“Write what you know” is probably the most contested piece of writerly advice out there. Yes, writing what you know gives you authority and a personal approach; no, writing should be about discovery and taking readers to a new place.
So I was intrigued by a profile of the novelist Chris Pavone from yesterday’s Times , which highlights how his new thriller is set in the publishing world, a world that, according to the article, is a rare setting for a novel, especially a thriller, because it’s “too cerebral, too dominated by meetings, too absorbed by reading manuscripts and filling out profit-and-loss reports to make riveting fiction.”
Now, Pavone’s justification for such an ostensibly boring setting is that, “Any setting can be a good setting for a novel.” But in reality, it’s a classic case of write what you know, since Pavone served as a longtime nonfiction editor at Clarkson Potter. And not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that–clearly Pavone’s book focuses on the classic thriller tropes of action and suspense, rather than the drudgery of acquisition paperwork!
But it did get me wondering about setting in general, and whether it’s more constructive to place a story in a world with which you’re deeply familiar, or whether an exotic locale or industry is more helpful, especially for thrillers, as the article suggests. Personally, I’m not really sure–I’m usually drawn to thrillers that avoid NYC or DC as a home base, but then again, so many thrillers set abroad follow the same old trajectory of a former agent in exile forced back into action.
Where do you fall on the divide? Set the book in a world you know, or a world you don’t? And how does familiarity with the setting (or lack thereof) inform your plot?