You have more than likely heard the direction “write what you know” from an agent, editor, mentor, or English or writing instructor. But what does that mean? Does that mean someone who is only thirteen has less value to what they “know” than someone who is 23, or 63?
“Know”ing something is relative, and I don’t like the idea of limiting our imagination to our small realm of experience. Research can help broaden said experience/knowledge and gives us rare gems of opportunities to grow as a writer and as a person.
Instead of viewing “write what you know” as a boundary, let us look at it on the flip side. Each person has a different realm of experiences as it relates to relationships, challenges, and the environments they have coped with. Add to that each person’s unique perception, and you have a broad bank of what you “know” that someone else may not.
An example: Mary Sue was raised on a 30-acre farm outside a small town. She had chores on top of her school work, wasn’t allowed in front of the TV until it was too dark to play outside with her siblings, and had both parents.
Mary Sue is a survivor of child molestation by a next-door neighbor boy at the age of 8 years. She grew up with anger management issues, a fear of commitment, and later discovered she had intimacy issues. She was stubborn and strong-willed. Impatient. Numb on the inside. At the age of 17 she realized she still needed to pray the “sinner’s prayer”, and at 23 she faced the fact that memories of being molested were not bad dreams but reality. Now she relishes emotions, strives to be patient and understanding, and is determined rather than stubborn. So, though her environment and life experience has been sheltered by living in a Christian home with both parents, she knows about pain, suffering, and the cause/effect which comes from reacting to situations in rage.
So, ask yourself “what do I know?” What challenges have you faced in your life? What hard decisions did you need to make? What fun experiences? What chance -of-a-lifetime events? These are key to writing characters and situations others can relate to, even on a small scale, because you understand the emotions behind them. Research can fill the rest, talking to friends and family, reading.
You may not know about space or life on a space station, but is the storyline ABOUT the space station? Or is it about the characters inside? Pull from your experience, your instinct, and your imagination. Common sense can help, too! The understanding of cause/effect.
You might think you don’t know much, but I bet you know and understand much more than you realize. Take a moment to list them out.