I Wanted to Tell You My Story*

Tapping Prior KnowledgeThere’s a great deal of research that shows that we learn and remember by associating new information with what we already know. If that research is correct (and I’ve yet to read anything that disproves it), then we build mental representations of things, concepts, and so on by adding new things we learn to our prior knowledge.

If you think of it from the other direction, so to speak, it works like this. When we do something or encounter something new, we tap what we already know to make sense of it and work with it. That’s why, for instance, when you buy a new car, you often get used to driving it quickly. You tap your background knowledge about where everything is in a car and use that to learn where your new car’s features are.

Writers have known this and made use of it for a very long time. How often have you heard the expression, ‘Write what you know.’? Of course, this doesn’t mean the author never ‘stretches,’ or uses some imagination. Lots of female authors write male main characters for instance (I do that, myself). The opposite happens as well. And many authors write about experiences they’ve never had. But if you look closely, you find that those authors also do plenty of research first. That’s the body of knowledge on which they build their stories.

It is said that Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was inspired by Dr. Joseph Bell, for whom Conan Doyle clerked for a time. Fans of the Holmes stories will know that Holmes is not a medical doctor as Bell was. And Conan Doyle was not a private investigator. In that sense, Conan Doyle didn’t tap his own background to create his stories. But he did tap his knowledge of Bell and his observations of the way Bell went about his work. And he used his medical background to lend authenticity to the character of Dr. Watson. Through Holmes, Conan Doyle gave voice to what he had learned about science. He also gave voice to what he had learned about the other detective fiction available at the time. To him, it was inadequate because the protagonists didn’t use any deduction to solve their cases; their solutions were too intuitive and therefore, not credible.

Agatha Christie frequently tapped her own knowledge and experiences for her stories. She worked in a hospital dispensary for a time, and was thoroughly familiar with the properties of different chemicals. She was also thoroughly familiar with the way the medical system worked. That knowledge is obvious in her work. Many of her stories feature murder by poison. And it shouldn’t be surprising that plenty of her characters are doctors, nurses or other medical professionals. Fans will know that not all of them are exactly what you’d call sympathetic characters. But Christie’s work as a whole shows the ways in which she tapped her professional background. She tapped her personal experiences, too. Several of her stories feature archaeology and archaeologists; her marriage to an archaeologist proved a rich resource. So did her experience living in the Middle East. It’s even said that Christie was once on a train that was snowbound for a brief time. She later used that experience as an inspiration for Murder on the Orient Express.

There are many other authors, too, who tap their professional experiences when they write. I know I do (one of my protagonists is in higher education, as I’ve been for most of my adult life). Lawyers such as John Grisham, Scott Turow and Martin Edwards have created attorneys as their main characters. Katherine Howell spent several years as a paramedic. She uses that background in all of her Ella Marconi novels. Marconi herself isn’t a paramedic; she’s a police detective. But every novel also includes first-responder characters.

Authors often tap other kinds of experiences that they’ve had, too. For instance, David Whish-Wilson has a lot of experience working with prison populations. In Line of Sight and in Zero at the Bone, there are several incarcerated or formerly-incarcerated characters who reflect that experience. Oh, and, Mr. Whish-Wilson, if you’re reading this, I hope we’ll see more of your Frank Swann in the future. Angela Savage is Australian, but has lived in Southeast Asia, too. She taps that experience in her Jayne Keeney novels. Like her creator, Keeney is Australian, but she lives in Bangkok, and her cases take her to different parts of Thailand.

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, authors also go beyond their experiences. They may imagine what it’s like to be a certain kind of person. Or they encounter or read about a certain place or person – something new to them – and think ‘That would make for a great story!’ Crime writers, for instance, have, by and large, not committed murder. Well, at least I haven’t. So in that sense, people who write murder mysteries have to put themselves in the position of someone who would. That requires imagination, too. And research.

But that said, there’s an awful lot of tapping of prior knowledge that happens among authors. That includes their professional experience, their personal stories, and what they read. In fact, that’s one reason for which it makes so much sense for writers to do a lot of reading. Want to know more about the value of reading if you’re a writer? Check out Rebecca Bradley’s great post on this topic. And while you’re at it, have a look at her excellent blog.

It’s not too hard to show how authors use their own experiences when they write, and tap their prior knowledge. And if you’re a writer, I’d love to read your thoughts on how you make use of your own experiences.  But here’s the thing. Readers do not have the same backgrounds and prior knowledge as authors do. Readers are all individuals. They come from different backgrounds, have different experiences and so on. So how does an author encourage readers to tap their own backgrounds and make some meaning from the stories they read?

Let’s put the question another way. How do authors invite readers to really engage with stories? That’ll be the stuff of my post tomorrow, when we’ll flip this topic of tapping prior knowledge the other way.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Verve’s Stormy Clouds.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, David Whish-Wilson, John Grisham, Katherine Howell, Martin Edwards, Rebecca Bradley, Scott Turow

29 responses to “I Wanted to Tell You My Story*

  1. As always your post is absolutely fascinating Margot. I recently read The Mistake I Made by Paula Daly which tapped into her life as a physiotherapist in a light-hearted way, yet clearly knowledgeable even before I made the link. It’s always good to ‘see behind the scenes’ in this way.

    • Thank you, Cleo. And thanks for that excellent example, which is exactly the sort of thing I had in mind when I put this post together. It is interesting, isn’t it, when you see how authors use their professional expertise as they write. It gives the reader a ‘window’ into the author’s way of thinking.

  2. Keishon

    Interesting post, Margot. I can say that when we read we bring our own personal experiences and worldviews to our readings. I’ll be interested to know the author’s take. I like to read stories where the author uses his/her experience in a particular field and use it in a story. I find that those experiences enrich the story further and you get to learn a little about that particular job or field. Frex, I loved reading Alina Adams figure skating mysteries. Their categorized as cozies. Anyway, her amateur sleuth was a researcher for a network who would investigate (for homicides that involved a contestant) and get the exclusive. Adams herself was a figure skating researcher and the best bits were the parts that showed how bitterly competitive parents were of their kid’s competitions. It was humorous and eye-opening. Fred Vargas is another writer who uses her skills and experience as a historian and a archaeologist (think that’s her field of expertise). I haven’t read enough of Agatha Christie to notice much in trends or patterns. My mother loves her Miss Marple books and tells anybody who will listen how she gets it right about people and human nature.

    • Keishon

      pardon my misuse of the word “their” in the first part of my post. Should be “they’re.”

    • I have to admit, Keishon, I see your mother’s point of view. 🙂 – Thanks very much for mentioning the Adams mysteries. It shows you how an author can tap her or his experiences, background and so on to create a story. And when the author is doing her or his job well, the reader wants to learn what the author has to offer. It’s a form of communication, really.
      You make a well-taken point about readers’ backgrounds and world views, too. We all bring ourselves to what we read. So if the author is aware of that, and finds ways to invite readers to tap that background, it’s more likely that readerswill choose to engage in a story. I’m really glad you brought that up, as to me, it’s the equal and opposite side of the ‘reading equation.’

  3. alina adams

    Aw, thank you both for the kind words!

  4. Thanks for mentioning all these series where the author gets the background from their own experience. Sometimes that really makes a difference, and I especially like the example of Katherine Howell. And I did enjoy visiting Rebecca Bradley’s blog.

    • I like the way Katherine Howell uses her background knowledge, too, Tracy. When that’s done well, I think it adds a real authenticity to a story or series. I’m glad you enjoyed your visit to Rebecca’s blog. She’s a skilled writer and a knowledgeable crime fiction fan. And she’s a terrific person.

  5. As with so many things I think this boils down the author’s writing skills. Of the authors I’ve read of your examples I’d say they all have good prior knowledge/experience AND they can write well too – so their prior knowledge is kind of hidden (as it should be). It doesn’t always work out so well. I think some of Kathy Reichs’ stuff gets bogged down in her telling the reader how much she knows or has experienced – to no purpose other than that (i.e. it doesn’t advance the story or develop a character).

    • I know what you mean, Bernadette. When an author has good writing skills, that prior knowledge is a bit like seasonings in food. It’s there, and it enhances the story, but it doesn’t take over. It’s not there for its own sake. When the seasoning is there for its own sake, it can overwhelm the food, and then it’s not as good. And I think (getting back to books) that it can come across as self-conscious (I want everyone to know that I’m an expert in…).

  6. Pingback: And I Know That You’ll Use Them However You Want To* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

  7. i suspect that it would be hard to find any piece of writing of a decent length that did not make use of its author’s experiences. Just about everything that I’ve written uses either my own experiences or something that I’ve put together as a result of my research on a topic.

    • Couldn’t agree with you more, Mick. I think that’s part of what connects an author to the work. That sense of self that one puts in one’s writing makes the work all the more real, if that makes sense.

  8. I’ve always enjoyed mysteries and thrillers that draw from the experience of doctors and lawyers…some of the plots educate while they are entertaining, although the reader needs to be careful with those medical thrillers. It appears doctors have a very active imagination. 😀

    • Yes, it does, Pat! 😆 I always find I learn when I read a novel that taps the author’s expertise, and that includes medical and legal expertise. To me, it takes talent to translate ‘legalese’ and ‘medicalese’ into an accessible language that readers can really follow and find compelling.

  9. I suppose Dashiell Hammett is the classic example of an author who modeled their fiction on a part of their previous life to such an extent that it was even the subject of a book by another writer, Joe Gores, who used his work as a PI to inform his fiction – now that’s convoluted 🙂

    • It certainly is, Sergio! It’s a bit like holding a mirror up to a mirror, so to speak. And you’re right of course about Hammett. He did tap his own experiences quite a lot; I actually think it lends his work authenticity.

      • In one of Laurie King’s Russell &Holmes stories, Dashiell Hammett appears as a character who is the Pinkerton’s man. At that point my head started to hurt: King’s Sherlock Holmes is supposed to be a ‘real’ person who was written about by Doyle, so she has taken a fictional character, and written more fiction about his ‘real life’ and then introduced someone who did exist in real life, and who is going to write his own real books at a later date. How meta can you get?

        • My head is bursting just reading your comment, Moira! And yet, if you think about it, it’s a really innovative, even bold idea. And it certainly taps into real characters, too.

  10. I once read a fascinating piece about police procedurals – I wish I could find it again. It was by a solid English author of crime novels, John Wainwright. He gave examples, and I’m going to paraphrase to give the gist: he said in effect ‘any proper writer would know that eg a policeman must fill in a document when he makes an arrest. Someone who did their research might find that this doc is called the XYZ form, and it is green. But there will be some detail about it that only an ex-PC will know – that the cops refer to it by a nickname, that you have to use a black pen or it doesn’t show up. That’s the detail I always wanted in my book.’ Isn’t that great?

    • Oh, I love it, Moira! I’m so glad you shared it! If you do happen to come across the piece again, do let me know ’cause I’d love to read it; I really would. It really captures beautifully that sort of touch that only someone ‘in the business’ would know. That’s how authors tap their own experiences and their own world knowledge to make a book more real. I like reading those things and learning from them, and using those things myself helps me write better, I think.

  11. Kathy D.

    The main thing is that authors have to write an interesting story with well-developed characters. And we have our preferences for a detective’s area of interest or a protagonist’s field. I like legal mysteries, for example. My family watched lawyer programs (Perry Mason anyone?) and others, and read them. I worked for attorneys at a non-profit, have done legal research, sometimes write on legal decisions.
    So, if a book has good characters and an interesting premise, and the writer explains the issues well, it’s fun for me to read, like Grisham’s books. And I like social issues in a book.
    Sara Paretsky who was and is an activist puts social issues in her books, which I enjoy. But if the main character is also smart, feisty, courageous (in the last book, too courageous) and witty, I’m hooked.
    I used to read Robin Cook, M.D.’s medical thrillers. He knew what he was writing about and also got into important issues deeply.
    And Liza Marklund’s journalist background has given Annika Bengtzon a lot to work with.
    And I love Fred Vargas’s Adamsberg books. She brings her expertise in Medieval history and archaelogy to her stories. And, in one, even her knowledge about the bubonic plague. Fascinating.
    Yet, authors don’t have to be experts, but they have to write realistically. Donna Leon has never been in the Italian police, but she writes a great series about Commissario Guido Brunetti. She excels at writing about his inner reflections and his relationships at home and at work. Her experience as a smart, intellectual woman helps her to write Paola Falier well.

    • I think you’re absolutely right, Kathy. The most important thing is for the author to write an engaging plot with interesting characters, so that readers will stay engaged. As you say, each reader has different interests and backgrounds, so each reader will find different authors’ backgrounds to be of special interest. For some it’s the law; for others, it’s other things. You mention some good examples, too, of authors who have interesting backgrounds and tap them as they write. And those backgrounds add to their stories.

  12. davewhishwilson

    Thanks Margot – the next Frank Swann novel – Old Scores is coming out in 2016. And yes, one of the main characters is newly released from prison (I didn’t realise it was a thing of mine!)

    • Oh, so good to hear we’re going to be treated to another Frank Swann novel, David. Looking forward to it! You heard it here, folks! And you know, I think we all have our things when we write. I’ve a list of my own…

  13. Col

    Looking forward to reading DW-W soon, thanks for the reminder!

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