut down on the strange typography: which is probably a good thing - I think I was starting to overdo it. And I'd rather write more conventionally than have my unconventional stuff changed in unpredictable ways.

Australian readers might remember Survival, the Melbourne convention which fell apart last November. After an evening on the phone trying to find out what'd happened about Sophie [Aldred]'s plane tickets, I decided not to go, leaving me with a long weekend. The next thing I know, Virgin have couriered the proof of Set Piece to me: there've been delays, and can I phone through any changes?

It took me three of those four days to read the proof. I think Virgin, or whoever does the typesetting, uses a text scanner; there were some classic machine typos, number '1's for letter 'l's, that kind of thing. My favourite was a 'Yes, butt-', continuing the bizarre typographical obsession with posteriors that characterised Hummer. Alas, someone noticed it.

Character Names (And Other In-Jokes)

Skip this bit if you think in-jokes are pretentious.

Talking to Nathan while brainstorming for this article, I realised how much my writing comes from other sources - phrases, images; memes, I suppose. This is, of course, normal for writers, whether or not they're conscious of it. Sometimes in-jokes are deliberate, put in for your friends or for other fans to get (David McIntee is guilty of very blatant references to Star Trek, as well as the NAs' first Quantum Leap joke, which he botched. Naughty boy.)

Sometimes they're not deliberate. I quote from stuff all the time, without even realising it; phrases store themselves in your subconscious and suggest themselves when they see an opportunity to make themselves useful.

To list every borrowing - from the line from a Saturday Night Live sketch to the quote from a naughty fan overdub of Pyramids of Mars to the line from Asterix and Cleopatra to EFG Todd Beilby's nonsense expression of disgust, 'You are a fool of the highest proportions!' - would be impossible. But here are a few.

The Cortese, Caldwell, Groenewegen, and Nicolas are all named after real people (Star Trek fans on the Internet ought to recognise that first name). Doctor Who fans online not only gave me lots of encouragement and suggestions, but I was also able to keep them on tenterhooks by promising a scene with the Doctor and Ace in bed, involving low-level violence and feathers. And one fan-boy, obviously unable to deal with Ace's sexuality, gave me Sedjet's insult: 'You irritating little slut.' Dan Blythe and I swapped some chapters by e-mail, helping us keep the continuity between Set Piece and Infinite Requiem straight.

Sedjet means 'flame'. The copy editor suggested changing Ms Cohen's honorific to something more futuristic (perhaps 'Krau'), but we decided that this would be more jarring than the twentieth-century-ism.

Ntozake Shange
The feminist writer Ntozake Shange
(who inspired the look of Kadiatu)

The Voltrana plague (p236) was a dreadful influenza that swept through the committee of the Australian convention WhoVention II in 1993, brought to Australia by Mary Tamm (who bravely battled on through the convention with half a voice), and named for a young fan's enthusiastic mispronunciation of 'Romanadvoratrelundar'.

Cloudcuckooland (or Nephelokokkugian), was the name of the planet in The Milk of Paradise, my first and failed NA submission. The Doctor's reminiscence is from an early scene in that book.

The story about the arrow and the flutterwing is borrowed from a tale about the Buddha. Hey, if Robert Sloman can do it... the story of Nan-in and the cup of tea is a genuine Zen koan or parable.

Benny first appears as Emma Thompson from Much Ado About Nothing, then as Indiana Jones (complete with the Doctor's white Fedora) and later as k.d. lang from the Just keep me moving video. The Doctor's black coat and white scarf are what Sylvester McCoy was wearing at the 1993 Panopticon. Descriptions of Kadiatu are based on a photo of the strikingly beautiful feminist writer Ntozake Shange, which I photocopied from Ms. magazine.

That's my handwriting on page 165.

There are some continuity glitches between Love and War and Lucifer Rising, which I've had a go at reconciling on pages 120 (Ace's confusion about whether or not she loved Jan), and 132 (Benny's recollection of her mother's death), Andy [Lane] and Jim [Mortimore] were the first to describe Ace's father's death. Rebecca wisely decided to remove a jab I took at John Peel's shaky Mesopotamian research (during the Genesys bit of Benny's dream sequence):

'It's my slide show,' said the White Lady, 'I hope you like it.'
'Why's that girl half-naked?' Benny waved a shaky hand, 'Don't think much of your research. This isn't Sumer, it's somebody's dream of Sumer, somebody's bad Biblical epic, Anyway, Sumer didn't have computers lying about the place,'
'You,' said the White Lady, 'are concentrating on irrelevant details.'


A friend pointed out that propertied Africans would be common in Paris in 1871. Oops. And then there's the misspelling of Captain Picard's hometown, La Barre, on page 100...

I always complain about writers having their characters run a hand through their hair as an excuse to describe it: 'He ran a hand through his short/long dark/blonde/grey hair...' I was therefore very embarrassed when Nathan pointed out Sesehaten running a hand over his shaved scalp on page 81. At least I don't have anyone playing an instrument panel as though they were a pianist.


While moving house, I found a lot of my original notes for Set Piece - or, more accurately, for the half a dozen novel ideas which preceded it. Early versions included an entire storyline about an evil Time Lady and a bunch of Satanists on the Indian Pacific, themselves taken from an earlier storyline called Faust Forward. It was Rebecca who suggested replacing Mantissa, the Time Lady, with Kadiatu. That substitution made all the different parts of the story suddenly click together.

In notes that date back to 1992, there are hints of some of the ideas in Set Piece; the Doctor is worried that his own time travelling is damaging the space-time continuum; a character calls him the littleman. Later, part of Empty Spaces, a Sixth Doctor MA idea, is set in Ancient Egypt, and involves an alien egg-like implant carried by the Doctor.

I wrote the first two chapters in a single evening in a sort of paroxysm, and then kept tacking them onto the front of different proposals. I found the detailed notes I made when I was writing these chapters, and saw things I'd changed: 'Ms Cohen undergoes a tiny bit of process to understand it better - loses a memory,' says one page, a scene which didn't make it in.

I was working on Faust Forward in late 1993, and it contributed many other ideas. My notebook mentions the Ants, and says, 'The droids are manipulating the Satanist into using the Doctor as a gateway for their dimension twisting... They want to make him part of a machine...' The Doctor 'escapes' from an old friend, just as he twice does from Kadiatu. And there's a time-sensitive child engineered by the baddies. It's bizarre, looking back through these notes, to see the different variations on the basic ideas playing themselves out over months of scribbling - and difficult to remember when they all came together to form the final Set Piece synopsis.

This item appeared in TSV 45 (September 1995).

Index nodes: Set Piece