What would she do, that is, if she were writing a novel today?
The Austen Project asked six contemporary writers to each write a unique take on one of Jane Austen’s novels.The crime writer Val McDermid took on Northanger Abbey. Her article about how she dealt with this daunting challenge offers a fascinating glimpse into the creative process — in particular, how to deal with prosaic but thorny issues posed by modern life.
(How many books/plays/movies that appeared before, say, 2005 would run into serious plot difficulties now that smartphones allow characters to a) call for help as the zombies/vampires/deranged killers approach; b) look up directions with GPS, thus not getting lost in the wilderness or dangerous city streets; or c) easily text a boyfriend/girlfriend without worrying that a vital message will be lost in the mail?)
As McDermid writes, “When I was asked to join five other writers in the Austen Project, feeling daunted at the prospect merely added lustre to the invitation. Rework Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey in a contemporary setting? How many pitfalls lurked behind that suggestion?”
She answers that with a step-by-step explanation of how she created a believable background for her Catherine Morland, determined the best setting for the novel (Edinburgh), and dealt with our pesky modern technology.
“I can testify from personal experience,” she writes, “that there are large tracts of the Borders where there is no mobile phone signal.”
If you are in difficulties with a book, try the element of surprise – attack it at an hour when it isn’t expecting it.
H. G. Wells
I love reading about long-lost ruins, abandoned buildings, and rare manuscripts discovered in dusty libraries. If that strikes a chord with you, too, you probably already know that news stories tend to be tantalizing and frustrating in equal measure.
So the rare document was found — what happened next? So someone stumbled upon an abandoned building — who lived there and why was it abandoned?
Fortunately, the frustration doesn’t last long, because you can always make up the rest of the story if you want to. Like this:
- Find a news item about a recent historical find that intrigues you. (It may be a short item with very few details. That’s great — more room for your imagination to move around.)
- Start playing around with the basic facts by asking “what if?”
- Stick close to the facts of the story or roam far afield — your choice!
Here are a few items that recently caught my eye. Perhaps they’ll strike a spark with you…
Haunting chalkboard drawings, frozen in time for 100 years, discovered in Oklahoma school
Hiker discovers abandoned town inside Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Paul Revere’s work found in Brown’s rare book room
Paul Graham is a programmer, writer and investor who posts consistently thought-provoking essays on his web site. His thoughts on procrastination struck me as particularly helpful (especially his point that doing creative work always trumps cleaning the house).
“There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I’d argue, is good procrastination.
That’s the “absent-minded professor,” who forgets to shave, or eat, or even perhaps look where he’s going while he’s thinking about some interesting question. His mind is absent from the everyday world because it’s hard at work in another.
That’s the sense in which the most impressive people I know are all procrastinators. They’re type-C procrastinators: they put off working on small stuff to work on big stuff.”