When I was young and contemplating a career as a novelist I was always stumped by that sage advice given by other writers: write about what you know. How did that fit my favourite SF/fantasy authors?
Now, as a much older woman, I understand what that statement actually means. It’s not about writing your life story; it’s about finding whatever it is you understand deeply. And you can be sixteen or sixty to do that – we all know something about the experience of living. Then, once you have that something, you capture it in words, putting it into any setting or story you want.
When I was recovering from breast cancer everyone kept telling me I needed to write my story. I don’t read cancer stories, so why would I want to write one? I read to escape, and maybe learn a little on the way, not to wallow in someone else’s true life experiences.
Then I moved to England from Australia and suddenly I felt drawn to write a ghost story set in an old English farmhouse with a WW2 Polish fighter pilot as my ghost hero. And my heroine? A young woman recovering from breast cancer.
Did I happen to mention I write romance? My immediate reaction to this insistent idea from my Muse was, who the heck wants to read a romance about a ghost and a cancer survivor? Not me.
But the idea wouldn’t go away and eventually The Way Home was written, and I found I’d put my real life experiences of cancer into my heroine’s story. It was excruciating to write, but when I’d finished the novel, it was nothing like I expected. It was an exciting, rather steamy, love story that was ‘uplifting’; so uplifting, I started having readers emailing me directly about it.
It touched people, and I think that’s the essence of what the write about what you know mantra is all about. If you write from the heart you can reach the heart of your reader. And ultimately, isn’t that why we write: to communicate?