As this is posted, it would have been Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 151st birthday. Millions of people (myself included) grew up reading her stories of life on the American prairie (remember those great Garth Williams illustrations?). As you’ll know, the ‘Little House’ books are semi-autobiographical. In fact, those who are interested can visit the ‘little town on the pairie,’ De Smet, South Dakota, and the Laura Ingalls Wilder home in Mansfield, Missouri, where she lived for the last 60 years of her life. I’ve done both trips, and they’re rich experiences.
But Wilder is by no means the only author to be inspired by personal experiences. In fact, my guess is that nearly every author draws at least a little inspiration from real-life experiences. I know I do. A story may not be the direct retelling of an event, or description of a person. But things that happen to a writer do have a way of coming out in that writer’s work.
For example, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is the story of the killing of an American businessman named Samuel Ratchett. He’s on his way across Europe on the world-famous Orient Express train, a journey of three days. On the second night, he is stabbed in his compartment. Hercule Poirot is on the train, on his way to London, and is prevailed upon to find Ratchett’s killer. The trip, the murder investigation, and, as it turns out, the murder itself, are all complicated by a major snowstorm. The train ends up being snowbound and is stranded for quite a while until the tracks can be cleared. It’s said that Christie herself was once snowbound on a train (although not trapped with a murderer, or for as long a time as the story depicts). That experience was a part of the inspiration for this novel.
In The Lincoln Lawyer, Michael Connelly introduces Los Angeles attorney Mickey Haller. Among other things, he is half-brother to one of Connelly’s other main protagonists, Los Angeles police detective Harry Bosch. In fact, as fans of Connelly’s work can tell you, the two men work together in a few of Connelly’s novels. Haller doesn’t have a conventional office. He does most of his legal business in the back of his Lincoln. If you know anything about Los Angeles traffic, you’ll know why it makes sense for him to have an ‘office on wheels.’ Connelly has said that he was inspired for Haller’s character in part by a chance meeting at a baseball game. He happened to be sitting near a lawyer who said that he works mostly out of his car. That was enough to intrigue Connelly, and the end result was Haller. Of course, that attorney and Haller are quite different people, I’d guess. But that one interesting aspect found its way into Connelly’s work.
In the opening scene of Val McDermid’s The Vanishing Point, Stephanie Harker is escorting five-year-old Jimmy Higgins through Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. They’re just going through the security procedure when they’re separated. Jimmy’s passed through security; Stephanie’s delayed. By the time she’s through, Jimmy’s been abducted by someone in a Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) uniform. Here is how McDermid explains the inspiration for that part of the novel:
‘‘I was travelling with my son when he was about six,’ she says. ‘I’ve got replacement knees so I set off the detectors, and they literally put you in a box. While I was there, my boy was standing by the luggage belt waiting for our bags to come through and I thought that someone could just take him by the hand and walk away with him.’’
Thankfully, McDermid’s son was safe. But that experience played an important role in the novel.
Alison Gordon’s series features Kate Henry, a sportswriter for the Toronto Planet. Her particular interest and specialty is baseball, so she travels with the American League (AL) Toronto Titans when they go to their ‘away’ games, and attends all of their ‘at home’ games, too. Henry’s experiences as a sportswriter are reflective of Gordon’s own background. Gordon was a sportswriter for the Toronto Star, and the first woman to cover a Major League Baseball team (beginning with the Toronto Blue Jays). She carried those experiences into her fiction writing. While her fictional sleuth doesn’t have to contend with as many barriers as Gordon did, they still have plenty in common.
Some authors are inspired by major events, and for crime writers, that often means major crimes. That was the case with Truman Capote. In 1959, Kansas farmer Herb Clutter, his wife, Bonnie Mae, and his children, Nancy Mae and Kenyon, were murdered in their home. Richard Hickock and Perry Smith were arrested, tried, and convicted of the crime. Apparently, they’d been in prison before these murders, and a fellow inmate had told them that Clutter kept a lot of money at the farm. It wasn’t true, but they believed what the inmate said, and committed four murders because of it. Capote took those events and created a fictional account, In Cold Blood, that told the story of the killers’ backgrounds, the events leading up to the murders, and more.
And that’s the thing about authors. Even when they write fiction, their own lives and experiences impact what they write and how they write. I’m not sure it could be otherwise.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Bouncing Souls’ Night Train.