In many ways, “Write what you know” is limiting, if not downright stultifying advice for would-be novelists. Apart from military personnel, law enforcement, physicians, nurses, EMTs, financial experts, moguls, and other professionals who do write dramatic novels based on their work experiences, most fiction writers seldom do even a small seldom do even a small percentage of the things their characters do, at least physically. The majority rely on their own more mundane backgrounds and plenty of research to enrich their characters’ dialogue and create experiences vivid and exciting to read about. They apply what they’ve learned through hours of research, which includes talking to people who know more than they do about the subjects at hand, as well as reading the novels written by those professionals.
There, now you have it, advice from an "authority" on the subject of writing--reading work by others is good, good, good for your career!
To enhance the scenes they create, most fiction writers employ their own senses, their own emotional and mental reactions to events, and apply them to their characters’ responses. Every writer has feelings we can use to enrich our imagined experiences. All we have to do is dredge them up out of our own psyches, minds, and gut feelings by asking ourselves, “What would be happening inside me if…” or “How would I feel if…” or “How long could I tolerate this if…” and “How would my life be changed…” Each writer has to become her characters, to draw on the varied, often disparate sides of her own personality to discover the answers to all the questions she has to ask of her characters.
I’ve never been to space. My only experience with weightlessness was enjoying negative buoyancy while scuba diving and imagining how weightlessness in space might feel similar, which allowed me to apply that to the experiences of my characters. I’ve never been through a space-fold that took me far beyond the night sky I’ve seen all my life, but my characters saw familiar constellations appear skewed because I imagined it would be that way when each group of stars was seen from a different angle a few hundred astral units beyond the customary view.
I’ve never been mountain climbing but I have studied mountains through binoculars while mentally inserting my terrified fingers and quivering toes into cracks and crevices that appeared impossibly small even to my enhanced vision. I’ve watched climbers on film and in person, scarcely able to breathe while they ascended. My fear of falling helped me write about a character’s sensations in the moments before her rope stopped her slide when she did slip off an insecure hold. I knew this terror from a time when I scrambled (very briefly!) up a climbing wall. Thanks to that foolish stunt, I managed to inject my initial fear of falling into my character’s emotion because it created contrast to the intense sense of accomplishment when she succeeded and reached the summit. (I didn’t get that on my climbing wall. I had to be helped down from maybe twenty feet up, but I turned my disappointment on its head and reversed my self-disgust in my character’s mind, giving her, instead, a sense of triumph–the emotion I feel when I finish a first draft.)
I believe the advice “Write what you know” was mainly intended for non-fiction writers, such as those who write articles aimed at specific markets, or those talented people who compile how-to books based on their own experiences and knowledge. It would be pointless to write an explanatory article on fly-fishing if you haven’t learned the specific techniques involved, body movements probably not easily gleaned through research, but only by doing and putting in hours of practice. If you’ve never so much as planted a seed, you need practical experience before you can write a good, helpful gardening book or one about post and beam house construction.
Writing what you know also applies to location. If you’ve never been to Seattle you might be able to create a walking tour on paper by using Google Maps. That’s great, you can even see pictures of the place, learn the street names, picture the buildings. You won’t hear sounds specific to the place, though, feel the rumble of a ferry’s engines under your feet or see the utter grandeur of Mt. Rainier’s bulk looming above the city. You’ll also be far too likely to repeat a misconception you’ve heard all your life—that it rains all the time. It does not. If you’ve never been downhill skiing, don’t put a novice on a black-diamond run. If you’ve never been to a Caribbean beach, or on an ocean liner, or visited the inside of a submarine it’s hard to write about those places with authenticity. Research helps, but personal knowledge is better when it comes to setting a scene in a place readers might know well and find fault with your impressions.
So, if you’re writing non-fiction, by all means, write what you know. But if you’re writing fiction (apart from the above advice about location), let your imagination be your guide, but research well and thoroughly so you can inject a strong degree of reality into the scenes you write. Your readers want to go with you on your adventures and the only way to carry them along is to be authentic and help them feel what your characters experience through your imagination and the authority with which you write
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