Everyday Life Can Inspire the Best Plotlines

Thursday, March 09, 2023


Occasionally I get down on myself because I feel like I haven’t “lived” enough rich life experiences to warrant being a novelist. My travel is limited to the United States and Mexico, and I’ve spent many years grinding away at a job to help pay the bills and focusing on being a mom. I wouldn’t change anything now, because I do have a good life, but every now and then that little voice begins whispering in my ear that I have no business creating fictional worlds when my own is not always “exciting.” 

Then I stop to think about the topics I’ve written about. When my son was in elementary school, he developed this horrible rash that covered his entire body. The pediatrician couldn’t figure out what it was and sent us to a specialist. We worried what people would think when they saw him and if it was contagious. (It turned out to be viral and antibiotics and ointment cleared it up after a few days). But his experience made me think about what a teenage boy would feel like if the same thing happened to him. I wove that storyline into a young adult novel called “Under My Skin,” and while it has never been published, I think it has potential. My soon-to-be published young adult novel “Before Time Runs Out” takes place in a small North Carolina town and features paranormal elements. It was inspired by the death of one of my classmates.

My obsession with watching documentaries, listening to podcasts, and reading books about true crime inspired two award-winning short stories “The Polaroid” and “The Monster in the Woods.” My trip to a writing conference about crime resulted in an award for an article I wrote for this site, “We Speak for the Dead: The Creation of a Writing Conference all About Crime.”

My current WIP is about a podcaster trying to solve her sister’s disappearance. My own work as a podcaster has helped me create a narrative arc told through a variety of mediums, similar to the style of the novel “Daisy Jones and the Six.” When I think about some of my favorite writers, they focus on setting their novels in ordinary settings in places they’re familiar with—think Elin Hilderbrand and Nantucket and St. John and Jennifer Weiner and Philadelphia and Cape Cod. If you have a vivid imagination and the ability to create compelling plots and flawed characters, it doesn’t matter if you travel to Europe every year or not (although that would be nice!) 

Everyday life can inspire the best stories. How has your own life inspired fiction or creative nonfiction?

Renee Roberson is an award-winning writer and the creator/host of the true crime podcast Missing in the Carolinas. 


Angela Mackintosh said...

Great post, Renee! Creative nonfiction writers worry their life is so boring they don't have anything to write about. But it's often the essays with seemingly "boring" topics that are the most interesting. It's all in the insight and reflection, and those ordinary experiences create a bridge between the reader and writer. I have the opposite problem--crazy life and not enough common ground to build that bridge; and I struggle with writing insight, reflection, and takeaway. That's why I decided to explore fiction this year.

The best fictional stories are based on nuggets from our own lives. A bestselling novelist said there are no characters, only people. All of our characters are based on people we know or have seen. And like your obsession with watching true crime and your amazing short stories that came from that, some of the best novels are based on our obsessions. Ira Levin wanted to write about the complex questions of women's rights to their bodies, the patriarchy, and marriage dynamics, but as a man and novelist, he knew those issues would be better explored in fiction, so he wrote the horror novel, Rosemary's Baby, several years before Roe v Wade. It has that timeless quality because those issues are relevant today. By writing something fictional it goes beyond recounting, or arguing a point that no one will listen to, and makes it legendary.

I just started writing a fictional story this morning based on the two years I worked at the county fair. I've never written about it, but reading a story the other day reminded me of some stories. So I'm taking one of the weirder stories and amping it up, maybe infusing a little paranormal. My hope is that my weird life stories will be more palatable fictionalized, and my goal is to write one a month this year.

Cathy C. Hall said...

Most everything and everyone in my life has shown up in my writing (cleverly disguised, of course). :-)

I don't think you have to have lived this extraordinarily exciting life to write fiction but I do think some experiences inform our writing. I mean, I wouldn't be writing this novel now if I hadn't lived through the loss of so many loved ones. BUT I also write often about the paranormal and I've had few actual experiences. So you don't have to have lived an experience to write about it (thank goodness!) but I wouldn't discount the power of a great imagination! :-)

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