If you’ve been following along, you probably know that every November we get excited about NaNoWriMo. National Novel Writing Month began in 1999 as a daunting but straightforward challenge: to write 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days. Now, each year on November 1, hundreds of thousands of people around the world begin to write, determined to end the month with 50,000 words of a brand-new novel. We are honoured to know that our notebooks have been used by many writers as a place for jotting notes, registering ideas or even writing first drafts. 

Every November we strive to inspire writers — participating in the challenge or not — to stay motivated and keep writing: last week on the blog we shared five tips to help you write during NaNoWriMo and today we are highlighting the fascinating story behind four famous novels. Inspiration can strike anytime and anywhere, and you may be surprised to learn that one of these great novels was even written as a part of a challenge.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac 

The first draft of Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road was written in about three weeks in 1951 on a continuous, 120-foot scroll of tracing paper that Kerouac cut to size and taped together. But On the Road wasn’t the product of just three weeks’ feverish work; rather, it was the result of Kerouac’s years of real-life travels around the country. Kerouac took notes along the way in a series of spiral-bound notebooks that he carried with him on his travels, and he worked on several early versions of the novel before having his breakthrough in deciding to write the story as if he were writing a letter to a friend, using jazz music as his muse.

Pictured here: On the Road notebook

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

In 1816 English author Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was travelling with her future husband, Percy Shelley, and others at Lord Byron’s villa on Lake Geneva. As it was a rainy summer and the weather too cold and dreary to enjoy any outdoor activities, the group spent their time indoors. One stormy evening, the host came up with the idea of doing a competition to see who could write the best horror story. 

Unable to think of a story, 19-year-old Mary became anxious. She recalled being asked “Have you thought of a story?” each morning, and every time being “forced to reply with a mortifying negative.” But eventually she more than rose to the challenge by penning what is now considered a masterpiece of gothic horror, inspired by a single terrifying image that popped into her mind as she lay in bed. “When I placed my head on my pillow…” she recalled in the introduction to her novel, “I saw — with shut eyes, but acute mental vision — the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together… Swift as light and as cheering was the idea that broke in upon me. ‘I have found it! What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow.’” 

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

In the early 1930s J.R.R. Tolkien was pursuing an academic career at Oxford. As described in a letter to W.H. Auden, one day Tolkien was grading papers in his office when he happened on a blank sheet of paper and wrote down a sentence that came to him from out of nowhere: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” No one, apparently, was more amazed at the sudden presence of this sentence than Professor Tolkien himself — especially the word “hobbit.” By late 1932 he had finished the story.

Pictured here: Hunt-Lenox Globe notebook

The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler was literally written to satisfy gambling debts. In 1866, as Dostoyevsky’s debts mounted, he became desperate for money. He talked his way into getting a book advance from a small publisher, but the terms of the book advance were terrible: Dostoyevsky signed a contract wherein he promised to deliver a publishable novel in a matter of weeks or else the publisher would own the rights to everything he wrote for the next nine years, without compensation. Dostoyevsky managed to pull himself away from the roulette tables for 26 days to dictate the novel to his secretary.

What about you? Have you written a story as part of a challenge or under extraordinary circumstances? We’d love to hear all about it!


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