The US agent Nathan Bransford asked his blog readers what was the worst writing advice they'd ever been offered. His comment trails are always long - it's a consistently interesting blog - but this one made a python look stumpy. After I'd recovered from quotes like "Remove all your commas; editors don't like commas and they pull the reader out of the story," and "Any sentence that uses 'was' is written in passive voice" (more on that one here), I was interested to see that the bad advice quoted which most resonated with other commenters was "Write about what you know".
I'm not the only writer who'd be well and truly out of a job if "Write what you know" became too universal an orthodoxy. My bookshelves would be pretty empty too. But it comes up time and time again, doesn't it: Aren't you supposed to write what you know? Wouldn't you be wiser to? What do you say to the command that you must?
And it doesn't only come from with festival questioners facing a panel of historical or sf/f novelists, or men writing women (women writing men don't raise nearly so many eyebrows, but that's another blog post altogether). A writer friend horrified her agent by saying she was going to set her second novel in 19th century Canada: it was part of the reason that agent is now her ex-agent and the Society of Authors contract-demons have yet another fan. Her new agent loves the book.
As so often, I suspect it comes about from writing teachers - agents, editors - being faced with writing which is basically a watered-down, second-hand version of the current Big Names. "Don't try and do things you don't know how to do," they say. "Stick to something you can write first-hand."
But what if the last thing you want to write is your own surroundings? All writers were readers first, and didn't we read to be somewhere else? To move on from our world, or fly it altogether? For every beginner writer who's overjoyed to discover his own life is deemed worth documenting, there'll be one who's put off for life because she's not allowed to write dragons. So I'd say, if something's hard to do, don't tell beginners not to do it. Warn them it's not easy, then teach them the beginnings of how to do it. The only motivation that really gets a writer learning is a red-hot story they don't quite know if they can write.
And it's not just beginner writers. For every teacher/agent/editor who has good reason to be fed up with second-hand Lee Child and third-hand Rowling, there are two who are fed up with lightly fictionalised accounts of office affairs, post-divorce pratfalls, and war to the Sabatier knife over the colour of the Aga. (Can you tell I've had a bellyful of Mum Lit to report on lately?)
The thing is, just because you can guarantee the authenticity of not only the adulterous feelings you're writing, but also the geography of the Piazza where your heroine impulsively buys a tumble-down palazzo, doesn't make it a better book. Either it works as a story, or it doesn't. I hugely admire writers who can make funny or feeling novels from their own lives, but that, too, is much, much harder to do than it looks.
It does, of course, depend on what you mean by "what you know". Questioners tend to assume it means your kind of life/street/voice/era. But of course "what you know" could be love/hate/parenthood, or leaving your man for a woman, or walking across the Rockies. Set any of those in another century, or on another planet, and it'll still be "what you know" in a very important sense. An awful lot of writers find that stories spring from rubbing together the known and the unknown until they start to smoulder: what if you'd missed that plane? If he'd followed you to Japan? If you'd bought the big house, then not conceived? "What you know" is a component in those,too, but by definition so is "what you don't know".
The question's also pernicious in this world of readers who can't cope with verisimilitude - "truthlikeness", as Wikipedia defines it: the people who judge fiction only by how exactly it reproduces facts, and are outraged when they discover they've been seduced into believing something that "isn't true".
How I would love to hear more authors than Graham Swift say, "Bugger research", or stand up and say they never went near a library or a map: that they made it all up. After all, "what I know" is really very dull: my life is no different from that of millions of other people, and as I edge closer to being a professional author it's even less suitable material for fiction. "What I come to know", whether I come to know it by imagining, by researching or by dreaming, is all far, far more interesting.
So to every writer who's being told by a teacher, or a parent, or a writing friend, 'Write what you know', I offer, free, gratis and for nothing, an alternative:
WRITE WHAT YOU WANT, AND MAKE ME BELIEVE YOU KNOW IT!