Writers - How Autobiographical is your Work?
Updated: Jun 10, 2020
A good question. Clearly Agatha Christie was never accused of murdering anyone. Nor did Hilary Mantel have first-hand experience of the Tudor court. Yet both convey a convincing reality through research and skillful storytelling.
In writing of the squalor and hardship of eighteenth-century London in The Servant, nobody would suggest I wrote from personal experience. I live in a broad-minded welfare state, where women have access to education, to reliable birth control, and take for granted that they deserve to be treated as equal to men. And yet. The glass ceiling still exists, the fear of university debt discourages many from getting the education they might wish, and powerful men can still get away with taking advantage of attractive female employees. So it was not an impossible step to imagine how women who went before us sometimes struggled to survive.
It was also helpful that I lived for twenty years in a house built in the middle of the English Civil War. Our cottage (above) was at one time called Speldhurst Farm and in earlier days belonged to a yeoman farmer. How could I not make use of it as the home of dairy farmer Thomas Graham in my story? Albeit minus his thatched roof. How not call on personal knowledge of creaking elm plank floors, lime-washed walls, beams as thick as a man's thigh, and sparking inglenook fireplaces?
In addition, my husband had a much-loved mare called Calypso and, though she was a grey rather than my farmer's bay, when I wrote of feeling a horse's 'warm breath on my stroking hand' that was a genuine memory.
Two Christmas's ago, a neighbour's handsome English bull terrier came to visit and was swiftly inserted into my story as my hero's dog. Woody (re-named Hector for plot purposes) could not, sadly be described by his breed, since a quick spot of research discovered that the bull terrier, as such, did not exist until the following century. However, I allowed myself poetic licence and merely avoided naming the breed. I am, after all, a storyteller, not a historian.
So I do draw on personal experience when it serves my purposes. Though I should perhaps make one final point on the subject. Some years ago I won a Henshaw Short Story Competition with a piece called Till Death Us Do Part. It told of a cheating wife and how she killed off her husband in order to get her hands on his money and be with her lover. Let me reassure you that my own dear spouse, the same one then as now, is still very much alive.