Let’s Pretend by Merrilee Robson

Merrilee Robson (left) and her sister, Lorraine, visiting with Jane Austen at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England (photo courtesy of the author)

Writers are often asked about how they create their stories.

For me, occasionally, the story comes like a bolt from the blue. A character springs to mind—standing in a foggy city street or in the wings of a theatre, ready for action—and the story almost writes itself.

Most of the time, though, the process is more circuitous. I have a glimmer of an idea. Maybe a situation. Or a character. I ponder it, asking myself, “What if?”

In many ways, it’s like kids playing.

“Let’s pretend,” we’d say, and suddenly we’d be princesses or pirates. We might find ourselves in a sword fight or serving the mud in the backyard as chocolate ice cream at a tea party.

For me, “Tired of Bath,” my first story published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, started on a trip to England and a visit to Winchester Cathedral, where Jane Austen is buried.

It’s not a modest gravesite. The cathedral is an imposing building, holding the graves of Saxon kings and church dignitaries.

But the gravestone itself does not mention that she is a writer. She is described as “youngest daughter of the late Rev George Austen,” and the tribute is simply a loving one from her family:

The benevolence of her heart,
the sweetness of her temper, and
the extraordinary endowments of her mind
obtained the regard of all who knew her and
the warmest love of her intimate connections.

Some years later her family added a wall plaque which does mention that she was “known to many by her writings.” But, when we visited, there was also a large banner marking her grave.

And I couldn’t help thinking, “What would she have thought of this?”

She no doubt would have been delighted that people were still reading and loving her books. But what would a woman who lived a quiet life devoted to her writing and family have thought of all the fanfare, of her picture on the ten-pound note?

The question came to mind a few years later, when my sister and I, on a tour of English gardens, spent an afternoon in Bath.

Of course, we had to visit the Jane Austen Centre, a very entertaining and informative museum of Jane Austen’s time in Bath.

Merrilee Robson being “ever more impressed by Jane Austen’s writing after discovering how hard it is to write with a quill pen.” (photo courtesy of the author)

But, again, I had to wonder. Would she have liked her name emblazoned on a building on a street where she had lived? I could imagine how amazed she would be to hear about a festival celebrating her life and work. And what would she think about her stories being brought to life in film.

Would she enjoy the many homages to her work, from Bridget Jones to zombies, or would they make her angry?

And that’s what I got to explore in this story, set in Bath and involving a stolen manuscript.

Of course, there’s always research to be done for a short story, from reading Jane Austen letters to checking maps.

But the fun part is always the “what if?” The “let’s pretend!”

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