Tracy Kiely is the author of the Jane Austen inspired mystery series and her latest installment, MURDER MOST PERSUASIVE, launches August 30th. Tracy grew up reading Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, and watching Hitchcock movies. She fell in love with Austen’s wit, Christie’s clever plots, and Hitchcock’s recurrent theme of “the average man caught in extraordinary circumstances.”
Book Give-Away: Comment below on why you'd like to read the series for a chance to win Murder at Longbourn, the first in the Jane Austen series. Judy Dee won a copy of Murder at Longbourn. Congratulations!
Strangers on a Page
As a writer, you want your characters to be real, believable, and timeless. (You also want to make buckets of money, reduce those kids who were mean to you in grade school to tears, and become Oprah’s new besty.) But, aside from that, you want readers to believe your characters.
One of my all-time favorite authors, Jane Austen, consistently nailed this. Not only did she create timeless characters who are beloved by millions, such as Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, but she created others who are just as reviled, such as the snobbish Lady Catherine, the pompous Mr. Collins, and the hypocritical Mrs. Norris.
In fact, some of her characters became so real to me, that it inspired my own mystery writing series. I began to wonder how the characters in Pride and Prejudice might fit into a mystery. What, if after years of living with unbearably rude and condescending behavior, old Mrs. Jenkins up and strangled Lady Catherine? What if Charlotte snapped one day and poisoned Mr. Collins’ toast and jam? For each of my mysteries, I revisit the characters traits and themes found in a specific Austen novel, and give it a humorous, modern day twist (Oprah, if you are listening, call me. I’m free most afternoons).
Which brings me (finally) to my point.
Writers (well, the successful ones, anyway) often get asked, “Where do you get your character ideas?” Some have witty responses (“mail order catalogs”), others claim that their characters “talk to them,” (and just between you and me, watch out for these folks; they are a little off), while still more will loftily cite extensive “research.”
I’m going to let you in on a little secret; they are all lying.
Writers get the bulk of their ideas from their families. (And based on some of Jane Austen’s private letters, I believe this was true for her as well.)
Furthermore, much of this inspiration is generated during the holidays.
I realized this the other day when I was organizing some papers (i.e., procrastinating), and I came across this quote:
“A mystery must have tension, secrets, and characters that inspire strong feelings – particularly murderous feelings.”
And I thought – hello! – change out “A mystery” for “The holidays” and the observation becomes even more apt. I mean, think about it – we are rapidly heading into that time of year when facial tics become a part of our daily existence and why? Because of our families! After all, it is usually our nearest and dearest who drive us to the emotional extremes that keep psychiatrists’ businesses booming. Their weird quirks, their prejudices, their emotional manipulations, hell, in some cases just the way they breathe can send you over the edge and into a spastic fit of facial tics and orchestrated teeth grinding.
For instance, let’s skip down memory land to the Thanksgiving I was ten. My mother had worn herself out prepping her usual fare; a massive turkey, two kinds of stuffing, yams, potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, and, of course, a pumpkin pie for dessert. That morning my grandfather insisted on taking us all out to a late brunch. As he made his third trip to the buffet, my mother laughingly said, “Now, don’t eat too much! Remember to save room for Thanksgiving dinner.”
With a dismissive flick of his wrist, my grandfather grunted, “Freeze it.”
Then there were the relatives who not only showed up to Christmas dinner thirty-five minutes late, but too full to eat. The reason? They decided to hit a McDonald’s when they were a mere fifteen minutes from the house.
Now while these instances didn’t result in murderous feelings (although my mom looked pretty miffed), they certainly inspired strong feelings.
As writers, we are told to “write what you know,” and it’s good advice. By carefully observing those around you, you can create some really solid characters. Characters that make you feel, make you care, and in some cases, characters that make you giggle with glee when they finally get what’s coming to them.
Using real people as inspiration can not only strengthen our writing, but it can be the perfect tonic to what ails us (or rather, who ails us). Our facial tics and grinding teeth can be cured without costly botox injections or uncomfortable mouth guards. We can simply write that annoying relative into a highly satisfying and therapeutically healing murder mystery. However, as with most remedies, there is an element of risk. Some relatives are just so over the top, that were we to write about them, they would instantly recognize themselves, and we’d get busted. And then sued.
But, when you, as a writer, are handed a relative who is just so breathtakingly awful, it is criminal not to use them! So, how do we work around this moral dilemma? Well, after a lot of thought (I am soo procrastinating today), I think I have the solution.
I propose we create a network for writers to share/swap outrageous relatives.
Remember Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, where the two men traded murders? Well, instead of trading murders, we trade annoying relative stories. And let’s not limit ourselves; co-workers, bosses, ex-loves are all eligible. It’s a win-win situation. We get to vent and use great material! Should my McDonald’s stopping relative read about her actions in YOUR book, well, that’s nothing to do with me! And should your Aunt Josephine who lets her dogs eat out of her mouth read about a character eerily similar to her in MY book, well, it must be some kind of coincidence, right? Right!
I only wish Jane Austen were still alive. I have a feeling she would have a lot of relatives to trade.
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