Welcome to Episode 12 of the Art In Fiction Podcast!
In this episode, bestselling author Syrie James shares her love of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and the character of Mina Harker in Bram Stoker's Dracula, as she discusses her five novels included in the Literature category on Art In Fiction.
Learn about writing in Jane Austen's voice, the challenges faced by a female author in the 19th century, James's meticulous research methods, and her wise advice for both aspiring and published authors.
Press Play right now and be sure to check out Syrie James's novels The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen, Jane Austen's First Love, The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, and Dracula, My Love, all in the Literature category on Art In Fiction.
Syrie James's website: http://www.syriejames.com/
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Hello and welcome. My name is Carol Cram and I'm the host of the Art In Fiction Podcast. This episode features my conversation with the wonderful Syrie James. Five of Syrie James's novels are listed on Art In Fiction in the Literature category: The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen, Jane Austen's First Love, The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, and Dracula, My Love.
Syrie James is the Amazon and USA TODAY bestselling author of 13 novels of historical fiction, romance, and YA, that have been published in 21 languages. She is obsessive about research, plot and story structure, and committed to taking her characters on challenging journeys of growth and discovery.
Welcome to the Art In Fiction Podcast, Syrie.
Thank you. I'm delighted to be here.
I'm very excited to chat with you today about your novels that are listed on Art In Fiction. We've listed five of them, as you know, all in the Literature category, your three novels inspired by Jane Austen and also The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, and Dracula, My Love, which of course is inspired by Bram Stoker's Dracula.
And what I really enjoy about your novels is how they explore the sort of the inner lives and the times of, you know, three incredibly beloved characters, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and of course Mina Harker in Bram Stoker's Dracula.
So you've been hailed as the queen of 19th century re-imaginings, which I think is a wonderful thing. Can you explain what that means?
I like to think that I get into the heads of these people, some of which are real-life authors and others may have been characters in the case of Bram Stoker's novel, but because I am a novelist myself, I found such an affinity with Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, even though they lived so long ago, I felt that I understood their passion for writing, their obsession, with creating stories.
And it's just been my honor to learn about them and bring their stories to life. And I felt the same way about Stoker's novel Dracula, which is a whole other thing to talk about, a very different kind of book.
Oh yes. I definitely want to talk about her later. Yes. And of course I'm a novelist myself and I could really feel your enjoyment of getting into the heads, particularly in the Jane Austen and the Charlotte Brontë novels, you know, where you're actually writing from the point of view of authors.
So, well, let's start with my very favorite one, of course, who is Jane Austen. I'm huge a Austen fan.
As am I.
What writer isn't? I've set a novel in 1809 and I was sort of channeling Jane Austen while I was writing it. So I definitely can understand why you would choose to, you know, center your books around her, but what is it about Austen that fascinates you?
Oh, well she was such a master of creating characters that we recognize in our own life and they are just timeless. So the kinds of characters she created over 200 years ago, we still see them around us today. And she also was very good at understanding the human heart. She found, you know, both intelligence and humor in just about everything.
I love her stories. I love her characters. And I think the world has been inspired by her magic. Look at the incredible wealth of Jane Austen fan fiction that we have now.
When I was a young girl, the first book of English literature that I read that spoke to me was Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. I must have read it a dozen times by the time I got to college. I don't know why, it just was my favorite book.
I really wasn't introduced to Austen until I got to university and was studying English. And then I began to see just how much I loved Austen. I mean, I sold many of my books after leaving university, but I saved every single Austen novel that I had read. And that started a library that just kept growing and growing.
I was fascinated by their voices and the way they wrote, I just heard it in my head. And I was very curious to know what was there very much about their personal life that showed up in their fiction. And when I read about Charlotte Brontë, I discovered that a huge, huge percentage of her books are autobiographical.
I didn't know that.
One thing I did for both of these authors was I read every biography I could get my hands on. I read everything they ever wrote, all the way back to their juvenilia. I read their novels over and over, and then I found all their preserved correspondence, which in the case of Charlotte is huge. Her best friend Nell kept 500 of her letters which were then published.
And when you, when you read the biographies at the same time as the letters and the novels, you get a picture of these women and what percentage of what happened to them in real life showed up in their books.
In Charlotte's case, it was just enormous. I mean, it starts with Lowood School, Jane Eyre. This was the true story of Charlotte's years at the clergy daughter school and the horrors that she experienced. And then she based the character of Helen Burns on her oldest sister Mariah who died of consumption there. And so many other things. Mr. Rochester is inspired by a Belgian professor, Monsieur Héger, that Charlotte fell in love with. And her brother Branwell almost burned to death when his bed caught on fire. And there's all these things that showed up in the book Jane Eyre. So it was fascinating to me. And that's just one of the books that has these autobiographical details.
Yes. And of course, that's what I've enjoyed so much as a fan of both of them, more so Austen, but I've read Jane Eyre, of course.
So when I was reading The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen, which I really enjoyed, I actually had the audio version of it, which was excellent. And because I'm such a Jane Austen lover myself, and I know the books backwards and forwards, I read them every year, just for fun, you sprinkle in so many references to the novels. It's a lot of fun. It's like a treasure hunt for the Austen fan. And I kind of could sense your enjoyment in that. Is that true?
Oh, of course, of course. Because, you think about it - that was a dangerous and scary thing to do. I had this idea of, Oh, what if Jane Austen wrote a seventh novel and what if it was inspired by that wonderful, funny outline that she wrote towards the end of her life called Plan of a Novel? What if that was actually a wistful and nostalgic outline that she wrote recalling a novel that she had written in her youth and lost and never was able to start over again from page one and try to recapture it.
So what if this manuscript existed somewhere? I just think about what would happen if an Austen scholar was to discover it. So there's the modern-day story of what happens when the scholar does discover it and how it changes her life. And what is the responsibility that you have to, to bring this manuscript to the world? How do you do that?
And the same time, there was the challenge of writing a book that Jane Austen herself might have written. And it had to be not only written in her voice, but it had to follow the kinds of characters that she is known to have created and the plots that she has been loved for. And so I set out to write something that was difficult and challenging and crazy - who would do that?
Fortunately, it was well received and critics said it reads exactly like a Jane Austen novel. And I just can't even tell you how humbled and gratified I am by that.
I would imagine, I know that's incredibly brave of you to take it on. And you did, you did do it very, very successfully.
Because I could still see some of your characters, just like I can Jane Austen's characters, so that's a real testament that I remember them. And you captured the absurdity of some of the characters, just the way Jane Austen does. And it was a really good story, both stories, the modern one and the Jane Austen one, it was extremely well done.
I'm so glad you enjoyed it.
It was the first time I'd ever read one of your books and I was blown away actually, and a bit envious.
Oh, well, it was in an enormous amount of work.
I'm sure it was.
But at the same time, an incredible labor of love to do that. And I'm just glad when it brings somebody enjoyment because, you know, that's the reason that I write.
Exactly. I was laughing out loud. I was walking around the lake here where I live, listening.
Well, I'm, I'm also delighted by the audio book because the narrator of that book, I specially chose her. Justine Eyre had done the audio book for Dracula, My Love. And she had done such an incredible job and doing all the accents. And then she contacted me—at the time she had done 80 audio books, by now, it's probably a thousand—and she wrote to me to tell me that out of all the audio books she'd ever done, Dracula, My Love, at that time, was her absolute favorite and she wanted to thank me for writing it.
And then we began a correspondence and became good friends because she happened to live in Los Angeles at the time. So we got to meet and then I specially requested that she should be the one to narrate The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen, which again she did to perfection.
She did. She did. I, I so enjoyed it.
I just finished The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen a few weeks ago. I think I loved it even more than The Missing Manuscript, if that's possible.
It's so good. Because of course you wrote it in Jane's voice, just like you do in The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, which I also love, you really capture her insecurities as a novelist. And of course, as a novelist myself and you as a novelist, you really explored that and what it feels like to not be sure. Well, my work's not very good or should I do this? Shouldn't I do that? It's sort of heartening the way you developed Jane Austen, the great Jane Austen, that we could relate to her, that she had the same insecurities, or you wrote those, and I'm sure she did.
I felt like I really related to her because she was someone obsessed with writing in a time when, you know, that wasn't really acceptable. And I think, like me, she would rather have been writing than doing just about anything else.
Yes, I get that.
And you know, her family understood that, which I think was wonderful. And so it wasn't difficult for me to get into her mind and to become Jane.
But I was curious how much of her struggles are from what you've discovered in your research, reading her letters, et cetera, and how much came from your imagination?
I noticed this two-year gap in her letters with Cassandra and I thought, what if something momentous happened during those two years? And that was why Cassandra destroyed such a large quantity of letters? What if Jane fell in love with somebody and there was a good reason why they could never tell anybody about it. So that, that inspired the story in the first place, because I watched for the hundredth time Shakespeare in Love.
Oh, I love that movie.
And then watched Colin Firth's version of Pride and Prejudice, and the Emma Thompson version of Sense and Sensibility. And I had all this in my head and I just wanted to live inside a Jane Austen novel. And I thought at the time that I wrote it, nobody had done a love story for Jane Austen. And I thought, what if she fell in love? So I just delved into her life story and couldn't find any evidence that she had, except for that one famous story that Cassandra told about how, if Jane ever loved anyone, it was a man she met at the seaside in the south on one of their visits. And then unfortunately when they tried to get in touch with him again, they found out he had died.
So that's the seaside gentleman story. So I thought, what if he didn't die? What if she did meet a wonderful man at the seaside? And what if something completely wonderful happened and there's another reason why they couldn't be together? And so Cassandra only told part of the story when she talked to her niece about it and destroyed all the letters. And so the whole thing was kept secret.
So I wanted to explore how is it that this woman who wrote these incredible books that, 200 plus years later, are still everyone's favorites really examining, not just love and courtship, but how the human heart evolves and what it is that makes relationships work.
I wanted to explore how is it that someone who never married and, as far as we know, never fell in love or had a relationship, how was it that she could write so successfully stories of love and courtship? And my thought was she must've fallen madly in love herself and experienced it herself. So I felt that I was, it was okay for me to write that story. And in fact, it turned out that there were huge numbers of Jane Austen fans who were thrilled to meet Mr. Ashford and find out that Jane did have this love story.
And even if it's fiction, it was something that they loved and hoped that maybe it could have been true.
But you know what really struck me is, on the one hand as I was reading I was, Oh, I wish she had a love affair. I mean, I know as far as we know she didn't, but on the other hand, if she had married and had the happily-ever-after, she wouldn't have become Jane Austen. Or, or would she?
Well, it's true. Once you marry and have children, you aren't probably writing very many books, if any at all. Although if she, if she'd married Harris Bigg-Wither, the famous proposal she accepted and then, you know, retracted the very next morning, he was really wealthy, so the children would have had nannies and governesses. And so who knows, maybe she would have been able to continue to write.
Yeah. So that probably wouldn't have been acceptable in that strata of society, but it is just that, that kind of disconnect between our desire to see the romance and see them get together. But the reality being that if she had, she probably would not have been able to write the six greatest novels of all time, right?
She probably wouldn't have.
So it's, it's sad, it sort of shows you that hopefully we've come a little bit farther. I mean, what is preferable for a woman? You know, a career that's now given pleasure to millions of people or that the quiet romantic life, you know, it's still kind of relevant today, isn't it?
It is. And also back then, it was very dangerous to give birth. I know she had at least two sister-in-laws who died at childbirth. I'm trying to remember if it was more than that. Two of them died after giving birth to their 11th child.
Can you imagine?
And in the few letters that remain where she wasn't censored by her sister, she was very vociferous commenting on women who did nothing but have one child after another, clearly, something she did not want to do that may have been another thing that factored into her choice. She definitely had to be madly in love to, you know, give up things that she loved and take the risk. I think it was a risk.
It was a huge risk.
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Welcome back. Let's listen to Syrie as she reads the first chapter of her novel The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen.
The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, Chapter One.
Why I feel the sudden urge to relate, in pen and ink, a relationship of the most personal nature, which I have never before acknowledged, I cannot say. Perhaps it is this maddening illness which has been troubling me now and again of late, this cunning reminder of my own mortality, that compels me to make some record of what happened to prevent that memory from vanishing into the recesses of my mind, and from there to disappear forever from history as fleeting as a ghost in the mist.
Whatever the reason, I find that I must write it all down; for there may, I think, be speculation when I'm gone. People may read what I have written, and wonder: how could this spinster, this woman, who to all appearances, never even courted—who never felt that wondrous connection of mind and spirit between a man and woman, which inspired by friendship and affection blooms into something deeper—how could she have had the temerity to write about the revered institutions of love and culture, having never experienced them herself?
To those few friends and relations who, upon learning of my authorship, have dared to pose a similar question (although I must admit in a rather more genteel turn of phrase), I have given the self same reply: “Is it not conceivable that an active mind and an observant eye and ear combined with a vivid imagination might produce a literary work of some merit and amusement, which may, in turn, evoke sentiments and feelings which resemble life itself?”
There is much truth in this observation
But there are many levels of veracity, are there not, between that truth, which we publicly and that which we silently acknowledge, in the privacy of our own thoughts, and perhaps to one or two of our most intimate acquaintances?
I did attempt to write of love—first, in jest, as a girl; then in a more serious vein in my early twenties, though I had known only young love then, in consequence, those early works were only of passing merit. It was only years later that I met the man who had come to inspire the true depth of that emotion and who would reawaken my voice, which had long lain dormant.
Of this gentleman—the one true, great love in my life—I have, for good reason, vowed never to speak; indeed, it was agreed amongst the few close members of my family who knew him, that it was best for all concerned to keep the facts of that affair strictly to ourselves. In consequence, I have relegated my thoughts of him to the farthest reaches of my heart, banished forever—but not forgotten.
No, never forgotten. For how could one forget that which has become a part of one's very soul? Every word, every thought, every look and feeling that passed between us is as fresh in my mind now, years later, as if it had occurred only yesterday.
The tale must be told, a tale which will explain all the others.
That's so wonderful. Thank you so much.
So I want to go on to Jane Austen's First Love, which I had a wonderful time reading. And one of the scenes I love is when the man that she falls in love with, Edward Taylor, goads her, you know, along with her, his cousin Charlotte and Jane's sister Cassandra, to share their deepest ambitions.
And the other two women say they want a marriage and home, but Jane lets slip that she wants to write because you're writing in her voice because it's her journal. Do you think that was unusual for a woman of her time? Like, I wonder how many women would have been like that?
Well, I think it's, we know that there weren't very many women authors, but there were some.
Yes, there were.
I like to think that there were lots of women who loved to write, but because there was no outlet for that and because it was frowned upon, I think that they probably did it in secret.
They probably did. At that time in the early 19th century, women were just starting to have careers and surprisingly all in the performing arts or in the arts, like Sarah Siddons and the theater. Because I wrote a novel set in 1809 about the theater. And that was one of the only places a woman could have a professional career that was sort of respectable. So the idea of women being ambitious was there.
Well also, women had a very different way of being educated.
Yes, very much so.
There were very few schools. There were some, but not many people can afford to send their daughters to school. And you know, usually if you did go to school, it was, what, through age 12 at the very, very most. And that was it. And most of the population was poor and they were just working from childhood. So really it's only the young women who came from wealth who could even think of having time to write. So that limits the number right there.
Well, and that hasn't changed really. You still have to have a fairly good income to be able to do this.
It's true. You work all day, you come home, you're too tired to write. I know.
Exactly. It's still very much of a privilege. I just want to read a passage from Jane Austen's First Love that really stuck out at me because I'm curious how much it marries your own experience and how much it came from your research about Jane. So I'm just going to read it. She's talking about how wonderful it is to write a novel and it totally resonated with me. So I wanted to share it with our listeners.
"The very notion that the ideas, characters and scenes, which had originated in my own mind, could be communicated to them through chosen words, particularly arranged and transmitted, either aloud or on paper, was such a joyful, infectious and powerful enterprise that it remained unmatched in my experience by any other endeavor."
A) Well done. That's a fantastic sentence. And also, oh my goodness. It totally resonated with me as why I love to write. And I presume why you like to write.
Of course. When we get into the heads of our characters, we become them during the journey. And that's the fun of being a writer. That's the fun of being able to get into the minds of any character, whether it's male or female or a cat or a dog or an elderly person or a child, whoever it is that you're representing, it's what actors get to do.
But actors usually, usually have to perform a character of their own gender, but I really enjoy becoming all of my characters, male and female. And I don't feel like the male psyche is some big mystery.
Yes. It's those two words, joyful and infectious, that really resonated with me because I think anybody who is engaged in the act of writing understands that. Of course, unfortunately it's not always joyful and infectious. Sometimes it's really, really hard work, most of the time, but that little 10% of when it's really working and you get into that zone is unmatched by any other endeavor, as Jane says.
As you wrote.
And I feel sometimes that I would rather be writing than doing anything else.
That's why I said, I feel like Charlotte Brontë was the same way. And so were her sisters. And I think even though Jane Austen lived hundreds of years ago, I understand her passion.
Yes, absolutely. And, and of course you bring that out so well. And that's why The Memoirs and Jane Austen's First Love because you're writing in, in her voice are so compelling. And it also made me curious, have you ever thought about writing a novel that is sort of her journal during the last novels that she wrote? The three big ones at the end, you know, Mansfield Park, Persuasion and Emma, those years in her thirties before she died, when she really was at her height, I would love something about that period.
I have, and I have a lot of notes about it, in fact, in a folder and a take on it that probably nobody has done before.
So I'm hoping to be able to do that. Right now, I'm working on something completely different, a multigenerational historical fiction with a mystery.
That, of course, takes place in England because everything I write, just about, takes place in England.
I do love England. I lived there for four years. I went to university there. There's so much there.
How lucky you were.
I was supposed to be there right now, but not, not this year. What's your favorite Jane Austen novel? It's like a favorite child.
Yes. It's not fair to ask that.
No, I know.
For me, it's a tie between Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion.
Oh, Persuasion. Okay.
I just love Persuasion. I love the whole situation about a second chance at love. I don't know. I love Captain Wentworth and Anne. And um, I've read that book so many times. It's just, I think it's a sweet, sweet story.
It's a wonderful one. It's one of my favorites.
And very romantic.
I love them all as well. I think my favorite is still Emma and I got such a kick out of Jane Austen's First Love where Jane is kind of playing an Emma-like character.
Yes, she is!
When she's matchmaking and also all the parallels to Mansfield Park. I actually really like Mansfield Park. A lot of people don't like that one as much, but the theatricals.
Yes. I love them all. In Jane Austen's First Love, the thing that was most exciting to me actually was finding out everything that I found out about Edward Taylor, this young man who Jane fell in love with when she was young. And we know this because it's in her letters. She mentioned him many times. And yet I couldn't find anything about him in any biography because scholars knew nothing. And so I became determined to find out about him.
He was, you know, a member of the aristocracy. So I knew there had to be something about him somewhere. And then I found this incredible resource, a memoir written by one of his brothers. I think he was knighted. He worked for the King. He rose very high in society and became so important that his memoirs were published. And in this brother's memoirs, he talked in the beginning, several chapters, about his childhood and his family and the extraordinary experiences that the eight children had growing up.
And because of that, I knew what Edward Taylor went through and what he experienced in this incredible family. They lived abroad. They all played musical instruments. They were educated by the top masters. It was just no wonder that he was so fascinating that when Jane Austen met him as a teenager, he was different from any young man she had ever met. And no wonder she fell madly in love with him.
So I thought how fun it would be to write that story. I learned so much about him. I thought I could write a PhD dissertation about Jane Austen's first love, but instead I wrote it as a novel.
Thank goodness you did. And again, I did feel that that's a good thing she didn't marry him in the end because we wouldn't have had what she did. It's funny. That's too bad that has to be a choice, but anyway.
And so that brings us to Dracula, My Love, which I actually just finished yesterday. I was like, Oh, I gotta know what's going to happen. I thoroughly enjoyed that as well, because I mean, unlike Jane Austen, I am not a Bram Stoker fan, particularly. I've actually never read it. I've read bits of it. I mean, you certainly know the story, right?
And so I was thinking, I don't know if I want to read about Dracula, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. And I know it is because of what you did with the character of Mina Harker. She's this strong-willed, amazing woman caught in the middle of this torrid love affair with Dracula and also with Jonathan. So what did you hope to achieve with Dracula, My Love? Like, did you want to sort of rehabilitate Dracula?
I have always thought that Dracula was underserved in the book by Bram Stoker because he created really the first vampire with all the interesting qualities that we attribute to vampires today, which are, he made him, uh, be able to vanish in a puff of smoke or appear out of the mist. Then he gave him all kinds of other interesting things. He could turn into a bat and fly away. He could turn into a wolf. If you drank his blood, you had a telepathic connection from him or with him.
And then he also made him so evil in the novel. All he did was kill women and do things for his own purposes. And he was really a terrible creature. And you were happy when the group sent to hunt him killed him in the end. And I thought, you know, they do something very different in the movies. In the movies, they tend to glamorize him and make him very handsome and suave.
And so you, you fall in love a little bit with Dracula and sometimes a lot. I thought, what if this was a romance? And what if all the five narrators who were the ones who told that story in Stoker's book, what if some of them were unreliable? What if Mina Harker was only telling the piece of the story that she felt was acceptable to Victorian audiences and especially for a married woman. What if she was actually having a scandalous affair with Dracula behind the scenes? What if Dracula was this incredible, wonderful guy?
To me that was an interesting version to explore because if he's hundreds and hundreds of years old, or even older than that, he would be really accomplished, good at everything. A fabulous dancer, a wonderful artist. He could play musical instruments. He'd read every book in the world. I thought, wow, this would be a guy, this is a guy I would want to meet.
So I thought it would be interesting to, as you say, rehabilitate him. I think of a different explanation for all the bad things that he supposedly did to make us realize that he is worthy. And then we have a romantic lead that not only Mina can fall in love with, but we can fall in love with. And hopefully when people read the book, they fall in love with him, as well as Jonathan Harker and Mina. And then it's a love triangle. And, and you, uh, I mean, I designed the book to hopefully make you not sure who you want her to end up with.
Exactly. And you did that extremely well.
Well, thank you!
But loved even more than, you know, the romantic parts was Mina's development as a character, as a woman and as a strong woman at a time, of course, when women did not have a lot of choices. And so that, and of course, I see that in all the novels that I've read of yours, just how you explore that development of women. I mean, we didn't invent strong women in the, in the modern day, did we?
No, we didn't. I mean, when you think about what women had to go through just to get basic rights and the struggles were incredible. So we are very lucky to have, you know, great-grandmothers and great-great-grandmothers who achieved all these things for us and got us the vote. And so Mina is, you know, at the end of the Victorian era where none of these things have been happening yet, but she is, that was when they developed this new idea called The New Woman. And she was one of them and it was a struggle because she really was raised to be a Victorian woman.
So she had all of, all kinds of guilt about being in love with Dracula when she was engaged and then when she was married. And that was interesting to explore, also.
Yes, exactly. But I do think sometimes we don't remember just how strong women have always been through the centuries and how much they've had to put up with and nobody knew about it, or nobody talked about it because the history, of course, wasn't written by women. So I love books that look at women as whole people.
Oh, me too.
What kind of advice would you like to give to authors?
Do you mean published authors or aspiring authors? That's a very different question.
I suppose it is a different question. Okay. Well, let's start with aspiring authors.
Well, aspiring authors, I always say to first of all, read what you love to read and write what you love to read. So whatever it is that excites you, when you sit down with a novel, that's probably the kind of book you should write and they say, write what you know, and it is true that if you write it something that is autobiographical, the words come very, very quickly. You wouldn't believe how fast they flow from your pen, but that isn't necessarily the only kind of story you can tell.
You can research a completely different story about a real person or a fictitious person, and still infuse them with aspects of yourself and of people you know, and make them come alive. And I also tell people, if you really want to write, you can't do it in a vacuum. You can't do it without a great deal of study and practice.
Very few people, I think, sit down without any education about how to craft a novel and write something that's actually readable. So attend writing workshops, read lots and lots and lots of books about the craft of fiction and understand that, just as a brain surgeon doesn't operate without a lot of schooling, you can't read a novel without learning the craft and it can take years.
And many practice novels before you write something that's worthy. So to be patient with yourself. Also, you know, get feedback from other people, but not just anybody. See if you can get feedback from people who have published.
Yes, not your best friend or your mom.
You know, that's for during your training period, which everybody has to go through. And then, you know, for published authors, just write what you love to read and get yourself in front of the computer every day if you can. Yes. And believe in yourself and write with an outline. I don't understand how anybody can write a novel without an outline. People do. And some of these are very, very successful, but to me, it's a mystery.
So I spend a huge amount of time on crafting the plot and on writing character backgrounds for all the main characters of the book and devising the character arc to make sure they go through a journey and learn something by the end. And an outline is really important so that you know what you're doing before you finally sit down to write page one, but you can still have lots of freedom to change things. And I always do, no matter how tight I think my outline is when I begin, it always changes along the way, but the, you know, the middle and the end are always there and I always know where I'm going. And so that gives me the freedom to make changes and improve it, yes, all the changes hopefully improve the story.
And then lastly, I would say, consider what I do, which is I use the screenwriting structure for every single book that I write. There is, um, you can find it online. There's a specific structure for plotting out a screenplay that involves a character arc and the character making a specific crisis decision in the end, giving something up that then makes them worthy of earning their happy ending, if it's a book with a happy ending, and I think books succeed or fail just as movies succeed or fail based on whether or not they follow screenplay structure.
It's this beautiful, perfect way to structure a story. And for beginning authors, as well as very seasoned authors, it's important to remember to go back to that to make sure the spine of your story is sound.
Yes, I was just teaching that actually, the story structure, and, uh, it, yeah, it's a very powerful structure and I use it myself of course, over and over again. And I find if I try to write one without doing that, it's still in the hard drive, put it that way.
So do you have any particular books about that you recommend? I'm just curious, because there are a few.
The Hero's Journey is wonderful. The gold standard that started is all is a book by Syd Field, which is simply called Story Structure. There’s also Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. There's three of them and they're, I think they're brilliant and really help, even though they're designed for screenwriting, they apply to writing novels too.
There are similarities, I mean, story is story, right? The first thing you need is your story and your characters. And there you go. If only it was that easy, but ...
And you have to make sure your characters are sympathetic and there are ways to do all these things, which all these wonderful books about writing will help you.
Yeah, absolutely. I just have one more question. What are you reading right now? Just for fun.
I am reading The Cazalet Chronicles [by Elizabeth Jane Howard]. This is a series of five books that follow a family in England during the second world war from about 1938 to 1946 or seven, I think. And it's set in London and Sussex. And since the novel I'm writing right now is set in Sussex, it's fun for me to read something set in that exact location.
And also part of the novel I'm writing now takes place in 1955 and then goes back 70 years with all kinds of stuff that happened before that. So since my characters in 1955 have just come out of the second world war, I wanted to really understand what they went through. I'm reading these books and I just love them. They're very, very popular in England.
I don't know them.
I had never heard of them either, but I have a lot of English friends and they all seem to have read them and they have very enthusiastic things to say about them.
I'll put them in the show notes and have a look at them.
And also there is a mini series that was done about 20 years ago. It's, you'll recognize some of the actors in it. And they only did one season. So it only covers the first two books out of the five. Unfortunately.
I love those British series.
But it was fun to see at least that it really brought the books to life for me and in a way that I really enjoyed. So that's what I'm reading right now.
Thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today.
And I appreciate you reaching out to me to do a podcast.
My guest has been Syrie James, the bestselling author of numerous novels, including The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen, Jane Austen's First Love, The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, and Dracula, My Love, all of which are listed in the Literature category on Art In Fiction at www.artinfiction.com.
Be sure to check the show notes for the link to a 20% discount off a subscription to ProWritingAid, a fantastic editing tool for writers that I use every day.
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