“Write what you know” is probably one of the first bits of writing advice each of us receives. It’s usually attached to “What should I write about?” Granted, if you’re asking that question, it should be followed up with “Why am I writing if I’m asking you what to write about?”
That said, I’m here to say that this is taken WAY out of context. “Write what you know” is about 2 specific things. And it is specifically NOT 1 thing that everyone does.
First, the not: “Write what you know” is not “Tell a story you know” or “ONLY write what you know.” It’s a jumping off point.
When someone says that to you, they don’t mean “Write ONLY what you know.” If people only wrote what they knew, there’d be no fantasy, no science fiction, no historical fiction, no magical realism, and no paranormal romance (OK, not such a bad idea there).
People like Stephen King write mostly about places in Maine…because he lives there. Tony Hillerman wrote with the Southwest as a backdrop…because he lived there. His daughter is doing the same…for the same reason. Noticing a trend here?
What they know is a jumping off point. They took the vivid images in their mind, broadened them, and added to them. If King ONLY wrote what he knew, there would be no Pet Cemetery, no Green Mile (which nobody would fault history for), and no Christine.
What “Write what you know” is: Setting and emotion.
Setting: As in the examples above, many authors use a setting known to them to build scenery that captivates and comes alive. But that’s where their “Write what you know” stops. Killer cars are hard to come by in rural Maine.
Those with a backgrounds in hard sciences tend to write science fiction. Those with backgrounds in theory and philosophy tend to write with big picture concepts. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is based on a thought experiment by Socrates when he discusses the nature of man. Of course, Socrates never brought up orcs and all the other creatures, but the concept that started the ball rolling for Tolkien was a tiny forgotten thought experiment from 2400 years ago!
Emotion: This is what people REALLY mean by “Write what you know.” The emotion, the characters, the pain and tribulation that drives all stories needs to come from somewhere deep…and true.
If you’ve had the perfect life, it’s hard to identify with a black slave from the South. If you’ve never spent time with a mentally disabled person, it’s tough to identify with one. Because it’s tough to identify with them, it’s tougher still to created realistic, lovable (or loathsome) characters.
Sure, King never met a killer clown, but he knows the fear when you’re in the middle of nowhere and your brain screws with you. That fear is real.
Most of the great writers throughout history have come from sorted and tortured pasts. Drug addiction, abuse, torture, war, mental illness, poverty, etc. Why is this the case? Because someone who can truly identify with the absolute darkest of humanity can WRITE about the darkness (and the light) of humanity.
So, if you’re reading this, stop writing what you think you’re bound by. Write about the fantastic, the unthinkable. Then, dig deep into that part of the soul that few take the time, energy, and tears to venture into.