Interviewer: David Flin
Throughout June, Hague Publishing ran a version of The War of the Worlds through the format of Twitter. The story is developed...
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I spoke with Andrew Harvey, one of the driving forces behind the experiment. I’ll let him explain about the event.
What was the War of the Worlds in Real Time?
First, some background. The whole idea started in 2022 when I stumbled across @1996ID4 tweeting the events of the 1996 Independence Day movie in real time. Looks like fun, I thought – wouldn’t take too much time to do something similar with HG Wells’ War of the Worlds. And then I thought – but what about if I get some of my writing friends involved as well and do it as a documentary, like Dan Snow’s and Raksha Dave’s recent The Black Death, or Dan Snow’s The Dam Busters, both of which focus on the use of historical records and try to tell the story chronologically. It was only about 6 months into the exercise that I realised I had no idea what it was we were doing. After half-an-hour’s work, I came up with the idea of calling it a “Docu-drama”.
What was the objective you hoped to achieve?
The initial idea was just to have a bit of fun and try out a ‘shared world’ with a couple of writer friends, using HG Wells’ War of the Worlds as the sandbox. In a shared world, the guests use their own characters; the creator’s own characters (at least the main ones) are off limits. The big difference with this retelling of War of the Worlds was that while setting the story securely within the historical context of 1897 (so many movies based on the book simply don’t bother), we would be tweeting the story.
How did it turn out? What changes did you make to the original?
The idea was to take Wells’ 1898 version of the story as ‘gospel’ – if he said something happened in the original, we couldn’t change it. The first task I had was to create a timeline so everyone knew when something had happened, and where. I did that at the same time as I cut his text (57,467 words, or 320,848 characters in the original) down to something that could be tweeted. That exercise successfully brought the text down to 15,737 words / 93,518 characters (or a minimum of 334 tweets). It also left me with a greater understanding of what a singularly brilliant writer Wells was.
While we couldn’t change anything Wells had described, nothing stopped anyone from adding things. If you followed the story, you would have discovered that besides the Martians simply succumbing to the putrefying and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared, The War of the Worlds – In Real Time identifies at least two other factors.
I think the biggest change we made to the story was a deeper look into some of the things that Wells had ignored, or would have considered irrelevant to the story he was telling. This included, but was not limited to, the fact that London could not have completely emptied itself in the face of the Martian threat. Comparing the evacuation to the situation of Stalingrad during WWII. It is possible that well over a million people would have remained in London for many reasons, and this had an enormous impact on the direction that Leonie and Ken went with their stories.
With the additional characters (Toni, Breaker, Lt Carver, et al) and the occasional editorial commentary, the final length of the project came to 23,700 words, or 155,000 characters, almost a 40/60 split in favour of Wells.
Why did you choose War of the Worlds?
At the time, I was still smarting at the 2019 TV series which simply stole the title, and ignored the rest of Wells’ brilliant story. It’s also a story that the authors I was looking to invite to join the group would already have been aware of.
If anyone’s interested, one of the most faithful retellings of the story that I came across during my initial investigations was SherwoodSoundStudio’s The Coming of the Martians: A Faithful Audio Adaptation of HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds Audio, featuring: Colin Morgan, Dan Starkey, Olivia Poulet, Ronald Pickup, et al. Importantly, the way they went about trimming the story reassured me I was on the right track.
Did you find that the format used resulted in a different pacing to the novel?
I don’t think you can say the format resulted in a different pacing. What it did was make the pacing more obvious. In hindsight, it quickly became clear that Wells front-loaded a lot into the first week, before then spending something like 2 weeks buried in a house with the curate. So we have 244 tweets for the first week, with 98 of them occurring on Monday June 7th, when the Martians moved on London. The number of tweets for weeks 3 and 4 is only half this. One of our regular twitter followers in fact commented that during the last week they often found themselves disappointed not to find a new tweet when they checked their feed, as there might be several hours between tweets.
What lessons did you learn? What difficulties did you encounter?
One of my friends warned me this was going to be a shitload of work, but only after I was well into it. If I’d known earlier, I don’t think it would have affected my decision to do it, but I suspect I’d have been better prepared for the impact it was going to have on my life, where for two months I found myself living in 1897. It was rather a surreal experience, because the characters were describing ‘real’ events.
1. Twitter was a constant source of anxiety as I simply didn’t know if it would still be operating in the time it took to line everything up. Fortunately, the development of the blog site gave us a backup if Twitter had collapsed. It also encouraged me to reach out to Sealion Press to see if I could use the forum for a daily highlights post. Over the following six months, the forum went through three changes in its magazine editor, but each in turn enthusiastically agreed to continue to support us – wonderful people, all of them.
2. The sheer amount of typing I was doing to schedule the tweets at Buffer.com (and on the Blog) meant I ended up having to restrict the number of hours per day I could work on it as my arms started to stiffen up.
How well was it received?
The drama didn’t go viral, but I was pleased with how well it went. Our top two most viewed tweets attracted 546 and 478 impressions, respectively. Both included original drawings by Jade from Steam Power Studios. Our engagement rate on Twitter was pretty remarkable, with Buffer showing a total engagement rate of 11.5%.
On the blog site, we had 165 separate users with the highest number of viewers being in early June. 41% of traffic came from Australia, 25% from the USA, 15% from the UK, 3% from Canada, and 16% Other.
The Drama’s daily newsletter, which started with 17 subscribers, picked up another 50% over the course of the month. We had a good engagement; 55% of the emails were opened, and 10% were clicked through.
And I had a personal win when I received an SMS from my son who lives in another state, to wit:
Good work on the War of the World live tweets. I’ve been following them since the start and the coverage of the empty streets of London and dying Martians has been very evocative.
So, impressing my eldest – tick.
You had several authors involved. How did you divide up the workload? Did one person take responsibility for each character, or for specific days?
As you might have gathered from the: “Andrew, that’s a shitload of work” statement above, the workload wasn’t divided. Rather, I asked the other three authors to read the original, have a look at HG Wells’ timeline, and then let me know what/who they might like to write about. Michael put his hand up first to write from the perspective of HMS Thunder Child (hence Lt Carver). I think I was probably next with Lt Dullanty of the 4th Co Coldstream Guards (Special Ops). Leonie was next with Toni, and Ken and I worked together to try and bring in an Australian link (as we’re both Australian), although the idea of using Breaker Morant was solely and exclusively his.
Was the outcome what you expected and hoped for?
While I did have a very clear vision at the start of the process, it wasn’t necessarily what we ended up with. Leonie’s character was the biggest shock when she sent me some early drafts. I had wanted to tweet the story, but using plain English. As you’re aware, Toni uses the modern vernacular. I had to sleep on that for two weeks before I realised that I really liked what Leonie had done with the character and that Toni could successfully sum up in a single hashtag what Wells and the other characters might take a paragraph to describe. Though I have to say that as the creator of the ‘Line’, I still think Toni’s views of the Gascoigne-Cecil-Line remain a trifle harsh.
Once everyone had submitted their first drafts, I read them and took several deep breaths. Everyone had done what I had asked, just not what I had expected. Deciding that what they had given me was actually better than what I had expected, I then looked around for opportunities to weave the individual characters’ stories together. So Ken wanted to have the Curies meet Breaker; I thought Toni would probably offer chocolates to meet Marie and Pierre Currie. Michael’s Lt Carver was going to Woking. I volunteered use of some of my special ops characters to help with his mission – in the end that wasn’t required as Michael managed to pull together a scratch force by himself. I needed Dullanty to travel north through London for his attack on Primrose Hill, I had him use the tunnels when Breaker was involved elsewhere.
On a couple of occasions, I asked authors to directly email each other when I felt they needed to talk to sort something out, and when this happened, it was always a joy to see the solution that developed.
It was only in the final stage of breaking up individual threads into tweets, and attaching a specific date time to each that the beauty of the interweaving of the threads became fully apparent. For example, on June 7, you get the juxtaposition of Toni and Breaker’s views:
07-Jun 07:32 @toniwantstovote
07-Jun 08:00 @BreakerMorant
We are at war with the Martians, but Brown and Vogan agree that the threat of a court martial means it is unsafe for our health to rejoin the regiment.
So, in short I had a plan. Fortunately, the authors were quite prepared to ignore that plan when occasion demanded it, and in hindsight, it is the interweaving of the individual character’s threads that make our retelling of the story so unique.
Will we see another version?
The book will come out in 2024; the cover has already been done. But my wife, who was following every tweet and then pointing out their myriad spelling and gramatical errors to me, is pushing me to tweet them again next year, arguing that all the hard work has already been done. But with Twitter finally being consigned to the rubbish bin of history (see the new 𝕏 ), it will probably be via Threads.
As this was a shared/team world, I’ve taken the opportunity to see what the others who were involved thought about the exercise.
Leonie Rogers, you were responsible for the character of Toni. What appealed to you about her as a character, and how difficult did you find fitting her into Wells’ world as everyone chimed in with their own story lines?
When this project was first proposed, I was quite excited. I’d read WOTW many years previously and have always loved Forever Autumn from Jeff Wayne’s adaptation – I suppose you could call it the theme song for WOTW – which tends to play inside my head when I think about it.
Wayne’s lead character is an amalgam of Wells and his brother. Toni grew from my thoughts about the brother – a medical student in London during Well’s story. And then as soon as I started researching 1897, I realised what an amazing year in history it was. The suffragists banded together under one umbrella, the National Union of Suffrage Societies; the very first female medical students were studying; and there was a plethora of fabulous female activists to draw from. And then there was the Rational Dress Society founded only a few years previously - #ihavepocketsinmydividedskirts. In addition, science was making significant advances in both theory and application.
Toni’s relationship (platonic) with Wells’ brother underpinned her story. He’s always there somewhere in her mind, in the background, providing an underpinning of sadness to her narration.
In my mind, Toni is a passionate suffragist, with a huge enthusiasm for life, medicine, and a desire to help. Yet at the same time, a Martian invasion was never on her radar. I tried to imagine how difficult that might be for even a forward-thinking young woman.
When I initially began writing, I’d somehow managed to get the concept slightly confused, so Toni ‘spoke’ in a modern vernacular, and very much in ‘tweet speech’. But... I really liked her voice. So I emailed Andrew at Hague Publishing, and after discovering ‘Telegram style’, which is actually a precursor of tweet and text speech, we decided her style should remain as it was – but that @hgwellsbro had challenged Toni to keep a diary in that format for a month, with a dinner as the prize if she did.
Toni flowed really rapidly onto the page, so (fortunately for me), I was done and dusted before everyone else. Her story had to match the timeline already set down by Wells, so that major events were where they should be. And of course, I’m a bit of a feminist myself, so having the suffragists step into the vacancy left by the government was a foregone conclusion. And in this alternate history, it also meant they got the vote earlier. Two things in particular:
Firstly, the radios being built by @sirjohntheengineer and distributed by @NUWSS had to mesh with Michael’s storyline about the radio interference from the Martian tower.
Secondly, Ken needed @BreakerMorant to deposit @MarieRadiumCurie somewhere, and Toni’s hospital was the logical drop off point.
For me, it meant that I had to check my timeline, communicate with the others, figure out when, and a few tweets/diary entries, and then send it to Andrew so that everything ended up in the right place, on the right day, at the right time with the right solution. I suspect it may have been harder for the others.
Michael, you were responsible for Lieutenant Carver, and the Maxims. What appealed to you about Carver’s character, and how difficult did you find fitting him into Wells’ world as everyone chimed in with their own story lines?
Lieutenant Roger Carver, HMS Thunder Child, is one of those unique characters who seem to have written themselves. He began life as a Lieutenant Commander, Royal Navy aboard Thunder Child as a way of helping to tell the story of that ship’s important contribution to The War of the Worlds. Many thanks go to David (through Andrew) for pointing out that Carver’s position aboard ship as originally written would not realistically exist*, so he was transferred to the Royal Marines. During the transition, he remained the typical late Victorian officer of Empire, focused on God, Queen, and Country.
It was surprisingly easy to fit myself into Carver’s shoes. His antipathy towards HG Wells, for example, stems quite naturally from Wells’ treatment of Thunder Child and her crew in that this important story is not fully and completely told. We see the ship in action with the Martians, through the eyes of his brother. Wells treats the ship as a thing, equivalent to the tripods, ignoring the stories of her 672 crew members who died at their posts. From the gun crews to the captain on the bridge, to the stokers in the engine room: all were consigned by Wells to heroic oblivion.
Wells treats Thunder Child as a thing, ignoring the 672 souls on board.
Their stories needed to be told. The story of Lieutenant Roger Carver, Royal Marines, gives a glimpse into ship life aboard Thunder Child in those crucial last days. I must admit Carver, for all his heroic and leadership qualities, comes off as rather stiff, judgemental, and very reserved. This comes across in his early dealings, especially with Maxim and Persephone, but he was also capable of growth.
In writing the character of Carver, I was aware of the shared universe in which I was working. For example, I was alerted by Andrew that I would have to handle the evacuation of Queen Victoria (and set the stage for her arrival in Scotland). I happily obliged him. I also had to fine tune the wireless jamming effect of the Martian tower in Woking to let Leonie successfully tell her story and allow the Givernment-in-exile in Birmingham broadcast to the country. Happily, this also let Maxim receive instructions on how to make gas masks, which figure in the final action at Woking.
The character of Hiram Maxim is loosely based on the historical figure. Hiram Stevens Maxim is the inventor of the Maxim gun (which was later developed into the famous Vikers machine gun). As related in the story, Maxim had indeed built a flying machine which made a brief uncontrolled hop in 1894. He devoted much of his later time to developing aviation-themed amusement park rides. He is also credited with inventing, among other things, the first automatic indoor fire sprinkler, a curling iron, an aerial torpedo gun, and developing various types of steam and internal combustion engine. Maxim was born in the United States and emigrated to England in 1881. In real life, he was knighted by King Edward VII in 1901 and died in 1916.
While Hiram Maxim never worked on explosives as described in the story, his brother Hudson Maxim did, including work on smokeless gunpowder.
The character of Maxim’s granddaughter Persephone is entirely fictional. As a nod to Leonie, I decided to make her a suffragist and an acquaintance of Toni’s.
Ken Vickery, you introduced us to Breaker Morant. What appealed to you about Morant’s character, and how difficult did you find fitting him into Wells’ world as everyone chimed in with their own story lines?
I understand it was barbarous colonialism in Australia that inspired Wells to write War of the Worlds. Breaker Morant saw himself as a colonialist, which made him the sort of brutal man in a brutal time that Wells would regard with disgust. Breaker’s character intrigued me because I wanted to contrast the colonialism Breaker personified with the more inclusive views of his friends. You’ll be surprised to hear that I found it relatively easy to write from the point of view of a privileged white man. I also enjoyed writing about how his friends worked with him to get what they wanted. I ended up liking him, although I’m glad he is only a fiction.
It was an interesting exercise to try to portray this in tweets. I was delighted with how well Breaker’s character and story fit in with the rest of the storylines, even though there was little coordination between the writers. I loved the contrast between Leonie’s caring character, Toni, and Breaker’s gruffness.
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*The original problem was his designation as “First Officer”, a term unknown in the RN.