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15 December 2009

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 :-).

Do you find yourself discovering characters (your own or other writers) in movies or paintings or photographs? Writers, do you think about your characters ongoing lives after the story ends or between books in a series? Readers, do you do the same with books you read?


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14 Comments:

Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Tracy, it was so sweet to blog about our time together! I saw the Austen exhibit with my mother about 10 days ago and I remain so overwhelmed by everything I saw that I still can't articulate my thoughts. I did write a birthday post for Jane (she turns 234 today) on my blog, so in the spirit of inter-hoyden promotion, I invite everyone to visit www.leslie-carroll.blogspot.com. It asks the question "How has Jane Austen affected your life?"

There is a portrait that hangs on the wall just off stage left in the dining room/theatre at The Players club in Gramercy Park. It is of a handsome man with dark curls, a high cravat and a look of world-weary amusement. My friends and I have always called him "Mr. Darcy." One day we learned that he was a 19th century stage manager here in NYC (I don't recall his name, and it's not under his portrait), who infuriated his father by becoming a "theatrical" rather than entering a proper, gentlemanly, lucrative, profession.

"Five minutes, Miss Elizabeth" . . .

4:28 AM  
Blogger Stephanie J said...

You got to go to the exhibit! I'm so jealous (but happy for you)! I was in NYC several weeks ago for work and my only free day was a Monday. My work colleage was willing to but but guess the only day of the week the exhibit wasn't open? Yep. I missed it.

The other week as I was watching a holiday romance when I realized the MC of the movie was precisely as I'd imagined my heroine. I now have a pic of the actress in my WIP document. This doesn't happen often but it's nice when it does. I haven't completed my WIP but I imagine I'd envision their ongoing lives. :)

10:49 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I don't always, but every once in a while something sparks and suddenly you realize you're staring right at your character. And it may be only for an instance, it that particular shot or pose. For example, I saw a photo of Bryce Dallas Howard in a magazine and she simply WAS the heroine of my first novel (irritatingly, it was an out of date magazine in an office and I was too chicken to rip it out). When I looked her up on line, none of the other images I could find were even remotely like George. It was just the magic of that one shot . . .

I know we’ve discussed this before, but Michael MacFadyen is SOOOOOOOO not Charles!!! The very idea of it makes me slightly sick. *shudder* But then I thought he was an AWFUL Darcy too (so greasy and limp, yuck!). Though I quite liked him in Death at a Funeral (note: he’s not a romantic lead in that film).

3:54 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Leslie, I love the story about the portrait in the Players' Club! There's a wonderful novel in there. When I was a young teenager, my mom and I named the Regency and Georgian portraits in the Palace of the Legion of Honour museum in San Francisco.

Off to go look at your blog post...

10:48 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

So sorry you couldn't make it to the exhibit, Stephanie! It was quite wonderful. Hopefully there will be similar exhibits in the future, perhaps in other parts of the country.

And how wonderful to find your heroine in a holiday movie. I love it when that happens. It makes the story come to life in a whole new way. Can you say what the movie it?

10:52 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Totally agree, Kalen--it's often an actor in a particular role or even in a particular pose, as you say, that brings a characters to life, whether it's your own or a character in a book you've read.

LOL re: Matthew McFadyen. I liked him as Darcy (though to me in many ways Darcy will always be Laurence Oliver), but he didn't make think of Charles as Darcy. Something about him in "Little Dorrit" did make me think of Charles. And I can also see something Charles-ish about him in "Spooks"/"MI-5". All of which goes back to it not being just the actor, but the role or the scene or even a particular image.

11:00 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I've had that experience. Flipping through a magazine I came upon a men's cologne ad and the model and the indolent pose just struck me - that's Marcus! (Hero of my first novel.)

My CP sent me a photograph of an actor I'd never heard of and said "This is Tristan!" and she was right.

I always think about my characters after the book is finished. I get flashes of their lives after The End and there is a sort of comfort in it. Like a visit with old friends.

7:33 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Visiting old friends is a wonderful way to describe it, Louisa! So cool you found your hero in a magazine and even cooler in a way that your critique partner could pick out one of your characters.

6:56 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Sometimes it's the pose . . . the book Dangerous Liaisons: fashion and furniture in the eighteenth century has all this blank-faced dummies in splendid clothes and poses, and they're so damn sexy. I can SEE many of them as my characters. The little fake dogs don't hurt either, LOL!

7:09 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

these not this. *sigh*

7:09 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

That sounds like a fabulous book, Kalen! I should look for it, particularly considering a theater company I'm involved with is doing Les Liaisons Dangereuses next summer.

7:33 PM  
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10:31 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

So glad you found our blog and enjoyed the post!

11:00 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Kalen, so funny you should mention Dangerous Liaisons: fashion and furniture in the eighteenth century -- I just received my copy today from Amazon; my sister gave me a gift certificate as a holiday present, and it was the first book I ordered with it! I can't wait to dig in.

11:54 AM  

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