Literary Cocktails, Jane Austen, and Discovering Characters
In November, I visited New York and had the great treat of staying with Lauren and sharing a wonderful evening of drinks and writer talk with Lauren and Leslie. That's the three of us to the left right at the appropriately named Bookmarks in the Library Hotel. Leslie wrote a great post about our evening on her blog. While discussing research methods, Richard III's marriage, and the vagaries of a writer's schedule, we sipped literary-themed cocktails (Leslie had the Dickens, which I think was brandy based, and Lauren and I both had the Hemingway, which had vodka, elderflower liqueur, and a float of sparkling wine).
I’m fortunate to have a lot of great friends, but there are some things that only fellow writers understand, particularly fellow writers who write in a similar area. Like all the Hoydens, Leslie, Lauren and I write historically set books. Even more specifically, Lauren and I both write books about espionage during the Napoleonic Wars. A few minutes after I walked through Lauren’s door, we were sitting on her sofa sipping wine and discussing the finer points of obscure Napoleonic intrigues, the challenges of writing books that cross genres, the delights and frustrations of primary source research, “what’s next” in both our series. We went on talking the whole trip, over brunches and dinners and cups of tea. We saw a riveting production of Hamlet with Jude Law and a great cast and talked about the Shakespearean references in both our books. We talked about Jane Austen, who plays a role in one of Lauren’s upcoming books, in light of the wonderful exhibit at the Morgan Library.The exhibit was fabulous. I got chills looking at Austen’s letters, trying to decipher the words, noting that her handwriting was neater in the manuscript pages of Lady Susan than in the letters to her family, seeing first-hand the the crossed lines (turning the letter and writing crosswise to get the maximum use out of expensive paper) one reads about in Austen and other 19th centuries writers. There esearch gems such as a board game from 1809 called Journey Round the Metropolis: An Amusing and Instructive Game with pictures of London sights and an 1811 book called Ellen or the Naughty Girl Reclaimed with instructional stories for children illustrated by cut out figures. I think a rather prosy relative will present the book to young Jessica Fraser in one of my future novels. Jessica will enjoy playing with the cut outs but wrinkle her nose at the text.
The exhibit also included a print of a portrait Austen said was Jane Bennet Bingley. I’ve always loved the letter of Austen’s in which she talks about attending an exhibition and finding a portrait of Mrs. Bingley. She adds that she looked for a portrait of Mrs. Darcy but didn’t find one, which she puts that down to Mr. Darcy not wanting to let go of any portraits of her. What I love about this letter, as I told Lauren, is that it shows Austen imagined her characters having a life outside the pages of her novels.
Which is just what Lauren and I were doing throughout my visit (including at a wonderful brunch at the Atlantic Grill in the picture below). Talking about our characters, their pasts, their interconnections, events we envisioned for them in the future. Questioning each other about spoilers for future books (fortunately neither of us minds knowing spoilers) and how various characters’ paths might cross. Of course we both write series, which lend themselves to this sort of speculation, but I’ve always loved continuing the stories of books I read in my head after I turn the last page. I think it’s one reason that the books I write have always been interconnected.
I love the idea of Austen looking for her characters among the paintings at an exhibition. Much as today we look for our characters while watching a movie or turning the pages of a magazine. Such as when I watched the recent adaptation of Little Dorrit and thought Matthew MacFadyen would make a wonderful Charles. Or thinking how like Mélanie Eva Green was in Casino Royale. (Though neither of them was who I had in mind when I wrote Secrets of a Lady or Beneath a Silent Moon).
When I blogged about this on my own website, Susan commented, "I’ve certainly seen photos or paintings or actors who make me think of a character in a book: On reading Mary Balogh’s 'The Notorious Rake' I immediately pictured Daniel Day Lewis as Lord Edmond Waite. When I read 'Atonement', I thought Heath Ledger would make a perfect Robbie Turner. Much as I like James MacAvoy and think he’s totally adorable, he just doesn’t have the physical presence I thought Robbie should have. And I don’t see Michael MacFadyen as Charles. I like MacFadyen, but I think of Charles as having stronger features and coloring — an external expression of his passion and intelligence. Richard Armitage fits my image of Charles much better, but you are the author so you are certainly entitled to see whomever you like in the role."
Which goes to the fascinating idea of how the reader is a partner in the story and each reader reads a slightly different book. (Actually, having watched North & South several times while doing holiday preparations, I could definitely see Richard Armitage as Charles; of course it's hard to quarrel with Richard Armitage as just about anyone :-).