Writing Your Past (by Jeffrey Marks)

The adage that an author must open a vein and bleed on the page never felt more accurate than when I started writing autobiographical fiction. (ABF)

When I retired in the early days of the pandemic, I had hoped to complete the research for my works-in-progress. Yet, most of the university libraries closed indefinitely. My chances of research vanished. The only thing I could write was my own experience during this era.

While ABF is a well-known subgenre of realistic fiction, I couldn’t find many examples of autobiographical mystery fiction. In my research, I learned that ABF is not a set formula; it’s a scale from “loosely based upon” to “only the names have been changed.” Therefore, the author has a great deal of leeway in creating the story.

Since the genre I know best is mystery, I decided to kill a few people as I shared that era with the reader. As I’m writing more stories in the series, the crimes have ranged from strict reality to could have resulted in death to I just didn’t like that person.

Plot and setting are intertwined. I chose to write about an event that took place as I ended my time at my first job at a roller disco. A man had been stabbed in the parking lot. Googling the event to learn of the crime’s motive or consequences, I found no record of any stabbing, making the event feel surreal—and fair game for my imagination.

The crime needed to be organic to the scene and era. The stabbing had taken place at a roller disco, giving me the location—and the time was 1978.

In ABF, the main character is typically yourself. So having a crime, I then needed to determine what facets of me I wanted to show the readers.

In my early days of employment, I was a very reluctant worker. The only thing that got my nose away from a book and to the roller disco was another book. In my mid-teens, I’d discovered the wonderful world of Agatha Christie—and book collecting. Working brought me money, which bought first editions, even when I couldn’t have defined what a “first edition” was.

The quest to read as many crime novels as possible in a short period of time was one of the driving forces of my teen years. In three to four years, I had devoured most of the Golden Age mysteries I could get my hands on. My favorite authors and their books became a part of the stories.   

In talking to others who have read the stories, the memories of music are a catalyst to recalling that era and various memories. Listening to same songs at the roller disco five nights a week, I was convinced I would forever remember the lyrics to six particular songs. I can still sing them at age 62. (If you buy me a drink at a future conference, I’ll be happy to prove it.) So music became another aspect of my life that would also appear in each of the stories.

Finally, I wanted to include the awkward navigation of my orientation. I have eschewed any tropes that I’ve seen so often about gay men, but I must confess that it’s been challenging to recognize and excise them from my works. Since that was one of the drivers that started my work, I wanted to include the main character’s orientation as an impediment to solving the case and other issues.

At this point, I have developed the storylines for three more crime stories based on my memories. As you progress with these projects, you’ll be amazed at the details you’ll recall about those events—and even more, crimes that can serve as the source materials for other works. I hope as I continue down this path.

“Disco is Dead” by Jeffrey Marks appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.


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2 responses to “Writing Your Past (by Jeffrey Marks)

  1. een writing from my own life during the last several years also, albeit begrudgingly. I’ve since combined manuscripts I wrote about my ordeals with Cerebral Palsy, discovering and dealing with my brother’s Autism, and a horror tale loosely based on a power outage after a hurricane into the nucleus of a detective series. I merged them with a missing child short story I wrote for a contest.

    The series deals with a single mother (based on our own) who investigates missing child cases while dealing with her two special needs kids. While nothing has been published, I’ve since submitted each story to AHMM. I’ve since added further installments further incorporating these ordeals from different perspectives and incorporating our travels. I’ve resumed revising, editing, and expanding each installment.

    I’ve also written a heist caper set in the 1940’s-1950’s. Drawing from an ordeal in my late grandfather’s life combined with a disability theme and a fictionalized figure from an old interest of mine. I’ve since added a prologue/epilogue wraparound, allowing it to be a loose origin story/prequel to the above series. More loosely, I’ve also incorporated the ”single mother and two kids” concept into a couple recent horror and sci-fi stories. Along with a favorite song into a flash fiction story I’ve submitted.

  2. Arthur Vidro

    Any method that works for the writer is a good method. Glad this worked for you, Jeff. Though I’ve never been as fortunate(?) as you to be at a real-life murder scene, I, too, sprinkle stories with people from my past (usually the 1980s), plus a bit of myself and real-life incidents augmented with a “what-if” factor to produce the crime. Where it helps me most is in speech patterns. By knowing that Character X is being played in my mind by one-time colleague Y, the dialogue becomes much smoother and each character gets their own voice.
    — Arthur Vidro, who used this technique for stories in Mystery Most Theatrical and Mystery Most Traditional

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