Write what you know? Or, no.

I’ve just finished Present Danger by Stella Rimington, another cracking good (but, let’s face it, not particularly complex) read.

I’ve always been interested in people who write fiction in an area that’s closely related to their professional lives. And you don’t get much closer for a spy fiction author than having been Director-General of MI5. Indeed, it brings to mind that oft-repeated advice to ‘write what you know’.

I do wonder, though, whether in cases like this it’s just a bit too easy to translate your professional experiences into fiction…which then means the work lacks a certain spark, the kind of spark that someone writing about something foreign to them often seems to produce.

Extending this a bit, perhaps this is what underlies a friend of mine’s loathing of genre in general. After all, while the confines of genre don’t make it easier to write a work, they certainly give you a structure that’s otherwise missing.

But this wasn’t meant to be about genre. It’s about writing what you know.

Does that lead to the death of creativity? Is it in fact the worst advice a writer can give, or get?

Or is ‘what you know’ simply the logical starting point of any writer, no matter how abstract the work then becomes (David Foster Wallace and Infinite Jest I am looking directly at you)?

Discuss.