Category Archives: Martin Edwards

There are Elephants in Every Room I See*

Elephant in the RoomAt this time of year, a lot of people go to gatherings of friends and family. There are also the inevitable office gatherings. And if you pay attention to what people talk about, you’ll notice that there are things they don’t talk about as well: the proverbial elephant in the room.

At a company gathering, it may be an imminent buyout by another company. In a family get-together, it may be someone’s unemployment, or someone else’s worries about the choices a child is making. You get the idea. Of course those things are important, but a lot of people consider them too painful, or too divisive, or too something else to discuss. So they don’t, unless some outspoken person brings up the topic.

There are many examples of these ‘elephants in the room’ in crime fiction, and that makes sense. They can add an interesting layer of tension to a story; they can also make for solid motives for conflict – and worse.

Agatha Christie makes effective use of this social tendency in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal). In that novel, the members of the Abernethie family gather at the family home, Enderby, when patriarch Richard Abernethie dies. His will is read, and a few comments are made about it. Then, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet blurts out that he was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up, and even she says not to pay attention to what she’s said. But it turns out that that question has been the elephant in the room here. And when Cora herself is murdered the next day, it’s clear that she was probably right. Mr. Entwhistle, the family lawyer, asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and Poirot agrees. Without spoiling the story, I can say that the ‘elephant in the room’ plot point is used very effectively here.

It is in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, too. The story is written from the point of view of fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone, who has autism. He’s high-functioning, but he doesn’t have a lot of social tact or the ability to read subtle social cues. Still, he’s very bright, and wants more than anything else to be a detective like Sherlock Holmes. He gets his chance when he discovers that the dog belonging to the people next door has been killed. They think he’s responsible, but Christopher knows he is not. So he decides to find out the truth. In the process, he finds out a great deal about himself. He also challenges his family to face an important elephant in their room: the loss of his mother.

In Martin Edwards’ The Hanging Wood, we are introduced to Orla Payne, who works at St. Herbert’s Residential Library. She’s intelligent, but emotionally fragile. In fact, one of the elephants in her family’s room is that her mother Niamh was also fragile and succumbed to alcoholism. The more important elephant, though, is that twenty years ago, Orla’s brother Callum disappeared. His body was never found, and it’s haunted the family ever since – especially Orla. One day, she makes a call to Cumbria Constabulary DCI Hannah Scarlett to ask her to look into the case. Unfortunately, Orla’s had far too much to drink, and doesn’t make her point coherently, so Scarlett doesn’t take the case seriously. She has good reason to later, though, when Orla commits suicide (or is it suicide?). Little by little, Scarlett and her Cold Case Review Team connect Orla’s and Callum’s deaths; in the process, they uncover several family truths lying just beneath the surface.

Jane Casey’s How to Fall features eighteen-year-old Jess Tennant. After her parents’ bitter divorce, Jess travels with her mother Molly from London to Molly’s home town of Port Sentinel. The idea is to spend the summer visiting Molly’s twin sister Tilly and her family and taking some time to regroup. Not long after their arrival, Jess is confronted with the ‘family elephant’ – the death of her cousin Freya the year before. The family has handled it best by claiming that it was an accident, and that’s certainly possible, since Freya died of a fall from a cliff. And when Jess asks about it, she quickly learns that everyone wants to believe that explanation:

 

‘‘It was an accident, wasn’t it?’
‘As far as I know.’
‘Not suicide or something.’
The car lurched forward as Mum yanked the wheel, irritated. ‘Jess, I’m serious. Do not even suggest something like that to Tilly. Promise me.’
‘I was just asking.’
‘You can’t ask. It would be too hurtful.’
‘Because they don’t want to think Freya killed herself.’
‘Exactly.’
‘Don’t they want to know the truth, though?’
‘Not necessarily.’’
 

Soon, though, all sorts of hints and bits of evidence begin to suggest that there is more to Freya’s death than a tragic accident. So Jess begins to ask questions on her own.

The elephant in the room at the beginning of Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests is money. It’s 1922 in London, and Emily Wray and her daughter Sarah have been left in a very difficult financial position after the death of Emily’s husband (and Sarah’s father). At that time, and in that place, it’s still extremely uncommon for ‘well bred’ ladies to take up careers, so neither woman has marketable skills. They decide that the only option they have is to open their home to lodgers – ‘paying guests’ is the euphemism – to earn some money. Soon, Len Barber and his wife Lilian respond to the Wrays’ discreet advertisement and take rooms in the house. It’s all very awkward, especially at first, and part of that comes from the whole issue of money. It’s just not something that’s discussed in ‘polite circles.’ Soon enough, though, the Barbers’ arrival begins to have more consequences, and they become increasingly drastic.

It’s always difficult to have an easy conversation among people when they share a room with a large elephant. But it happens often enough, both in real life and in crime fiction. Which examples of this have stayed with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jon McLaughlin’s These Crazy Times.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Jane Casey, Mark Haddon, Martin Edwards, Sarah Waters

Everybody Needs a Passion or They Cash in While They Can*

FollowingPassionsFor most of us, the reality is that we have to earn a living. That means that we have to work at something that’s going to pay the bills. And that, in turn, means that we sometimes have to balance, even compromise, our practical needs and our passions. Ask any writer who also has a full-time ‘day job.’ It’s not always easy to strike that balance.

We see that balance/compromise come up in crime fiction, just as it does in real life. Admittedly, it’s not always the reason for a murder, but it can add for a fascinating layer of character development. And it can make for a story arc, too.

Artist Alan Everard finds himself facing that challenge in Agatha Christie’s short story Within a Wall. He gains early notice and even acclaim for some top-quality work that has depth and insight. He is passionate about his art, and committed to doing the best work he can. Shortly after his career begins, he marries ‘well born’ Isobel Loring, who has her own plans for her new husband’s success. One afternoon, he and Isobel are hosting a tea party to unveil his latest work: a portrait of her. It’s technically an excellent piece of art. But he knows inside that it’s also flat and lifeless, without the passion of his other work. He gets a chance to compare the painting with his other work when one of the guests discovers a painting of his daughter’s godmother (and his muse) Jane Haworth. That contrast shows how much of an influence Jane has had on his life, and that has its consequences. While this isn’t really a crime story, it is an interesting psychological study of the dilemma Everard faces as he is torn between his wife’s desire for him to do lucrative society portraits, and his muse’s candor about the quality of his work.

In Kerry Greenwood’s Earthly Delights, we are introduced to Corinna Chapman. She is a former accountant who had a very promising career with a successful company. But she discovered that she didn’t really care very much about numbers and accounting. Instead, her real passion is baking. For her, bread is real:
 

‘I make bread, that’s what I do, that’s what I am.’
 

So she establishes her own bakery in the Melbourne building where she lives. She may not be wealthy, but she is doing what has real meaning for her.

Gail Bowen’s sleuth Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a political scientist and retired academician. She is also the mother of three grown children and a teenager. Early in this series, her older daughter, Mieka, makes the choice to leave university and follow her passion: her own catering company. As she puts it:
 
‘‘Her [Mieka’s]  voice was strong. ‘I want my chance. I know I may get flattened but I have to try.’’
 

Her mother has misgivings (as any parent might), but Mieka makes a go of it, and does what she dreams of dong.

Fans of John Grisham’s legal novels will know that he often addresses the dilemma that attorneys face when it comes to their work. Does the lawyer choose a well-paying position (often, but not always, in a large firm)? Such jobs often have the promise of advancement, good salary, and so on. But they don’t always allow the young attorney to work on cases of real interest and make a difference. Should the lawyer choose a low-paying job (often, but not always, in a smaller firm)? Such positions don’t always pay well. But legal aid and pro bono work can be richly rewarding in other ways, and even billable hours in a smaller firm can allow the attorney to follow a particular passion (e.g. the environment; child welfare, etc.). Of course, there’s more to the choice of job than just big or small firm. But attorneys are sometimes faced with the choice between going for a high salary, opportunity for partnership and so on, and handling the kinds of cases they want to handle. And although the focus of Grisham’s novels is the set of legal mysteries in them, there’s also often a sub-plot involving the attorney’s choice between money and particular legal interest.

Sarah R. Shaber’s Simon Shaw is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who was much in demand in the academic world. He could have had his pick of just about any academic institution. And, although most university professors don’t get rich (trust me!), Shaw could have negotiated quite a glittering ‘hiring package’ for himself. Instead, he’s chosen to follow his passion, which is the history of the American South. He loves the South (he was brought up there) and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. What’s more, he’s not really interested in becoming a ‘celebrity academic.’ He wants peace, quiet, and the chance to explore his particular research interests. So Shaw has chosen a relatively small school, Kenan College, in North Carolina. The school has a very high-quality reputation, but if Shaw thought that living in small-town North Carolina and working for a small school would be peaceful, he’s quite wrong…

In a similar way, Martin Edward’s Daniel Kind has made the choice to follow his academic passion, rather than opt for a lot of money. Kind is an Oxford historian who’d become a celebrity. He got ‘burned out’ by that life, though, and, in The Coffin Trail, decides to take a home in a quiet part of the Lake District. He’s hoping to follow his own research interests and do some writing. But that’s not how things work out. He does do the research he wants, but his life is hardly peaceful. He works with Cumbria Constabulary’s DCI Hannah Scarlett on cold cases that her team investigates, and that can make his life anything but tranquil…

And then there’s M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth. He is the village bobby for the town of Lochdubh, in the Scottish Highlands. He’s a skilled detective; and, if he wanted, he could rise through the ranks, earn more money, and perhaps have a higher status. But that’s not where Macbeth’s interest lies. He’s much more interested in a quiet life of fishing, occasional hunting, and spending time with his dog. The lure of money just doesn’t appeal to him.

We all have to make a living, and if we’re lucky, we get paid to do what we love. But sometimes, it’s not that simple. The choice between money and passion isn’t an easy one. But it can add a layer to a character and a thread to a story.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Money or Love.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, John Grisham, Kerry Greenwood, M.C. Beaton, Martin Edwards, Sarah R. Shaber

‘Till I Can’t Take it Anymore*

Pushed to the EdgeVery often, it’s not the major stressors of life that sap us the most. Those tragedies do happen, and they are awful. But they don’t generally happen very often, and if we take care of ourselves when they do, we get through them. No, what pushes most people too far is a buildup of smaller things. Those are the things that threaten marriages (e.g. ‘If you leave the cap off the toothpaste tube one more time….’). They make people lash out at strangers, too (Ever been on a long flight where there was an infant who wouldn’t stop crying? Especially if the flight was delayed, you were hungry, etc…).

That buildup of stress can add a lot of tension to a novel, and it’s realistic too. We all have those times when we feel like snapping because of all of the things that have gone wrong. Sometimes that buildup can even lead to violence and worse, so it shouldn’t be surprising that we see this sort of suspense in crime fiction.

Ed McBain’s Cop Hater takes place during a terrible heat wave. Everyone’s miserable, and there seems no end to it. In the midst of this heat, police officer Mike Reardon is shot one day while on his way to work. Detective Steve Carella and his partner Frank Bush investigate. They’re hoping that once they find out what sort of gun was used in the killing, they’ be closer to catching the murderer. Then another officer, David Foster, is shot. His death is similar, so the police have to face the possibility that they are dealing with someone who has a vendetta against cops. In the meantime, the police have other duties as well. One of them is to attend lineups of those arrested for major crimes. The idea of this is that the police will become familiar with the area’s criminals. In one such lineup, we meet Virginia Pritchett, who’s been accused of murdering her husband with a hatchet. She doesn’t deny the deed; in fact, she explains that it all happened because of the buildup of tension between her and her husband throughout the heat wave. According to her, the argument that led to the murder started out simply enough and spiraled out of control. And matters weren’t helped by the heat:
 

‘‘The heat. It’s…it was very hot in the apartment. Right from the morning. You…you lose your temper very quickly in the heat.”
 

We see that buildup of small things leading to disaster in a few places in the novel.

P.D. James’A Taste For Death concerns the murder of Crown Minister Paul Berowne, whose body is found in a local church, along with the body of a tramp named Harry Mack. Because of Berowne’s status, the case is likely to attract a lot of media attention, so it’s going to have to be handled delicately. That’s where Commander Adam Dalgleish, DCI John Massingham and DI Kate Miskin come in. They’re the members of a special group of detectives who are assigned to cases such as this, where the media is likely to take a great interest. As the team begins to investigate, one of their first stops is the Berowne family. The Berownes are upper-class, and matriarch Lady Ursula Berowne (mother to one of the victims) is determined to protect the family’s public image. But behind that mask is a lot of ongoing resentment that’s built up. That’s especially true in the case of Evelyn Matlock, who was taken in by the family as a ward, and now serves as housekeeper and maid to Lady Ursula. At one point, she’s had one stress too much, and finally snaps:
 

“I’m tired, I’m overworked and I hate you all. You didn’t know that, did you? You thought I was grateful. Grateful for the job of washing you like a baby, grateful for waiting on a woman too idle to pick up her own underclothes from the floor, grateful for the worst bedroom in the house, grateful for a home, a bed, a roof, the next meal. This place isn’t a home…And you think of no one but yourselves. Do this, Mattie, fetch that, Mattie, run my bath, Mattie. I do have a name. I’m not a cat or a dog. I’m not a household pet.”
 

It’s interesting to see how class issues come out in this novel and in Evelyn’s reaction.

Ruth Rendell’s One Across, Two Down introduces us to fuel station attendant Stanley Manning. He’s never really been much of a professional success, and it hasn’t helped his career at all that he has a prison record. Still, he’s trying to make a life for himself and his wife, Vera. The big problem is Vera’s mother Maude, who lives with the Mannings. Maude despises her son-in-law, and the feeling is most definitely mutual. They make each other’s lives miserable in any way they can. In fact the only ray of hope is that Stanley knows he and Vera will inherit Maude’s money when she dies. As time goes on and Stanley feels the pressure more and more, he decides to take matters into his own hands. And if you’ve read Rendell at all, you’ll know that that’s going to spell disaster.

There’s also Martin Edwards’ short story Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa. This story concerns a sales and marketing director named Lomas. He’s always had a nicely ordered life, but times have changed, and now he finds his life unbearable. For one thing, technology has changed the way people shop, so his job has changed. Lomas’ sales strategies haven’t really been able to keep up with the times, so he’s feeling work pressure. Then there’s the way modern technology has changed the way people communicate. The Internet, mobile ‘phones and so on are all troublesome for Lomas. His family adds to these stresses; his children have become teenagers who now inhabit a completely alien world from his perspective. Even the road system has changed. Lomas has tried, but all of these stresses have built up so much that at last, matters come to a tragic head.

That’s similar to what happens in Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice. That’s the story of former school principle Thea Farmer, who bought some property in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains as a place to retire. She had a dream home built for herself and was ready to enjoy the rest of her life. Then things changed. First, some bad luck and poor financial decision-making meant that she couldn’t have that dream home. Instead, she had to settle for the house next door. Then, Frank Campbell and Ellyce Carrington bought the house that Thea always thought of as hers, and moved in. Thea resents both of those developments very much, and her stress is only increased when Frank’s niece Kim moves in with her uncle. Despite herself, though, Thea actually forms a sort of awkward friendship with the girl. And that leads to more trouble when Thea becomes convinced that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for his niece. All of this stress builds up to the point that Thea decides to deal with the situation herself. And what’s interesting in this story is how much of the stress Thea has brought on herself.

Most of us can handle one stress at a time, like a traffic jam, an argument, an Internet outage or a delayed flight. Pile them all on, though, and they can add up to real tragedy. And they can add suspense and character development to a story.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Foreigner’s Head Games.

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Filed under Ed McBain, Martin Edwards, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Virginia Duigan

Tradition*

Traditional MysteriesOne of the enduring legacies of Agatha Christie and other Golden Age/classic-era crime writers is arguably the traditional mystery structure. The ‘whodunit’ has survived very well, thank you, and continues to thrive.

To give one example of how the traditional mystery has thrived, consider that every year, the Malice Domestic convention is held in the US. Its focus is the traditional mystery, which is loosely defined as a mystery that contains no gratuitous violence, excessive gore or explicit sex. The Agatha Awards are given each year at Malice Domestic to US authors (or authors who publish in the US) who write the best traditional mysteries. And the Agathas are not the only awards that celebrate such crime fiction.

So what is the appeal of the traditional mystery? Why do they sell, and why do so many people love them? One reason is arguably that the traditional mystery is a really flexible way to tell a story. There are no rules that determine who the killer has to be, who the sleuth has to be, how many suspects there are, etc.

What this means is that there’s room for a lot of variety. For example, Cathy Ace’s Cait Morgan novels are considered traditional mysteries. They feature Morgan, a criminologist and academician who uses her experience, plus her own photographic memory, to solve crimes. Morgan is originally Welsh, but now lives in British Columbia. As an academic, she travels, presents at conferences, and so on. The mysteries that she solves don’t contain a lot of gore, gratuitous violence or explicit sex. They’re ‘whodunits’ in the traditional style. And yet, they’re thoroughly modern in outlook.

And they’re quite different to Martin Edwards’ Lake District mysteries. Also considered traditional, the Lake District mysteries feature Cumbria Constabulary’s DCI Hannah Scarlett and Oxford historian Daniel Kind. Together (and sometimes independently) they work to solve contemporary crimes that have connections to the past in some way. Edwards’ stories also bear the hallmarks of the traditional mystery; yet, they’re not like Ace’s. That’s what I mean by flexibility.

Another reason for the traditional mystery’s appeal arguably lies in its very nature. Many readers enjoy crime novels, but aren’t so fond of a lot of gore, blood and explicit sex. Since traditional mysteries, by their very natures, don’t feature those elements, they’re attractive to such crime fiction fans. For instance, consider work like that of D.S. Nelson, whose Blake Heatherington novels are traditional. Her stories take place mostly in the fictional village of Tuesbury, and feature contemporary life, contemporary issues and so on. There’s nothing ‘frothy’ about them. And yet, they aren’t gory, and Nelson leaves the reader to imagine whatever intimacy there is among different characters.

The same is true of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, who write as Michael Stanley. Their David ‘Kubu’ Bengu series takes place in modern Botswana, and features Kubu, who works for the Botswana CID. These novels are contemporary in outlook, and include an honest look at today’s Botswana. Sears and Trollip don’t gloss over the horror of murder. But at the same time, the novels are not gratuitous, and don’t feature a lot of gore or explicit sex. The focus is on the crime(s) and on the search for the killer.

And this leads me to another reason for which the traditional mystery may be so appealing. Just because a reader may not care for a lot of gore or explicit sex doesn’t mean that reader prefers Golden Age/classic social views. Novels written during that time period often reflect, however subtly, the prejudices and ‘isms’ of the times. Many modern readers don’t care for those attitudes, no matter how elegantly the mystery is done. Modern takes on the traditional mystery allow readers to enjoy the traditional structure without gritting their teeth at the ‘isms.’ For instance, Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series features many characters who would probably have been marginalized in earlier times. As an example, there are Olivier Brulé and his partner Gabriel Dubeau, who own the local B&B/bistro. They’re an integral part of the community of Three Pines, where many of the novels take place, and the ‘regulars’ in this series see them as excellent cooks and hosts, and good friends – not as gay people who run a bistro. There are plenty of other examples, too, of characters who might be marginalized in classic or Golden Age novels, but aren’t as much in today’s world.

We also see that in the work of Martin Walker. His sleuth, Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges, is chief of police in the small French town of St. Denis. The town and area are becoming more diverse, as indeed France is; and many of the characters are members of groups that might have been marginalized in earlier crime fiction. But they really aren’t in Walker’s world. And although Bruno is the protagonist, there are plenty of strong, independent female characters as well. This isn’t to say that there is no prejudice in these novels. They’re about people and people have biases. But you don’t see the systematic, sometimes casual bias that you sometimes do see in earlier crime novels.

There’s also the matter of engagement in the mystery itself. Many, many readers enjoy matching wits with the author to find out whodunit before that information is revealed. There are other intellectual challenges, too, that come from modern-day traditional-style mysteries. Cryptic clues, intellectual puzzles and so on are often really appealing to readers, and traditional mysteries offer them. There are too many such novels for me to list them, but I’m sure you can think of at least as many examples as I ever could.

It’s also worth noting that while today’s traditional mysteries don’t contain a lot of gore, ugly violence or explicit sex, they are also realistic. They don’t tend to be ‘frothy,’ and they include the kind of character development that invites the reader to engage in the story. Some of them are witty, but they don’t offer trite, easy solutions to mysteries.

To me, it’s little wonder that the traditional mystery, that’s low on gore, doesn’t indulge in gratuitous violence or explicit sex, and does feature the whodunit puzzle, is popular. It’s at least as popular now as it ever was.

What do you think? Do you enjoy traditional style mysteries? Why (not)? If you’re a writer, do you use that structure? Why (not)?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Cathy Ace, D.S. Nelson, Louise Penny, Martin Edwards, Martin Walker, Michael Sears, Michael Stanley, Stanley Trollip

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.

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