Write what you know, they say. For us lazy ones, this is an excuse to avoid research. Realistically, though, it means showing an accurate perspective on life.
Jane Austen, for example, never wrote a secene with just men. She knew her limitations; she knew what she knew, and more importantly, she knew what she did not know. Dickens rarely writes about upper classes — at least, he focuses on the city of London and its poor. Tolkien wrote what he knew: history, mythology, England. He knew Welsh myths and Norse legends. He studied the stuff. So although his stories are set in fantastical lands full of people who don’t exist and events that never happened, his writing breathes sincerity.
This is a lesson I have to learn. What do I know of … well, anything? I hardly know myself, let alone anyone else. But I think there are two ways to “know” something: either by experience, so, firsthand knowledge; or by observation, or secondhand knowledge. Dickens knew by experience: he had wandered the streets of London, he had lived in the greying fog before he ever put a word to paper. Tolkien, I believe, knew mostly through observation: he studied, he read, he observed. I don’t think (correct me if I’m wrong!) he ever set foot outside his beloved country, and yet he was able to write entire worlds.
Of course, it helps to be a genius, I suppose. Maybe that’s what I need to work on. Hmmm …