The New Year is bringing us a new Downton Abbey season starting on January 5th. And while we’re stocking up on pop corn and squeeing with excitement about the Sunday premiere, we also thought we needed to do something special on the blog to celebrate the return of Downton to our screens.
Last year, we talked about the controversial and tragic Season 3 finale. Now we’re gearing for the new season with a guest post from author Wendy Wax, whose novel WHILE WE WERE WATCHING DOWNTON ABBEY has riveted many a Downton fan. Here she’s talking about how writing with a Downton Abbey backdrop has changed the way she thinks about her readers.
I try not to think about my readers too much while I’m writing. Not because I don’t care about or appreciate them—I do!—but because worrying about how a reader might react to a character, scene or even a bit of dialogue can—and has!—caused my word flow to screech to a halt.
Thinking about your readers while you’re creating new characters feels a little like kissing someone for the first time in front of an audience. Who do you focus on—the person whose lips are locked with yours? Or the people watching? And what if the people watching aren’t impressed with your technique?
In a novel where you may be in liplock with your characters for 100,000 plus words, you have to get to know them intimately. You need to be firmly planted in their heads in order to make them real. Pondering what anyone else might think about them can cause debilitating (and time sucking) amounts of second-guessing. Which most writers do far too much of already. This is why my critique partners (whom you may have heard of and who therefore shall remain nameless) and I sometimes exchange chapters with subject lines that read ‘I hope this doesn’t suck’ and ‘I hope this doesn’t suck too much.’
My novels revolve around real people in real situations and explore the bonds of friendship that get us through the tough times. I deal with serious subjects, although I do believe that Mary Poppins had it right and therefore use a spoonful of humor to help the harsh realities go down.
Because I typically feature a number of protagonists with interwoven stories, I’m always on the lookout for a new way to bring a cast of decidedly different characters together. I’ve brought them together through a ballroom dance studio, a suburban Little League park, a Ponzi scheme and the publishing industry to name a few. I was in the middle of a weekend long Downton Abbey marathon during which I pretty much inhaled all seven episodes of Season 1 when I discovered why the show had such a large, diverse and ardent fan base. It was then that I started imagining how cool it would be if I could find a way to use my new addiction to bring my characters together.
I knew I wanted Downton Abbey to be at the heart of the story, but I didn’t want the story to be about Downton Abbey; I wanted it to be about my characters. So, despite my strong stance on “kissing readers” as I develop my stories, there was no way to avoid it, I needed to think about who would read my novel. And whether there was a way to write a story that would appeal to die-hard fans and series’ virgins alike. It was thinking about the readers that led me to write what Newsday called ‘possibly the first novel written about fans of the show.’
That novel is WHILE WE WERE WATCHING DOWNTON ABBEY, a story about three strangers and the British concierge of their Midtown Atlanta high-rise, who meet and bond through weekly Downton Abbey viewing parties. The story is about these characters, all at crossroads in their lives, and the unexpected friendships that form between them. Serious fans have definitely noticed that some of the characters are inspired by those living at Downton Abbey both upstairs and down; Samantha Davis, like Lady Mary, is financially responsible for her younger siblings and marries Atlanta ‘Royalty’ (old money) to take care of them while Edward Parker, the building’s British concierge is a modern take on Downton’s butler Charles Carson with a degree from Cornell and George Clooney looks. (A writer has to have her fun!)
Together my characters watch Seasons 1 and 2 unfold. The reader sees bits and pieces of their reactions to the shows, but because the focus is on the characters, their growth and their developing friendship, I was able to make sure that even a reader who’s never seen a single episode of Downton Abbey can enjoy it. In fact, I’ve had lots of emails from readers who’ve enjoyed WHILE WE WERE WATCHING DOWNTON ABBEY and are now watching the series.
Publishers tend to treat book titles like they do covers—as something to draw the reader in and convince them to pick up a book. Writers often prefer titles that actually describe the book and this time that’s exactly what I got. WHILE WE WERE WATCHING DOWNTON ABBEY is just what the title implies: a look at the lives lived and unexpected friendships formed while Samantha Davis, Claire Walker, Brooke Mackenzie, and Edward Parker are watching Downton Abbey.
My experience writing WHILE WE WERE WATCHING DOWNTON ABBEY was a reminder that rules—writing and otherwise—are made to be broken. I still don’t believe that thinking too much about the reader while writing is helpful, but I also know that if I hadn’t stopped to think about the reader—and even ‘kiss’ a few of them before I began, this particular book wouldn’t exist.
About Wendy Wax:
When she’s not writing, Wendy likes to spend some time on Facebook (http://www.Facebook.com/AuthorWendyWax) sharing the conversations about books, Downton and events. She hope you’ll join her there and also at her site (http://www.authorwendywax.com). Follow her on Twitter @Wendy_Wax.
Wendy Wax is the author of eight previous novels. A former broadcaster, she lives in the Atlanta suburbs with her husband and looks forward to visits from her college-aged sons, who have turned her into the shortest member of their family.
You might also like: On Killing Darlings: The ‘Downton Abbey’ Way.