Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Grace-filled Tuesdays (Book Club "Meeting" #35): Austen, Writing Fiction, Etc.

I was looking through some old saved documents on my computer yesterday, and I came across something I'd forgotten I'd even written.  I believe it was the beginning of a presentation I was going to give to the Daughters of the American Revolution at a meeting in Dover, NH, in October of 2015, when I was going to be their guest speaker and receive that year's "Women in Arts Recognition Award (for Contributions in the Field of Literature)" from the local chapter of the DAR.  I was nervous about speaking in front of a crowd, and I thought maybe I should have a speech prepared and try to memorize it (but also have a printed version there in front of me to fall back on).

I never finished writing it; I remember now that I told my husband I had decided not to go in with anything prepared, because the few times I'd spoken to young readers at schools, they seemed to like the Q and A format best.  And when answering particular questions, having a sort of "conversation," I felt the most at ease.

So imagine my panicky feelings when the woman who introduced me began by saying, "Here to speak to us today..."  Oh, no.  I fought through my nerves, wishing after all that I'd brought a typed-up speech to present; but somehow I got through it.  Most of the listeners were older women, but there were a few young granddaughters of the Daughters there, who were delighted to have their books signed afterward and were just delightful in general.
Anyway, yesterday when I stumbled upon that partially written speech, I thought, "Hey, I see a blog post brewing!"  So I decided to tweak it a bit, and since this is Tuesday--and that's Book Club day--I thought I'd share it here at the blog.

Jane Austen is a 19th-Century novelist whom I greatly admire.

She once observed that "the best authors have often been the worst talkers."  And I'm not trying to imply that I count myself among the "best authors"--not by a long shot!--but I do believe that I express myself much better on paper than I do in person.  So forgive me if I stumble a bit up here.  I'm a little nervous talking to you all--I'd do better writing you letters!  [See how I was preparing them for having to listen to a sub-par speaker?  Classic me!]

Okay, let's get down to it, shall we?  How does one go about writing fiction?

In his biography Becoming Jane Austen, Jon Spence wrote this of the famous author: "Jane wrote her early pieces for the amusement of her family and friends, and she put in shared jokes, teasing jibes, and allusions to real events in their lives."

In my case, this did not happen as much with Erin's Ring as it did with my first novel, Finding Grace; but in Erin's Ring,  for instance, I just HAD to have a reference to dinosaurs, because all five of my sons were completely obsessed with them growing up.  But I wasn't sure I could use that term in 1870, when I wanted Michael Kennedy to use it while he's talking to Erin Finnegan at the Halloween dance, on pages 170-171.  So I looked it up and was thrilled to find out that in 1842, biologist Richard Owen had given that name to the pre-historic creatures whose bones he'd been studying in England.  So I could use it, and it would be historically accurate.  (And that reference  to dinosaurs--that was totally for my boys.  Like a secret shout-out.)

Also, because of those five sons whom I adore, I knew from the get-go that in Finding Grace, title character Grace Kelly had to have five older brothers (who are loosely modeled after my boys, of course).  In Erin's Ring, Molly McCormick has four brothers and a sister, but her mother is pregnant with a 7th child and in my head, I've decided it will be a boy.  Because I think any work of fiction I ever write will have to include a household with five brothers in it.  (Brothers who are handsome, intelligent, kind, faith-filled--and who treat their mother like a queen!)
[Pause here for raucous laughter of the crowd!  Ha!]

In Becoming Jane Austen, Spence also wrote: "Austen is never autobiographical in the crude sense of recording what happened to her or to people she knew.  But a real situation was sometimes her starting point and developed in her imagination as something quite separate from the 'real.'"

That is definitely the way I went about writing my first novel, Finding Grace.  So much of the story is reminiscent of my own experiences growing up: the Catholic school I attended; the house where I lived in Plattsburgh, NY and the houses by the lake where my best friend and my boyfriend (now husband) lived; the kids who were my girlhood classmates and friends; but even people and places that were initially inspired by my real life took on a whole new life of their own through the writing process.  I recently read a book by a modern novelist whom I also admire, Elizabeth Berg [who writes popular, mainstream works of fiction that actually feature positive Catholic characters and families--huzzah to that!!], and she alluded to this very thing.  In an answer to an interview question at the end of The Art of Mending, she says, "The truth is, writing fiction is for me a magical and largely uncontrollable act: the characters create themselves, as does the story."  Before I wrote a novel, I would have said that that statement was just a load of artsy nonsense, because books don't write themselves; after, however, I knew for a fact that it was absolutely true--at least it was for me.  I thought I knew where both of my novels were going at the outset, but they changed course on me (and the characters did and said things I hadn't planned on them doing and saying) as the story progressed.

Austen called Pride and Prejudice "my own darling child," and it's true--when you're an author, your books are your "babies."  You become very attached to the characters you create, and then you sort of miss those people when you finish writing the book.  And you are like a worried mom when one of your precious babies goes out into the world alone, without you, and is now open to criticism and judgment.  There are some people who will not like your baby at all, and that makes an author feel unspeakably vulnerable.  I'll tell you what, I had stomach cramps for about two weeks at the end of the summer of 2012, when Finding Grace went to print.  During most of the close to five years I had worked on it, it was my happy little secret, shared only with my nearest and dearest; I kind of wanted to keep it close to me forever--the way a mom feels when she gives birth to a new baby and can hardly fathom that this child will one day grow up and leave her.  You would think that seeing a book make it to publication would be thrilling for an author, but it's actually pretty terrifying.

Anyway, I read once that a niece of Austen's who wanted to become an writer, too, asked her what advice she could give.  And the esteemed author told her, "Read, read, read!"  So--if any of you think that one day, you might like to be a writer, the best thing you can do now is to read as many works as you can, by people who are good at expressing themselves with the written word.  Reading good writing will help you to become a better writer yourself.

Reading this essay over again, I'm wondering if this was actually something I was working on in preparation for one of the school visits I did (the invitations came from two sweet relatives of mine who taught at the middle school level--a niece and a sister-in-law).  That ending part seems more like something I would say to young people who might be aspiring writers than to a group of DAR ladies.  Especially since I think the Daughters' focus was Erin's Ring, which was filled with historical information about the town of Dover.  If I'd been writing something to say to them, I think I would have focused specifically on the process of incorporating that fascinating local history into the novel.  Either way, it makes a pretty good book club blog post, don't you agree?

Well, I guess I should wrap up the meeting now.  I'm not even sure I should continue to host this online club, because it's not as if my humble little books have been read by too many people.  I have a rather large collection of copies of both novels in my office right now, because I stocked up on them for a holiday craft fair at our church last December and sold only a few copies.
There are lots more in boxes...
I would be happy to sell signed copies through the blog, for the same price as Amazon sells them--but without the shipping costs.  Email me if you're interested.  But please, dear readers, do not feel like this post has been one big commercial, trying to get you to buy something!  I just thought I'd offer that.

Okay, before I go, here's today's discussion question: do you prefer Jane Austen-style 19th-century fiction, or are you more interested in the offerings of modern-day novelists?

Thanks for stopping by.  Now get your nose back in a good book where it belongs!  (Sorry.  Bookworm humor.)


  1. Tough question .... I like both, but I do prefer historical fiction!

    1. It is a tough question, I think. I love 19th-century English lit. But I also LOVE a modern author who can write great historical fiction (especially set in the WWII era).

  2. Historical fiction written now would be my favorite. Love a good book that pulls me in no matter the time period written about.

  3. AND both of your books did this for me!