Write What You Know: You Don't Need to Be An Alien to Write Science Fiction
Writers are often given the advice to write what they know. But have you ever really thought about what this means? Clearly, we can’t take it literally. If so, I could only write about female editors living in Florida or about former Minnesotans who escaped the cold. Not exactly fertile ground for creativity. Authors need to be able to explore characters who haven’t followed the same life path as them or else what would be the fun? For them or their readers. If authors followed that advice to the letter, we would never get to read science fiction or fantasy books. I don’t know too many authors who are aliens or who have traveled through portals to other dimensions, but I’ve read some pretty cool books about those things.
So, if writing what you know doesn’t mean you have to restrict your writing to people exactly like you who live in places similar to where you live, what does it mean? Primarily, it means to write about the emotions that you know. It means to bring your personal experiences into the stories you create. I’ve never traveled the world alone in a sailboat, but I’ve experienced fear and loneliness, so I have an idea of what that sailor might feel when he faces a raging sea or the emptiness of the ocean after several months. I’ve never robbed a bank to pay off medical expenses, but I’ve worked a job I didn’t like to pay my rent. I’ve never lost my husband in a car crash, but I can mine the grief I felt when my mother died of cancer to write about that. I can write about people doing things that are wildly different from the things I’ve done because we all have a similar emotional language. The details of the story you write—the setting, the characters, the plot—are all vehicles for these emotions. Find the common ground between the different experiences—the pain we all feel, the lessons we all must learn, the joy we all experience—and you can write about all sorts of things you’ve never done.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you can write whatever you want with no regard for the facts on the ground. If you’ve never been to New York City, you won’t be able to write accurately about getting around the city just because you know Chicago. If you’re a sheriff in a small rural town, you won’t necessarily know how cops in a major metropolitan area conduct a murder investigation, even though you both work in law enforcement. Freedom to write about things you haven’t personally lived doesn’t give you license to get the facts wrong. If you’re going to write about a place you are unfamiliar with, a job you’ve never done, or other details that your readers may know more about than you, you have a responsibility to do some research and learn what you don’t know. Few things irritate readers more than factual inaccuracies. If your reader knows it takes an hour to get from Tampa to Sarasota, Florida—and twice that in rush-hour traffic—and the character in your book gets there in half an hour, they’re going to lose trust in you. If you can’t be bothered to get that fact right, why should they believe that you’ve handled the rest of the story any better? Feel free to write about places and people you aren’t familiar with and activities you’ve never engaged in, but make an effort to learn the details about these things so you get them right. In this way, “write what you know” shouldn’t feel like an admonition to “stay in your lane” but rather an invitation to expand your experience.
Another thing to consider is how fully you can inhabit a particular character. Personally, I would never write from the point of view of a gay person or a Black person because, as a straight, white woman, I don’t feel I can understand what life in those communities is like on a deep enough level to write accurately about them. While we all share common emotions, that doesn’t mean we can all understand exactly what it is like to be in someone else’s shoes. How the history and experiences of people in those communities is internalized is out of my grasp, so I don’t feel that I am in a position to create an authentic Black or gay character. If you are going to write from the point of view of someone considerably different from you in significant ways, at the very least it would be a good idea to talk to people in that community about what they think and feel and experience. And always consider whether the story you are writing is really yours to tell or would be better coming from someone in that group.
To write what you know, search for those emotions and experiences from your life that are common to us all and give them to the characters you create so they can live a unique life that still connects to you and your readers. And expand what you “know” through research and new experiences to add depth to your writing.