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Part-Time Writer: Work For Stories

My business cards, circa 2009.

For more posts in the ‘Part-Time Writer’ series, click here.

Without my day jobs, the stories I’ve written could theoretically still exist.

The Earthers emerged from my childhood, their universe shaped by my love of science fiction and their philosophy belonging to dear mentors of mine.

Defense Command was born from the adventurous ideas of my teenage years, eventually being reimagined into a twenty-book love story (with a war in the middle).

His Majesty’s New World exists thanks to six years of studying military history and exposure to Louis L’Amour’s exceptional writing.

Alex and Stephanie are daughters of the Newfoundland Regiment, so Champions exists because of His Majesty’s New World. 

It’s conceivable that all of these series could have existed without my day jobs. At certain points in the past I even wondered if I’d be able to write them better without the diversions that come with an office.

But honestly, without the discipline and the experience born of years of work, I’m not sure I’d have been up to the task. Much more importantly, I know for certain there are plots and characters that simply couldn’t have happened without them.

The clearest example of this comes from my conception of government. Having spent two years on staff with Peter Braid, a Member of Parliament in Canada’s federal government, I learned a whole lot very quickly. Fans of shows like The West Wing, House of Cards, or The Thick of It will have some sense of politics, but all fiction is obviously heightened and some of it is not terribly well informed.

My day job introduced me to the truth –– I was able to see behind the curtains and understand what real governing power looks like. Characters I was writing about soon learned the same: Alex and Stephanie showed up in Ottawa in Savages; Ken and Karen stormed Capital Island in The Pax Terra; Waller and the b’ys made an enemy of Evelyn Hughes in The Expedition.

Alex and Stephanie passed through corridors in Centre Block that I walked through when Peter gave me a tour six months after the Parliament Hill shooting.

Ken and Karen’s unlikely ally Schwartz T. Babcock –– the future Imperial Secretary to the Emperor of Earth –– is a slightly-fictional version of a good friend who finished up his time in Ottawa writing speeches for the Minister of Finance.

And of course I’ve met self-righteous politicians like Evelyn Hughes –– I can attest to the fact that they aren’t just caricatures in fiction.

My business cards, circa 2019.

I’ll continue drawing on my House of Commons experience –– and the second-hand experience of friends from those days –– whenever I need to add politics to a story. I look forward to using my more recent experience with researchers for a similar purpose. Scientists and engineers in labs are no longer just something I see in movies or read about in articles. They’re my friends and colleagues, and the time I spend with them will help shape the sorts of characters and stories I work on in the future.

Of course, day jobs are not the only way to learn the reality of things you want to write about. I lean on trusted friends, family, and experts to share insights about different fields, but in those cases I’m asking for help and favors. When experiences come from a day job I’m actually getting paid to learn –– and I’m also in a position to affect the things that I’d otherwise only be able to write about. More about that next week.

For now, my point is simple: as a part-time writer you’re spending your days learning to do something. Whether that’s flying jets, working in a warehouse, standing up at the front of a classroom or mining ore, you are experiencing things that can enrich your storytelling. Draw on those experiences to create authenticity.

Think about things you learn at your work that most people don’t seem to understand, then apply those kinds of details in the stories you write. Any day job has the potential to support this, you just need to think creatively about it.

Remember, the cliché tells you to write what you know. Having a day job is about being paid to know particular things, so take advantage of that knowledge –– your storytelling will benefit.

And as I’ll conclude with next week: the real world will benefit too.