CA: Congratulations on your fourteenth Josie Prescott mystery! There have been many great stories that weave in a little Jane Austen magic, my personal faves being P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley, Karen J. Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club, and now your Jane Austen’s Lost Letters. Tell us how you came up with such a fun, new Jane Austen idea for this fab new Josie story.
I wrote this book because of a wonderful librarian named Jane Murphy. Jane retired from a position at Westport, CT, and now lives in the beautiful Finger Lakes area of upstate NY.
Jane and I were having dinner one night, and I said how hard it was to find an antique worthy of a book.
She said, and I’m quoting: “Jane Austen’s letters.”
I replied, “Hmmm.”
The idea clicked. A plot began developing. About six months later, I was at a conference in Dallas and I had breakfast with my SMP publicist, Sarah Melnyk. I whispered my idea—the Jane Austen letters, and my plot premise—and she leapt out of booth. Literally, she exploded with interest! She said, “Write it!”
When you see the book—out on December 14th—you’ll see I dedicate it to Jane and Sarah. (And, of course, to my darling husband, Joe.)
CA: Have you always been a Jane Austen fan? Or not? How did writing this book change your relationship with Jane Austen? And I have to ask: Were you named after Jane Austen?
I come by my affection for Jane Austen honestly. My mother, Ruth Chessman, an author in her own right, was a devoted fan. My mother wanted to share her greatest pleasures with the unborn me. She played classical music, ate a lot of fried chicken, ice cream, and tomatoes. (I know, I know. No surprise, these are three of my favorite foods.) She also believed that writing was the highest possible calling, so she read Pride and Prejudice, her favorite Jane Austen novel, aloud to me in the womb. She wanted me to hear the words, the magnificent prose; to enjoy the wit; to appreciate the insights; to value exemplary work. Lest you think I’m exaggerating my mother’s devotion to Jane Austen, I will tell you that I am named for her.
In writing Jane Austen’s Lost Letters, I learned that Jane Austen’s wit extended beyond her novel writing—some of her letters are laugh-out-loud funny. Just consider the title of one of her early works, a book she wrote in 1791, “The History of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st, By a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian.” That’s hysterical!
CA: Writing any story that features Jane Austen in any way invites the love—and possible rebuke should you get it wrong—of Austen fans. What sort of research did you do to make sure you got it right?
I take all research seriously. I love research! I love learning new things. For this book, I first came up with the plot and got the major characters in place—then I began the research. I researched Jane Austen’s publishing history, her business model, events that occurred during the relevant time (by relevant, I mean 1812 to 1814, which is the era I deal with in the letters in my book), her stationery choices, how to mix gall ink, her pens, her attitudes toward her nieces and nephews, and so on. I do a boatload of research for each book I write. In other words, I use facts to write fiction.
CA: Jane Austen’s novels are so tightly plotted—I’m thinking of Pride and Prejudice, all those sisters, all those sub-plots!—and so are yours. Not surprising, given that you’re also the Agatha-winning author of Mastering Suspense, Structure, and Plot and Mastering Plot Twists. Did you have Austen in mind when you plotted this one?
Thank you so much! I can’t say I had Jane Austen’s novels in mind per se, but I certainly wanted to honor her by writing a story worthy of her.
CA: Writing a book is a journey that offers challenges, surprises, and delights. What challenged you the most in the writing of this book? What surprised you? What delighted you?
I agree—every book is a challenge. It’s so hard to write a book! We authors have to be good at everything from coming up with worthy ideas to generating credible characters and a compelling plot to writing evocative and elegant prose. I raise the bar for myself with every story—I always want to write a better book.
I was totally thrilled when Publisher’s Weekly reviewed Jane Austen’s Lost Letters as: “Beguiling. Cleland maintains tension from the opening pages right up to the surprise conclusion. Miss Austen would approve.” I mean, wow! And I just learned it’s been named to Aunt Agatha’s “Best Cozies of 2021” list!
CA: Obviously, one of your secrets to keeping the series fresh is coming up with wonderful new ideas for new stories, like this one with Jane Austen. Do you have any not-so-obvious secrets to writing a successful long-running series you can share with us?
What I’ve found is that the more I steer to the pain, the more my stories will resonate with emotional truth, and those are the stories readers crave and that I want to write. Therefore, when planning a novel, I look first to the underlying emotions that will drive the plot.
I’ve also found that opposites attract, by which I mean that to come up with fresh ideas, I aim to marry opposite ideas, characters, approaches. In Jane Austen’s Lost Letters, Oliver is a polite, charming, mannerly man. Rory, his mother, is a pistol, acerbic, sarcastic. I find this duality effective to keep readers engaged.
I think it’s important that members of the ensemble cast evolve. Each one needs his or her own storylines. My characters have gotten married, had babies, moved to new condos, and so on. I think it’s fun!
For more ideas on all aspects of the craft of writing, I’d invite your readers to check out my FREE monthly webinars. I’ll note that January 22, 2022’s topic is “The Inside Scoop: Special Guest, Paula Munier, Literary Agent and USA Today bestselling author, shares her top tips on writing and getting an agent.” It runs from 1 to 2 p.m. eastern time. Come join us and learn from the best—Paula herself! Registration is at www.janecleland.com/events.
Jane K. Cleland writes both fiction and nonfiction, including the long-running and multiple award-winning Josie Prescott Antiques Mysteries [St. Martin’s & Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine] and the Agatha Award-winning bestsellers Mastering Suspense, Structure & Plot and Mastering Plot Twists [Writer’s Digest Books]. Jane is a contributing editor for Writer’s Digest Magazine, and the chair of the Wolfe Pack’s Black Orchid Novella Award (BONA), in partnership with AHMM. She is a frequent workshop leader and guest author at writing conferences and MFA Residencies. Jane offers FREE monthly workshops on the craft of writing. Details can be found at www.janecleland.com An excerpt of Jane Austen’s Lost Letters is available here. Please follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
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