“Write what you know” is one of those nebulous pieces of Writing Advice that everyone picks up along the way. It’s something that no one bothers to explain, because it seems such a simple concept–sort of like “show, don’t tell,” which I didn’t puzzle out until like 2 years ago, but that’s another story. Because, at first glance, writing what you know sounds pretty restrictive.
Never sold a car? Can’t write a car salesman!
Never been to Europe? Can’t write Europe!
Don’t have a penis? Can’t write a male POV!
All of this, however, is complete and total bullshit. What “write what you know” means, in actuality, is write whatever the hell you want, but know what you’re talking about. If you’re writing a car salesman, and you don’t know shit about sales, cars, or corporate America, maybe you should do your homework. Will it help if you’ve actually done it, or if you know someone who has? Of course. But that isn’t always an option, and you shouldn’t restrict yourself, because no one can do everything.
So what does “write what you know” really mean? It means never stop learning.
I write urban fantasy, and sometimes violent things happen. But I’ve never been in a fight, I’ve never killed anyone, and I’ve never seen a dead body. I don’t actually want to experience these things, but I have managed to gather into the fold people who have. I’m taking a martial arts class, and one of my beta readers used to work for the Sheriff’s Department. The first few drafts of fights and dead bodies were awful and will never see the light of day. Hell, I wrote a sex scene when I had no business writing one and it was terrible.*
The point is this: what you do, as a fiction writer, is write LIFE. I’ve mentioned this before, but it is very fucking important that you remember your role as author. Authors/characters/books/series are popular when readers can relate to them. They’ve got to find something in the character, or the situation, that resonates within them, something that makes them point at the book and shout, “Yes! That! Exactly that!” It’s your job to find the life in a thing and poke it until it’s articulate, then put it out there on the page. So if you’re just bopping along, saying nothing important or poignant about life, no one’s going to give a damn about what you have to say. It’s only when you get the essence of a thing, of an event or a feeling or a person, that people feel that connection.
If you’re a female geologist who’s never left Mississippi, you can write a male car salesman from France. You just have to do some research.
Okay. A LOT of research. But that’s the fun part, right?
Live a little.
*Disclaimer: I’m not saying go out and have sex if you want to learn to write a sex scene. I’m saying that what you see in movies (porn and mainstream) is not the way it actually works. But if you do want to roll around in the hay for the life experience, please use a condom. End PSA.