Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How Jane Austen and Phyllis A. Whitney Taught Me to Write

I like to write about things that mess with our minds, that crawl inside our heads and twist reality. I like to write about how we think we know something and we don't; or how we suddenly discover something that was there all the time, we just couldn't see it. Whether it be social prejudices or Bigfoot in the backyard, the topics that make us stop and totally revamp our outlook on something or someone is what intrigues me both as a writer and a reader. As I look back on the books I read as a teen - even though the genres run the gamut between mystery and contemporary, horror and romance, sci-fi and historical, classics and thrillers - they all had that same theme. Although there were many, many authors that influenced my writing, two stand out: Jame Austen and Phyllis A. Whitney.

I read everything Austen growing up. The struggles Austen created between her characters' desires (love, independence, adventure) and what society expected always grabbed me. I think because even though I didn't live in that era, the stories echoed my own struggles to be someone other than what everyone expected - and okay, yes, I was also hoping there was a Knightley or Darcy out there, waiting for me.  My all-time favorite is Emma. I absolutely love how Emma gets herself into such trouble because she misses key social clues - especially in her own life (her relationship with Knightley is one of my favorites, seconded only by that of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice). What I love most though is that what Emma thinks she knows and what is truth tangles her in a web of misunderstandings. That tangled web is what I strive for when I am plotting a book. I like to make my characters do things or say things that get them further and further into trouble. Cruel? Maybe, but the fun is watching them get themselves out of it and they are better people for it.

Growing up I also read everything Phyllis A. Whitney. In my opinion, she is the Queen of  Mystery, and her books taught me how to keep the reader on the edge of their seat, turning the pages, and guessing until the very end. While her books were grounded in reality, there was always just enough of the unknown, a tiny taste of the paranormal or supernatural, to keep you huddled in the corner, nerves on edge while you devoured every word. Her books took me all over the world in intriguing set-ups with mysteries to solve or ghosts to find. She threw me in head first and kept me reading, heart-pounding, every time. I love that aspect - and strive to do the same when I write.

My novel BLIND SPOT a contemporary thriller, has a little bit of both Austen and Whitney in it and explores what it is like to be blind, both physically and emotionally, to the things around you. I hope you'll check it out when it debuts in Fall of 2012.


  1. Ooo, I read a little Phyllis A. Whitney as a kid, too! There was one called THE GOLDEN UNICORN I reread a couple times because it had a unicorn necklace. Yeah, I had a thing about unicorns. :D

  2. Laura, I love that you can torture your characters. I'm really working on this. And what better role models to have than Austen and Whitney. Even though Emma drives me crazy, that book is so well-plotted and rife with conflict. Great post!

  3. Nice post, Laura. I read so much growing up, how did I overlook Phyllis A. Whitney? Come to think of it, I didn't discover Jane Austen until she was required reading for college either.

  4. Can't wait for your book, Laura. As I've mentioned, blindness is a huge part of our family's life. To hear you're inspired by Austen just makes us all the more excited!

  5. Jodi, I remember that one! Eve, yeah, Emma can be crazy-making, but that's why I love her character so much; I think if there was such a thing as 'YA' when Austen was writing, Emma would've been published as such. Kristin, you should try to find some Whitney and read her. I bet Maya would like her :) and Anne, thank you! I can't wait to meet your daughter :)