There is a school of thought that insists that writers must only write. That the purity of the vision, the single-mindedness of the task is compromised by other activities and interests. Pshaw (Wodehouse), Humbug (Dickens) and Gorblimey (Blyton) I say to that.

Because imagine Hemingway sitting at home sipping his tea before he minces over to his typewriter to tickle the keys. Imagine Byron swaddled in a mohair rug by the fire in his grand old pile in Nottinghamshire trying to string a poem together while muttering self-pityingly about his gammy leg. Imagine if Agatha Christie hadn’t had the wit and spunk to do a Gone Girl on her errant husband, playing the doormat instead. And that’s besides the many archaeological expeditions she accompanied her husband on, to which she is now understood to have contributed to quite as much as he.

What kind of literature would they have left behind? Not the vigorous, wise and lyrical work they did produce.

If Hemingway stayed at home simpering, instead of being the man of action he was, he might have drafted a fishing manual or two, because his neighbourhood creek would be as far as he’d have ventured.

If Byron was not the swashbuckling hero of the Greek Independence war, club foot be damned, he may have managed some watery verse, but never the Don Juans and Childe Harolds that stirred a continent.

And what would Agatha Christie’s classic mysteries be if she hadn’t led a life full of adventure, ingenuity and sass?  Certainly not the inventive whodunits that have gripped generations of mystery lovers.

Writing from their lives

In other words, a writer must have lived, I mean, really LIVED, to be able to write – write movingly, write with insight, fill their pages with beauty. Anyone can string words together and call it a piece (but a piece of what?), yet for those words to jump out and grab you, they must be infused with the emotions and wisdom of a life well lived.

Would Graham Greene have written The Quiet American if, in fact, his life had been quiet? If he’d never left his life of privilege as scion of Greene Kin Brewery to join the MI6, travelling extensively, collecting his sharply delineated, astute, and world-weary storylines and conflicted characters as he went, he would not have become half the writer he was. Maybe a quarter. Seeing out his days in a quaint English cottage composing many more Babbling Aprils than Our Man in Havanas to the world’s eternal loss.

And Alice Walker could never have written the powerfully moving The Colour Purple without having lived through grinding poverty, deeply entrenched racism, permanent blinding and her passionate involvement in the American Civil Rights movement.

Remember your mother standing over you at the dinner table, saying sternly “you are what you eat”? Well, it’s the same for writers. If green beans give you spunk, an eventful life hands you adventures to weave into your stories that are both exciting and authentic.

And fries make you Dan Brown.

Living in their imagination

Oh OK, so the world is now full of tweenies and layabouts who’ve struck gold with their first ever offering before having lived any sort of life at all. This is reflected in the originality of their plots (boy meets and then loses girl tearjerkers, lazy takes on mythology, dead boring feuding families tomes, and spies spying earnestly thrillers).

While live-a-lot-write-as-much authors make me think deeply and soul-searchingly about the world I live in, these dabblers make me blink. Blink in astonishment that they have even been published.

I will admit there are some very fine authors who have not ventured far from home. Jane Austen comes to mind.  She rarely left her little village in Hampshire, occasionally venturing as far as Bath to take in the airs and meet a different class of gentlemen.

Lewis Carroll, too, never really went anywhere except in his imagination (but oh my, the travels he managed in that realm). And Kiran you-can’t-wear-western-clothes-in-India Desai is said to have bagged an array of awards without ever having lifted a finger except to type (she may lift it again though, just to sue me).

You see, you crow, a truly fine writer’s imagination makes up for any deficiency in experience. Did Tolkien know The Shire, travel to Middle Earth, finger any rings? He clearly based the Shire on the green and pleasant landscape of England and the sweep and drama of Middle Earth on Africa which he knew as well. As for the last, well, ahem, rumours abound in Oxford where he taught, but let’s not go there.

What about the super-successful Stephanie Twilight Meyer or Fifty Shades of fame EL James – did the former hobnob with alluring vampires and the latter with half-naked hunks wielding feather-tipped whips? Probably not, but you wouldn’t believe how real the figments of a bored woman’s imagination can become (I should know, I was at home bringing up babies for two solid years). The smiling milkman, the attractive deliveryman, the ever-so-helpful plumber would have provided templates for the dashingly deviant characters Meyer and James went on to create.

Every writer needs oodles of imagination, no doubt about it. But it is to transmute the everyday into fiction gold. To use the springboard of reality to soar to worlds never envisioned before. “Write from what you know” they advise, but then embellish, embellish, embellish, gild and polish. A good writer is one with the directorial talent to get his all-singing, all-dancing imagination to fall into perfectly synchronised step with his Vaudeville-worthy life.

Loving and writing

But what about Jane, you say. Well, Austen wrote about love. And she did love. Passionately. Though it may not have worked out for her (makes a better story though, doesn’t it?).

And so did Emily Bronte, of whom it is said in wonder that she wrote the most tumultuous of love stories when she loved no man at all. But she did love. She is known to have loved animals, and the moors she lived in and her close-knit family, intensely. Because a writer must love. It doesn’t matter what. It could be the turbulent, torrid love Mary felt for Percy Bysshe, or the gentle inquisitive love Gerald felt for all animals (including his eccentric family). Or, for that matter, Jack’s love for the road.

A writer must feel strong emotion to be able to convey it to his readers. He must feel it for his subject or his reader won’t either. A book has to have love poured into it; be a labour of love, if you will. Or it is only half a book – like a, ahem, Half Girlfriend.

And writers must know the business they are writing about. Or you have gaping holes in the plot that a sceptical elephant could slip through. Like in Michael Crichton’s Timeline, where people whoosh through tubes and pop up in puffs of smoke in Medieval times, entertaining though it all is.  Le Carre, for example, knew espionage as well as Herriot knew sick sheep and Dickens, grimy bottling factories where little hands worked away painstakingly night and day.

Anthony Trollope continued to work at the Post Office for most of his life despite becoming one of the most successful authors in Victorian England. But his job took him travelling all over the British Isles and gave him more to write about than he would have had resting on his writerly laurels in front of the fire in his snug English home.

So, piffle I say to purity and swipswop to single-minded writing. A writer is the sum of his parts.  To write engagingly, he or she must do so much more than just write.

Shreya Sen Handley is an author and illustrator for British and Indian media and publications.