Getting to Know You: Appropriating the Story

When I decided to take on the challenge of re-writing another author’s story, one that was well-received in its own day (more later about why I decided to try this crazy experiment),  I knew that I needed to find a story that I could make my own, without have to completely re-imagine it. I needed a story that would not simply appeal to readers today, but one that would appeal to me — enough to keep me writing and polishing until my new version is in publishable form. But it also needed to be story in which I could see room for improvement — or at least room for me to put my mark on it —  lest the project result in little more than a lengthy exercise in technique.

So my task from the beginning was two-fold: to find a suitable story, and then to find ways to make it my own.

The easy part — finding a story

Because of my background in studying and teaching classic literature, I had toyed more than once with the idea of re-telling a classic tale from a fresh perspective. (In fact, I think I even tried re-writing Homer’s Odyssey a few years ago, before I realized that I could never do as good a job as Homer himself.) For the most part, though, I like to read modern (i.e., post-eighteenth century) novels in popular genres — and so does most of the American reading public — so I decided to choose something a little less “classic”  in a more popular vein. I needed something in the public domain that had “good bones” but no great literary pretensions.

So, I looked for stories that were popular in their own day, but have since fallen out of copyright and into the public domain. I found plenty of candidates on websites such as FeedBooks and Project Gutenberg , so I narrowed the list of possibilities  by reading through  reader reviews in places like Goodreads, Amazon, and Feed Books. I ruled out any kind of story I don’t enjoy myself (Gothic novels? No, thanks. Pulp science fiction?  John Scalzi has that covered), which left me, for the most part, with frontier adventures, early spy novels, and mysteries. After jotting down a couple dozen titles, I picked a few of the likeliest-looking ones and gave them a read.

The first three candidates all passed my sniff test, because their plots were well-shaped and the stories interesting. These three includ: an adventure story with a touch of melodrama and elements of mystery, set in the frozen north; an amateur spy story that takes place in England shortly before the beginning of the Great War (World War I to you youngsters); and a classic murder mystery featuring an amateur sleuth who manages to out-think the police of Edwardian London.

With three solid candidates, I stopped reading and decided to pick one to start with. Since I’ve always wanted to write a murder mystery (I cut my teeth on Nancy Drew when I was about seven), I decided to go with the amateur sleuth story, a carefully-plotted mystery in which the murder itself is fairly straightforward, but a whole, long skein of motive and evidence has to be unwound before the killer can be identified. The author of the original version spent his talent on devising an intricate plot with a long series of clues and witnesses that had to come to light in just the right order, so I don’t need to worry much about the plot; instead, I’ll focus on the things that I want to do, namely, turning his cut-out characters into three-dimensional figures with minds of their own,  and showing how the solution of the crime affects each of them.

What’s in a name?

My first step in making the story my own has been to rename all the characters. I hadn’t planned to do this, but in the original story (which I will call simply The Original Story for the time being), there was nary a single name that rolled easily off the tongue. In fact, one reviewer commented that the author seems to have gone out of his way to pick names that would be difficult to say. The problem was not venerable English surnames whose spellings don’t seem to match their pronunciation, such as Cholmondeley, which is pronounced “Chumley,” or Beauchamp, which is often pronounced “Beecham.” No, I’m referring to names that look fine on the page,  but simply lack euphony. If you picked a page of The Original Story and tried to read it aloud, you would find yourself stumbling to pronounce the names. I want my story to be stumble-free from beginning to end, so at least some of those awkward names would have to go.

Details matter. The original author invented an emblem and a motto for his fictitious peerage.

Still, I was a bit diffident about changing names. This was a very English story, full of very English characters who inhabit a very class-conscious period of English history; I, on the other hand, am an American living a century later with only the vaguest notion of what a particular surname might hint about the person who bore it. So I started doing a little research on the names I would be replacing, looking for alternatives that would suggest a similar social stratum, geographical origin, history, and/or personal genealogy.

The first thing I discovered was that several of the original names were completely made up. A Google search did not reveal any other instance of them on the internet, besides The Original Novel. So our Very English Author apparently made up some very English-sounding names that no one has ever been named — already I’m feeling better about getting rid of them, so out they go! Whee! That was refreshing! I replace them with real English names that I don’t have to make up.

However, although I didn’t have to make up my new, substitute names, I did have to look them up for the sake of authenticity — to make sure they the sort of name that particular kind of character might have, and to make sure that they had the same connotations as the originals. It turns out this was a worthwhile exercise, because apparently the original Author chose his names very deliberately. Unlike Heinz-57, instant-everything America, where no one stays in one place more than 10 minutes, England is (or, at least, was a century ago) a country rooted in tradition, full of people whose ancestors had inhabited the same area and (in many cases) pursued the same vocations, for hundreds of years; English surnames tell a lot about those the history and social strata of those who have inherited them, and even more about their ancestors far back into history.

Some of the surnames I researched were Anglo-Norman, and in The Original Book these are invariably assigned to members of what would have been “the ruling class” in 1920 — if not actually members of the aristocracy, then at least gentlefolk of the leisure class, or members of venerable professions such as law and medicine, members of Parliament, or the clergy.

I also found surnames with even longer pedigrees, rising from Anglo-Saxon origins that predate the Norman Conquest. In The Original Book, such names are often assigned to characters who, in the story, left their ancestral English homes to try their chances in the Colonies. Our murder victim, as well as a number of other characters, fits in this category — decent, honorable men who prospered in frontier countries such as Australia, in a way they might never have done back home in England. It’s as if they had to escape the confines of English class-consciousness in order to fulfill their true potential.

Still other names in the Book referred to the places of origin of a character or his/her ancestors. Whenever I replaced such a name, I tried to find another springing from the same region, a town of similar size and history. There were a few (very few) names of very minor characters in the story that were just so perfect I didn’t bother to change them at all.

Naming is claiming

In the end, I wound up renaming almost every character — first name and last. Not because it was really necessary, but because I found that, by assigning new names to the characters, I was somehow making them my own. Having named them, I now can imagine better not just their personal histories and upbringing, but their family histories and character. I feel closer to them and more responsible for them. I can see them better in my mind’s eye, hear their thoughts more clearly, and feel their emotions more deeply.

Thus I find that, even before I start analyzing the story to see how it’s put together, I’m gaining a more intimate knowledge of what makes it work, by better understanding the characters. In my mind, they are already more than simply players on the Author’s stage, tasked with entrances and exits, lines to deliver and information to pass along. When they appear on the page I shall write, they will be my own, not the creations of the original Author,  but of this author, who will invest them with anxieties, preoccupations, and aspirations that the original may never have dreamed of.

Next time, I’ll write about some other elements of my preparation to re-write this murder mystery from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

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This post originally appeared on Twice-Told Tales blog.

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