Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Ripped From the Headlines

by Tracy Kiely
As you know, this week’s question is whether we allow current events to influence our writing. So, after a quick glance at said topic, I sat down to explain how I write my mysteries based on character interactions rather than specific historical events.
Jane Austen is one of my favorite authors, and one of the (many) reasons I think that her books are still popular today is because she focused more on the relationship between families and neighbors rather than events about the time in which she lived. (Yes, yes, hands down English majors, I see you. Yes, I know that she also illustrated how women had really crap choices thrust on them with regard to marriage and their place in society, but that’s more of a social issue rather than a particular event.) And, I guess, if we’re going to be really honest, Colin Firth deserves some credit for Austen’s continued popularity. He totally rocked it as Darcy and sent thousands of young women swooning when he emerged from that pond with his linen shirt clinging to his broad chest.
I digress.
So, as I was saying, the biggest reason for Austen’s success – in my mind – was her deft illustration of timeless characters – characters that are as adorable and/or annoying today as they were when they were first in introduced in 1813.   
That said, I cozied up to my computer all really to explain that I intentionally aped Austen’s example and therefore was influence-free of current events.      
And then I realized that – as usual – I was completely arse backwards.
For those of you who know my books (and God Bless all three of you), I write a mystery series that is set modern day and attempts to give a polite nod to Alfred Hitchcock, Agatha Christie, and Jane Austen. (By the way, doesn’t “polite nod” sound soooo much better than faintly obsessed and envious fan?)   
Eons ago when I realized that I wanted to write a book, I knew I wanted it to combine Hitch’s theme of an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances, Christie’s amazing puzzles, and Austen’s wit. My favorite novel of Austen’s is Pride and Prejudice and I began to wonder how those characters might fit into a mystery. Granted, there isn’t a murder in P&P, but there are certainly a number of characters who inspire murderous feelings. I began to wonder, what if, after years of living with unbearably rude and condescending behavior, old Mrs. Jenkinson up and strangled Lady Catherine? What if Charlotte snapped one day and poisoned Mr. Collins’ toast and jam? As I played with these ideas, a local story broke that captivated the headlines for several weeks. On Maryland’s Eastern shore, a quaint B&B offered a weekend Valentine’s Day Special inviting guests to participate in an interactive murder show. Actors would play out a murder and then the guests would band together to solve it. One couple retired to their cottage after the show, where rather then discussing the murder, the wife did it instead, and then set fire to the room in the hopes of covering it up.
  Tragic, yes, but awesome for me!
(And by the way, I tried really hard to work in some pun using the French phrase la petite mort (“the little death”) here and finally gave up. I think you’ll agree it’s a win/win for all of us.) 
So, with that bit of current events, I set out to write my first book Murder at Longbourn, which is set at a quaint B&B and involves an unexpected murder during a Host-A-Murder show. 
I guess what I’m trying to say – in my usual concise and brisk way – is that most of us are influenced in some manner by the events around us.  Some authors are more focused and aware of the influence while others don’t notice it until they are directly asked about it.
And even then, not until several minutes afterwards.   


Catriona McPherson said...

I just loved this post! Even though you're wrong: it was the smouldering look during the piano playing that did it. Agatha, Alfred and Jane mooshed together sounds amazing. I've not read M at L, but I'm going to now.

Meredith Cole said...

You're so right! Writers are influenced by everything around them--and most are world class eavesdroppers (though some do try to deny it). How else would we come up with great ideas for our next book?

TracyK said...

Oh, very true on the smouldering glance. But also the barely detectable eye-roll at Lady Catherine's demand to "have her share of the conversation!"

TracyK said...

My mother passed on to me the great art of eavesdropping. We could hold separate conversations all the while honing in on the chatter around us. Drives my husband nuts.