Jane Nickerson has always had a feel for words. And she’s always had to convey that feel through writing. Her passion is finding the perfect word for the perfect sentence to convey the atmosphere, emotion, character, picture or thought she wants to bring across. Even as a little girl playing with Barbies, she would imagine the dialogue between them and describe their setting and their clothes.
As an adult, Jane’s love for the written word has translated, ironically, into penning books for young readers. Her first novel, “Strands of Bronze and Gold,” a retelling of the “Bluebeard” tale, released March 12.
“‘Bluebeard’ is a Gothic mystery about a serial killer that somehow found its way into fairy tales, Jane explained to Cracking the Cover. “There’s the mysterious, fabulously wealthy master of a gorgeous house, his terrible secret, and the young girl who, in spite of her innocence manages to thwart his plans and save herself.”
The tale of “Bluebeard” stands out because it’s creepy, Jane says. “Most of us enjoy reading something with a shivery touch of the macabre, as long as we know we’re safe and cozy while we read it.”
Jane used the original tale as a jumping off point, but she definitely wanted to make “Strands of Bronze and Gold” her own. And she says as soon as she started writing, that’s exactly what happened.
“It’s so fun to be an author because you have All Power,” Jane says. “I could place the tale wherever and whenever I wanted to. I could summon up lavish surroundings and gorgeous clothes. I could dream up whatever secondary characters seemed to fit best.”
“Strands of Bronze and Gold” is set in 1850s Mississippi. The setting, Jane says, was a given. “There’s something in me that is homesick for the 1800s, and I’ve always enjoyed historical fiction set in that time period. I actually started out by setting it in 1850s Europe. Then one morning I woke up with the thought in my head that I needed to set it in Mississippi. At the time, we had recently moved to Ontario, Canada, from small town Mississippi and I was missing it.”
The location change turned out to be a good setting for several reasons, Jane said. The book needed to take place in a time period when females had few options, and it also needed to be a time and place when a wealthy man would have great power over a great many people. Mississippi in the 1850s fit the bill. Monsieur de Cressac, the wealthy master, had the power of life and death over his ward, Sophie, and over his servants. “In that setting no one was near enough or had enough authority to question it.”
There were certain things about Jane’s protagonist that were necessary to the story: her age (old enough to marry); her curiosity (she had to poke through her guardian’s past and his home); and her naivety (she couldn’t figure things out quickly).
Other elements, however, came as Sophie’s story progressed. “I decided she and all the wives ought to have red hair as a foil to de Cressac having a blue-ish beard,” Jane said. “Sophie needed to be a bit vain and materialistic in the beginning, so that her head could be turned by her guardian’s compliments and gifts, along with Wyndriven Abbey’s unaccustomed luxury.”
As the story unfolds, Sophie sheds her protected innocence for her feistier, clever side. The more time she spends with Monsieur de Cressac, the more suffocated and isolated she becomes. “As she comprehends this, and as she learns more of her guardian’s past, she grows up quite quickly,” Jane explained. “She ceases to care for fine clothes and fine things, she gains a feeling of responsibility for other people — the servants and her family — and longs to help them. She makes the sacrifice of becoming engaged to de Cressac in order to help her family.”
While every author has their own voice and puts their own individual touch on their work, Jane admits there are a few aspects of “Strands of Bronze and Gold” that make it stand out.
“It has a less frantic pace and is more atmospheric, character-driven, and psychological than your average YA adventure novel — a tribute to the Gothic classics for adults that have gone before,” she says. “I allowed myself to be lavish with descriptions because I enjoy books like ‘Beauty,’ by Robin McKinley, that paint beautifully-written images with words.”
The pre-emancipation setting is also distinctive, Jane says. “Most writers nowadays shy away from that setting because slavery is such a painful and delicate part of American history. I tried to handle the issue with sensitivity and still to be realistic. In fact I studied many slave narratives, which are interviews held with former slaves during the Great Depression, in order to authentically depict it.”
Also of note, Jane says, is Sophie and de Cressac’s relationship. “How he draws her in, uses mind games and tries to take her over completely is something that should be addressed more than it is, because it’s such a current and common danger for females.”
Jane’s fascination with Antebellum Mississippi will continue in two Wyndriven Abbey companion novels. “The Mirk and Midnight Hour,” based on the Scottish “Ballad of Tam Lin,” is set for a March 2014 release, and Jane just finished the first draft of the third novel in the loose trilogy called “Palace of Stone and Shadow.”
*Learn more about Jane Nickerson, including how her writing has evolved and why she writes YA, by reading the complete transcript of her interview with Cracking the Cover.
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