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By Janet Mullany
One new historical trend is the use of first-person narration. We asked Janet Mullany to explain why she wrote The Rules of Gentility (Aug., Avon A) this way and what she wants readers to take away from it. She includes insights from fellow authors.
Jane Austen never did it. Charles Dickens did it occasionally. But chick lit writers do it nearly all
the time. I'm talking about the use of the first-person voice --
the "I," be it the hero or heroine, as narrator.
When I started writing The Rules of Gentility , I planned it as a sort of Regency-era Bridget Jones's Diary; I wanted that lively, in-your-face quality, but with a historical tone.
I hoped readers would laugh with, and sometimes at, my characters and find their language both authentic and accessible. In my mind, the book demanded to be written from the hero's and heroine's unique perspectives.
Leslie Carroll, who writes her contemporary novels (like Herself, Mar., Avon) in first person, used the same technique in her historical novel Too Great a Lady (Feb., NAL), about Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson. Using the pen name Amanda Elyot, Carroll utilized the correspondences between Hamilton and Nelson to find her own -- and Emma's -- voice. And first person? Says Carroll: "It never occurred to me
to write it any other way."
Syrie James, the author of the upcoming novel The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen (2008, HarperCollins), says that "the first-person perspective allows the reader to connect emotionally and better share the narrator's experience, to see what they see and feel what they feel."
But, she adds, "We know and love Austen's voice. Writing in the first person in this case was intimidating, to say the least!"
I had a great deal more freedom with my entirely fictional characters and found that present tense went along naturally with the first-person voice. I was aware of my own participation
in what my character "sees."
I couldn't write in real time, with equal weight given to every gesture and movement, and I had to be very specific in my choices of what I hid or revealed. If my heroine didn't notice something important happening, I had to keep her "in character," while I, as the author, decided how high she should score on the cluelessness scale.
As Carroll says, "The author is not holding the camera; you get only one point of view."
James agrees. "First person is limiting. Everything must be told within the character's perspective." However, she adds, "I felt that these 'disadvantages' were actually strengths. What could be better than to read a tale told in Jane Austen's own words?"
But if you're not channeling a real person, it's all up to you and your characters. I chose to write The Rules of Gentility in two voices, so I'd have the pleasure of inhabiting (temporarily) the hero's head -- seeing the heroine through his eyes and watching him fall in love. Like my heroine Philomena, I found that I had to break the rules to find what I really wanted.
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