Virginia Woolf observed about Austen, “Of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.” I’m an Austenite (having an upstairs and a downstairs complete set of her work qualifies, I think). I’m writing a book whose characters are based on the Dashwood sisters from Sense and Sensibility. I’m not the first writer to steal from the extraordinary Jane, and I won’t be the last. The fabulous film Clueless did it best, in my opinion.
But having absorbed a wonderful book by John Mullan called What Matters in Jane Austen, I’m newly empowered to study her tips and tricks and to profit from her behind-the-scenes example. We can study Austen as if in a writing course of the kind Master Class offers. Imagine Jane’s Master Class! I’d put Aaron Sorkin’s right behind hers for fabulous ideas, but that’s another essay.
So how to steal the good techniques from Austen. Let’s break it down.
Character sketches. Write down Austen’s concise character descriptions and keep them in files. Novelists in her time could drop in whole character sketches at the outset of a book, covering personality, backstory, and relationships with other characters in a summary fashion. We don’t do it that way anyway; we interweave these tidbits into action-based narrative. But keep Austen’s wonderful character sketches handy and let them inspire your character introductions and expansion of backstory.
Setting & Weather. For a terrific time-travel visit to the settings of Jane’s novels, read Kathleen A. Flynn’s The Jane Austen Project: A Novel. Her attention to the details of Austen’s world, via the challenges two time-travellers face, is exquisitely vivid. How to pull on a glove, when to offer your hand to a gentleman (or not), how to speak to a servant, what is the proper time for paying a short neighbor call — all this boggles the mind and is a terrific example of the function of setting in a novel.
And a NYT article by Kathleen Flynn on Elizabeth Bennet’s mad skills if she had to be a debut novelist of today. Flynn remarks, “The assets a young lady of 1815 might deploy are strikingly like those of a debut novelist: beauty, money, connections and wit. And bringing up the rear as always, the tricky question of merit.”
Language & Diction. And another article by Flynn examines Austen’s word choices and how they contribute to her perennial popularity. One thing that impressed me was that her books contain a higher percentage of words referring to women and family relationships than other writers of her time. Her books are women’s fiction before such a term was invented. She used words like “very” and “much” that support her irony and witty observations on characters and events. Where qualifiers like that can be misused, standing in with the not-right word for the right one, Jane uses them to intensify her sardonic effects and observations. Make a list of your most used words and see how they bear on your style and connect with your audience.
More Stealing From Jane to come. For now, go ahead and steal. I don’t think Jane will mind.