The Non-Fiction Novelist

Helping at-work writers to become novelists

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

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

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.exciting life

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 in the 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.

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

  1. allenappel on said:

    Good one.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. Really great insight here.

    I think sometimes, writer or not, it’s tempting to wish for a more interesting life, when really all we need is an altered perspective. I also like the advice of a favorite writing teacher I once had, who used to remind us to “do hard things.” Rather promoting the idea of leading a particularly fascinating life, she encouraged us to take risks and reject the easy options — and the writing would follow. I like that philosophy.

  3. Mine’s been pretty varied up to now, but my grandmother’s and mother’s far more so. However, I haven’t found all this material particularly helpful up to now, because the point is to find the core of what can become interesting for others as well, and then … write about it in a way that really conveys the scenes and emotions! I believe your imagination is the cornerstone you’ll be building on, whatever your life’s like.

    • This is the writer’s conundrum. You want to write what’s important to you, because passionate writing is always best, but you also want it to resonate with others. Readers may not understand the situation you’re in, or comprehend what you’ve been through, but they will feel your emotion – if you’ve done your job. Ain’t easy.

      • Doing our job is what we’re all struggling with here 🙂 Your posts seem to have a good focus, so I’ll be back!

      • Thanks. Not only is the struggle real, but the book business a is moving target for those of us who make a living writing books. The industry is in a period which an author friend of mine likens to the time when silent films moved to talkies. This is mainly due to new technology: e-books. Are you familiar with Amazon’s Kindle Scout program for example? It’s a hybrid of crowdsourcing and traditional publishing. My novel (yes, I’ve moved from non-fiction to fiction) is up for nomination on the program. It’s kinda weird for me to do something like this, being traditionally published my whole career) but I am amused as well as excited about where the book publishing business is going. If you’re curious… http://tinyurl.com/jbf8fs3 What I like is that it’s not self publishing (although there’s nothing wrong with that) but readers vote because they like what they’ve read. It’s not a popularity contest or a test of who’s best at social media. I’m going to do blog about it.

      • I’ll look into it, sounds like an interesting Amazon move

      • Great. Glad you find my posts useful. My next blog will be about Amazon’s Kindle Scout program in which I’m a participant. It’s a hybrid of crowdsourcing and traditional publishing. As someone who has been published by large houses my entire career, it’s a weird experience. In short, people go onto the site, read excerpts of books, and nominate the ones they like. After 30 days, Amazon decides which of the books to publish through their imprint, Kindle Press. If you nominate a book that is selected for publication, you get an early, free copy of the book. The more nominations a book receives, the more likely it gets discovered by the Kindle Scout team. They have the final say, so it’s not just a popularity contest, or an exercise in social media vote-getting, but tantamount to skimming the first few pages of a book and saying: “Hey, this looks promising” or “It’s not really for me.” An author friend of mine likens the tumult in the publishing business – mainly due to e-books – to when silent films moved to talkies. It’s an interesting time we write in. If you’re interested… http://tinyurl.com/jbf8fs3 If you like what you see, nominate my book. There’s no obligation, cost or hassle.

  4. “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.”

    Love this post. Thank you for sharing. I actually started seriously writing after reading “The Godfather” by Mario Puzo because of his way of getting a reader’s attention to the details of the world Puzo created. I have a novel that is not published that has its own mafia world and I’m hoping that my interest for it is still good to continue.

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