Write What You Feel

Every time you read a novel, you get a peek into the writer’s soul. Some authors are good at separating themselves from the story, especially if they write about a character unlike themselves (Jack Reacher, for example, who is not like Lee Child). Yet I believe that circumstances in each writer’s life affect what they write in at least small ways.

For example, if I have a headache when I’m writing, one of my characters will have a headache on the page that day, which I may later edit out. Or if I’m trying to lose weight, one of my minor characters will likely be in the same mode. Why not? Characters need realistic details to come to life on the page.

The pattern of transferring our own circumstances into the fiction we write happens on a much broader scale too. When I wrote The Sex Club, the first book in the Detective Jackson series, my son was in Iraq and I worried every day that he would die. And my sister had just died of cancer and I grieved for her. So Kera, my main female protagonist was dealing with those elements. Right or wrong, I couldn’t separate those emotions from my writing and they ended up on the page.

Writing what you feel gives a story passion and realism that draws readers in. Yet there’s a fine line that novelists have to be careful with. Earlier I mentioned Jack Reacher, a popular character for millions of crime fiction readers. He comes to mind because of a discussion on a listserv I participate in, which is what triggered this blog. Readers were discussing the author’s last two stories. Some felt the character had changed too much, and others thought the writing had changed too much. It made me wonder if something significant had changed in the author’s life. I have to mention that many readers said they loved both stories and that the author, Lee Child, is a very nice person who I’ve been fortunate to meet at Bouchercon.

But the listserv comments made me realize that readers notice changes in an author’s style, and if they follow the author’s personal life, they make connections. During the discussion, one list member said, “The writing reminds me of Robert Ludlum’s novel just prior to his cardiac event. It didn’t feel like a Ludlum novel…”

As an author, I hope to learn from this, but I’m realistic enough to accept that whatever is happening in my personal life will somehow affect what I write. When I outlined Dying for Justice, I was planning to start a new series, so I could pitch to a new publisher, and that affected the POV and plot of the story. Having just finished the fifth Jackson novel, I’m at a point of choosing what to write next. After five detective novels, I’m ready to try something new. Throw in five months of winter and I’m experiencing some cabin fever and crying out for a change of pace.

So I’ve decided to write a futuristic thriller, based on an outline I crafted a year ago. In reading back through the outline, I realize the theme of the novel is rather dark, and a year ago, I was at rock bottom in my career. It’s no coincidence.

Earlier this week, I took the first chapter to a critique group and they loved it, so I’m going to finish writing the story. But considering that my life and career are doing quite well now, I expect the ending to be more upbeat than I had originally planned. 🙂

Readers: What changes have you noticed in writers’ styles because of personal circumstances?
Writers: How has your personal life affected your writing?

 

12 Comments
  1. 4 Well said. I never thought I would agree with you, but I’m starting to view things from a different view. I have to research much more on this as it seems very interesting. One thing I don’t understand though is how everything is related together.

  2. Excellent post, L.J. I hadn’t thought about the bleed-over of an author’s life into the book. Unless you know the author personally or it’s an author famous enough to be written about, you might not know for sure is the personal life affected the book, but I can certainly imagine that it would!

  3. I’m a fan of Lee Child and I really enjoyed the last Reacher novel. I think it’s difficult, as an author, to balance letting your character move on and grow, and yet still give the readers the familiarity they crave.

    I know a lot of little everyday details pop into my books. My protagonist in Ordinary Angels has my CD in her alarm clock, her granny sounds very much like one of my aunts… we write what we see.

    The biggest thing I have to watch out for is frustration. If I get frustrated, my characters do too. This is one of the reasons I’ve started writing detailed outines. It keeps me on track when I’m tempted to stray from the structure and themes that will make the story work.

  4. To be honest, I don’t know enough about the circumstances that the authors I read were writing under to be able to evaluate what I’ve seen. So as a reader, I can’t answer. In my relatively short time as a writer, I don’t think my style has changed much with changes in my life. During one particularly bad time, I did start work on a completely different type of book than anything I’d thought about doing before, but I abandoned it after six weeks because I couldn’t sustain the emotion that had driven the beginning of it.

    Regarding Reacher/Child, I’ve heard so many people say the last two books weren’t as good. And I have to agree. I say this as someone who has bought his last ten books in either hardback or ebook – and he’s one of less than half a dozen authors I buy in hardback. My opinion is that the problem is editing. The core of his style is still there, but it feels to me like either the editor phoned it in, or Child rejected changes he shouldn’t have. I could be wrong, but I found myself noticing all sorts of ways I would have tightened things up. And with all his previous books, I did not notice much of that.

  5. Events in my own life affected the storylines of the first two books of my series. Oddly enough, the next three had nothing to do with my world.

  6. Jodie, I write crime fiction. It’s all kind of dark. 🙂

  7. My first novel turned really dark and weird about the time my life went downhill. The second novel is probably the darkest thing I will ever write, yet the humour is razor-sharp. My third novel was written (mostly) in 1993. Things were much more hopeful back then. Subsequent books look more professional.

  8. …and it seems to me that one’s writing would naturally be enriched and made more immediate and compelling by writing about experiences one is going through. I guess keeping a journal would be an effective technique for capturing the feelings of particular situations and moments in time, and then retrieving them later, when needed…if busy authors can find the time!

  9. Very interesting observations, LJ. Maybe put aside the darker novel until another time in your life and write a lighter one now, so the dark one doesn’t drag down your upbeat spirits?

    Not being a fiction writer myself (just an editor and a reader), I’m probably giving unrealistic advice here, so feel free to ignore it! But as a friend as well, I’d hate to see a dark novel drag your spirits down for a year, or however long it takes to write… Or would it be more cathartic and therapeutic to work through the problems presented in a dark novel? So ultimately be a positive personal move as well?

    –and I love Jack Reacher, too!

  10. Funny, I was just talking with my writers’ group about this last night. They were critiquing the draft of my new Samuel Craddock novel. In it, Samuel is having problems with his knee after it was stepped on by one of his cows. He finds out he has to have surgery to repair it. The group remarked that it was a reflection of my knee replacement last summer. I agreed, but said, i wasn’t going to make Samuel have a knee replacement–just a repair!

  11. Great post. I’ve often wondered how much of a fiction author’s life has bled into his/her narrative.

    I write memoir, so pouring my life onto the page is expected. I enjoy analyzing the experiences—how they affect decisions and the course of one’s life, how they shape the character, and how they relate to the universal human condition. I’m much more drawn to true stories, be it personal essays shared at spoken-word venues, memoirs, or movies based on true stories. I’m fascinated by how real people deal with real life. Some of my memoir students have had some doozies that would be far too unbelievable if they were written as fiction.

    I’ve actually drifted away from reading fiction over the last few years. Although, occasionally I’ll pick up a novel I’ve heard good things about, as long as the premise interests me.

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