It’s an oft-quoted piece of writing advice to write what you know, but it’s as oft-flouted as it is quoted. After all, if writers stuck to it religiously, there could be no fiction at all, and certainly no fantasy, historical fiction or sci-fi.
The best writers draw on their own experiences, mixing them with research and good old-fashioned imagination. Emotions, for example, are extremely transferable and to some extent scalable. I’ve experienced the fear of hearing strange noises in the house or of seeing a suspicious-looking character walking towards me on a dark street, so it’s escalation rather than invention, to imagine how I, or my characters, would react if those fears turned out to be real, or to other frightening circumstances. If grief can be measured (as with love, I’m not persuaded it’s a ratio scale), I have been fortunate only to experience milder forms – for pets, grandparents and not-incredibly-close friends. But I know enough of it from both inside and outside to conjure some of the emotion that loss causes into my characters. It works like empathy – I can’t imagine how it feels to lose one’s partner, child or parent, but I can begin to, and that is why my heart goes out to friends, family and even strangers who have.
Emotions aren’t the only place where writers mix experience and imagination. We do it in every scene and virtually every sentence, as we craft a story which we want to ring true. Like watching a singer miming, readers pick up on inconsistencies in stories almost subconsciously. You can’t always point to the problem, but you know it doesn’t ring true.
to me, that’s one reason that writing realism can be harder than fantasy. If I write about a dwarf speaking to an elf, fantasy fans may say that my dwarf is not accurately portrayed, but what they are really saying is that my vision of dwarves doesn’t match that of Tolkien, or some other master of the fantasy cannon. Although I might be wise to follow the crowd (or to create anew name for the race I’m creating from scratch), I cannot be “wrong” because I am creating something out of nothing. But if I write about two plumbers, discussing the nature of a problem in the pipework, I’d better be sure I’ve done my background reading, because plumbers and their wives / mothers / assistants / apprentices everywhere will pick me up right away if I muddle caulking with grout.
All of which is probably why a lot of writers pick a career and stick to it (Crime writers cling to detectives, John Grisham churns out lawyers…) or avoid involving careers as far as possible (who knows or cares what the majority of Stephen King’s characters do to earn their crust?). We also tend to choose a genre and a time period, whether that’s our own (Jane Austen, Jodi Picoult…) or a particular one we’ve researched endlessly (Catherine Cookson, Philippa Gregory).
And, most writers stick to the gender they know best, at least for the narrator or principal character. “We Need To Talk About Kevin” is about a teenage boy, but the narrator and in many ways the main character is a woman, as is Lionel Shriver, and all her books, however well they depict men, do it from the outside.
Age is tougher, but also more flexible. Most published writers are over 25, yet young adult fiction is immensely popular and children’s fiction fills a huge area in every bookshop and library. But at least we’ve been there, and many adults have a pretty close view of childhood through their own families. And maybe age makes less of a difference than we would like to think. 60 year olds, 30 year olds, even 18 year olds don’t think that differently. Our hopes and fears change, as do our priorities, but the emotions that embody them aren’t so different however old we are.
But still … I look at my draft novels and I wonder why I’ve got a third person close narrative from the point of view of a thirty year old man, and a first person diary written by a middle-aged father. Do I just like to make things difficult?!