Karen M. Cox is a writer, speech-pathologist, and longtime Jane Austen aficionado. Her first novel, 1932, was published in September 2010, and she wrote her second novel during NaNoWriMo that year. She published Find Wonder in All Things this February, and was awarded an Independent Publishers Book Award.
We caught up with Karen to talk about her latest book, her experience with NaNo, and, of course, her love of Austen.
How did you find out about NaNoWriMo and what convinced you to participate?
My son, who writes fanfiction, heard about NaNoWriMo through one of his high school English teachers. Meryton Press had just released my first novel, and I was planning my sophomore effort. I had an idea for a character and knew I wanted to adapt Jane Austen’s Persuasion, but I was having trouble getting into the project.
My son convinced me to give NaNo a try as a way to put some structure on my writing. We started out together, but alas, he got the flu the first week of November and ended up not winning that year. He still finds it ironic and somewhat annoying that my second published work was the direct result of his pushing me to do the NaNo!
You’ve based your past two published novels on Jane Austen books, adapted her early-1800s romanticism to modern times. How much work goes into that adaptation process, and what do you think makes for a timeless plot?
I wanted the themes in my novels to be as accurate to Austen as I could manage, and yet still be relevant to modern readers. So, I researched by participating in group reads with other fans, reading critiques and annotated versions of her books, and summarizing each chapter with my own notation of the events and how those events illuminated something about the plot or characters.
After I got a good handle on the original timeline, I imagined a modern person walking through that story arc. What would those events look like in today’s world? I wasn’t wedded to every event in the original books—first and foremost, the story had to ring true in the setting I’d chosen. But I tried to elicit the same timeless themes that I gleaned from Jane Austen’s novels.
It’s interesting—when I read her books, I’m always struck by the psychological truths in them: erroneous first impressions in Pride & Prejudice, forgiveness in Persuasion, endurance in Sense & Sensibility, integrity in Mansfield Park. So when I wrote 1932 and Find Wonder in All Things, my objective was to write about those themes in such a way that a reader who might not ever pick up Austen because it seemed too daunting would understand and enjoy them, too.
How do you develop characters? Do you flesh them out before you begin plotting, or do your characters build themselves as you write?
I spend a lot of time at the beginning of a story thinking about and ‘interviewing’ characters. I typically start with a character sketch: a physical, intellectual and emotional description of the character. What he or she looks like, a birthday, childhood fears and wishes, personality characteristics, pets, favorite foods and music, favorite sayings, habits, and (this is significant) character or personality flaws, i.e., challenges that the character must overcome to be a happy and useful person.
Then I’ll start running through the story events from the timeline I’ve made. When an event occurs, I mentally ‘pause the movie,’ turn to him or her and ask, “What are you thinking here? What are you going to do? I bet that made you angry/sad/ecstatic”, etc. Sometimes, because I’ve already worked out a complete person in my head, the answer surprises me. For example, I had a story event occur where I expected a character to be angry. I watched as he turned around, and he was laughing instead! He completely surprised me.
If you could live in any of Jane Austen’s novels, which would it be?
It would depend on which character I got to play—I mean, who wants to be Mrs. Norris, tormenting Fanny Price? Or Willoughby, the 18th century sociopath who seduces innocent young women?
But if we’re talking main characters here, I would have to choose Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet—a little bit of beauty, a lot of brains, some good fortune thrown in for good measure, and a tremendous amount of honesty, resulting in a huge capacity for emotional growth. And she ends up with a cute guy. And a nice house.
Do you have writing, revision, or publishing advice for other NaNoWriMo participants?
- Write every day during NaNoWriMo, if at all possible. The days that I started out ‘behind’ (and they happened during that month, believe me) were tough days.
- When you stop for the day, know where you’re going tomorrow. Write those next couple of lines or a brief chapter summary. It helps eliminate the ‘staring at a blank screen or paper’ syndrome.
- Honestly, and this is hard for me to do myself, resist the urge to edit until you’ve got the thing out of your brain and onto the stone tablet, paper, or screen. I’ll wager that many books don’t ever get written because an author’s overzealous internal editor jumped into the process too soon.
- Find people you trust to give you feedback: whether they be NaNo friends, or a local writing group. I found online friends at a nonprofit Jane Austen website who did this for me. They gave me invaluable feedback because most of them have no agenda besides reading good material.
- Throughout the writing process, treat your book like your child. What I mean is love it, treasure it, brag about it, but be objective and open-minded enough to discipline it—through accepting constructive criticism, editing, rewriting—without losing your long-term vision for when it’s ‘all grown up.’ This is harder than it sounds—you have to weigh others’ opinions without pride and prejudice, yet still stay true to what you want for your ‘child’ in the end.
Writing is work, but most of the time it’s fun work. Lighten up, be open to learning new things, allow yourself to make mistakes and then fix them. And keep writing—always, always, keep writing.
You can find Karen: