I think that ‘write what you know’ is one of the most mis-interpreted pieces of creative writing advice there is. If all authors literally wrote ‘what they know’, it would lead to very introspective and unimaginative work (unless your life was wildly exciting, which mine really isn’t). I was reflecting on what it really means to ‘write what you know’, and realised that it’s more about the images and ideas which are part of your experiences in life generally, that become part of your writing in a more subconscious way.
Here’s a couple of examples. In my first children’s book, A Safe Place, the ‘booming bridge’ is a railway bridge over a busy road next to Finsbury Park station in London. It was very clear in my head as I was writing (perhaps partly because my future husband once gave me a hug underneath it while a train boomed overhead). The cooling towers that Kyla sees from the train window were part of the view on my termly train journey between home and university in York many (many) years ago. In my second book, Danny’s Adventure Bus, the traffic jam that Danny and mum are stuck in was the same jam I would sit in after a long day at work when I was too tired (or lazy) to walk the 20 minutes from the tube station home.
(By the way, the illustrators of these books had no idea what was in my head when they interpreted my text, so the illustrations aren’t necessarily those exact places. Although Paul Cemmick captures the high street pretty well…).
When I started writing my YA novel I set it in a small, unidentified town. It could be any small town in the UK – I had nowhere particular in mind. I was living in London when I started writing the book, so as far away from a small town as it was possible to get. Many years later we moved out of London, and after a few months I realised: the book’s setting, the town where Asif and Chloe live, despite me basing it on nowhere, is actually the small town in which I live now. This was a spooky realisation – perhaps writing ‘what you know’ can also be about writing what you don’t know yet but will know one day!