Just scratching the surface of all the writing instruction and advice that’s available, you are bound to not just stumble over this axiom but get hit over the head with it – repeatedly. And it makes sense. As a writer, you should strive for authenticity in your work. You don’t want anything you commit to paper to jar your reader and risk pulling them out of the world you’ve worked so hard to create. So the best way to avoid false notes is to write about things you’ve directly experienced. The things you know.
As sound as this advice seems, I also find it to be incredibly limiting. What if I didn’t grow up in South Boston but I want to set my next story there? What if the main character in my WIP is an insurance salesman but I don’t know the first thing about deductibles? This is where “write what you know” breaks down for me – at the intersection of what is prudent and what is necessary for your story to be your story. What I mean by this is in some ways, sticking to what you know is ‘safe’-- as in no nitpicky person can point to some element of your work and say “I don’t believe that” or “That could never happen” because you have the life experiences (or you acquire them a la Nathan Fillion in Castle) to back it up. But some stories, if we are to do them justice, push the writer beyond what they know so they can explore new things or seek out information on topics they never considered before.
As someone who writes historical romances and speculative fiction, I write about time periods hundreds of years in the past and future. If I were to take “write what you know” at face value, I should never have devoted hours and hours to developing plots and characters that belong to these far-off time periods. I should have stuck to writing academic articles and technical reports, or better yet, become a journalist.
Just because I choose to write about time periods I could never hope to have firsthand knowledge of doesn’t mean I don’t know what I’m writing about. I do research. A lot of research. Think hours spent at the library among the dusty books, and then many more reading and interpreting what I’ve discovered. The Internet has made some aspects of research easier, but I still spend loads of time conducting google searches or scanning wikipedia articles in addition to exploring other online sources. Even the speculative works require research so that I can understand where we are currently and make educated guesses as to where we are headed.
I am constantly learning, constantly exploring, so that when I sit down to write, I am making an informed choice in how I bring my stories to life with the appropriate details. I can do all the research in the world, but at some point my imagination must make the leap from fact to page. And that’s the part that thrills me every time I embark upon a new story.
Do I get it right? Probably not always. For my historical pieces, there are maybe a couple dozen owlish academics scattered around the globe who could tell me what I get wrong. As to the speculative works, well, I’m not going to live long enough to know whether I guess right or not. That’s for posterity to suss out. But that’s ok, because I write what I want to write, not what someone else thinks I should based on my life experiences so far.
So I would like to take this opportunity to say that “Write what you know” should be modified to “Write what you know or what you are willing to explore” so that the axiom does not dissuade others from writing what they want, regardless of whether they have firsthand knowledge or not.