In 2008, I took the plunge in the publishing world when one of my AP students challenged me with “If you know how to do this, do it yourself.” Publishing was not on my radar. I was 37 years into a teaching career and counting down to 40. Even so, I grabbed the “golden apple” when it was dangled before me. My self published book rose quickly upon the Amazon sales list, and I was offered a publishing contract with Ulysses Press.
The one thing I forgot to mention in this process is the fact that I am more than a writer who kills, I am also an unrepentant thief. How so? Permit me to explain.
My writing career began with a retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice from Mr. Darcy’s point of view. Since that time, I have written 50+ novels, about half of which are Austen related retellings, sequels, variations, and mysteries. In the dark hours of early evening, I regularly creep into the land of Austen and make away with our dearest Jane’s special treasures.
I was told by another writer recently on Twitter that I should STOP writing Austen-inspired stories—that the tropes are overused. In other words, I should ignore my Austen readers, those who I have carefully cultivated for some twelve years. I should abandon a source of income. As a retired school teacher, I am not rolling in money.
So, why does a customarily law abiding citizen “borrow” someone else’s brilliant body of work? If someone had asked me that question before I wrote Darcy’s Passions, I would have told him that I had no intention of making a career from publishing; therefore, if all I was to do was to dabble in writing a novel in order to answer the challenge of all-too-smart student, why not choose a plot I dearly loved.
I ignored many other works within the realm of public domain to choose Jane Austen because Miss Austen is the friend I always wished I possessed. Jane would understand me; she would cheer for my success. Austen provides her readers a familiar starting point. So, I did not only “borrow” a plot, I also encouraged a plethora of favorite characters to follow me into a “second” life. With plot and characters in my bag, why not slip in a bit of tone and syntax. Although I initially thought only to manipulate the plot, I found some of the less famous of Austen’s characters demanded an introduction to modern audiences.
But why Austen? In Ian Watt’s Rise of the Novel, the author says that Austen combines the internal and external approaches to character. Austen possesses authenticity without diffuseness or trickery. Austen creates a sense of social order, which is not achieved at the expense of individuality and autonomy of the characters. Personally, I believe Austen to be an expert in plot-driven fiction. More than simply telling a story, Austen builds vivid worlds that capture the truths of an imperfect humanity.
Austen serves as both my bane and my salvation. I would not have a writing career without her, but because I write stories with familiar characters, some experts and reviewers look upon my stories as “cheating.” What these so-called experts do not realize is how many hours of study I have completed on Austen’s works. When I create a story line around Austen’s most famous characters, Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, not only must I develop a believable story from my own imagination, but I must also maintain Austen’s “mastery” in the new plot.
In other words, I remain conscious of the canon and the past while I create new situations for familiar characters. I attempt to retain the specifics of the context and the historical setting, while highlighting and exploring current issues. I am in good company with well-known crime writer Phyllis Dorothy James (P.D. James), Baroness James of Holland Park, who released Death Comes to Pemberley in 2013, a year before her death.
My first mystery The Phantom of Pemberley came out in 2010. (It will be rereleased in February 2020) In it, I explore multiple personality disorders in history. The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy is a twisted tale of grave robbers and resurrectionists. It will rerelease on August 10, 2020. The Disappearance of Georgiana Darcy is based on the legend of Sawney Bean, a 14th Century Scottish cannibal. It, like the others, has seen a rerelease because I have now received back the rights to my books, originally published by Ulysses Press. Another Pride and Prejudice mystery is The Prosecution of Mr. Darcy’s Cousin, which explores the effects of PTSD long before it was a recognized ailment. But more than a mystery, each of these books views our contemporary world through a narrow lens buried deep in the past. What I write is more than nostalgia. My novels analyze the social, cultural, and pedagogical conditions that reshape Austen’s story into mine. The past is, for all intents and purposes, always being reinvented.