When it comes to writing, there are certain axioms writers (and many readers) know very well. A particularly vexing one is this:
Write what you know.
Unfortunately, this phrase is open to interpretation as well as misunderstanding, so every writer's mileage may vary wildly. I confess that it plagued me for years and made it hard for me to get down to the nitty-gritty of what I wanted to write about.
"Write what you know."
Why did this trouble me so? It troubled me because I was a teenager when I first wanted to write for a living, and as such, I had lived a fairly "ordinary" life. Nothing exceptional had ever happened to me. If I wanted to write about the life of a rock-and-roll musician, this so-called logic dictated that I didn't know enough about it to do so. Nor could I write about being a mother (no kids), or being a sex object (soooo not me!) or a pilot, or anything else which came to mind.
I read the work of Hemingway (in school - Old Man and the Sea was the only book of his I ever read for pleasure and halfway enjoyed) and suffer inside. He'd traveled, fought as a soldier, run with the bulls; you know, he'd actually done stuff. While I didn't expect to have my books taught in schools the way his were, I didn't feel like I could ever meet that standard.
I wrote, though, letting my imagination carry me and my writing fulfill my daydreams. When I married the first time (too young, but that's another story), I kept writing and expanded the short stories I'd written for school. I continued to dream, and quietly longed for adventure so I'd have something worth writing.
I knew I had talent. I just needed something to write about.
I continued submitting my work to agents and publishers, and continued to rack up my rejections (so very many rejections!), never realizing my work wasn't up to par for one particular reason: I wasn't putting myself into the story. I don't mean literally writing a character who stood in for me in the story (that would be a 'Mary-Sue' and I was desperately trying to avoid that), but I wasn't digging deep enough into my own inner workings to give the reader something to identify with.
My life, just like anyone else's, took many, many unexpected turns: divorce, a new long-term relationship, moving across the US, the end of that relationship, another move which took me back to where I'd lived before splitting with my first husband. In the interim I dealt with a very real case of writer's block which lasted five years and managed to significantly derail any progress in my writing self-education. When I finally got back to writing, I finally recognized the lack of emotion in my work, and set about crafting stories which would touch on deeper points.
It wasn't easy. It didn't come naturally. It took ages of writing things I'd never show anyone else. It took crumpling up the paper and throwing it away, deleting the computer file, re-reading and realizing what had seemed so stunning on the first pass was really just a foundation to build on, then razing all the excess and building anew from the germ of an idea I'd started with in the first place.
Eventually I wrote something I wanted to share with everyone. I'd started mining my own wealth of emotional experience and putting it on the page, one way or another. A new novel developed which drew on memories from my life, which I tried my best to share as clearly and honestly as I could, while still giving the story to the main character. It was his story, after all, not mine.
Anyone who was willing to read this project was given a copy and asked for their opinion. I was pretty shameless in this regard, but it went over well enough to tell me I was finally on the right track, even if I hadn't quite reached the destination I had in mind. To my amazement, the story elicited honest-to-goodness tears in several readers, and compelled one very special reader in Italy to contact me and share his thoughts on the first pages.
That novel, as good as it seemed to be, hasn't yet been published. Reading it now I see only that it's a good, solid foundation to build on. I will, one day, but there's a lot of research I'll need to do first.
The thing is, I've come to realize that life itself is research. Every hobby I've ever had was research. Everything I've done in my life is research. Every day I spend living and breathing and feeling is research.
It's all research. My job now is to find the story to go with it.