Can I Write Novels Even if I Haven’t Had an Interesting Life?

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By Larry Kahaner

I came across a blog from Guy Portman titled “10 Famous Authors’ Day Jobs” in which he lists… well…you get it.

What struck me most from reading Guy’s blog post is how many famous authors eventually gave up their day jobs (Natch. They’re famous.) and how many used what they knew from their day jobs and incorporated it into their writings.

Item: Joseph Conrad – (1857 – 1924) – Many of Joseph Conrad’s works have a nautical theme. This is not surprising considering that the author had a 19 year career as a merchant-marine, which began when he left his native Poland as a teenager in 1874.

Item: Arthur Conan Doyle – (1859 – 1930) – The creator of Sherlock Holmes was an important figure in the field of crime fiction. Doyle was also a practicing doctor, whose field of expertise was ophthalmology. He quit medicine to concentrate on writing full time.

Item: Agatha Christie – (1890 -1976) – It was during World War I that prolific author Agatha Christie began writing detective stories. At the time she was employed as an apothecary’s assistant. Her knowledge of poisons was to come in useful in her detective stories.

These authors used what they learned on the job and in life as a springboard for their stories.

But what if you don’t have an interesting job, career or life to draw upon?

There’s no such thing as a boring life.

There’s always something in your past and present that you can look to for ideas and stories. There’s always odd, interesting and compelling people in your life upon which to fashion your characters and stories. You just have to be open.

I have a writing buddy who is working on a memoir and some of the folks he talks about make for fascinating character fodder. At the time, they may not have seemed so interesting, especially to a kid, but when we get older we see their bizarreness and they become highly writeable.

But even if they don’t seem so interesting now. It’s okay.

Think of a person that you know and make him or her weirder, odder, funnier or sadder. Look for the peculiar detail that others have missed. Embellish the small but compelling parts. Expand their quirk. Exaggerate a tic.

One last thought. Here’s the entry for Bram Stoker: “Stoker is best remembered for his seminal work Dracula, but he also wrote 11 other novels and 3 collections of short stories. The author spent 27 years working as an acting manager and business manager for Irving’s Lyceum Theatre in London.”

I haven’t read his other 11 novels but I can bet his job figured into these works. As for Dracula, Stoker’s inspiration reportedly came from a visit to Slains Castle in Aberdeenshire and a visit to the crypts of St. Michan’s Church in Dublin. My guess is that these creepy places produced a strong emotional reaction in Stoker which then formed the basis for his vampire novel. Another person, though, maybe not so much.

That’s the crux of it. What produces a strong emotion in you–a person, place or thing–is what you should be writing about.

 

 

Guest post contributed by Larry Kahaner. His articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune, and Popular Science. Currently, he is the editor of Silver News, a publication of The Silver Institute. Check out more of his posts at his blog.

 

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11 thoughts on “Can I Write Novels Even if I Haven’t Had an Interesting Life?”

  1. I have examined that exact question endlessly in my mind and come to the same conclusion that you put down, “there’s no such thing as a boring life.” How to demonstrate that in writing is the challenge. Thanks for the affirmation and the good direction.

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  2. Jane Austen led a sheltered life. So did the Bronte sisters, for the most part. But their books are read today. Don Quixote, the first true novel was written in debtor’s prison. Pilgrim’s Progress was started in prison. …And Ladies of the Club was written in a nursing home. It was the author’s first novel (she was over 70.)

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  3. The first book I published, Time Trip: A Dinosaur Musical, was the direct result of a day job. (Technically, it was more of a gig than an actual job.) My friend teaches at a Montessori school and needed a dinosaur play for her students. I wrote the play and I also helped with scenery, costumes, and props– all of which made it into the book. Also, I have a degree in education and have worked with kids in various settings, which is how I got the gig in the first place.

    My work with kids has influenced my next-to-be-published book, Red Flags, albeit in a more roundabout way. Since it’s a coming-of-age story, my background in child psychology is useful in depicting how my main character thinks and behaves at certain ages and how she responds to different events.

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  4. I’m glad this was posted. For a long time, I struggled with this because I felt I didn’t have enough of an interesting life to flesh out plots and create characters based upon friends I know.

    Now, I can understand why the cliché, “Write what you know” has such merit. There is gold in the everyday life. It just a matter of being open-minded b

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  5. Read an interesting book by Sara Maitland called The Book of Silence. She makes a note that a lot of genres have been written by famous hermits and recluses with the exception of fiction or at least novels. Maitland herself no longer writes novels, though she enjoys writing things like The Book of Silence, How to Be Alone, and numerous short stories and essays. If you agree with her, you can still be an introverted novelist, but it pays to have a little social life and at least a few friends to talk to regularly.

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