11/27/2012 09:16 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2013

The Literary Mash-Up

Jane Nardin is the author of Little Women in India ($10.99, New Dawn Publishers)

Originally referring to music, the evocative term "mash-up" describes what happens when two or more songs are mixed together in an original and playful way. Of course, the mixture can't be random. It has to work towards some artistic end.

A literary mash-up, by extension, is a work that draws on multiple sources of inspiration, creating something new in the process. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the mash-up lets an artist flatter several predecessors at once.

A couple of years ago, I got tired of writing literary criticism and decided to try my hand at fiction. I have always loved novels for older children and young adults, and my tastes are not at all unusual. Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House stories, Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy books, and Sydney Taylor's All of a Kind Family series are my favorites--I like all the usual suspects in the "girls growing up" genre. At the time, I was doing a lot of reading about the great mutiny of 1857, which came quite close to booting the British out of India. I wondered if I could write the story of an English family caught up in this violent cataclysm.

The first thing I would need, I realized, was a plot. Admittedly, I tried to invent one and failed miserably. But I thought that I might 'borrow' one. It occurred to me that Louisa May Alcott's perennially popular Little Women takes place during the American Civil War, just a few years after the mutiny. A young adult novel, with a plot based loosely on Alcott's, might work quite well. The time period was right. The wartime background would fit.

Then too, Little Women is not tightly plotted. Each of its largely self-contained episodes points a moral: Meg March, the oldest sister, resorts to the curling iron when she wants to look extra-pretty for a party, burns off her bangs, and learns a lesson about the dangers of vanity. The novel bounces from one such episode to another. But its overarching plot structure is very simple. The girls' are left to cope on their own when their mother goes to nurse their father, who has fallen ill while serving as an army chaplain. This episodic, yet simple plot would be easy to adapt to a different setting.

One issue stopped me -- the tone of Little Women seemed all-wrong for the 21st century. Like other Victorians who wrote for children, Alcott hoped to uplift her readers. Thus Little Women's tomboy heroine, Jo, gradually realizes that what she wants most of all is to find true love. She puts her literary ambitions aside in favor of marriage and motherhood. Jo 's saintly sister Beth, who lives to serve others, incarnates a very Victorian version of ideal femininity. Too good for this world, Beth drifts out of life, literally becoming the angel that she has always been in spirit. Don't get me wrong--Alcott doesn't slap Jo down viciously. Jo remains Jo, even as she is chastened into mature womanhood.

But even so, a contemporary novel for young adult readers can't simply endorse Alcott's highly dated morality of feminine self-limitation or valorize a moribund character like Beth. I felt sure that my characters and their growth trajectory shouldn't come from Little Women. And this is where Austen and the "mash-up" came in. I remembered that Austen's liveliest heroines learn life lessons without suffering any diminution in the process. Even in her darkest hours, Elizabeth Bennet is still able to laugh. Humor is definitely not Alcott's strong point, though she sometimes attempts it. Could Austen and Alcott somehow be combined? Could Alcott's didactic lump be leavened with a bit of Austen's wit and irony? Could Austen-based characters be inserted into an Alcott-based plot? Well, yes, they could. The mash-up approach allows a writer to exploit contrasts and tensions between her sources.

So I started thinking about the details. What, for example, could I possibly do with Marmee, Alcott's annoyingly all-wise matriarch, who points the moral of nearly every episode? Her daughters find her moralizing so helpful that they actually ask for more: "Do let me bring that wicked boy over to... be lectured," Jo tells Marmee when a friend misbehaves. There was no way a mother like that was going to fly in our anti-authoritarian era. But perhaps I could replace Marmee with a version of Mrs. Bennet. What about a comic British mother who shudders at the way Hinduism mixes sexuality and religion? In writing a mash-up, you have to make hundreds of small "adaptive" decisions like this one. The mash-up can help you to think about plot and characterization in a structured way -- and writing a mash-up is a lot of fun.

Combining Alcott with Austen was a significant undertaking. After all, it's a universally acknowledged truth that Austen can't be beaten at her own game. You'd have to be a megalomaniac even to try it. But Austen can be drawn on for inspiration or even plundered for ideas. (See Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary and Amy Heckerling's Clueless) So in the end, I knew I couldn't write like Austen, but I asked Austen to help me take Alcott's Little Women in a new, 21st-century direction.