Sunday, March 1, 2015

The most important thing I learned from Jane Austen

This is probably going to sound weird given she's one of the main characters of my books, but I don't know what colour Georgiana's hair is. Sometimes I see her as blonde, sometimes more of a mousey brown, and occasionally full brunette. In my mind she's got fair skin, as does her husband, but hair colour for both of them continually morphs as I imagine them in my mind, and eye colour tends to follow along in its wake.

The thing it took me a long time to realise as a writer was that: this is okay. Actually, it's good. And that's the most important thing I learned from Jane Austen. Hair colour, eye colour, and other detailed details about appearances are not something she spends time on. People might be handsome, or pretty, or look very well, but Austen leaves it up to the reader to imagine just exactly how they do this. Once I understood this, it took a lot of the pressure off of introducing characters; a general description is important, of course, enough to engage the reader's imagination, but any more than that is actually detrimental, because it doesn't let the imagination do the work.

I suspect that because so many film adaptations have been done, we all have a certain, erm, prejudice about what Elizabeth and Darcy look like, now (I suspect, furthermore, that for a great many of us, it is Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle). I'm hopeful that my readers have images in their minds of Captain Stanton and Georgiana, however, that are pleasing to each of them, but may be very different, from reader to reader.

It always makes me happy when I get feedback from readers that's something along the lines of saying that my writing is vivid, because I actually put a lot of effort into making it not vivid. I'd guess somewhere between 40-50% of my stories are fairly unadulterated dialogue. Details usually come in where I think the reader's imagination will not have enough background, and will need me to fill in some things to let the imagination continue on its way. Occasionally I will indulge a particular interest of mine, but I try to stay mindful to be careful, and not overindulge.

So if the story is coming across as vivid for a reader, it means their imagination has made it vivid, and that, I think, is the most important thing about fiction, to be able to imagine yourself in another world, watching these characters and the things they do. It wasn't the easiest thing to do, to get here; it involved a fair amount of paying attention to myself as a reader, so that I could become a better writer. But I hope that effort has paid off.

So thanks again to Austen, for teaching me this and so many other important things about writing. I am constantly in awe of her.

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