Can a novel be developed from essays?

Guest Post by Richard Brawer 

Newspaper stories reporting a crime most often describe the scene, the motive and the perpetrator, generally enough information to create a plot and characters.  However, opinion pieces and essays focus on a subject.  Is there enough depth in that single subject to from a plot?  Is there enough information to create a protagonist and antagonist? 

I think the answer to both of those questions is, yes.  A novelist is a person with an extraordinary imagination, a person who is profoundly curious, a person who asks questions, a person who is widely read on many subjects and can use his/her knowledge to create plots, scenes and characters. 

For example, I have read numerous essays on China’s growing military and their unabashed encroachment on their neighbor’s sovereign territories in search for oil and gas. The articles were exceptionally poignant when referring Japan/China relations. 

I started asking the following questions to see if I could create a novel from those essays: 

What do I know about the historic relationship between China and Japan? 

 I know that China and Japan have had 750 years of hostilities.  In 1274 and 1281 under Kublai Khan, China tried to invade Japan and failed both times.  However, Japan has defiled China with the Rape of Nanking and other atrocities during WWII for which Japan has yet to apologize.   

China is still fuming over Japan’s brutality during WWII. Will China try to exact its revenge on Japan? My answer was, “Eventually, yes.” 

Could the U.S. deter China from eventually invading Japan? According to the newspaper articles, my answer was, “No.”

The U.S. is not going to war with China. It would be like Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. The country is too vast, the lines of supply too long even with today’s advanced military expertise, and China’s military is very strong.

Most importantly would Japan continue to put its defense in the hands of the U.S. even though Japan is well aware China is developing missiles and a huge army that will eventually be able to counter U.S. forces including aircraft carriers?

Or would they build nuclear bombs to protect themselves?

Based on Japan’s history with nuclear bombs and the latest nuclear power plant disaster, my first inclination was to answer these last two questions, “Yes,” and “No.”

As I read more and more essays and coupled them with another historical fact about Japan― It only took Japan fifty years to go from fighting with swords in 1853 to become the most powerful military in Asia by 1905―my imagination jumped into high gear, and I reversed my answer to those last two questions to, “No” and “Yes.” Japan already has vast uranium enriching facilities for their nuclear power plants and could easily enrich uranium to bomb quality in a short time. Japan also has a space program so they have ICBMs that can deliver the bombs.

However, there was still one other factor in the equation that might again reverse my answers. Considering Nagasaki and Hiroshima and now the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, would the people rebel against their government building nuclear weapons?

How could the people be persuaded that nuclear weapons are the only defense against an ever growing and intimidating China?

I am not saying the Japanese people are easily manipulated, but despite all their outward appearances of having a contentious democratic government and competitive companies, in times of crises, the Japanese people have always come together as one single minded group.  They even have a word for it― ittai―come together as one body.

But how could I develop a novel from these questions and answers without it sounding like a treatise on Japan/China relationships or the reader saying, “Ridiculous!”

I needed to change course and think about the questions that would pop into the reader’s mind.  Fiction has to have some basis in fact, and the facts in those essays have been widely reported.  If I omit something that is obvious, the reader will be turned off.

Some of those obvious reader’s thoughts would surely be:

With the U.S. demanding North Korea and Iran abandon their nuclear weapons programs, if the Japanese government were to start a nuclear weapons program, the U.S. would most certainly demand Japan cease and desist. 

Japan relies on the U.S. for its security.  If the U.S. gives Japan an ultimatum, Japan would have to acquiesce because if the U.S. threatened to withdraw its security pact with Japan, Japan would be at the mercy of China. 

Those readers thoughts would have to be answered logically or the reader will put the book aside. 

Those thoughts led to one more important question, what would Japan due to thwart the expected United States’ demands to cease and desist? 

When I had logically answered all my questions I developed the following plot: 

An explosive political thriller ripped from the headlines.  While the United States is focused on diffusing Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs the ultra-nationalist CEOs of Japan’s eight largest Keiretsus plot to build nuclear weapons to protect their country from a menacing China, an ultra-nationalist organization to get the people to approve, and a large political action committee within the U.S. to thwart the expected U.S. cease and desist demands. 

Now that I had a plot, I had to develop characters that fit the plot and at the same time are in conflict with each other.  It is characters in conflict that keep the reader turning the pages. 

These are the characters I developed: 


The Japanese Nagoyas


Toshio Nagoya―ANTAGONIST. Ultra-nationalist CEO of Japan’s largest keiretsu; Chairman of the Cabal. He enlists his cousin, John Nagoya, a lawyer in the U.S. to create the PAC. However, he questions his John’s loyalty. Toshio and John’s grandfathers were twins.  John’s grandfather fled to the U.S. during the turmoil in Japan after the Shogun was overthrown and the Emperor Meiji was returned to power. Toshio has been indoctrinated that John’s grandfather was a traitor to Japan and guilty of treason. Toshio fears that that same traitor’s blood flows in his John’s veins. 

 Michiko Nagoya―Toshio’s wife stuck in a loveless marriage. 

Ogato Nagoya―Toshio’s and Michiko’s son; his primary goal is to garner praise from his father; works in America as liaison between Toshio and John; obsessed with John’s daughter, Gingi, from the first day he saw her. 


The American Nagoyas


John Nagoya―Second generation Japanese American; Toshio’s cousin; he seeks revenge against his country because at the age of nine he watched a mob beat his parents to death after their release from the internment camps; a lawyer; Never accepted Gingi’s husband, but uses him in his plot with Toshio.

Yoshi Nagoya―John’s wife.  Loves everything American. 

Gingi Nagoya Morrison―John and Yoshi’s daughter; despises Ogato;  married to Danny Morrison. 

Roger Nagoya―John and Yoshi’s son.  With John away on business for long periods of time, Yoshi raised Roger and Gingi with every advantage wealthy American parents could give their children. Roger is the PROTAGONIST in conflict with his father, Ogato and Toshio. 


The Morrisons


Senator Ted Morrison―Powerful Senator; avid fighter against foreign companies donating money to America’s politicians and PACs. 

Sandy Morrison―Ted’s wealthy, socialite wife; Enamored by the prestige of her husband’s powerful position in the Senate; Dislikes sex but acquiesces to her husband’s desires but with no passion; never accepted Gingi as her daughter-in-law. 

Danny Morrison―Ted and Sandy’s son born with a “silver spoon in his mouth”; not fond of working; likes to race sailboats and stock cars; married to Gingi Nagoya. 

Douglas Welfield―Sandy Morrison’s brother; state party chairman; does a lot of business with the Japanese auto manufacturers; grudgingly supports Ted; but not enamored with his brother-in-law’s political position toward foreign companies operating in the U.S. 

Imagine the conflicts: Conspiracy, lust, infidelity, treachery, betrayal and murder. Husbands vs wives; fathers vs sons; brother vs sister; mother-in-law vs daughter-in-law; cousin vs cousin. 

So now you see how you can take seemingly innocuous essays and turn them into an explosive political thriller. 

Richard Brawer writes mystery, suspense and historical fiction novels. When not writing, he spends his time sailing and growing roses.  He has two married daughters and lives in New Jersey with his wife. 

His latest novel, Keiretsu, is available wherever books are sold in both trade paperback and e-book.  Read more about Keiretsu, and the book jackets, excerpts and reviews of all Richard’s novels at:


Posted on December 26, 2012, in Publicity & Writing. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Jacqueline Seewald

    Hi, Richard,I'm really impressed with the way you intertwined fact and fiction to create well-rounded characters for your novel. Non-fiction can easily influence us to write strong, realistic fiction. That happened with my novel Death Legacy, inspired by a non-fiction piece on espionage.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: