There’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.