Fledgling writers are often urged to write what they know. Good advice? Well, it's a launching pad, but if taken literally it can back you into a stifling corner.
Writing from familiar territory has merit and can bring acclaim. Former lawyers Erle Stanley Gardner, Scott Turow, and John Grisham found success writing courtroom dramas. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings had an affinity for and a commitment to writing about her adopted state's frontier days. Through observation while living in the Florida woods, Rawlings developed an authentic sense of place and language. She used this knowledge in two novels, The Yearling, which won the 1938 Pulitzer Prize, and Cross Creek.
Atlanta-born Margaret Mitchell didn't grow up on a plantation, but her ancestry (Irish Catholic, Scots Irish and French) mirrored her heroine, Scarlett O'Hara. The men in Mitchell's background fought in Irish uprisings, the American Revolution, and the Civil War. Having grown up listening to battle stories told by ancestors and other veterans, she put what she knew about the subject into Gone With The Wind, a 1937 Pulitzer winner.
Rawlings and Mitchell died young, 57 and 49 respectively, without adding to their published works. Perhaps they would have branched out into other areas. Nelle Harper Lee is another matter. She claimed that To Kill A Mockingbird was not autobiographical, but she clearly wrote what she knew about racial bias in the south during the 1930s. Her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, became the fictional Atticus Finch, and the diminutive neighbor boy, Dill, depicted young Truman Persons (later Capote). Using an old typewriter belonging to her father, Nelle and Truman whiled away the hours writing stories. To Kill A Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize, but Lee subsequently published only two essays. Now in her eighties, she recently broke her dry spell with a short piece for O, The Oprah Magazine.
W. Somerset Maugham's education qualified him as a doctor. He never practiced medicine, but many of his books and plays reflect his medical background. Although Of Human Bondage reads as semi-autobiographical, he called it "more invention than fact."
All these authors wrote what they knew from experience, but writing doesn't have to end there. The ability to learn about any topic is as near as a computer, a library, or newspapers and magazines. A writer's group is fertile soil for gleaning information. Among the members might be a police officer, a fencing coach, a plumber, a chef, all of whom would be flattered if asked for their expertise.
When a woman in my writer's group told me about riding the Orphan Train as a child, I became intrigued with the details. I'd never heard of the Orphan Train. After some research I wrote a short story, using a fictional child aboard the train. Thema literary journal published the story and nominated it for the Pushcart Prize. A nonfiction piece about the Orphan Train later appeared on Dana Literary Society's Online Journal.
The prolific James Michener had a stable of aides who supplied material for his historical sagas. Zane Grey was a dentist in Ohio when he began writing about gunslingers and lawmen and posses. Fortunately, Stephen King hasn't actually lived through the horrifying events depicted in his novels, and only Anne Rice knows if she is personally acquainted with vampires. These writers researched what they didn't know.
Donna Singer, a feature writer for Florida Monthly, never knows what assignment she'll be given. But it's nearly always a subject about which she knows little or nothing and she must do her homework. She says, "With every story I learn something new and exciting."
Although I don't know a weed from wisteria, I'm a frequent contributor to Florida Gardening magazine. My husband, a Master Gardener, helps with that subject. But the articles aren't strictly about plants and flowers. I've written about a Healing Garden, a Reading Garden, Memorial Gardens, a Children's Garden (fun, fairies, fantasy) the Sarasota Succulent Society Garden, Mable Ringling's Rose Garden, Secret Garden, and Dwarf Garden, and how to use antiques as focal points in gardens.
As writers, we must learn to blend what we've known for a long time with what we've learned and make it appear seamless. We must read, study, delve into the past, and let our imaginations run free. We must gather information and mull it. Then it's time to work magic with words, soaring far beyond what we know in any literal and limited sense of the word.