Thursday, August 27, 2009

Do NOT ask "Jane Who"?

Jane had been my constant companion, my most secret friend for years. She spoke only in the silence of my mind, but she knew me as no one else could...or wanted to.....

She'd begun ranting with fervor since Sam appeared on the scene, scarcely paused for a breath between words. How insupportable! What an insufferable creature! The nerve of him to cross your path again after what he did!

I let her continue her tirade of antiquated English insults a while longer as I gulped the rest of my drink. I pushed the smoky air out of my lungs, scanned for a good spot to squeeze in at the bar and edged up to the corner of it...
***from According to Jane

In the mystery world—you’d know who we meant by Sara or Sue or Janet. No last names needed. In the romance world, Nora. (In Hollywood: Marilyn. Or Cher.) You see where I’m going. And in literary fiction, there’s a first-name-only-needed author who’s as big as they come. Jane.

Contemporary novelist Marilyn Brant knew a brilliant idea when she had it. A proud member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, Marilyn’s debut novel is ACCORDING TO JANE. It’s the story of a modern woman who gets dating advice from the spirit of Jane Austen.

I will pause now while we all say: Drat. Brilliant. We should have thought of that. But, as it turns out, we didn’t. Marilyn did. Brant, not Monroe.

As it happens, ACCORDING TO JANE is not a mystery. But we’re equal opportunity readers around her, right? And as it turns out, Marilyn (Brant, not Monroe) has been thinking about mystery authors.

MARILYN: Mystery writers were my childhood heroes and, even now, I’m more than a little in awe of them. The year I was in 4th grade, I read no fewer than 48 Nancy Drews. I later moved on to gothic romances by Victoria Holt and Phyllis A. Whitney, both of whom had their novels shelved in the “Mystery” section of our tiny library, and then onto Ian Fleming, Robert Ludlum, Jack Finney and countless others. I watched Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie and Colombo with rapt attention alongside my dad (a chemist who’s a huge mystery fan) and, for fun, I tried to solve those math puzzles where there were seven houses on seven streets and seven cars of seven colors, all belonging to seven owners, and you had to figure out which went with which…

However, much as I loved mysteries in all forms, I never succeeded in writing a publishable one. I tried once. I drafted this novel about a school teacher (I’d been a teacher for eight years) who lived in Wisconsin (I grew up in Wisconsin) and who, coincidentally, loved ice cream (I’m an unfaltering Ben & Jerry’s devotee). This ice-cream-loving teacher (who bore no resemblance to me whatsoever) resided in a community where the town’s biggest crime was that someone was pinching school-district funds, and the local chemist-turned-ice-cream-maker (who bore no resemblance to my dad) was oddly entangled in the caper.

Yeah. Hard-hitting stuff, I know.

Writing it was great fun, however, even though it never won the heart of an acquiring editor. It gave me an excuse to dream up some wildly implausible but kind of goofy love scenes involving whipped toppings and hot-fudge sauce. And, despite a number of extensive revisions, the honest feedback from my CPs was that it was a “funny” story, but hardly a “gripping” one, and maybe I should just concentrate on my romantic comedies and light women’s fiction...

Still, I persist in trying to slip a few mystery elements into each book I write. I believe novelists in every genre should employ some of the tactics seasoned mystery writers use to such great effect in their books, from the cozies to the serious thrillers and suspense novels.

When I think back on what made the mysteries I read as a kid so appealing to me, it was that the writers in question had succeeded in keeping me guessing about what would happen to my protagonist next. They made me wonder what the motives of the antagonist were. They cleverly left real clues and tantalizing red herrings, managing to get me to hold my breath until the conclusion and making me marvel all the while at the surprising resolution of the plot.

In that way, mystery writers are *still* my heroes. I look to them to teach me how to be a more effective novelist as well as to enthrall and entertain me when I’m not writing women’s fiction…or eating ice cream. And for that alone I’m indebted to them.

Which mystery writers left the biggest impression on you as a kid?

HANK: Whoever wrote the Perry (Mason, of course, need I say it?) mysteries for TV. My father would not let us say one word when they were on. And then, in books, Agatha. There’s only one of her, too.

But Marilyn, let me ask you about Jane. And your book. How did you ever think of it? And how does the story work?


  1. I am SUCH a mystery fan. I tolerate suspense because it seems that there are not nearly as many pure mysteries out there anymore. Everyone's going for that 'edge of the seat thriller'. But I do so love a puzzle. I think the first mystery I read (not counting the Hardy Boys series I borrowed from my brother, because I was a 'girl' and was supposed to like The Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew) was The Adventure of the Speckled Band. I've got all the Holmes stories and everything Christie. All of Rex Stout, and Dick Francis. I've been a member of "The Mystery Guild" for decades, but even there, suspense is filling so many slots.

    I checked "Tribute" (la Nora) out of the library and was pleased to see the mystery element. I much prefer her as JD Robb, though.

  2. Yes! The Speckled Band was SO special! I absolutely remember when I read it, as a kid--it was just break-takingly surprising.

  3. And yes, Nora/JD. How does she do it? How many books has she written? Like--185?

    But Marilyn, really. How did you meet Jane?

  4. Hank, I recall years later learning enough about snakes to dispute (instead of doing a simple head-scratch) the 'luring the snake with milk' bit, but I didn't care. For Holmes, I was ready to suspend any disbelief necessary.

    I'm pickier now, but times and technology have changed -- and I neglected to mention Poe, whose Rue Morgue also got me reading mystery.

    I never read much Roberts. Discovered Robb as a fluke, gave the first a try and became totally, irrevocably hooked.

  5. Hank, thanks so much for hosting me on Jungle Red today! What a pleasure to be here with all of you cool mystery writers. Sorry to get here late--today was the first full day of school for my 10-year-old at the new, bigger building...

    Okay, you asked about how I got the idea and how I met Jane: I'd fallen in love with Pride & Prejudice the moment I picked it up in high school. Somewhere along the line, I realized just how well Jane (and, yes, for me there's only one Jane :) understood human nature. At one point, I remember thinking how helpful it would've been to have her guide me through the trauma of dating, steering me clear of the bad Mr. Wickhams and toward the flawed but honorable Mr. Darcys. I wanted that! So, the idea was born there...and I mixed it with themes and character types I enjoyed from the various Austen books, as well as some dating horror stories I'd heard from my friends!

    LOVED your post this week on the day before you met your husband!! And, Terry, I'm so with you on Nora/J.D. I think she's amazing as both :).

  6. Welcome Marilyn.
    Why do you think Jane Austen is such a big part of our lives? Her books are slight and don't plumb the depths of the human condition, and yet we love 'em. My oldest granddaughter is called Elizabeth after Miss Bennett. My daughter and I both own the fabulous Pride and Prejudice videos which are rewatched regularly (of course Coling Firth taking his shirt off does have something to do with this).

    And now this whole slew of Jane Austen spin-offs. Do we long for a time of rules, manners and a society which felt secure?

  7. I didn't even like Jane Austen in school, but I got hooked in college. Actually, I got hooked on lots of writers in college (I was studying math?). And my kids (sons) having to read Jane Austen in high school reignited my interest. But is it all high school's fault?

  8. Thanks, Rhys :). You bring up a great question--why all the Jane spinoffs now? Is it a result of what society might feel it's missing?? For me, aside from Bridget Jones's Diary, I didn't know there were sequels and re-imaginings of P&P out there until after I'd written my first draft of this book. That was almost 5 years ago, though, and so many Austen-esque stories have come out since then.

    I don't know for sure what drives others to love Jane's books (although those beautiful film adaptations certainly help, and I agree with you on Colin :), but for me, I think her way of capturing human behavior so well on the page is what brings me back over and over again. There's an incredible sense I get that she portrayed just about every character type imaginable in her books. I read (and reread) her simply to be reminded that humans haven't really changed, at least not in essentials, in 200 years...

  9. LOL, Sheila! I come from a math-science family, so I'm considered that oddball relative who'd rather talk about Austen than about calculus... They don't know what to do with me at holidays :).

    Have your sons found anything to enjoy in the books or is it pure literary torture for them? I've known so many kids--male and female--that just couldn't get into P&P. I don't think my H.S. English teacher did an especially enthusiastic sell job on the novel, come to think of it. I suspect I was more inclined to like the book initially because one of my best friends (who was a year ahead of me in school) said it was great. Peer pressure triumphs again! But I also think that I was one of the quieter, observer kids, so I spent most of my high school years just watching peoples' behavior. Austen's writing was a good fit for me back then because her authorial observations were so on target.

  10. Marilyn--I'm like you in that I love mysteries, but have difficultly in the writing of them. (And I didn't do anything smart like making it about ice cream!)

    For authors though, how could I resist Janet Evanovich, Donald E. Westlake (and his alter-ego Richard Stark) and Gregory McDonald? (I found the latter 2 my first year in college, so I am officially calling that my youth.)

    Fabulous idea, fabulous book, Marilyn! One more month!!!

  11. Pamela~thanks for stopping by! You know I'm a Janet (need I bother to add the Evanovich?) fan, too. LOVE her :). And you are STILL in your youth!!

    BTW, I just realized that I'd neglected to answer one of Hank's questions: How does the story work?

    Hank, this may be the closest thing to a mystery in my entire novel! (Now that I think of it, I'm rather proud of myself... :) When my heroine picks up her copy of P&P for the first time, that's when she hears Jane's voice, and the voice grows stronger in her head as she reads the novel. No one else can hear the voice, of course. But why Jane has chosen to inhabit my heroine's mind, rather than that of some of her classmates or family members...well, that's the one big mystery, and it's one that needs to be uncovered before the end of the book.

  12. Oh, that's so interesting!

    So Marilyn, did you begin to hear the voice? I mean, you must have..

    (By the way, tomorrow: Seth Harwood. He podcast his book. Gave away free chapters. (Did that work?) Plus, he's cool as cool can be.

  13. LOL, Hank. Yeah, chalk it up to watching too many Masterpiece Theatre productions and Austen adaptations, maybe, but I did kind of start to hear her whispering in my ear, often disapprovingly, at something that was happening :). Who wouldn't love to have the benefit of Jane's perspective from time to time, right?

    Again, thanks SO much to all of you for having me here today. Looking forward to Seth's visit tomorrow!

  14. I'm neither a coffee-drinker nor a mystery reader but (hopefully) I'm redeemed by the fact that I LOVE ice-cream and am a truly devoted Jane Austen fan.

    My theory on why we love Jane Austen books is that they address serious emotional issues (which are all part of the human condition) but always have a happy ending. Not a saccharine sweet unbelievable HEA, but one in which the characters - like real human beings - have had to work hard at achieving that happy ending and thus thorughly deserve it!

  15. Ann~Ha! You are definitely redeemed by your love of ice cream. :) And I really appreciate your theory on Austen, too. I always felt she painted her characters very believably. I recognized qualities of so many real-life people in the characters she created that the heroes and heroines in her books always felt very human to, like you, I thought they deserved those happy endings!