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Where Do Novel Ideas Come From?

The answer is simple, of course: Novel ideas come from right inside your head, either from memories of real experiences or from your imagination.

Everything that has ever happened to you, from your first memory to the present day, is stored in your mind somewhere – the parts you haven’t forgotten, at any rate – and any of these things could find their way into your novel.

Not literally, necessarily – but certainly in essence. Add to that…

  • everything you have imagined happening to you, and
  • everything that has happened to other people that you have either witnessed, read about or were told about

… and you have a mountain of experiences – direct and indirect – on which to base novel ideas.

All of which begs a couple of questions…

First, if novel ideas largely stem from a writer’s own experiences, does that mean all novels are essentially autobiographical?

Second, what are you meant to write about if your life has been boring and uneventful?

I’ll be dealing with autobiographical fiction later in this series (more specifically, I will explain how the right way to “write about what you know” is to use the “emotional truths” behind your experiences but not the hard and fast facts).

In regard to the second question – “what if my life has been dull?” – let me say this: if you genuinely believe that your life has been too boring to write about, you are wrong.

Simple as that!

Anybody who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make much out of a lot.

Flannery O’Connor

We do not choose our subjects. They choose us.

Gustave Flaubert

Plenty of great fiction is about “everyday” life. In fact there is just as much dramatic potential behind the walls of an ordinary suburban house as there is in a war zone. Sure, the drama will be very different in nature, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting – assuming, of course, that you write about your chosen subject matter with passion…

  • If you have ever been hurt by love, you have the material for at least one novel right there.
  • If you have ever been through the growing pains of childhood and adolescence (and I’m guessing that includes all of us), that has to be at least 6 novels’ worth of material.
  • If you’ve ever cheated or stolen or lied, or been on the receiving end of these actions, there is another novel idea.

Remember, too, what I just said above: you don’t have to write about your life literally. So long as what you write is emotionally true to your own experiences, the physical reality of the story (the characters, the setting, the events) can be totally made up.

Next up, I’ve got a few questions for you…

  • What interests you? What doesn’t interest you?
  • What are you like as a person? What are you not like?
  • When you read a newspaper, do you turn to the weighty political articles or check your horoscope? Or do you not read a newspaper at all?
  • When on holiday, do you prefer a day at the beach or a trip to a museum?
  • When with friends, do you like to have intellectual discussions on the matters of the day or a joke and a laugh?

The answers to these questions, and to hundreds more like them, are an indication of what you are really like. Not the person you might kid yourself that you are, or the one you would like to be, but the person you truly are.

When searching for novel ideas, it essential that you remain true to your real self…

  • If you are not interested in current affairs, do not try to write one of those “state of the nation” novels (the ones where the authors are said to have their “fingers on the pulse” of society).
  • If psychology doesn’t do it for you, don’t attempt to write a novel full of insightful psychological observations.

In other words, only write about what you are interested in writing about. Don’t give house room to novel ideas that leave you cold.

Write What You Know

The trouble that some newcomers to novel writing have is that they believe novels cannot be set in their own backyards. They think fiction has to be about super-human people doing heroic things in exotic locations.

While it is certainly true that a lot of novels are exotic, just as many are rooted in the ordinary (and in the right hands, the ordinary can still be made to seem extraordinary).

In other words, “boring” novel ideas are fine.

Suppose you are a farmer in the American Mid-West. You’ve lived there all your life and farming is all you have ever done, and so you believe that you couldn’t possibly base a novel around it because it is just so – well, unexciting!

But you can – indeed, you must – write your novel about whatever you like. Through skillful writing, you can make even the most humdrum of people and places and events come to life.

And just because something is commonplace to you, it doesn’t mean that everyone will find it that way.

I’m English and have never ventured further west than New York, so a novel about a Midwestern farmer will be exotic to me, just as a novel about everyday life in Woodbridge, England might be exotic to you.

Don’t get me wrong, writing novels about heroes doing brave things in exotic locations is fine. But so, too, is staying within your comfort zone and writing fiction based on your own “boring” life.

In either case, you have to remain true to yourself…

  • “Exotic” novels probably won’t be true to the facts of your life (that’s where research comes in), but they should contain all the emotional truths you have experienced.
  • “Ordinary” novels will be emotionally true and true to the kinds of people and places and events you yourself have experienced.

That, then, has hopefully convinced you that no subject matter is off-limits. There is simply no such thing as uninteresting subject matter, only subject matter handled in an uninteresting way.

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