One of the most common pieces of advice handed down to writers — particularly those just starting out — is “write what you know.” It’s not bad advice on its own, but it frequently gets a bad rap. People are quick to point out how limiting such a rule can be, particularly for anyone intent on writing science fiction or fantasy stories. How many writers, after all, truly know what it’s like to rocket across the galaxy in a space ship? Who has personal experience fighting off a dragon? Even with more mainstream fiction, you can see the problem. Must you wait for your spouse to die before you can write about a character experiencing such a loss?
For me, the difficulty comes not with the advice itself but in the literal interpretation. Of course you don’t need to limit your writing to your personal experiences, or to subjects on which you’re already an expert. Focus on what you find interesting or compelling, or what has you curious, and then get to know about that subject. Fill in the blanks in your knowledge so you can do the subject justice when you sit down to write. Or, if it’s a topic that requires you to flex your imagination, make sure you research around the subject’s fringes so your imaginings feel authentic. Tolkien’s Middle Earth may be populated by imagined people and creatures, but it feels real because he applied familiar details to the world they inhabit; he described the nature and the geography, created maps to trace the Fellowship’s journey, and used his knowledge and interest in linguistics to invent entire languages for the different races. So, read up on some astronauts and their experiences with space travel. Learn about various lizards and birds and dinosaurs and see what facts about their anatomy might apply to your dragon.
When it comes to writing about what you know, emotions can be similar across different experiences. Just because you’ve never lost a spouse, doesn’t mean you haven’t lost someone you loved — a parent or grandparent, maybe a close friend. You can read accounts from people who have suffered the death of a significant other, but you can also empathize on a different level over the general loss of a loved one. How did it feel? What were your reactions? Can you imagine the differences and the similarities between your experience and the one you’re crafting for your character?
Writing is a creative endeavor, and by its very nature requires you to create as you go. If you limit yourself to writing only about the current contents of your brain, you will do yourself — and your readers — a disservice. The key is to use your own knowledge as a jumping off point. Tap into your experiences and emotions and mine those for your work, of course, but don’t discount the ideas that stem from what you wish to learn, from the fleeting thoughts that require you do some digging. Expanding your world is half the fun of writing, so stay open to inspiration and the opportunity to discover something new. If you don’t know about your subject when the idea first sparks, you will by the time you finish your final draft.