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 a research and skillful storytelling.
In writing about the squalor and hardship of nineteenth-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 prevents many getting the education they might wish and powerful men can still get away with taking advantage of female employees. So it was not an impossible step to imagine how the women who went before us lived their lives.
And personal experience has a place.
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 was thought to have belonged to a yeoman farmer. How could I not make use of it as the home of dairy farmer Thomas Graham in my story? How not call on my 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 a horse’s ‘warm breath on my stroking hand‘ I did, of course, write from personal experience.
Two Christmases 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, but I allowed myself poetic licence and merely avoided naming the breed. I am, after all, a storyteller rather than a historian.
I’m convinced all writers draw on personal experience and feelings to some extent. Certainly I do.
However, I should make one final point on the subject. Some years ago I was fortunate enough to win a Henshaw Short Story Competition. The piece, Till Death Us Do Part, told of a cheating wife and how she killed off her husband. Let me reassure you that my own husband, the same one then as now, is still very much alive.