Thursday, March 17, 2011

There Are Places I Remember*

We’re all affected by the experiences we have. Authors are no different to anyone else when it comes to that. Experiences that authors have and situations authors encounter all play a role in the ways in they see the world. In that sense, you could say that in a way, that makes what authors write autobiographical, even if they’re not, strictly speaking, writing about their own lives. And although the most important thing in a novel is the story, it can also be really interesting to trace the connections between the author’s own life and her or his stories.

For example, Arthur Conan Doyle attended university in Edinburgh. While he was there, he met a remarkable professor, Dr. Joseph Bell, who was able to diagnose illnesses and causes of death based on small signs and indications that he noticed. Later, when Conan Doyle decided to try his hand at detective story writing, he decided to create a different kind of detective. He’d noticed that many of the fictional detectives of his day solved their cases strictly through intuition. There was, as Conan Doyle saw it, no scientific basis for the way those detectives solved their cases. So Conan Doyle resolved to create a detective who did use a scientific approach to solving cases. He used Bell as the inspiration for the way his character thought and observed; Sherlock Holmes was the result. That said, though, Holmes is not exactly like Bell. In other words, Conan Doyle did not simply write about Bell and call the character Sherlock Holmes. But he did integrate Bell’s powers of observation and deduction into Holmes’ character.

In A Study in Scarlet, for instance, Holmes uses his powers of deduction to solve the murders of Enoch Drebber and Joseph Stangerson. Drebber is killed first, and it seems as though Stangerson is guilty of the killing. But then Stangerson himself is killed. It’s in this novel, too, that Holmes and Watson meet for the first time, and Watson is taken but surprise when it takes only seconds for Holmes to deduce quite a few things about his background.

Agatha Christie integrated several autobiographical elements into her writing. For example, she was once stuck on a train for three days because of bad weather. Her experience of what it was like to be cooped up with the same people several days found its way into Murder on the Orient Express. In that novel, American businessman Samuel Ratchett is traveling through Europe on the famous Orient Express train. The trip is supposed to take three days, but on the second night, a snowstorm strands the train. Late that night Ratchett is stabbed. Hercule Poirot is traveling by the same train, and he’s asked to investigate the death. His search for answers leads him to the discovery that Ratchett’s death has everything to do with events in his past.

During World War II, Christie, like many other people, endured air raids and the experience of seeking shelter from them. Those experiences also appear in some of her writing. For instance, in Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide), Hercule Poirot is forced to seek shelter at his club during an air raid. In order to pass the time and take his mind off the bombings, Poirot listens to a strange story told by the club bore Major Porter. That story leads to Poirot’s involvement in the death of Enoch Arden, a visitor to the village of Warmsley Vale. No-one claims to know the man, but he’s hinted that he may have a connection to the well-established Cloade family. In the end, the story that Poirot heard at the club gives him a clue to the reason for Arden’s death and the deaths of two other people.

Dorothy Sayers took a degree in at Oxford. Her experiences at that university worked their way into her novels, especially in Gaudy Night. That’s the story of mystery novelist Harriet Vane’s return to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College Oxford, for its annual Gaudy Dinner. Vane’s reluctant to attend, but for the sake of an old friend, she accepts the invitation. She’s received much more warmly than she’d thought, and is glad she made the decision to go. Then, a few months later, Vane gets a letter from the Dean of the college, asking her to help get to the bottom of a troubling series of incidents that have taken place at Shrewsbury. Someone’s been sending anonymous “poison pen” letters and committing vandalism, and the college authorities don’t want the police called in. Vane agrees and goes back to Shrewsbury under the pretext of doing research for a novel. She and Lord Peter Wimsey find out who’s responsible for the disturbing events at Shrewsbury, but not before Vane herself is attacked.

In Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer, we are introduced to Mickey Haller, an attorney whose office is his car. Haller gets his chance for real success when he’s hired by wealthy real-estate playboy Louis Roulet to defend him against charges of rape and murder in the death of an actress. Haller takes the case and finds that the case is not nearly as clear-cut as it seemed. Interestingly, the character of Mickey Haller was, so Connelly tells us, inspired by an actual attorney he met at a baseball game who had no office in the traditional sense of that word. Instead, this attorney created an office in his car. That “portable office” freed the lawyer up to take a much wider variety of cases within a much larger geographical area, and allowed him to work in many different courtrooms.

There are a lot of other examples of novels that have been influenced (sometimes quite directly) by authors’ backgrounds and experiences. That said, though, a great many crime fiction novels aren’t based directly on the author’s specific experiences. They’re often based on more general background knowledge the author has. Or they’re inspired by one person or one experience, but the story itself and the characters come from the author’s imagination. One resource you’ll want to check out is the excellent How I Came to Write This Book, hosted by Patti at Pattinase.

But what’s your view? Do you find yourself curious about the way authors’ experiences influence their writing? If you’re a writer, do you see your own experiences in what you write?

On Another Note….

You’ve still got two days to enter the Do The Write Thing charity raffle in support of those affected by the Christchurch earthquake. It’s a great opportunity for you to put your name in to win a terrific package of books by very talented authors from all over the world. And all you have to do to get a “raffle ticket” is make a donation to the New Zealand Government’s Christchurch Earthquake Relief fund. Intrigued? Good! Click the logo you see right here to join the fun!

*Note: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles' In My Life.


  1. I find myself drawn to books that are set in places that I know, regardless of whether they are places dear to the heart of the writer. I suppose that's why I love all books set in and around Universities. It's the setting I've known best for the past four decades.

  2. Hi Margot .. interesting to read where people get their ideas from .. it makes perfect sense, of course! Edinburgh had been one of the main centres of medicine in the late 1700s and 1800s .. and it's good to be reminded of that .. Thanks - Hilary

  3. Annie - I know what you mean. I like books set in familiar kinds of surroundings, too. And it's interesting you mention books with a University setting. I like them, too, and I think that part of the reason is that, like you, I've been in that sort of setting for a long time and I'm familiar with it. The academic setting just resonates with me.

    Hilary - I always think it makes sense, too, once you know something about a place or a writer. You know, I didn't know that about Edinburgh; thanks! As I think of it, that gives me an insight on several other things I've read. Thanks :-).

  4. I think when an author puts his own experiences in a book, it adds a real richness and color that mere research can't really attain. Great examples here. :)

  5. Elizabeth - Thanks! And you put that very well, I think! A book gets such a sense of depth when a writer integrates her or his own experiences, even if there's not a specific person, etc., integrated into a book.

  6. I enjoy recognizing places I know well in books I read, i.e. Boston area locales in Robert B. Parker's books and Chicago sites in Sara Paretsky's novels. Although in those two cases, I would be engrossed in the story anyway, knowing the settings is just icing on the cake.

  7. Barbara - I know just want you mean. I really enjoy getting an author's view of places I know well, too. The setting can really draw me in in books like that. Of course...if the author doesn't do an accurate job of depicting the setting, that's another story ;-).

  8. I agree with Barbara, it is fun to read books taking place in settings I'm familiar with. I don't know if I've written any of my experiences into any of my tales, but since I'm such a big believer in 'people are people' regardless of the date on the calendar, I *do* hope that is there.

  9. Elspeth - I'm quite sure it is there. I think authors really do have ways of weaving their selves, in some way or other, into what they write. And I see your point completely. People really are people regardless of the time or place, aren't they?