Sunday, May 22, 2011

Story Ideas Travel Well

by Cindy Jones

Sometimes it feels like Grand Central Station in my head. Ideas for novels originate from completely different directions, connect at a certain point like boarding a train, and travel to their destination together. Some ideas have been on the road for a long time, coming from the deep past, traveling over decades to make their connection. And since novels operate on more than one level, the more big ideas crammed onto the train, the more interesting the journey. Since every idea introduced in a novel, every decision, came from somewhere, how many thousands of ideas, big and little, does it take to create a novel and where do they all come from?

Allow me to present a few of the idea passengers on the trip to My Jane Austen Summer and tell you where they came from:

For me, the idea of writing about Jane Austen originated with an episode of Gilligan’s Island. (I'm not kidding) As a young child I was imprinted by the idea that classic works could be given a context in a contemporary production and provoke curiosity about the original. Beginning with the episode of Gilligan’s Island when The Skipper and Gilligan performed Hamlet to the music of Bizet’s Carmen, I became fascinated with any production that provided a glimpse of greatness from the past. What Gilligan did for Shakespeare, what Amadeus did for Mozart, what Loving Frank did for Frank Lloyd Wright, I wanted to do for Jane Austen.

The idea of being guided by a dead author came from a casual remark at the office. A woman said her life was like a country song. I imagined her life constrained by the heartbreak lyrics of Tammy Wynette. As if Tammy Wynette raised her. If Tammy Wynette, why not Madonna? YIKES! What if you were raised by Lady Gaga? So I thought to myself, if you could be guided by music, why not a book? I considered the possibilities and rejected Edith Wharton, all of the Brontes, as well as Daphne DuMaurier. But while reading Jane Austen novels, I began to feel that she was speaking to me from between the lines, agreeing with my thoughts, and it was a short walk from there to the imaginary Jane Austen that guides my protagonist through an adventurous summer.

The idea of inventing a literary festival within my novel came from the book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, a book that discusses great literature within a larger narrative about a secret book club for girls in Tehran. The girls' stories unfold in the midst of the discussion of a different great book in each chapter. Interesting to see how the literary discussion works as a subtext to inform the main action. In My Jane Austen Summer, I found that characters with opinions plucked from current academic discussions of Mansfield Park could make their points while also illuminating the plot, via a literary festival.

The idea of writing about a woman who wishes to live in a novel came from reading The Secret Garden in fourth grade. Or maybe it went back further, to reading Nancy Drew mysteries in second grade. As a child, reading was a rich experience full of excitement and adventure. Through my adolescence, I imagined taking the vicarious experience one step further and stepping into the pages to become Countess Olenska, or Catherine in Wuthering Heights, or Mrs. DeWinter in Rebecca. The urge faded with maturity, but as a writer, the question still stimulates my imagination. Now that I get to spend entire days creating fictional worlds, I think I have come as close as possible to realizing that old dream of living in a novel.

I'm getting started on a new novel about a completely different subject and bracing myself for the chaos and confusion as passengers from far and wide make their connection at the train station in my head.

Have you ever retraced your ideas and been surprised at their origin?


  1. I enjoyed reading how your idea evolved. I also remember that episode of Gilligan's Island very well.

  2. Cindy, Cindy! This has nothing to do with writing and everything to do with the "Hamlet" musical episode of Gilligan's Island! There are some days I walk around singing, "I ask to be, or not to be, that is the question that I ask of me," (to Bizet's Carmen, as per the show). Too funny! I love that it served as a seed of inspiration for you since I obviously can't seem to forget it. ;-)

  3. Hah! Remember this? "Neither a borrower nor a lender be..." The problem is when I go to see Carmen and the wrong words come to mind. How did one episode become so deeply ingrained?

  4. LOL, Cindy!! I loved "Gilligan's Island," too -- how very memorable that episode was... ;) I really enjoyed reading about how you retraced the steps of your literary inspiration!

  5. Okay, so I'm more a Bewitched kind of gal, though I'm not sure Samantha & Darrin influenced any of my books. However, that's not to say the fantasy of childhood books and sitcoms didn't influence my imagination!! Great post, Cindy!

  6. Oh, I just loved GILLIGAN ISLAND, but eventually had to stop watching b/c I couldn't deal with the disappointment of them never getting off the island, no matter how hard they tried. I was a sensitive kid.

    Seriously though, I loved hearing about how your ideas evolved. What's sad is that I usually can't remember where I got some of my best ideas, and if I do, the story often goes "Well, I was in the shower and it hit me!" or "I was on the toilet, and it occurred to me..." Not sexy at all.