Once upon a time there was a romance novelist who was an idiot.
That would be me.
I’m kidding – kind of. It is certainly true that when asked to do an Austen retelling (this book had its origins with a traditional publisher that commissioned it, but I ended up publishing it myself) I didn’t think about what that would really mean. I’d written Regency romances, and I’d written m/m romances, so a m/m Persuasion (which I chose from among Austen’s books for the following strategic and well-thought-out reason: it’s my favorite) seemed like an ideal mash-up for me.
Fast forward to months later when I’m shaking my fist at the sky cursing myself.
Writing books is hard. But writing this book was harder than the usual hard. I encountered two main problems.
The first had to do with the plot. The set-up for Persuasion is that the heroine, Anne Elliot, rejected Captain Frederick Wentworth, even though she loved him, under pressure from her family and from a trusted family friend who thought the match was beneath her. She came to regret this decision. At the opening of the book, her family has fallen on hard times and Wentworth’s sister’s husband has bought the family estate. This means Wentworth, who has gone out into the world and made something of himself, comes back into Anne’s life.
It turned out to be almost impossible to imagine a modern-day scenario in which an economically independent adult would be so swayed by his family. The temptation would have been to make the story about the closet, to make Adam (my “Anne”) closeted and not strong enough, because of his family and upbringing, to claim Freddy (my “Captain Wentworth”) as his. It would have worked perfectly. But I didn’t want to write an “out for you” story. I’d done that recently (with Infamous), and though I’m not against the trope, I think it should be used sparingly. We’ve moved beyond that. Queer romances should be about everything: older brother’s best friends, secret babies, small town shenanigans. Not just “do I love you enough to come out?”
To be honest, I’m not sure I fully solved this problem. In my retelling, Adam is heavily swayed by his family because he’s a loner, an outsider in his town. The influential family friend is his only friend. I also tried to overlay an extreme love of place on his arc. His family owns a vineyard. He loves it dearly, and it functions as a true haven for him. He can’t imagine living anywhere else. So the price he would have to pay to be with Freddy is not just a loss of family but a loss of home – of literal roots (because it’s a vineyard: ha ha, see what I did there?). But as I said, I’m not sure I fully succeeded in making the underlying premise believable. We will leave that judgement to reviewers.
The second, bigger problem had to do with backstory: namely, Persuasion relies on it utterly. Everything that happens in the real time of the story is based on stuff that happened eight years earlier. The past intrudes a great deal more than in other books. Not only does it drive the plot, it has shaped the main characters to such an extent that it’s made them who they are.
Austen, of course, didn’t need to worry about having “too much backstory” in her book. But modern romance audiences, authors are forever being told, don’t want it. They won’t wade through it. It bogs a story down. We could have a debate about genre fiction and audience expectations, but I took this premise to be true.
So then how to retell Persuasion without backstory?
It turns out you can’t.
I went into this book determined that there would be no flashbacks. It’s commonly held that flashbacks are lazy writing. Again, we could have a debate about that, but in general, I agree (though I cheerfully admit to having used my fair share of them). Flashbacks are an easy way to cram the necessary info into the reader’s mind – you can just dump it all in in one dose rather than weaving it into the story more judiciously, which is generally considered to be the better option.
I got through a first draft of this book without any flashbacks. But that draft was flat and clunky. It was necessarily interspersed with long chunks of backstory because, again, you simply cannot tell the story of Persuasion without telling about the characters’ pasts. You can’t (or at least I couldn’t) judiciously weave with this particular book. Enter the flashbacks. Very short ones I intended to be little hits that immersed the reader in the early stages of Freddy and Adam’s relationship. We see little emblematic bits of them falling in love and of doubt creeping in as Adam is “persuaded.” This lightened the modern-day story: we could proceed without having to do the backstory slog. Again, I’m not sure I fully succeeded. The first two chapters of this story are Backstory Central. I didn’t see any way around it – or if there was one, it was above my pay grade!
For me, the process of editing and revising a book is about identifying and solving that book’s problems, often with a lot of help from an editor. At the end, the problems have been solved. (To the best of my ability, and in my opinion. Of course that doesn’t mean a reader or reviewer will feel the same!) Undue Influence is the first book I published feeling like I had not fully solved its problems. I couldn’t solve them, it didn’t feel like, without changing the premise of the book and given that this is retelling, I couldn’t change the premise of the book. So in the end, I had to learn to live with them. It’s a weird feeling!
Second chances only come around once.
Eight years ago, Adam Elliot made the biggest mistake of his life. Now that mistake is coming back to haunt him. His family’s beloved vineyard has gone into foreclosure, and the new owner is the sister of the only man he’s ever loved—the man he dumped under pressure from family and friends who thought the match was beneath him.
When Freddy Wentworth, aka the bad boy of Bishop’s Glen, left town with a broken heart, he vowed never to return. But a recently widowed friend needs his help, so here he is. He’s a rich and famous celebrity chef now, though, so everyone can just eff right off.
But some things are easier said than done. Despite their attempts to resist each other, old love rekindles—and old wounds reopen. If they want to make things work the second time around, they’ll have to learn to set aside their pride—and prejudice.
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Jenny Holiday started writing at age nine when her awesome fourth grade teacher gave her a notebook and told her to start writing some stories. That first batch featured mass murderers on the loose, alien invasions, and hauntings. (Looking back, she’s amazed no one sent her to a kid-shrink.) She’s been writing ever since. After a detour to get a PhD in geography, she worked as a professional writer, producing everything from speeches to magazine articles. Later, her tastes having evolved from alien invasions to happily-ever-afters, she tried her hand at romance. Today she is a USA Today bestselling author of all sorts of romance novels: contemporary and historical, straight and gay. She lives in London, Ontario, with her family.