Searching for Inspiration for Contemporary Novels.

Writer’s block has never really been a problem for me. At any given moment, I could tell you about at least five different novel ideas that I’ve got in my pocket. More often than not, though, those novels are genre fiction. Fantasy, science fiction, horror. This is the stuff I love to read and the stuff I like to write. The problem with genre fiction, though, is that they can be very profitable in their little niches, but genre fiction probably won’t win you any literary prestige. You need contemporary fiction for that. And, when it comes to contemporary fiction, I suck at coming up with ideas.

Oh, sure, I can whittle a pretty decent contemporary short story. “Lilacs,” easily my most popular story in Bowlful of Bunnies, is a contemporary tale about a little girl learning about death. But, when I come across something like the Pressgang Prize, I really wish I was better at thinking of contemporary fiction for a novel-length piece.

How do people come up with ideas for contemporary novels? Take something of the real world and write about it in an interesting way, with very little twists of fantasy or magic or mysticism? Even when I try for a straight-laced plot, something always surfaces that is definitely not normal. Off the top of my head, the only contemporary fiction plot I’ve got on hand is a series of spy thrillers featuring drag queens.

The odd thing is that I love reading contemporary fiction, too; it’s just that I’m always astonished by how these authors could take something relatively mundane and turn it into an incredible story. Jeffrey Eugenides, David Sedaris, and Gillian Flynn immediately pop into my mind. Why can’t I write like them? What’s their secrets? How can I tap into something of the world around us and weave it into something as fascinating and intriguing as they do?

Having a novel finished by May 31st when I’m trying to finish another novel by August probably won’t happen, but I like to play around with the idea that I could have something to submit to Pressgang. But I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Where do you find inspiration for contemporary fiction, if you write it at all? What do you look for in a good book without any elements of something strange or supernatural? Or is the trick to tap into my natural inclination to magical realism and weave that into a tale that crosses the boundary and makes an effective, moving story that pushes beyond the sometimes constricting lines of genre? Any thoughts?


  1. I think contemporary is hard, especially if it isn’t a romance. I’ve done books with supernatural elements for so long, it would be hard to do a contemporary. My plan right now is to do a cozy mystery, so I feel your pain. How do you have enough interesting stuff to say in the middle of the book? All we can do is try and see if we can pull it off.

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