We've all heard it at one time or another, and most of you non-writers out there will probably have come across it too: it's apparently one of the cardinal 'rules' of writing. Write what you know. Meaning, write about places you're familiar with, emotions you've experienced, ideas you are familiar with, etc.
I think there's some sense in this, but only to an extent. I think something else is far more important: writing what you love. Writing about what you love.
There may be a paradox here in that you assume that if someone loves something, they probably 'know' it already, so writing what you know is writing what you love.
But I don't think that's necessarily true. For example, I love Italy. I know a few things about its history, and its architecture, and its art, and I'm absolutely dying to go there. But I wouldn't be able to write a novel set in Rome or Venice right now, simply because I don't know enough about it, love it though I do. Do you see?
Another example, of writing what you love that you also happen to know. I love the theatre. Immeasurably. Plays, musicals, being in the audience or backstage, I love it. But I also happen to know it pretty well.
My father is an actor, and most of his stuff involved the stage. So, from the age of about two or three, much of my free time was spent camped backstage while my father (and often my mother too) strutted their stuff onstage, off and generally in-between. As I grew older, I became the mascot of many of the shows my dad was involved in, largely because I was always around. I knew all the lines. I would repeatedly evoke choruses of laughter from the cast and crew because I would tell my father off for forgetting or fudging a line. There's this one theatre in Bangalore where most of these things happened, and I know it back to front. My parents know everybody who works there. Still.
Over the summer, my mother, who teaches at my old school, roped me into helping out with a huge school musical. I was somehow put in charge of playing the music during the show on cue. I protested a lot, but I have to admit, I loved it. The week of the show, Mum, who was stage manager, informed me that with two light/tech and dress rehearsals and three shows on, we'd be spending a lot of time at the theatre (the very theatre mentioned above).
Mum: We might as well set up a tent.
Me: So, just like old times, then?
That is my history with theatre. So, could I write about it? Easily. Do I? Yes. Does that count as 'writing what I know'? Yes. But it's also 'writing what I love', and that part's far more important.
When you write about what you love, the passion shines through the text. It makes other people love that thing too, or at least, find the interest to be invested in it for as long as they're reading your story. I recently read Lucy Christopher's Flyaway, which revolves largely around a family, but also around a swan and swans in general. I don't mind swans, but I'm not particularly fussed about them. Yet the passion and interest in Flyaway was so clear and so lovely to read, I found myself caring very much about swans. It's such a great book.
If you've lived in London all your life, people might tell you to write about London, because you know it backwards. But you might not necessarily want to, you might not be interested in it. I think I'm expected to write about India, because that's where I'm from, and I do write about it. But only when I want to. Only when I see a story there, and not just because it's what I know.
So, should I ever write about Italy, considering I don't know it very well and have never been there? Yes, I should. Because I'm interested in it. Because I love reading about it, and seeing interpretations of it, and I love different parts of its history and art.
There's a remedy to not knowing enough about something. Research.
I think, in the end, you could write what you know, if what you know is what you love. And if what you love is what you don't know... just learn it instead.
I'd love to hear what other people think of the 'write what you know' dilemma. And while you ponder this monster of a post, I'll go back to writing TEA WITH DEATH, DESIRE AND RAGE. 700 words into Chapter Two now.