I spent Friday and Saturday this weekend at the annual Storymakers Writers Conference. If you follow me on Twitter, you may have spotted my #Storymakers16 hashtags. 2016 is my fourth year attending, and something I noticed in previous years was the prevalence of references to Jane Austen in the workshops. I was astounded when notable fantasy and sci-fi writers such as David Wolverton/Farland and Orson Scott Card cited her work in their classes. I knew that with the classes I was taking this year, it was probable—but not guaranteed—that Austen would turn up in the content again.
I found that by simply keying my mind to seek Austen, I found her influence even when she wasn’t mentioned. I also discovered a new and fresh perspective on Austen’s impact on modern culture and literature.
My first class of the conference was taught by Sarah Eden, author extraordinaire. I was hooked by her Regency Romances, but will eagerly devour anything she produces. She makes no secret of her love of Jane Austen, and I fully expected my notes to overflow with Austen references. Even the name of the class, “Deepening Conflict and Raising the Stakes” was ripe with promise. Alas, her early examples from The Princess Bride, Mulan, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars, though perfect illustrations of the principles she was teaching, were far afield from anything Austen. Once she started in on Harry Potter, I envisioned a massive derailing of my topic for this blog. Then, as if by magic, Sarah announced that it was time for a dance party. It was only thirty seconds of dancing, and there were technical difficulties with the music, but it was something sort of Austenesque, so I wrote DANCE PARTY in giant letters in my notes and circled it. Yes, I was grasping at this point.
After the dancing—thankfully no video of my booty shaking has surfaced—she asked us to pick a character from a current WIP or other recent work for an exercise in characterization. BINGO. Since my WIP is JAFF, I was solidly in Austen territory. Hallelujah!
There were eight questions about the chosen character that we were to answer. My answers were a revelation. The easy questions were the ones Austen herself provided the answer to, such as the age of the character and struggles related to age. There were a few questions that I answered based on the ground I had covered either in One Thread Pulled or in my WIP, Constant as the Sun. There were others that I hadn’t thought of, such as “What is the character’s proudest moment?” and “What is their biggest regret?” This exercise taught me that I still have much to learn about the characters! Especially when Sarah added the dimension of “Why?” and “Why does it matter?” to the base questions. After this characterization exercise, we were back to Harry Potter—sort of. She asked us to park our character in front of the Mirror of Erised and ask “What is their deepest need?” For me, that translated to: “What does Elizabeth Bennet see in that mirror?”
The rest of the class was spent further exploring our chosen characters. Although Sarah hadn’t said the word “Austen” even once, I was immersed in the many facets of Elizabeth’s character, and I am richer as an author for having done that work.
My next class was on technical aspects of editing and frankly, I think some of my brain cells died in that room. My mind turned to an article I had read on NPR about Jane Austen having had a great editor and I made a note to that effect. I had an Elizabeth Bennet moment and needed to escape the crowd for some fresh air, so I went outside to the third-floor patio. There was no Oakham Mount in sight, so I settled for a cool breeze and resting my eyes on “Y” Mount, which was very refreshing indeed. Then it was time for our picnic on Box Hill. I mean, it was time to go pick up my box lunch and restore some of those brain cells. Cheetos are good for that, right?
Regency Era Diagrams and Charts
Ready for a post-lunch nap, I went to a workshop on “How to Research and Write Historical Fiction.” This hour turned out to contain the mother lode of how to locate, authenticate and vet research source material, and the presenter loved her slides. Although her expertise was military focused, there were still numerous Austen / Regency references. I snapped a few pics of her presentation to share, but since was seated on the far right of the room, the slides are skewed.
My next class on growing the story “organically” used the metaphor of seeds. The instructor gave us a few minutes to just write down some story ideas off the top of our heads. Then she had us pick our favorite and develop it. I now have a fantastically funny outline for a one-shot featuring some of my favorite Austen characters that had me giggling in my seat. Again, the Austen flavor in this class was because that was where my mind was.
It was now late in the afternoon, but the next class energized me. “Steam and Sizzle – How to Write Sexual Tension Without Crossing the Line.” “The line,” by the way, is wherever the author puts it. This class was a hoot! After she warmed us up with a hilarious mad lib, she jumped into the difference between sexual and romantic tension. TADA! The first direct reference of the day to Pride and Prejudice popped up onscreen, actually eliciting cheers from my classmates. Her examples came from the 2005 film. Darcy’s rain-drenched declaration of love was romantic tension because it’s all about the emotions, or as the Millennials say, “the feels.” That moment earlier in the film when Darcy hands Elizabeth into the carriage and flexes his hand as he walks away? It is pure sexual tension stirred by the barest moment of physical touch.
After classes, there was a dinner, and an inspiring keynote speaker and a quick selfie with fellow Austen Author, the lovely Rebecca Jamison.
My first class the next morning, “The Psychology of Romance,” taught me something I had never noticed before. Darcy is better than caffeine. I hadn’t slept well, and I was tired, but the moment Colin Firth’s face flashed onscreen, I perked right up.
Under the title “What a Girl Wants”, we see that Mr. Darcy meets all the qualifications of the romantic hero “Alpha-Wolf.” Powerful, rich, successful, clever, smart, resourceful, brave, protective of the heroine, loyal, moral, witty and hot. Yes, Jane Austen wrote the ultimate wish-fulfillment hero, and then, she gave him goals. Internal and external goals. Urgent, high-stakes goals. Our girl Jane knew all the right buttons to push.
A few classes later, the instructor bio tipped me off to another Austen-influenced author. She prefers Captain Wentworth over Mr. Darcy. I can’t blame her for this. Some days, I do too. The class was on showing vs. telling (the bane of many an author’s existence) and she used the example of Elinor and Marianne to illustrate the device of foils. A class member quickly chimed in that Colonel Brandon and Willoughby are also foils. I was thinking about how Lady Catherine was the foil to Mrs. Bennet. Now I can’t stop thinking about Austen and her use of foils. I may well expound on this in a future blog post.
After my final class, I strolled through the bookstore and saw several Austen-inspired novels on the tables. I am continually impressed at the long shadow Jane Austen casts. Her characters and their stories have not only survived a journey of two centuries, but they are repeatedly given new life as they influence our understanding of human nature and weave themselves into our stories and culture.
As a writer, I love the experiences and knowledge gained at conferences and retreats. I also love the infusion of ideas and renewed enthusiasm that inevitably flows from the time spent learning about how to do it all better. What sorts of things invigorate your creative side? Can you think of any Austen “foils” to add to that list? Can you think of any other favorite examples of Austen building romantic or sexual tension? If you can’t think of anything, at least give yourself a 30-second dance party. It’s good for the soul.