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Friday, July 6, 2012

Jennifer Petkus: Write What You Know!

Welcome Jennifer Petkus to Darcyholic Diversions!
Hi, Darcyholics!  I am very happy to introduce to you, Jennifer.  I have been enjoying getting to know Jennifer through social media, and am looking forward to actually meeting her at the Decatur Book Festival this Labor Day.  (If you would like to know more about the Jane Austen events at the Decatur Book Festival click on the link to the left of this post).

Don't forget to read any posts from June you might have missed as it has been busy!  There are many give aways, and I will be drawing this weekend for June, and there are now July give aways as well! Included in that list of give aways are posts from Kara Louise, Becky Thumann, Sharon Lathan and Shannon Winslow as well as Laura Ann Nattress; as well as the posts from Gayle Mills, Jan Ashe, Stephanie Hamm and Krista Bagley.  Read ALL of them and don't forget to comment!  Comments are your entries to WIN those giveaways! 

Upcoming Guest Posts Are As Follows:
July 6--Karen Aminada
July 8--Aimee Avery, June Williams and Enid Wilson
July 10--Marilyn Brant
July 13--Meredith Esparanza
July 17--Lori Smith
July 20--Bernadette
July 24--Barbara Tiller Cole: Christmas in July
July 27--Amy Cecil
July 29--William Deresiewicz
July 31--Maria Grace
August 3--Wendi S.
August 7--Moira B.
August 10--Barbara TC and the DBF
August 14--Colette S.
August 17--Regina Jeffers
August 21--Sally Smith O'Rourke
August 24--Amber Godat
And Many more to come!

Comments on Jennifer's post will enter you drawing for her book-- a standard paperback for US and Canada and ebook internationally; and into the monthly drawings here at Darcyholic Diversions.  Entries will be based on comments on blog posts; but additional chances will be given for joining this site, tweeting this post, Joining this site as a member via Google Friend Connect (GFC) (See the left hand column on the blog to join!), sharing this on Facebook or your blog, Friend me on Facebook, clicking 'like’ on Barbara Tiller Cole, Author's Facebook page, Join Darcyholic Diversions Facebook Page or following BarbTCole on Twitter.

Write What You Know!
Write what you know. It’s a dictum that I think Jane Austen understood and took to heart, even though I don’t think she bought books about writing (my husband must have a dozen) or went to a writers’ conference (guilty). After all, Austen was born as America fought for independence, lost a family member to the guillotine and wrote during the Napoleonic War, but little of those world-changing events appear in her books.
I hasten to add the background noise of those events is certainly there if you look carefully—from those red-coated soldiers of whom Lydia Bennet was too fond, to John Dashwood’s plans to enclose the commons (1), and to the riot that wasn’t in “Northanger Abbey”—but it’s certainly not overt.
If Austen were alive today, however, would she be tempted to write outside her ken? If she could Google “Code Duello,” (2) might a future book have an actual duel, rather than the implied one in “Sense and Sensibility” between Brandon and Willoughby? If present-day Austen could download Patrick O’Brian to her Kindle, would she write thrilling naval battles rather than just have them in the background as they are in “Persuasion” and “Mansfield Park.” (Imagine Captain Wentworth telling Anne Elliot blood-soaked stories of the French prizes he has taken.)
Of course, if you look at how carefully Austen wrote, you would almost think she had access to a Regency Wikipedia. The duration of a coach trip, the distances between her fictional villages and the careful description of topography and nature in the varied locales of her novels reveal a writer who got the little details right. An over-reliance on Wikipedia, however, might be an explanation for those apple blossoms in June, but that debate continues (3).
Or would Austen be tempted to tackle a little “guilt and misery” if she were writing today? Her novels have inspired many writers to adapt Austen to the mystery genre and Austen herself has been recast as a detective. Just think what Austen could do with a little old lady detective and three or four families in a country village, but sadly the mystery genre didn’t exist until arguably Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin in 1841 and inarguably Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes in 1887.
Emma, of course, is something of a detective, just not a very good one. “Emma,” in contrast, is a very good mystery with the surprise revelation that … well, I’ll let you find that out for yourself. I will point out that any good romance is a good mystery—the essential mystery of how two people meant to be in love can manage to screw it up for an entire book.
I succumbed to the temptation to combine Austen and mystery (and Sherlock Holmes) in my novel, “My Particular Friend,” and I chose to write explicitly about dueling and navigation canals and the streets of Bath aided by Google Maps, a book on dueling downloaded from Amazon and a website on parliamentary history. I completely violated the write what you know rule, and I think an Austen surviving to the present day would be tempted to ignore the rule as well.
Or maybe Austen would be tempted to write in a different style altogether. Imagine a Jane Austen who’d read “On the Road,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Sun Also Rises” or “The World According to Garp.” Were she finally to complete “Sanditon,” would it be written on one long scroll (4) with no margins or paragraphs? Would she write in Hemingway’s newspaper prose style?
Then again, one thing that has always struck me about Austen’s novels is how different each one is, despite the popular belief she always wrote romance stories that were really a comedy of manners with no plot about poor women who had servants but couldn’t get married. To me and to many others, “Mansfield Park” is a world away from “Pride and Prejudice,” and that willingness to try something different would surely make for a very interesting Austen still writing in the present day.
Or would Austen choose a different medium altogether were she alive today? She obviously enjoyed plays, so might she be a playwright? Or an even more seductive possibility: would she write for television or the movies?
Most would agree her novels make great drama for TV or the movies. And I think most of us, consciously or not, rank her novels first by story and then as written words. For instance, I adore the story and the characters of “Emma,” but lying in bed at night I fall asleep once I hit a page-long Miss Bates paragraph. Would Austen, were “Emma” a script, have indicated that Miss Bates’ dialog fades into the background as Emma and Jane Fairfax converse, just as is done in many adaptations?
Or were Austen alive today, would she be involved in new media? She’s an obvious blogger, although she would certainly need Cassandra’s guidance to make sure she didn’t post anything too sarcastic. Just imagine the flame wars she could ignite. Would she be political? And of what persuasion? I shudder to contemplate it. Would she tweet? Would she create YouTube videos like the Lizzie Bennet diaries (5)?
The mind whirls at the thought of a present-day Austen with the convenience of word processing and the resources of the Internet. I can’t imagine her still using her little scraps of ivory, although I don’t think she’s quite ready to trust her words to the cloud.
I also don’t see her still writing anonymously, not in an age when anyone can publish a book in minutes. In fact a present-day Austen still might not find a publisher and she might be forced to self publish (6). After all, “Sense and Sensibility” was essentially self-published.
But as much as I like to speculate about what a present-day Austen would be like, I like to imagine Jane still living in Hampshire, still in a cottage, and still with a creaking door … that allows her to discreetly put her iPad to sleep whenever a neighbor comes to call.
Note: The novel I’m currently writing, “Jane, Actually or Jane Austen’s Book Tour,” imagines a Jane Austen who has “survived” to the present day and is promoting her just completed “Sanditon.” A movie deal is in the works.
(1) John Dashwood enclosing the commons: “Wealth has much to do with it”: The Economics of Sense and Sensibility, by Dr. Sheryl Craig, Persuasions (JASNA publication) No. 33
(5) The Lizzie Bennet Diaries: http://www.lizziebennet.com/
(6) Jane Austen fan submits work anonymously: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-469342/Jane-Austen-fan-submits-work-anonymously-publishers--receives-dozen-rejections.html


  1. Great post. You're right - subconsciously ranked by story not written word. Definitely got me imaging a modern day Jane and how her writing would be different. Thanks.

  2. I think Jane would have been astonished at the easy friendships between men and women. A present-day Jane could make friends with men and actually write about men's thoughts in her books. No more would her readers have to wonder: what was Darcy doing all those months between Hunsford and Pemberley??

  3. An excellent question and thought provoking post. No matter what Austen would write today-- mysteries, fantasies, horror, fiction-- should would still write what she knew: people. Though I think (as June mentioned), with the ease of male/female friendships Austen would write more from the man's perspective as well. But she'd always have a strong female protagonist as she was such a strong female herself.

  4. She could do an anonymous blog (like Gossip Girl) commenting on people in her social circle. If it was Elizabeth commenting, she would say that Mr. Darcy seems very standoffish, bordering on rude.

  5. Austen would write movies, television isn't big enough to contain her stories! Great post!!

  6. Very good point, June and Jamie. An Austen today would probably not feel limited to the female perspective. I think that desire to see Austen from the other side explains books like His Good Opinion by Nancy Kelley, where we see P&P from Darcy's perspective. It's always been interesting to me that although Austen's novels are in third person, she really doesn't use the advantages of that perspective much. It's still always what the character can perceive; we usually learn of events as the heroine learns of them.

    1. How true. This point can be driven home not only by Austen not using other perspectives from her characters, but also remaining within her own class circle. I enjoy reading JAFF that dives deeper into the other people in the story, or from another character's view, such as Darcy or Mary Bennett. I would love to read something from the perspective of Jane Bennett. Know of any stories like that? Jane is so internal that I'd love to know her observations, her true feelings and thoughts about Bingley and Caroline, and even Lizzy and Darcy.

      Hmm.... maybe I should just write the story myself!

    2. Jane Greensmith in her collection "Intimations of Austen" has the short story "Heaven Can Wait" from the viewpoint of Jane Bennet the night before she is to wed Charles Bingley. She is reflecting on her previous love and whether her marrying Charles is a betrayal. But that's certainly no barrier to writing your own book about Jane.


    3. Thank you! I've added this to my "save for later" on Amazon (my birthday is coming up and I'm waiting for gift cards). I began telling my husband the idea and as I kept talking more ideas kept coming... so I think I'm going to try and write it. It'll be far different from screenwriting but I just love to write!!!

      Sooo... thanks for the inspiration too!

  7. Incidentally, I'm trying to trend a #AskJaneAusten hashtag at twitter, so if you have any questions to ask Jane when she appears at the JASNA AGM, please ask and I might use them in Jane, Actually.

  8. great thoughts Jennifer! lots of possibilities here :)
    and glad you've taken the combo w/ sherlock route ~ looking fwd to more great reading with what you've created... ty

  9. Loved the article. Write what you know is good. Of course being a music teacher, my ideas always come through that medium. Thanks for all of your writing. ~jen red~

  10. Did you mention a movie deal for your next book is in the works? The book has not even been published and yet you're lucky.

    Barbara, please enter my name for the international drawing. Thank you very much.