Write what you know. Possibly the most hackneyed bit of advice given to beginning writers.Agatha Christie knew nothing about being a refugee Belgian police officer. Hobbits never even existed until Tolkien created them, and I personally have no idea what it’s like to be a female PI in San Francisco.
The phrase should be Write what you’re willing to know, or better yet, Write what you want to know. All stories, no matter how fanciful, begin with a kernel of pre-existing knowledge. Christie served as an apothecaries’ assistant which provided her with a knowledge of poisons. Tolkien was scholar steeped in the knowledge of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic myths which became the basis for Middle Earth.
What background do I have you ask? What kernel of pre-existing knowledge do I bring to the table when I write. Simple, sixty-five years of watching people. I’ve been watching strangers ever since I can remember. I’m always trying to determine the objectives and motivations.
It’s all my mother’s fault. I distinctly remember a trip to Portland in the mid-sixties. We were staying in the old Hoyt Hotel in the railroad district. Dad was at a meeting, so my two younger brothers and I sat at the windows of our fourth-floor room and watched people come and go on the street below. To help us pass the time, Mom encouraged us to make up stories about the people we saw. The Hoyt has long since been pulled down. All the remains is a fenced in gravel covered lot. But the memories remain, seeds in my mind that when the time is right, sprout and grow into the stories I write today.
Picture of the hotel in Portland, Oregon, circa 1970. This view is looking southwest from 6th & Hoyt. A portion of the 511 Federal Building (which still stands) is visible behind the hotel.