This is common advice, along with write from your heart. But sometimes, when things are said in sound bites, it’s easy to become confused. After all, if we only write what we directly know, we could never have a story set in space, let alone Narnia or Middle-earth. Did Asimov, Lewis, and Tolkien just not get the memo? Or does this mean that we should simply disregard this maxim?
Like ‘show, don’t tell,’ I believe the problem lies in trying to make the advice too pithy. The saying might be useful as a reminder, but only if we have a fuller understanding first.
If you’re writing of a real place that actually exists, it is quite helpful to have some first-hand knowledge of it. I’ve read that stories often don’t make it out of the slush pile because authors write of, say, New York, without ever having been there, and it’s a place that people in the publishing business tend to know quite well. If the closest you’ve been to New York is London, you might be better advised to set your contemporary story there.
I ran into a similar problem when I was writing a historical fantasy where my characters drove a wagon on the California Trail. I couldn’t do it. Looking at photos on the internet wasn’t enough. So I took six days and drove it. I burned cow chips in the campfire (the closest I could come to buffalo chips), and saw the scenery as more than disconnected highlights. After I got home, My husband and I took our 4WD truck on some of the dirt roads which still exist in California gold country, and that was another educational experience. Five miles an hour was a good pace. It was incredibly frustrating–and we had rubber tires and modern suspension.
So, get some experiences to fuel your writing. If you’ve never ridden a horse, but want to write a medieval fantasy where horses are part of the story, go riding, at least once, to have some real experience to draw upon.
And don’t get me wrong. I do a lot of book research as well, and I find it quite valuable. But I didn’t ‘know’ the California Trail deeply enough to write about it until I experienced it, at least a little. Others have managed to write novels set in places they have never been, so I won’t say it can’t be done. Still, as a writer looking to develop a reader base, it’s helpful to use familiar settings while becoming more comfortable with the fundamentals of our craft.
To return to my earlier examples of space or fantasy worlds, this is far different from a city that many people already know. You’ve made up the world–you’re the expert on it. But still, it’s helpful to give touches of things you do know well–a forest environment, or desert or veldt–whatever you can describe well enough to make it real to the reader. And even in space, to use Star Trek as a well-known example, they showed people eating together, sitting at tables or a bar talking, or in their quarters with beds and bathrooms, as well as on the bridge of the Enterprise. Putting elements that you understand into your imagined setting can help tie the whole together.
And your characters have to come from people you’ve known. They can certainly be composites, but everyone can relate to a whiny coworker, domineering relative, jealous love interest, or the guy who insists on telling jokes even though they’re never funny. And we need to find the courage to write from our own viewpoints, about the pain of betrayal or ridicule, the heartache of love turned to indifference, or the joy of looking into your child’s eyes for the first time–this is material you truly know because you’ve lived it, and you can make it come alive for your readers.
And then you’ll be writing what you know and writing from your heart.