Beginning writers repeatedly encounter the advice, “Write what you know.” Of course, if writers heeded this counsel narrowly and reported only what they have directly experienced, historical fiction and fantasy tales would vanish along with the best of the world’s literature.
After all, Jamie McGuire is not an alpha male and should not be privy to the secret emotions of her tattooed bad boy (Beautiful Disaster); Arthur Golden is not a Japanese woman and should not have given us his intimate portrait of “the floating world” (Memoirs of a Geisha); and Stephen Crane, who never fought on a Civil War battlefield, should not have penned his tale of cowardice and heroism—acclaimed for its realism (The Red Badge of Courage).
Furthermore, “Write what you know” might even be bad advice. Fiction by students in MFA writing programs is notoriously autobiographical or even narcissistic, starring penniless grad students awkwardly exploring their sexuality and the meaning of adult life.
So let’s take a closer look at the truism, “Write what you know.”
To begin, what do you know? Well, you know yourself. And you are already a complex of selves. You play plenty of roles in the daily theater of your life, such as daughter, sister, friend, lover, worker, soccer mom. But are you not also the 8-year-old who wanted to be a cowgirl, the high school bookworm who hung out with the misfits, the college sophomore who read Sylva Plath, the woman who fantasizes what it would be like to spend a weekend in Paris with that hunky guy in line for a latte? Without being overtly nuts, you manage to include all these characters, like the population of a small town. A Jungian psychologist would say you contain everyone you have ever been, as well as everyone you have tried to be. You are, in this sense, even the person you avoided becoming or the one you are scared of being. All of these characters are “you”—and you know them intimately.
Secondly, the idea “to know” takes on broader meaning when you consider that you “know” in wide-ranging ways. You know in your head, through education; you know in your body, through living; you know in your heart, through empathy. You know how people walk and talk and laugh and interact because you are a seasoned people watcher and eavesdropper (and, if not, please take up those vices).
To know is a matter of paying attention. Being the kind of observer who misses nothing is an essential habit for writers. A person might sleepwalk through life, and having lived for ten years in Istanbul, be unable to offer a vivid description of the unique sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of the ancient Turkish city, while a more perceptive person could visit the city for a week and then write a scene that makes you feel as if you are standing under the car-sized stones of the Roman aqueduct.
Research is another valid way of knowing. You can convincingly place a scene within a detailed setting that you have never even visited—let’s again say Istanbul—but you must first familiarize yourself with Istanbul through its history and culture, economics, statistics, street maps, photos, travel and restaurant and night life guides, and nature guides.
Of course, research has its limits. I once began writing a novel about a woman who flew a Mustang in the Reno Air Races. I did my research, including studying a mechanical manual and building a large-scale model of the Mustang. But it finally came down to this: I am not a pilot. A few chapters into the story, I realized it was not going to feel authentic. The project is on hold (at least until I can get out to Reno and actually ride with a pilot in an air race).
What my story would have lacked is the sense of immediacy revealed by little details that only experts know. Every sport and occupation, from ice skating to brain surgery, has these bits of arcana, beginning with a peculiar jargon. If you conduct interviews as part of your research (always recommended), ask your sources to provide you with these revealing particulars: “Please take a moment to think of something special you know about [skydiving, bronco riding, performing a C-section] that the rest of us couldn’t even begin to guess.”
So “Write what you know” remains good advice when it is not interpreted narrowly. Mine the deep strata of what you already know and what you can learn. And if you are an expert in a particular field, consider how you might exploit your hard-won knowledge in your fiction.