Authors are often told to ‘write about what you know’. Despite that sounding easy, it isn’t. Writing about your own life can seem dull, prosaic and boring. And if it’s not like that, if your life is either really exciting, fulfilling and wonderful, or actually quite awful, you probably don’t have time or a wish to write about it. (Or are waiting to do your autobiography in later life?)
Some writers have definitely used parts of their life experience to create fiction, and it is particularly interesting when those writers are writing crime fiction. The majority of crime writers are, of course, not criminals writing about crimes they have committed. There are some exceptions, and they are interesting to read about, but it’s not definitely to the norm.
Crime writers may use real crime stories for inspiration, which is a good way to see how the perpetrator got caught, or if they ever got caught. Aside from that, other famous crime writers used their experience in a particular field. Here’s a couple of examples.
As a qualified physician, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used his extensive medical knowledge in his Sherlock Holmes stories. Some of the forensic methods, like fingerprints, solved the crimes in his writing. Such methods was later taken up by police forces around the world.
Conan Doyle ensured that his crime stories had forensic truth, even if it seemed unlikely. As Holmes himself says, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” This seems a good rule for any crime novel. Coming from Conan Doyle’s scientific world of medicine and science, it isn’t surprising that the paranormal was never allowed as the answer to a crime in the Sherlock Holmes novels.
But what is surprising is that Conan Doyle himself was very interested in spiritualism (partly because of the deaths of loved ones both in and outside of the first world war) and wrote extensively about it as a believer. Despite this, he must have realised that having ghosts or similar things in the Holmes stories would break everything that the reader would have expected from the coldly analytical Sherlock. It would have broken the trust that a writer makes with their readers.
Agatha Christie’s work as a volunteer nurse and chemist in the first world war was used extensively her crime novels. In a similar fashion to Conan Doyle, she preferred there to be a proven reason for a crime, especially if it was murder.
Despite the excellent ‘little grey cells’ in Poirot’s brain, he still might send crime scene articles to a laboratory in London or ask for confirmation about legal elements rather than just go on a hunch, or local gossip and bias.
She often used poison in her stories and the book ‘A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie’ by Kathrine Harkup (Bloomsbury Sigma) is a very interesting title going though fourteen Christie novels with the fourteen poisons used.
The different ways poison can be acquired and used is another joy when reading Christie’s work. It’s really interesting! But also be aware, Christie doesn’t laud her criminals and there is a very moral side to her writing, criminals are always punished. As someone who lived through two world wars this isn’t so surprising.
Being able to draw on personal knowledge within a story is always useful as it gives a clear edge of believability to the writing. Personal experience is good to use in any creative writing, not just crime fiction, but only if it doesn’t overshadow other elements in the work. There is a real danger of being a consumate bore about what you know; whether it’s about skateboarding, hairdressing, stocks and shares, making cakes or gathering mushrooms.
6 thoughts on “Write What You Know? Or What You Imagine?”
Fascinating and very thought-provoking, thank you! Interesting that although a “man of science” in his own world, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed in the afterlife. I think Agatha Christie would have found a visit to the Poison Garden inspiring (Google Alnwick Poison Garden UK). I attended an online talk from the recently and they grow a gruesome range of toxic plants, many with hideous effects and some without a known antidote.
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I think she would have loved that! I would too, so have just checked it out online and really liked this warning:
‘The boundaries of the Poison Garden are kept behind black iron gates, only open on guided tours. Visitors are strictly prohibited from smelling, touching, or tasting any plants, although some people still occasionally faint from inhaling toxic fumes while walking in the garden.’ Fainting from toxic fumes is a line I know want to use in a story… Thanks Natalie!
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Intriguing points here, Yasmin, thanks. 🙂 Mind you, I believe the “Write what you know” dictum applies as much to emotions and the psychological insights one has as it does to the bare facts of experience and knowledge, if not more. A cast of convincing characters increasingly trump realistic scenarios for me when I’m reading, otherwise they might as well be mannequins displayed in a shop window dressed to suggest a scene.
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I completely agree with you. I’m a great believer that solid, believable characters the reader trusts in is as important as a good plot. And those characters will definitely have some of the writers experience of how and why people act the way they do. Lots of emotion and psychology there!
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A great post!