great story, but it’s not mine

A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.

Jorge Luis Borges

If you write fiction, you may have had the experience of having someone try to give you a story she thinks you should write. You may have declined because it wasn’t your story to tell, and you knew it. Or you may have heard a great true story that could serve as the seed for a novel, but declined to use it.

Let me give you some examples.

Suppose you were an aspiring author living in the late 18th century.

Your father’s sister Philadelphia, your aunt, as a young woman sailed off to India to go husband-hunting. Before she finally married someone else, she had an affair with a guy by the name of Warren Hastings who eventually wound up as the first governor-general of India and became a huge figure in the history of the Raj. Historical fiction writers take note.

Later on, Philadelphia would name a daughter Eliza after Hastings’s daughter who had died in infancy. Hastings would not only act as your cousin Eliza’s godfather, but would send his son to live with the brother of his ex-lover Philadelphia. That brother happens to be your father, so as a child you played with a British child who had lived in 18th century India.

Your cousin Eliza later marries a French aristocrat. She visits your home when you are a child, and you hear all the juicy gossip about the French court and life among the aristocracy. The French decide to stage a revolution, Eliza loses her estates, and her husband goes to the guillotine. Eliza is hiding in England with your family during the continental unpleasantness, so you hear all about it. She eventually marries one of your brothers.

The Napoleonic Wars come along, and two of your brothers join the Royal Navy. Between them, they take part in the Battle of San Domingo (last major naval battle of the war), chase a French warship for hundreds of miles, capture another warship using only a small boat (in the middle of a storm, no less), hunt Napoleon’s allies after he escapes from Elba, and fight Greek pirates in the Aegean.

They write long letters about how they are keeping busy that eventually find their way into your hands. During their rare visits home, you get to hear all about their adventures and ask detailed questions.

Your neighbors, people you know quite well, include military heroes, illegitimate children of the great and the good, ruined squires, and factory owners from foreign lands. There is also a Lord Portsmith that the neighbors have noticed gets all hot and bothered around funerals and slaughterhouses.

Lord Portsmith’s attorney schemes and succeeds in marrying his daughter to Lord Portsmith. Lord Byron—yeah, that mad, bad, and dangerous to know, Lord Byron—was an official witness to the wedding.

The new Lady Portsmith fires all the servants and entertains herself thereafter with regular whippings of her husband, the guy with the dead-meat fetish. Who says 18th century English village life was dull?

There is enough material here for half a dozen novels at least. So what do you write? Tragic, failed romances in the exotic India of the eighteenth century? Sea battles and heroes? Do you scoop Dickens on the French revolution or write Gothic horror tales of torture and degradation?

No, you write Pride and Prejudice.

There are writers who would make deals at crossroads at midnight with guys whose eyes glow bright red for that treasure trove of story ideas and plots. Miss Austen didn’t touch it. (And, by the way, she wasn’t a prude, as demonstrated by her letters and her under-the-radar pun in Persuasion about all the gay sex in the Royal Navy.)

Those stories didn’t belong to her, and I think she knew it. They didn’t fit who she was.

Miss Austen wrote the kind of stories that interested her. You can’t please everyone. It’s impossible. Miss Austen knew that. You can’t write other people’s stories. You can only write your own.

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