Monday, 20 December 2010

Autobiographical crime fiction

‘Write what you know’ is a tired – and unnecessarily limiting - cliché of advice for budding writers, but like most clichés, it contains an element of common sense. However, the nature of fiction is that it is an imaginative form, and so to my mind, there is a limit to ‘writing what you know’ – because it’s good to escape from what you know, and to explore things you don’t really know at all. To take an obvious example, I’m fascinated by writing about murder, and motivations for murder. But I’ve never murdered anybody, and I don’t plan to. Honest.

Having said all that, it would be silly to deny that sometimes there is an element of autobiography in fiction, and this can sometimes creep in quite unintentionally. This is a point which Jessica Mann made when responding to my enthusiastic post about her book The Eighth Deadly Sin. A writer will often take elements from their own life and use them in fiction – but perhaps subtly, or dramatically, changed.

There is a great temptation, when reading a novel, to seek clues to the author’s personal life and thoughts. And sometimes the clues are fascinating. But this kind of amateur detective work is often liable to result in one jumping to the wrong conclusions. It’s fun to do, sometimes, but not to be taken too seriously.

With my own books, Harry Devlin shares a number of characteristics with me. He’s a lawyer based in Liverpool, who likes soccer, cricket, films and 60s pop music. But I never wanted him to be a portrayal of myself, so I wove in plenty of stuff that he and I do not share. For instance, he gets involved with criminal and divorce work, and I’d hate to do so. He also lives less in his imagination than I do, and as a result, he’s a lot braver than me. But I’ve never seen this as wish fulfilment – I created a life for him that I really would never want to have for myself!

With Daniel Kind, it’s different. He and I both come from the north of England, and went to Oxford, but otherwise our lives are dissimilar in countless respects. Sometimes the differences - as well as similarities, are written into the character without pre-planning. I still can’t understand why he got hooked up with people like Aimee and Miranda, and judging from emails I receive, nor can many of my readers!

Strangely enough, I’ve become more fascinated by Hannah Scarlett than by Daniel in recent years. I love exploring her life and psychology. The way women think is something else that fascinates me, even though sometimes it perplexes me. And I've written short stories from the perspective of historical characters, an American, and a gay politician. I’m just intensely curious about other people’s lives, and on the whole, fiction appeals to me much more as a means of exploring other lives than of presenting an autobiographical picture of myself.


Anonymous said...

Martin - Thanks for sharing your thoughts about how much of yourself you put into your books. I believe that all writers weave a bit of themselves into their work, however unconsciously. It's really inevitable, in my opinion, because a story is the author's creation. But yes, there is this popular notion that there's a character in each story that "is" the author. I've not found that so for any author I know. And it isn't true for me, either.

Ed Gorman said...

Excellent post. Graham Greene once wrote that he found it difficult to depict real people in his fiction. He took elements of their personalities but never attempted to set them down whole. I think this extends to many of us who write crime fiction. John D. MacDonald remarked that he was everybody in his books, male and female. Our personalities permeate our work but as you suggest that's different from autobiography. There are exceptions of course. I know half a dozen writers who chose to use traumatic personal experiences as material for novels. But I'm not sure how frequently that happens. Again, great post.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

The way women think perplexes me sometimes, too! :)

I think you and I have a similar approach to autobiographical aspects of characters. I do keep it limited...and a couple of characters are nothing at all like me.

Dorte H said...

I really enjoy these posts where you tell us about your own writing process.

And though I like reading about Harry Devlin, he does not quite strike me as your type (funny how I feel I know that even though I have never met any of you in real life.)

I certainly don´t adhere to writing about what I know, either. As a beta reader told me once, readers are not interested in people who have been happily married for 30 years.

aguja said...

This is such an interesting and well thought out post, Martin. I agree with what you say. Who wants to portray themselves in their books? But, as you also rightly say, the autobiographical can creep in - aspects that you know have a nucleus that is 'you'.

My characters are for children aged 8-10, but I can find aspects of myself within some of the characters ... and some of the 'happenings' occur because of things that fascinate me. For example, I often wonder about numbers and, as a child, imagined that they had characters; lo and behold, up they popped whilst I was writing, unplanned.

As I read a book, I alwats ponder on how the author formulated the characters and the book, but I do not look for the author in the work; rather the style in which they have chosen to write and the way in which the characters are formed and manipulated.

Martin Edwards said...

Great comments - thanks very much.
Ed, I know that, you are a Greene fan, as I am. As you say, that approach does work for most of us.
There is one very good British writer who used her experience of being stalked as the basis for one of her novels. She gave a talk about this experience
which I found truly chilling.
Dorte, yes, happy marriages make for good lives and bad fiction, I guess.
Margot, Elizabeth, Aguja, I think we all have similar views on this.
Once again, thanks. This is a subject to which I may well return

Spangle said...

I think this post is very interesting. In my opinion, I think many influences are involved when writing novels. The brain absorbs so much information subconciously, from real experiences, the books we have read through out our lives and also, from the mysterious part of the brain that is the imagination.

I don't think therefore, that it's fair to say that all books are autobiographical (one of my children's books is about farm yard animals and I have lived no where near a farm!). However, it's a combination of things. That's why I find the act of creative writing fascinating, because of the way in which characters and storylines manifest themselves.