See the softer side of a much-beloved bureaucrat with today’s reader-selected tale.
A Canterlot Carol
[Comedy] [Slice of Life] • 6,464 words
The business of government never stops, and paperwork never rests, even on Hearthwarming. But this particular Hearthwarming, Cabinet Secretary and tea enthusiast Dotted Line plans to do his level best to see it, at least, take a break. His ponies need to go home to their families, and he, well, he has plans this Hearthwarming.
FROM THE CURATORS: This week’s feature is a little unusual — we asked readers to choose a story from one of our already-featured authors in order to return the spotlight to their vast wells of talent. Ten nominations and hundreds of votes later, when the dust finally settled, this Hearth’s Warming Eve tale had captured the most hearts.
“Ghost of Heraclitus’ Whom the Princesses Would Destroy is in the Pony Fiction Vault. Twilight Sparkle Makes a Cup of Tea is in the RCL. But this is, I think, the crown to the scepter and robe,” Titanium Dragon said in A Canterlot Carol’s nomination. “Whether it be Dotted Line’s conflict with eldritch monstrosities inhabiting his chimney, his conversations with his staff that shows that they are true comrades, to the conversation with the Zebrican ambassador about Prince Blueblood’s non-apology, all the way through to Dotted Line’s plans, every part of this is memorable and enjoyable.” Voters agreed, and so did we: “This is equal parts amusing, thoughtful and touching, and often in surprising ways,” Present Perfect said. (Bradel, for his part, so enjoyed the story that he recorded a dramatic reading of it.)
While we found the story engaging throughout, one of the elements that we repeatedly singled out for praise was the way in which it built up themes for powerful later impacts. “It’s the ending where this story truly shines, where we see how far Dotted Line’s compassion and dedication extends,” JohnPerry said. “For a story dealing largely with bureaucratic affairs, this one is surprisingly heartwarming.” AugieDog noted that this care with continuity extended to Ghost’s later stories: “Read the sequel, too. Several things that are set up in A Canterlot Carol don’t pay off till An Afternoon for Dotted Line. I can’t imagine the one story without the other.” But that’s worth the effort, Present Perfect asserted: “Dotted Line is one of our fandom’s greatest treasures. I don’t know how Ghost is so consistently entertaining, save that he, too, is a treasure.”
Read on for a special return interview, in which GhostOfHeraclitus discusses approximate peace, legendary tea-pickers, and Ghengis Khan’s naps.
We first interviewed you back in March of this year. What have you been up to since then?
Working, mostly. I am chronically short on time and my jobs are very demanding.
Fandom-wise, I made some new friends, which was wonderful, and wrote a few tidbits for Obiter Dicta while sort of dancing around a new long-form story that I really want to write but can’t crack. It’s mostly OCs again (I’m nothing if not predictable) but I can’t work out how to get the perspective right. This is not helped by the aforementioned chronic lack of time. There’s a few thousand words and a précis and some research work, but it’s not coming together at present.
I’ve been working on my writing too, as far as I can manage it. I’ve been reading Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook (which I may review at some point), and doing general research. I’ve read a really rather fascinating book on cooking in the Byzantine Empire which really helped me with visualizing different cultures starting from the ground floor up, as it were.
I’ve also been entangled in a plan — a very remote and unlikely-to-succeed plan — to get myself to Bronycon in 2016. This is turning out to be quite difficult.
A Canterlot Carol is actually one of several stories you’ve written centered around the Equestrian Civil Service. What is it about bureaucrats that you find so compelling?
Originally? Originally it all came about from three rather mundane causes: One, I am a big fan of Yes, Minister the British political sitcom. Second, I always liked peering in the corners of paintings and looking closely and the little-regarded and bureaucracy is a great way to explore that. The third reason is a sort of reaction to fanfic: at the time I was writing the first Civil Service story, I seem to find the phrase ‘stuffy officials’ or the equivalent in any story dealing with Celestia. She was forever fleeing these terrible creatures and their paperwork and I sort of began to wonder … why are they so stuffy? Why is there so much paperwork? What’s their story?
As time progressed, I realized that I became fascinated with the idea of the bureaucrat-as-hero. The reason why is difficult to explicate without me sounding insufferably pompous and full of myself, so as prophylaxis against that, I invite you to mentally read the following in a comedy accent: The bureaucrat as a fictional character represents to me the conflicted relationship we have with our model of civilization. You cannot have a modern technological civilization without what you might term organizational technology, which is most commonly manifested as some sort of bureaucracy. Someone must take care of unglamorous things like water pressure in the mains and traffic patterns, and making sure all the millions of people living in a modern metropolis live together in something which, if viewed from a sufficient distance, approximates peace.
And while we like that we live in a civilization in which we can afford to exchange stories about pastel ponies over a globe-spanning communications network, we chafe under the rules we have to follow, the forms we must fill, and with all those grey people in their grey suits doing incomprehensible things in fluorescently-lit offices in an anonymous office block somewhere. Of course, a lot of people might say, and say rightly, that they are merely upset at the corruption at these often anonymous levels of power. So, as I was writing the first drafts of Princesses, I began to wonder what would happen if I explored the limits of institutional power and bureaucrats as heroic by depicting bureaucrats who, while heavily flawed, did what they did from a strong ethos of service and loyalty. By doing this, I hoped to tell a story of civilization in all its mundanity as a fundamentally heroic endeavor.
…with, y’know, jokes and stuff.
 Which is why Dotted’s position is specifically Cabinet Secretary.
 I’ll put footnotes in my interview if I want to. :)
 Humans in general, especially those living in industrialized, urban surroundings, i.e. most of the people reading this.
 Dotted is a very flawed, very conflicted pony. His flaws and his conflict can be funny, but they are within-universe quite serious.
 I hope…
What was the inspiration for A Canterlot Carol?
That’s easy! I was talking to Kobalstromo (Hi Koba!) and I mentioned, if memory serves, that I always wanted to do a Christmas special. I come from a culture where we don’t, generally speaking, have the institution of a Christmas special and I was always sort of fascinated with the concept. I outlined what was essentially the scene in the story when Dotted is working in his half-lit office, except in that version Leafy just shows up and drags him off by his ear. It was meant to be a really simple thing but there seemed to be very little story to it so, in due course, I wrote up this current version based on a suggestion from Bad Horse. It originally had a different beginning but it was so bad that, if memory serves, it drove Bad Horse to drink. So I rewrote everything and introduced the Eldritch Abomination in the chimney (because I amuse easily) and the subplot with Mkali.
Koba didn’t really like the new Canterlot Caro,l if memory serves, because what he actually wanted was a more cuddly sort of story. I obliged by writing An Afternoon for Dotted Line, which was made to be the written equivalent of a hug and a cup of tea.
 He made a suggestion where, basically, nobody comes and Dotted is left in a pit of despair on his own. Because of course he did. I figured out (with some more help from him, I think) how to turn that ending into a happy one.
I get the strong impression from this story that Dotted Line is a sort of anti-Scrooge. Were you deliberately trying to break the standard Dickens mold when you wrote this?
Not deliberately, no. I was toying, early on, with making the story a straight-up take on the Christmas Carol, but elected not to in the end, so there’s very little Dickens-inspired in the end story. Dotted wasn’t meant to be an anti-Scrooge so much as he was meant to showcase his, ah, damage: He does work too much, he does take on the burdens of others without even being asked, yes, and that sounds worthwhile but it also shows that Dotted forgot why he does it. The story is about him being reminded.
 Well… discounting all the Dickensiana that ended up in our standard vision of Christmas, of course.
The characters in your Civil Service stories have become some of the most popular OCs in the fandom. How do you approach creating characters?
I don’t know!
Okay, okay, that’s exaggerating a bit, but I’m not Cold in Gardez or Bad Horse. They seem to have an unparalleled ability to articulate how they do things while I swear I just muddle along by guessing a lot. Thus, instead of offering a detailed process (because there isn’t one) I’ll instead ramble about several disjointed points.
First, each character must be real. By this I mean, I never think about characters as fulfilling a role in the story, as being for something. Instead I try to imagine the character completely outside the story, doing their daily routine, doing something mundane and everyday. What does this character like? What do they dislike? How do they peel an orange? What do they like to order in a restaurant? How are they when they’re drunk? In love?
Once I have all of this, I feel I can just simulate a character to see what they’ll do. I can trivially call up Dotted in my mind and know what he’d say, do, or think about just about anything. A common problem with characters, as far as I can make out, is to paint them according to some extreme: extreme of circumstance or of character. You end up with a character whose defining trait is what they’ll do in a fight or that they are angry all the time or something. But even Genghis Khan in all his Eurasia-conquering glory had to take naps from time to time. He drank milk. He made jokes. He must have. It’s in these little mundanities that character lies, I think.
An especially pernicious strain of the above is to approach character building as if you were making an RPG character: all about ability, all about balance. I love me some RPGs, of course, but writing is different. Real people don’t have competitive balance and neither should your characters. Real people aren’t defined by the sum of their qualifications (except in poorly run HR departments), and neither should your characters.
Second, listen to Uncle Chekhoof and have every character want something, even if it is only a glass of water. This creates a strong impression of them having agency: they have goals, successes, setbacks, &c. An especially good trick is to do this to bit characters: have them show an interest in something happening ‘off screen’ as it were. Have it clear that they are parts of their own stories.
Third, don’t be afraid to make your characters weird. Spinning Top could have been just a neat and prim press-wrangler with a penchant for high society, but I decided to make her, basically, a nerd. She’s a very peculiar nerd since she makes convoluted bilingual jokes referencing the Satyricon of Petronius, but a nerd all the same. Real people, in my experience, tend towards all having their own private weirdnesses, obsessions, and nerdy loves. Someone with all of those stripped, someone whose character traits are entirely expected seems… plasticky? Fake.
Four, and this one is pure Bleak Horse, hurt your characters. Readers won’t be satisfied that your characters are real until they see them bleed. Now you don’t have to crush them. Take a story that’s relatively happy: Love and Other Acquired Tastes. In it, the dominant emotions are despair and guilt. One character is fleeing horror and is in despair: starving, dying, hunted, and hated. Another is nearly party to murder of a sentient being who is, it turns out, entirely harmless and innocent. It all ends well, certainly, but for most of the on-screen time, as it were, the characters suffer in some way.
 I still remember Cold in Gardez doing this entire disquisition on the subject of paragraph length in a blogpost and me realizing that my heuristic for when to stop a paragraph is “…yup. About there ought to do it.” and feeling very inadequate.
 And you wouldn’t like them when they are angry, naturally.
 Or whatever the pony equivalent is.
 The following contains spoilers. If you haven’t read it, it’s in Obiter Dicta and is moderately fun.
In keeping with our previous feature of yours, we have some mentions of tea in this story. Is the painting of tea pickers a reference to anything in particular?
Yes! I was bursting to tell someone. It’s been a long wait but I can finally explain.
First: I am a massive fan of tea. Partially because I enjoy the taste, partially because I enjoy the calm ritual of making it, and partially that tea so often comes with legends, stories, and little peculiarities.
So. Tea Pickers of Hu Gong temple are an actual thing I swiped from the legends the Chinese have about certain varieties of tea. In this case this is Longjing tea (“Dragon Well” in literal translation) which is perhaps the most prized variety of green tea in China: recognized as being fit for the Emperor and all that. Longjing, one tale states, became the official imperial tea when the Qianlong Emperor was visiting Hu Gong Temple under Shi Feng Shan he saw women picking tea from the original eighteen tea bushes of the Longjing variety and was so enamoured of the grace of their movement, that he wished to try his hand at it. As he was picking tea, he received news that his mother was ill, and wished his immediate return to the northern capital (Beijing today, of course). In his haste he tucked some of the leaves he had picked in his long sleeves. They stayed there for the entire trip and when he rushed in to see his ill mother she smelled the Longjing tea in his sleeves and asked for some. He had it brewed immediately and it is said that this cured her. The tea is still made so that it is shaped a bit like sleeves to this day, supposedly in memory of this.
So. Yes. I figured that tea-pickers of such grace that they impressed an emperor ought to be a fitting subject for a painting and I slipped it in the story.
 Considering I can’t actually read Chinese, it’s entirely possible that what I read is a western legend about the Chinese having a legend. A sort of written chinoiserie, as it were.
 Also exceptionally delicious.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Two things. First, I would like to thank everyone who voted for me, and Titanium Dragon in particular for nominating me. This is above and beyond an honor and I am humbled by your choice, especially given the incredible level of the competition. I’d also like to thank the fine folks at the RCL for being their usual awesome selves.
Second, I’d like to give a shout out to all my friends without whose help, support, and general awesome, this story would not exist. Much thanks to Antsan, Bad Horse, Bookplayer, Bradel, JediMasterEd, Kobalstromo, MrNumbers, PoweredByTea, The Mysterious Nettle, and the many people I’ve doubtless forgotten because I have the memory of a pitted olive. And a special shout-out to TheMaskedFerret who I didn’t know well at the time of writing A Canterlot Carol but who, had I known her at the time, would have doubtless found a way to improve it further.