I sometimes wonder if Jane Austen ever woke in the middle of the night, struck by some great idea for a mystery novel: An elderly spinster who solves crime! A French—no let’s make him Belgian—sleuth who’s a bit of a dandy, who speaks a delightfully fractured English! Or a brilliant misogynistic police detective—no, let’s make him an unofficial detective—with a partner who records his every epigram!
Probably not, because we know the first detective story was Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 The Murders in the Rue Morgue. In fact the word detective didn’t come into use until the middle of the 19th-century. So Jane’s sleep would have been untroubled, at least untroubled by that thought. (The whole “should I marry Harris Bigg-Wither and thus solve my and my family’s financial woes” thing probably gave her a sleepless night.)
Austen also never had the bright idea to write a science fiction novel where dead people communicate through the Internet, make money by building furniture or suddenly decide today is the day I will learn electronics by taking online courses. Instead, she had time to devote to writing those six novels that have endeared her to millions of readers and moviegoers for two centuries.
I (and other modern-day authors), however, with the benefit of those two centuries of “progress,” have all these distractions and inspirations that make it difficult to keep focus. Life gets in the way, for good and bad, for pleasure, profit and pain. The modern-day writer, so close to finishing her first actual sequel, can be easily distracted by yet another sure-fire scheme that will help her recoup her recent losses and make it possible to take yet another narrowboat vacation in that green and pleasant land she loves so much.
Reader, I am that poor sap with yet another brilliant idea, if you hadn’t already figured it out. Before leaving for a narrowboat vacation in September, I was getting close to finishing the first draft of Our Mutual Friends, the sequel to My Particular Friend. All the plotting had been done, just the final chapter awaited. Would my heroine marry? Would her lover be killed and save me having to marry her off? Could I get away with yet another cliffhanger? I was looking forward to resolving this, but then life got in the way.
Before the trip, I’d taken my cat Rocky in for a checkup. An ultrasound showed a suspicious blockage in his intestines. I took him in for a blood test the day before we left but I wouldn’t know the results until several days into the trip. The report came back “highly suggestive of cancer,” which made it difficult to enjoy the trip. When we got home, we decided that we really needed a definitive diagnosis and so we paid for a very expensive biopsy.
With relief, we found out he didn’t have cancer, but inflammatory bowel disease, which is treatable with steroids. Although he’s not regained any weight, we’ve at least stopped the loss.
All the worry and the vet visits, however, cut into my writing time, as did the need to go through my thousands of vacations photos and write blog posts about the trip. Then there was the rest of my “relentless” social schedule of Sherlock Holmes, P.G. Wodehouse and Jane Austen meetings, not to mention Thanksgiving Day at our house. I know, it’s a tough life. A little whine with your dinner. Madame?
What’s put a total kibosh on my novel writing, however, is my brilliant idea to write my first non-fiction book, Narrowboating for Beginners: What Americans need to know when considering a narrowboat vacation in the UK.
What, you’ve never heard of narrowboating? Well it’s something Austen would sort of comprehend (see my previous post about Steampunk Jane), but of course she would not have known about canal tourism. Today, thousands each year travel the canals of the UK on narrowboats (less than seven-feet wide, 60-feet long, weighing 15 tons with beds, kitchen, shower and toilet). You hire a boat for a thousand pounds a week, split among four people, and you turn locks, drive through (and crash into) bridges, eat at pubs and marvel at the technological wizardry of those ingenious Georgians.
It is absolutely the most fun Anglophiles of a certain age can have, if you’re at all interested in a relaxing yet slightly adventurous vacation. After we got home, however, I realized how much we would have benefited from a beginner’s guide to narrowboating. Then I realized there is no such book on the market and I was in the perfect position to write one. After all, I have experience writing, designing and marketing books, and I am an illustrator and have thousands of photos of the canals and narrowboats.
But I want the book to be finished by the end of the year so I can market it to people planning a summer trip next year. Amazingly, I’ve almost finished the first draft. The thing writes itself; unfortunately the many illustrations don’t draw themselves. I’ve had to do that. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to draw how to tie a knot?
So life got in the way, but I really can’t complain. Writing the book is almost as fun as going on another trip, the same way writing an adventure set in Bath or London is almost as much fun as traveling there. I’ll also have the added benefit of knowing a lot more of the practical details of narrowboating, so maybe next time our boat won’t mysteriously loosen its mooring and go floating away without us.
Even better, I will be required to return to the UK for enough material for Advanced Narrowboating, or who knows, maybe I can write Narrowboating for Beginners à la française: What Americans need to know when considering a narrowboat vacation in France. Yes, you can hire French canal boats. Ooh la la! Research is so hard.
I’m hoping that I can return to novel writing by February and finish my long gestating sequel. Of course I did recently have the idea of writing a mystery series about a retired American couple that moves to England and solves mysteries from the cozy confines of their narrowboat. That’s something Jane Austen would never have even dreamed about, lucky woman.