One of the most confounding pieces of writing advice that gets thrown around haphazardly is “write what you know.” On the surface it makes sense: draw from personal experience so that your familiarity with the material lends a sense of authenticity and verisimilitude. However, when you think about it a little, it would seem to preclude a vast amount of possible stories. If you’re supposed to “write what you know” then how are you supposed to write fantasy, sci-fi, or even historical fiction. Moreover, many of those genre writers seem to do just fine without having personally experienced their own settings; Tolkien never set foot in Middle Earth.
I still think that “write what you know” has some currency, but we’ll have to dig into it a little bit to unpack its value.
I was first struck by this conundrum as a teenager when I read Rainbow Six by Tom Clancy. To be honest, I hated the book and I haven’t read anything by him ever since. That being said, no one can say Clancy didn’t know his material. He’s erudite to a fault when it comes to the technical minutiae of military equipment. Given his familiarity with sniper scopes and submarine radars, not to mention the author photos of him clad in bomber jackets, you’d swear this guy was a veteran. Turns out he was an insurance salesman. He’d applied to the military as young man, but was rejected due to nearsightedness.
Clancy might have lacked in literary merit, but he managed to carve out quite the niche for himself as the quintessential novelist of military techno thrillers. If he’d written what he “knew” he would’ve produced some dull autobiography about selling insurace. Hardly something that merits being adopted into a film starring Harrison Ford or Sean Connery. Point being, Clancy seemingly broke the cardinal “write what you know” rule and managed to have quite the career for himself.
You might be saying, sure that’s fine for genre writers, but what about literary fiction? Well, Hilary Mantel won back to back Bookers with her novels about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. I doubt she has access to a time machine.
“Write what you know” is more than just events, places, people, or things. It can also be abstract. Mantel didn’t know what it was like to live in 16th century England, but she certainly understood ambition. We all know what it means to be afraid, to be in love, to be angry. These feelings transcend time.
With regards to the concrete stuff, Ursula K Le Guin says “All this rule needs is a good definition of ‘know.'” She urges writers to draw on their imagination as a form of knowing. I think some people are just too restrictive with what they mean by “know.” After all, we have incredibly powerful brains, capable of imagining things well beyond our experience. It’s waste to just limit them to whatever we’ve personally experienced.
Personally, I like to write what I’d like to know. Things that I’m curious about, that I’m trying to work through intellectually. I inject these stories with as much personal experience as a I can, but I try not to feel bound by the horizons of my limited life. Learn from Tom Clancy. His vision prevented him from joining the military, but it certainly didn’t stop him from writing about it.