Oftentimes, when we read biographies about great authors, we see sepia-tone images of stern old men with mustaches. We read that these aged wordsmiths drew on their (many) life experiences to inform their writing. J.R.R. Tolkien, Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis, Leo Tolstoy, Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemmingway were all war veterans. Laura Ingalls Wilder published the first book in her Little House series when she was sixty-five and wrote the last at seventy-six. These days, the average age of a novelist at first publication is thirty-six.
Yet not everyone waits to write. For the authors of these three groundbreaking novels, inspiration struck early.
1. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Widely considered the first work of science-fiction, Frankenstein has captivated audiences around the world since its publication in 1818. Interestingly, the titular character is often misidentified (Frankenstein is the doctor, not the monster) and for the book’s first 100 years in print, so was the author.
Mary Shelley was the daughter of a women’s rights activist, an energetic philosopher, and the now-well-known author of Frankenstein. However, when the book was first published anonymously, many assumed it was by her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Mary Shelley was previously unpublished, and not to mention, twenty-one years old! Though the ‘singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind’ author began writing her novel when she was just eighteen.
Though young, Shelley was weathered and exacting. Her writing has been praised for its complexity and has been feared, questioned, and even banned for its dark and twisted themes. Shelley, unfortunately, was rather familiar with death and morbid themes, as three of her children passed away as infants.
Many say her deep personal tragedy combined with her landmark ideas and newcomer’s energy is what made Frankenstein so iconic and groundbreaking. Frankenstein’s monster has appeared in 177 films and movies, the book has over 300 editions, and has been translated into over 30 languages.
2. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
It may be surprising to hear that this beloved classic was written by a seventeen year old!
In the 1950’s in Tulsa, Oklahoma, there were limited activities for girls, so the young Susan Eloise Hinton took to reading. She loved the way literature—fiction included—revealed universal truths. Even as a child, Susan was an acute observer who strung together details to create narratives for short stories.
Susan used her hometown as the setting for her first and best known novel, The Outsiders. The book features a cast of teenage characters and themes of belonging and strife central to high schoolers. And because Hinton was the same age as her characters, she masterfully navigated the social dynamic, jargon, and temperament of her characters.
Susan was a freshman in college when Viking Press published The Outsiders. Her editor recommended she use her initials, rather than her full name, so readers wouldn’t know the author’s gender. S.E. Hinton was an immediate hit, and her book is a landmark for Young Adult literature.
After a few years of writer’s block, brought on by lofty expectations from the public, Susan began writing again. Her later Young Adult fiction includes: That Was Then, This is Now, Rumble Fish, Tex, Taming the Star Runner, and Some of Tim’s Stories.
S.E. Hinton has sold more than 15 million copies of The Outsiders.
3. Eragon by Christopher Paolini
Christopher Paolini grew up in Montana, beside the Beartooth mountains. He had a vivid imagination, a love for the outdoors, and a hunger for literature and adventure.
Paolini was homeschooled by his mother and father. He was a remarkably bright student, graduating high school at just fifteen. By that time he had read classical literature like Beowulf and the Aeneid, and an expansive list of fantasy (including the Brothers Grimm fairy tales) and science fiction novels (his favorite being Dune).
At age fifteen he was ready to begin building his own literary universe and wrote the first draft of Eragon. The novel is an adventurous and fantastical coming of age story of a Dragon Rider named Eragon Bromsson set in the Middle Ages.
The novel is rich in details, as the author has a deep familiarity with the protagonist’s adventurous lifestyle. To ensure realistic writing, Paolini spent as much time in nature as possible. Apparently, “he forged his own knives and swords, made chain mail, spun wool, camped in the Beartooth Mountains, made his own bow, built survival shelters, learned to track game, fletched arrows, felled trees, hiked, and camped.”
Paolini’s detailed approach paid off. Eragon is now the first book in a four part series, which has sold over 24 million copies and been adapted to film.
Mary Shelley creatively twisted her own tragedy into a work of gothic genius. S.E. Hinton drew inspiration from her hometown and school surroundings to write an epic class between classes. And Christopher Paolini intentionally lived like his protagonist to write a three-dimensional adventure for his readers.
How will you—no matter your age—prepare to write your magnum opus?