Was it Graham Greene who talked about the icy crystal in the writer’s heart? That tiny bit of consciousness which stands back and observes even the most traumatic of personal circumstances, in order to store it away for future use?
A tad extreme, maybe, but show me a writer of whom it’s not true. Don’t we all make use of our experiences? Isn’t every little thing that happens to us stored away somewhere, in a notebook, a computer file or just a compartment of the brain, so that there’s raw material to draw on when we need it? I won’t apologize, either on my own behalf or for other writers; I don’t think it makes us bad people – just keen observers with imaginations that need a little fuel to get them started.
I’ve read a couple of books recently which not only illustrate exactly what I mean, but take it a step further; they appear to actively seek experiences to enrich their novels. One is by an author whose career I’ve followed closely ever since the first in her delicious series turned up in a goody bag at an event. The other is by someone whose work I’d never encountered before. I haven’t had the good fortune to meet either of them, but I’m sure they’re both perfectly charming people with at least an average supply of empathy and human compassion.
The author of the series I’ve followed since that goody bag appetizer is Elly Griffiths, and the series features Dr Ruth Galloway, a forensic archaeologist and one of the most (no, make that the most) normal, likeable protagonist(s) of any series I’ve ever read. (Maybe Merrily Watkins in Phil Rickman’s series is just as likeable and normal, but it’s a close run thing.) If you haven’t yet made Ruth’s acquaintance (and Merrily’s), I strongly recommend that you take steps to rectify this huge gap in your life right away.
The series in which Ruth features (the latest is The Chalk Pit) relies heavily on knowledge of archaeology. Elly Griffiths herself is not an archaeologist – but her husband actually changed career to become one, and I have it on good authority that the birth of the series and the advent of the new career weren’t completely unconnected. A prima facie of making best use of what’s available in one’s own life, wouldn’t you say? Major research source right there in the house with her; it doesn’t get much better than that for a writer.
The author I was discovering for the first time was E M Davey. His second published novel, The Napoleon Complex, puts an interesting spin on why empires rise and fall, and ‘great’ men of history such as Napoleon and Hitler achieve and hold on to power. He cites history as a lifelong passion, and though the main narrative line of The Napoleon Complex is contemporary, its roots go way back to classical times, and there’s plenty of evidence of historical research. Davey is an investigative journalist when he’s not writing novels, and digging under the surface of a story clearly comes naturally to him, as it does to his protagonists.
Another of his passions is travel; backpacking in sixty-plus countries is a track record not many people can lay claim to, and Davey doesn’t exactly choose favourite tourist spots for his adventures. Burundi, anyone? The Afghan border? Not many Holiday Inns to be found there. Quite a few of those countries make an appearance in the novel as Jake and Jenny follow the trail of an ancient artefact which wields... no, no spoilers; find it and read it; you won’t be disappointed.
Personal experience is pure gold to a writer; even the more mundane, domestic kind of life is packed with material for fiction. A good friend who was a better and more successful writer of fiction that I’ll ever be once gave me this advice: step outside your comfort zone; do something you’ve never done before at least once a week. You know what? He was right.