How I Came to Write JAFF





I started writing my first book at the age of nine. I got as far as the end of chapter one before I ran out of ideas. As I recall, the chapter was all of two handwritten pages long. My mother thought it was wonderful and kept it for years. Easily impressed, my mother. As the years passed, I kept writing. Entries in my diary, some (terrible) poetry, a longish fairy tale, and some short stories made it out of my head and onto paper by the time I graduated from high school. It wasn’t enough to make me believe I could write as a profession.

I really wanted to get married right out of high school (school was not my favorite thing), but no one wanted to marry me. So I went to UCLA and majored in English with a minor in creative writing. More short stories came from that, but no husband. Stalling for time, I went to Cal State Northridge for graduate school (in English, naturally–I can’t do anything else). While there, I managed to write a chapter for a textbook. This would have been nice to add to my writing credentials, except that it was a chapter on how to run a personnel office in a community college–a subject that inspires no confidence in editors and literary agents as to my abilities to write fiction.

Having gained an M.A., I settled down to teach English in a small liberal arts college. I got to teach literature, research, and writing, and was so busy that I had no time to write anything but journal entries where I lamented my single state and hoped that I wouldn’t have to teach forever. At last I was set up on a blind date with an Irish seminary student who proposed after three months (and three dates!) and I got to give up my career and be a full-time homemaker. Loved it. We moved to Ireland, and along with caring for the children that came along, I started to write again.   

Why Jane Austen fiction? I had discovered Jane Austen in college, when I was required to read Pride and Prejudice. I had always avoided it because the title sounded similar to War and Peace, and I am allergic to depressing Russian novels.  I was delighted to discover that Austen’s novel is nothing like Tolstoy’s. In the next few years I read the rest of her novels on my own.

I bought my first copy of Emma in Edinburgh, Scotland on June 8, 1994 (I still have the book, and that’s the date I wrote on the title page). I was on my own version of the Grand Tour–my parents and I had together scraped up enough money for me to spend a month traveling in the British Isles as a sort of graduation trip from college. I remember buying Emma from a shop called “James Thin, Booksellers” and sitting down to read it in some kind of public park not far away. I think Emma was the third Austen book I read.

Anyway, I read Emma as I traveled around Scotland. I went to a place called Oban because someone had told me it was beautiful. It was, but there was nothing to do there but gaze at the boats in the harbor, and shop. Shopping was out of the budget, and once you have stood and stared at the sea for an hour you start to feel conspicuous, so I went back to my bed and breakfast and read the rest of Emma.

I was the perfect reader for such a book–gullible, unsuspicious, and completely taken off guard by the ending. For some reason, early in the book, I had got a mental picture of Mr. Knightley as a short, middle-aged man, slightly pudgy and sporting a mustache (!). With that image in my mind, everything he said and did could be easily interpreted as the actions of a benevolent, caring, uncle-type. I was as shocked as Emma when he declared himself. Of course, I wasn’t sure that such a pudgy man with a mustache should be the romantic hero, and the end was a little unsatisfying in that regard. However, a few more readings allowed me to alter my mental picture, and the ending became the standard by which all other novels are judged.

It was a few years later that the internet really took off and with it, Jane Austen websites and fan fiction. I read the books of Pamela Aidan and Susan Kaye online as they being written, and was captivated. I had a decided longing to do for George Knightley what they had done for Mr. Darcy and Captain Wentworth. It took me several years (I am one of the world’s slowest writers), but the George Knightley, Esquire duology was finished in 2011. I wrote a  few novellas for the A Very Austen anthologies in the next few years, but it took until 2022 for me to publish another JAFF novel, Much Ado About Persuasion. Did I mention that I’m a slow writer?

However, ideas are percolating for a sequel to Emma. Ever wonder what Mrs. Elton’s relatives, the Sucklings, made of Highbury when they eventually condescended to visit? Me too! I miss Highbury and its denizens, and can hardly wait to revisit them. What about you? Which characters from Emma would you most like to read more about?

17 responses to “How I Came to Write JAFF”

  1. Bronwen Chisholm Avatar

    No matter how long it took/takes you to write, it is well worth it. Like you, I played around with writing for years, finishing only one book (which is probably on its 100th rewrite with no publishing date in sight) before I started writing JAFF. Part of me is jealous of one of the young writers I mentor – she is twenty and has already had work published in anthologies and e-zines – but everyone walks their own path at their own pace.
    So glad you are working on another book and can’t wait to read it!

    1. Barbara Cornthwaite Avatar

      I hope yours gets published eventually! I’d love to read it!

  2. Susan Kaye Avatar
    Susan Kaye

    It has been a pleasure getting to know you Barbara. I have always said that you and Pamela Aidan are the best writers of JAFF, bar none. Your use of language leaves me in awe. Though, as my editor, you know my use of language is rather rough and tumble. Thanks for the years.

    1. Barbara Cornthwaite Avatar

      Susan, that’s about the highest compliment I’ve ever been paid! Thank you! And I do enjoy your writing. 🙂

  3. Regina Jeffers Avatar

    Like you, I was an English teacher for 40 years, though I chose public schools, despite having a Ph.D. I wanted to “teach,” not do research. I have written multiple articles and chapters for published sites and textbooks, basically on teaching “reading” or on media literacy. Nonfiction. I did not write my first Austen book (first attempt at fiction) until year 37 of those 40 years, and, even then, it was on a dare from a student. Yet, it was the right time, for JAFF was being picked up by several traditional publishers. By word of mouth, my Darcy’s Passions, which incidentally turned 14 years old yesterday, went to #8 on the Amazon sales list, and I was offered a contract from Ulysses Press. We just never know why people turn to Jane Austen again and again, but we are all certainly glad they do. Keep writing. We need more stories of Austen’s characters.

    1. Barbara Cornthwaite Avatar

      It is an incredible achievement to have taught for that long! Your students were blessed to have someone with so much knowledge AND commitment to them!

  4. Riana Everly Avatar

    I also have a collection of unfinished and dreadful things I’ve written over the years, mostly from when I was very young and which I’d forgotten about entirely until my mother started giving them to me. And Emma was the first Austen I read as well, although I was 11 at the time and probably understood about a quarter of it.
    As for what next from Emma, I would love to know more about Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill’s relationship. They seem so mismatched, but one never knows….

    1. Barbara Cornthwaite Avatar

      I agree about Frank and Jane. If he really did mature (surely Jane saw the seeds of something admirable in him!), they might have had a very successful married life. Although I suspect he would never outgrow his tendency to tease and play practical jokes …

  5. Kirstin Odegaard Avatar

    Your own love story must be inspiration too–a proposal after 3 dates! And whisked away to Ireland! There must be some stories in there.
    I am also a little weirded out by Mr. Knightley acting as an uncle figure turned lover, but I try not to think about it too hard. I second Riana’s interest in Jane and Frank! Jane is the more traditional Austen heroine–poor, swept up by a rich guy. She’s like the secret second heroine, and that’s intriguing.
    Thanks for sharing your journey to becoming a writer.

    1. Barbara Cornthwaite Avatar

      Well, that’s an idea–to put my own romance into a book. It was a fairly wild ride there at the beginning! Thanks for your comment. 🙂

  6. Catherine Hemingway Avatar

    The pandemic was my impetus to write JAFF. After decades in high tech marketing I suddenly had time on my hands and an idea. I wanted to bring characters from all of Jane’s novels into a single storyline. After mapping out the possible connections I was compelled to write it. I’m thrilled to have found a publisher and “The Matchmaker of Pemberley: An amorous sequel to all Jane Austen’s novels” will be released this Spring. I’m so inspired by the commitment and creativity of fan fiction writers everywhere. It’s amazing to be part of the group. I’m 75 and soon to be a first time novelist. You’re never too old to try something new.

    1. Barbara Cornthwaite Avatar

      Congratulations on having your book published what a fun idea!

  7. Corrie Avatar

    I love this! You have such a funny turn of phrase, and I’m so glad you are part of AlwaysAusten. Looking forward to see what you end up writing next!

    1. Barbara Cornthwaite Avatar

      Thank you, Corrie! I’ll try to write faster this time …. 🙂

  8. cindie snyder Avatar
    cindie snyder

    Great way to get your start! Hope your writing keeps up well.Looking forward to your next book!

  9. chautonahavig Avatar

    There’s always Orla… I’ve been waiting for her… and waiting for her…

    As for Highbury, there are so many people I wish I’d known more about. Like Ford’s. Who runs this place? And what about Robert Martin’s sisters? And… oh, boy. I could go all day. I know we’re supposed to care about the upper classes, but I always feel like knowing more about the common folk helps us get a better picture of the whole of everyone.

    1. Barbara Cornthwaite Avatar

      Great thoughts, Chautona!

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