I'm writing this in Edinburgh on June 4th. The weather is gorgeous. The sun has been shining without pause since first thing this morning, crimson peonies are exploding into bloom, and the air around my garden office is filled with crazy blackbirdsong and the familiar smells of this part of summer - mown grass, crisp lilac, sweet hyacinth bluebells and Mexican orange blossom from the bushes outside the open office door. I'm hot, but not too hot. My skin is drinking in the sunshine and a slight burny feeling heralds a bit of a tan that I know I shouldn't welcome. I know these smells, these sounds, these feelings. I could write about them in February, because my imagination could conjure them back again. In fact, the ability to conjure them up again is pretty much the only way I can get through February.
When this post goes out, however, I will be in Kuala Lumpur, doing some talks for the Cooler Lumpur #Word festival with the Edinburgh World Writers' Conference and the British Council. I've never been to Asia, never been anywhere tropical. I cannot conjure up the sounds and smells and the feeling of humid heat because I've never experienced them.
I could try to use my imagination. I could think about Malaysian food and con myself into believing I know what it smells like in its own place - but I know I'd get it horribly wrong. I could try to recall experiences of being far too hot - Crete in a July heatwave at 40+ degrees, every day, with no air-con; Phoenix, Arizona in August, with a lot of air-con. but somehow my imagination doesn't bring it properly to me. I can't feel it. Besides, it was dry heat and KL won't be.
Or I could make it up, but that would be unsatisfying.
There are only two ways for me to know what I'm going to be feeling like as you read this. One is to be there, as I will be. And the other would be to read the words of a skilled writer conveying it.
Because that is what words and good writers can do. They can make us feel the cold and the heat and the smells, as though we were there. I have never believed that "write what you know" thing because writers have imaginations to fill the gap but there are some things I think you do need to know. I think the more we know and have experienced the more real and more natural our writing can be.
So, writing what you know may not be a good restriction but it's a valuable tool. It adds spice and flavour. And heat.
And I think that what good writers try to do when we describe something is to convey that reality and to share the heat. To make people feel and smell and taste and see.