Aspiring writers are often advised to write about what they know. This is sound advice. However, those who would heed it often put too narrow an interpretation upon this counsel. By “write about what you know,” the advisor is not suggesting that, for example, a bricklayer write only about laying bricks or that a chef write only about preparing meals. Let me quote from a not-always-reliable source that many would advise you (and well) not to use, Wikipedia, a free, online encyclopedia the fault of which lies in the fact that anyone is allowed to “edit” almost any article at any time, concerning Hans Christian Andersen.
Plain in appearance and painfully shy, especially around women, this ugly duckling longed for a life of love, but had to settle for one of fame. I quote the article concerning Hans Christian Andersen and the pathos of his life:
Unlucky at love, Andersen was happy to find friendship with Charles Dickens, but, alas, during a visit to the English author’s residence, he overstayed his welcome, and Dickens never answered his fellow writer’s and former houseguest’s subsequent letters:
Andersen often fell in love with unattainable women and many of his stories are interpreted as references to his sexual grief. The most famous of these was the opera soprano Jenny Lind. One of his stories is “The Nightingale”, [sic] was a written expression of his passion for Lind, and became the inspiration for her nickname, the “Swedish Nightingale”. [sic] Andersen was often shy around women and had extreme difficulty in proposing to Lind. When Lind was boarding a train to take her to an opera concert, Andersen gave Lind a letter of proposal. Her feelings towards him were not mutual; she saw him as a brother. . . . A girl named Riborg Voigt was the unrequited love of Andersen's youth. A small pouch containing a long letter from Riborg was found on Andersen's chest when he died.
At one point he wrote in his diary: “Almighty God, thee only have I; thou steerest my fate, I must give myself up to thee! Give me a livelihood! Give me a bride! My blood wants love, as my heart does!” Other disappointments in love included Sophie Ørsted, the daughter of the physicist Hans Christian Ørsted, and Louise Collin, the youngest daughter of his benefactor Jonas Collin.
In June 1847, Andersen paid his first visit to England and enjoyed a triumphal social success during the summer. The Countess of Blessington invited him to her parties where intellectual and famous people could meet, and it was at one party that he met Charles Dickens for the first time. They shook hands and walked to the veranda which was of much joy to Andersen. He wrote in his diary “We had come to the veranda, I was so happy to see and speak to England's now living writer, whom I love the most.”Ten years later, Andersen visited England, primarily to visit Dickens. He stayed at Dickens’ home for five weeks, oblivious to Dickens’ increasingly blatant hints for him to leave. Dickens’ daughter said of Andersen, “He was a bony bore, and stayed on and on.” Shortly after Andersen left, Dickens published David Copperfield, featuring the obsequious Uriah Heep, who is said to have been modeled on Andersen. Andersen quite enjoyed the visit, and never understood why Dickens stopped answering his letters.
As unlucky in friendship as he’d been in the pursuit of love, Andersen was a lonely man who longed for continuous companionship, which led, perhaps, to the many hours he spent in writing the stories for which he was famous, many of which deal with characters who, like Andersen, made unhappy attempts to establish lasting and meaningful, if not intimate, relationships. In other words, in a larger sense than our bricklayer would write only of laying bricks or our chef who would write only of preparing meals, Andersen wrote what he knew: the heartache of loneliness and rejection such as make up the themes of such of his tales as “The Angel,” which is “about an angel and a dead child gathering flowers to carry to Heaven where one flower will sing when kissed by God”; “The Fir Tree,” which “was cut down for a Christmas tree. . . . bought and decorated” and “expected the festivities to go on,“ but, instead, “was was burned and the happiest day of its life was over”; “The Match Girl,” which is “about a girl who dies selling matches on a wintry New Year's Eve,” soon after seeing “a vision of her deceased grandmother, the only person to have treated her with love and kindness”; “The Little Mermaid,” which is “about a young mermaid willing to give up her life in the sea and her identity as a merperson to gain a human soul and the love of a human prince”; “The Nightingale,” which is “about an emperor who prefers the tinkling of a music box to the song of a nightingale“ and “is believed to have been inspired by the author's platonic relationship with opera singer and fellow Scandinavian, Jenny Lind”; “The Ugly Duckling,” which is about “a cygnet” who is “ostracized by his fellow barnyard fowl because of his perceived homeliness,” but “matures into a graceful swan, the most beautiful bird of all”; and others in the same vein. It is not difficult to see how these stories might be derived from the author’s own feelings of rejection and loneliness.
Another example of a writer who seems to have written many of his short stories, if not so much his novels, from what he knew is that of H. G. Wells, who, John Hammond, founder and president of the H. G. Wells Society and the author of the “Introduction” to The Complete Short Stories of H. G. Wells tells us, suffered “several ‘false starts’ in life” before winning “a scholarship to the Normal School of Science at South Kensington (now part of Imperial College) where he studied biology under T. H. Huxley,” graduating in 1890, only to have “his subsequent career as a teacher. . . cut short by ill health” and “a breakdown” that occurred in 1893. While “convalescing” from this “breakdown,” Wells “began articles and short stories and was soon earning his living as a journalist.” The victim of ill health and other setbacks, Wells wrote stories that followed a set pattern, or formula, Hammond observes:
In each case the central character is an ordinary person whose life changes in an unforeseen way and who finds it difficult to return to normality.
. . . [His] stories are undoubtedly entertaining and are meant to be read for pleasure, but of course Wells had a more serious intent in mind. They are designed to stimulate thought, to suggest possibilities of behaviour and to alert the reader to the immense role of chance in human affairs. The typical Wells hero is a person going about his everyday affairs whose life is turned upside-down by a random event or--much in the same manner, we might add, as his own life was turned topsy-turvy by his “ill health” and “breakdown,” which diverted his career from one of science to one of “journalism” and the writing of fiction. In other words, like Andersen and many other writers, both of horror and other genres, Wells wrote about that which he knew--about “an ordinary person whose life changes in an unforeseen way and who finds it difficult to return to normality” and about “the immense role of chance in human affairs.”
encounter. . . .
In most people’s lives, there is a defining moment, “a random event or encounter,” as Hammond characterizes such a time, that transforms one, making him or her what he or she becomes. If one aspires to write, it is of this moment that one should write, letting it give shape to narrative after narrative. It is this that is meant by those who counsel aspiring writers to “write about what you know.”
Complete Stories of H. G. Wells, The, ed. John Hammond. J. M. Dent, 1998.
“Fir Tree, The,” Wikipedia
“Hans Christian Andersen,” Wikipedia
“Little Match Girl, The,” Wikipedia
“Little Mermaid, The,” Wikipedia
“Nightingale, The,” Wikipedia
“Ugly Duckling, The,” Wikipedia