When I was a senior in high school, I was part of a fortunate group who got to meet with Isaac Bashevis Singer–he would have been about eighty–and he offered this advice (I’m paraphrasing):
All of you are what, seventeen, eighteen? And you are being told, Write what you know. Write what you know-but what do you know? Most of you haven’t even had sex yet. So. Don’t write what you know. Write what you want to know about.
Write what you want to know about. And let me amend that notion and suggest: Write what you’ve always wanted to know about.
The best writing is born from curiosity. Figure out the inner workings of a bakery or the Kremlin or the harpsichord or mitochondria. How long have we been cooking with fennel? Who settled Iceland? How does a bistro manager know how much food to order for the next day? Who lived in your house before you did? What makes a dinghy seaworthy? Research, explore, travel. And along the way, note the people whom you encounter. Chances are that you’ll still want to write what you know, but what you know will work its way into a whole new realm, namely what you’ve figured out. It will be great!
Biography of Peter Gadol: Peter Gadol is the author of six novels, including most recently Silver Lake and Light at Dusk. He teaches in the Graduate Writing Program at Otis College of Art and Design.
I love this tip. If writers only wrote about what they knew, eventually we’d have libraries full of novels about writers (which we do, actually, but here’s to more bistro-owning protagonists!).