The adages and axioms about how to write are legion, but none perhaps more universal than “write what you know.” In many ways, this advice makes perfect sense–one thing most readers seem to say they want in their fiction is for the story to be “authentic,” although that definition could be open to interpretation (true, genuine, real, accurate.) I take authentic to mean believable, in the sense that in the universe we have created, the facts seem plausible, and the emotions and psychological makeup of our characters are consistent and congruent. There are distinct advantages to writing what we know–we don’t have to fact check as much. When I write a medical romance, many of the technical details are so ingrained I never have to think about writing the action scenes.
On the other hand, if I’m writing a shootout between Secret Service agents and terrorists, I have to research what kind of weapons and ammunition are used, what the their range might be, what kind of protective equipment is worn, and a host of other details. Not only is the writing easier when we write the familiar, we’re more likely to incorporate small details that enhance the scene. Similarly, when we write what we know from an emotional place, if we’re honest enough, we can instill in our characters the kinds of compelling conflicts and reactions that resonate with readers. Our characters become more “real.”
But writing what we know isn’t without detractions. On a simplistic level, if we only wrote what we knew, how quickly we would run out of things to write about and how boring our books might be. If we only wrote what was real, fantasy and paranormal would automatically be discounted. Many of our mystery and romance plots, as well. And as to emotional truths, what if we’re writing about a vampire? Oughtn’t they have different sets of moral codes, psychological profiles, and emotional reactions (assuming they have reactions) than humans?
Fiction is the creative equivalent of freedom–we can create worlds, rewrite history, and imagine outcomes that might never happen in “real life” as long as we fashion a believable foundation for the social/cultural/ and biologic basis of the universe and script characters who are emotionally consistent. Our personal experiences are the launch pad from which we create our fiction, and drawing on personal experience can only enrich our work.
One of the most important elements of writing what we know, as I have experienced every time I write about familiar places, is setting. In Homestead, I chose to write about my own front yard. The farm where almost all the action takes place is actually my farm, and the roads and landmarks and villages and most of the people are actually real places and based on real individuals. In addition to the ease of writing a place that is so familiar, I think familiar places instill in us an emotional connection that comes through in what we write. I know when I wrote the Justice series and placed it in Old City Philadelphia, it was easier to write with the kind of observational detail that simply can’t be called up from Google maps or information on the Internet. I know that some of the most difficult settings I’ve had to create are places I have not personally been. Setting becomes a character in our work when it has special meaning to us, like Provincetown has for me in the Provincetown Tales.
Obviously, that is not to say we cannot write about places we have never been, or we’ll be right back in the same restrictive situation we are emotionally and psychologically if we only write what we know. While the benefit of actually visiting the place we’re going to write about cannot be overstated, the Internet does provide us with lots of information about climate, architecture, language, and all the other conditions we need to know to write about a particular place.
So my humble advice: write what you know and want to know, set in places you love—from the heart.