The first advice most writers get is the cliché “Write what you know.” This seems to be safe advice because, after all, if you’re writing about something you know, you are less likely to make a fool of yourself or sound embarrassingly ignorant. But it can also be frustrating to the beginning writer. No one wants to write about a family that seems boring or that is painfully dysfunctional.
A few months ago I had an idea for a story that surprised me. A divorced man finds himself alone in a large house with a life not of his making. His wife has left him the trappings of a life he doesn’t know how to live—she was an avid sailor, for one thing, and he did little more than pick up the sail bags and follow her out to the boat. He took orders when she gave them, and otherwise sat in the cockpit and watched the waves. He had little or no idea what she did to make the boat “go.” Now that he’s alone, he finds himself the owner of a boat, books about boats, and the reputation of being a good crew on a racing boat. He hardly knows who this person is. The story grew from there.
It has been almost over 45 years since I was in a sailboat or raced one. I could barely remember the terms for things, racing rules, and all the rest, but the story appeared, and I started writing. If someone had told me I should write about sailing, I would have dismissed him or her with a laugh and an off-hand comment.
A few years ago I had just returned from India after an absence of many years, and ran into an old family friend. There was something different about her, and I didn’t know what it was until an hour later, after we had parted company. She had walked away to her car, and I kept seeing that image of her walking away. Then I remembered. She’d been born with a bone deformity in the 1940s, and lived with it almost her entire adult life, until she reached her forties, when someone told her the deformity could be “fixed.” I know next to nothing about medicine and not a lot about life in an Indian village (I lived in a city when I was there), but I began to see a young woman in a village in India born with a deformity that a visiting western doctor says he can “fix.”
One day several years ago I ran out of typing paper. This led to a search (before the big box office supply stores) on Saturday morning for paper. That led to an encounter with a paper salesman, which was the genesis for the fourth Mellingham mystery, Friends and Enemies, featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva. The story revolves around the loyalty employees feel for the paper industry, and after I finished researching it for the story, I understood their commitment to their individual companies.
If I only wrote what I knew, these and other stories wouldn’t have been written. If new writers ask (and only if they ask) for advice I tell them, “Write what you love” or “Write what you’re curious about” or “Write what you think you need to learn about life.” But whatever you write about, stretch yourself. Go somewhere new in your imagination.