How To Write Contemporary

This week, I hit a wall while writing my novel. I’ve been having problems with Sagging Middle-itis and I was up to a transitional part where Victoria, in 1895, is about to embark on something and…

I just couldn’t move forward with it.

I know where this story is going, but it’s not getting there–it’s just useless amounts of words on the page.

This GIF accurately depicts how I felt about this particular draft.

So I thought. And I angsted. And I critiqued Michelle Tran’s first three chapters, which reminded me what writing good chapters were like. And I read fan fiction. And I watched some movies. And I watched Hayley Atwell’s Dubsmash clips, ’cause they amuse me. And my best friend told me via email: “You probably know this by now, but you’re your own worst critic.” Yes. Yes, I am.

I figured out what’s been bothering me about this book: it’s in thinking that it’s going to be half historical and half contemporary. I’ve read books where there are two protagonists and I’ve read a lot of books with a contemporary or 20th century setting and characters, with a related historical component.

But in practical writing terms, I need to decide which of my two protagonists gets the majority of the screen time because otherwise, this will turn into Les Miserables, which I’m still only 4% through. My inkling is that it should be Nicole, the contemporary character, because more readers will probably identify with her issues. Victoria is Nicole’s ancestor and her actions have affected some of the hows, whats, and whys of Nicole’s life–including the reasons why Nicole is even getting an inheritance in the first place.

But then we get to the issues of me writing contemporary fiction, which I don’t feel I’m good at.

I made a list of what Nicole’s main conflicts are through the story:

  • She’s getting an inheritance from a very distant relative in an irregular way, from a branch of the family she didn’t even know existed. She doesn’t know what to feel about this. 
  • She grows curious about this part of her family, but then worries about what her closer family members will think if she actually inherits.
  • She works in a job that she loves, but it wasn’t what she wanted out of life–and she wonders if she talked herself out of doing what she really wanted because she was afraid
  • She’s getting over a breakup
So, contemporary writers, how the heck do you it? How do you write about the world and people as they are now? It’s funny; I’ll read the occasional novel set in relative contemporary times and I like movies that take place now, but to fictionalize something is a different beast. 

8 thoughts on “How To Write Contemporary

  1. Interesting. I wouldn't necessarily say that the contemporary character is automatically more relatable. Anything can be relatable. Aliens, even. But setting something the current day…it's really no different than anything else. You point out the same details you would point out in the 1800s, they're just different details. Cars instead of carriages. The smell of coffee instead of whatever they ate in the 1800s. The sound of a plane in the morning outside of a window instead of a rooster or whatever. You visualize Nicole and her world the same way you visualize Victoria and hers. If that makes any sense. You're just following Nicole around like you would follow anyone else in your head around – following them and writing down all the interesting things they do and meeting all the interesting people they meet. Or maybe this makes no sense at all because I have never ever thought about it before.


  2. Yeah, no, I get that—my problem tends to be that I give my contemporary specifics that are way too close to myself and or to my friends and then it just feels weird. Plus, I don't know that I find Nicole's bits all that interesting, to be honest. On the other hand, Victoria's transition into a job is kind of difficult, too.


  3. Hmm, I don't know. My characters are always separate people in my head, in an almost crazy person way. My character right now lives in a row house in North Carolina. I have been to the city, but I've never even been inside of a row house. That might be your problem if all of your contemporary characters live in big cities like you do. You might just need to shake things up. I don't know as I haven't read your contemporary stuff, but Nicole and your contemporary NaNo characters all sounded like they were from New York. I'm southern and suburban, but my characters come from all over the place. Chicago, Turkey, California, Portugal, Brazil, and sometimes the South, too, among other places. I experimented a lot, giving my characters things I didn't have like step-parents, older brothers, a twin, mansions, or things like that. I don't know if that's helpful, but I read in a writing book once that writing too close to home can hinder your creativity sometimes. So maybe you should move Nicole to Canada or Florida. This is what Google and movies are for. Watch TV and call it research. ^_^


  4. Well, not all of them have been New Yorkers–Book the First was set in Missouri and Last Request was set in New Orleans and Boston. I really want to write a book that's set in Queens specifically because it's so bizarre to people who aren't from here. It's half suburban, half urban, the most diverse country in the entire country and yet so segregated in a lot of ways because immigrant groups live in different neighborhoods. Definitely not a place where you'd expect an heiress to live. I need to think more on it.


  5. Okay listing Nicole's main conflicts, it sounds like such an interesting read! I hope you get your writing mojo back and beat that middle-itis because this sounds so interesting. A tip would be to read many contemporaries and list out each chapter and what occurs. For me, it's a way to study story structures and then you get an idea of how people weave in the plot in what seems like an ordinary setting. What really impresses me in contemporary writers is their ability to see miniscule or mundane daily things in a different lens.


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