Write What You Know? No!
One of the most common pieces of writing advice you are likely to hear is “write what you know.” In fact, “write what you know” and “show don’t tell” are parroted by English teachers so often as to reduce the advice to mere hackney adages with about as much weight as a feather pillow on the moon (which reminds me—you may also want to read my article on Painting a Picture With Words).
“Write what you know” is often interpreted to mean that you should only write about subjects that you are familiar with and characters who have had similar life experiences to your own. I sometimes wonder if this is why Stephen King makes many of his main characters authors and why John Grisham makes many of his characters lawyers. You can certainly try to follow this advice, but “write what you know” poses considerable difficulty for spec-fic writers (writers of science fiction, fantasy, and related genres).
Let us say you wish to write a fantasy novel about the disowned son of a lesser noble family who is drowning in gambling depts and on the run from the criminal underworld, and who soon comes upon a powerful artifact that summons a seductive demoness promising to fix his woes… for a price. How can you possibly “write what you know?” Are you disowned from your family? Are your parents nobles? Do you have lots of gambling depts? Are you on the run from loan sharks? Do you regularly find yourself making deals with demons summoned from ancient magical artifacts? If you have experienced the pain of gambling addiction firsthand, then that is certainly something you can certainly work into your story. And, of course, everyone has had family troubles from time to time. But I can say with a fair degree of confidence that you have never made a deal with a demon.
So how can we, as spec-fic writers, write what we know? We did not live through the Middle Ages, so writing a fantasy set in a medieval period should be just as impossible as writing about a far-future setting with hyperspace conduits connecting the far-flung worlds of the galaxy. Going by that rule, we cannot write about young mages attending magic school, wandering mercenary knights looking for adventure, or intrepid planetary prospectors surveying undiscovered, alien worlds. None of these things fall within our experience, and yet, they are just the sort of thing spec-fic writers write about.
Instead of “write what you know,” I would simply advise that you know something about what you’re writing. This is where solid research comes into the picture. If all that you know about the Medieval period comes from Renn-fairs, sword and sorcery movies, and D&D games, then your writing will reflect that. However, if you are setting your story in a Medieval-like setting (and especially if you are setting it in a real-world historical period, such as France during the Hundred Years War), you should do some thorough research into the subject. Do not simply turn to Wikipedia, either—read some books describing everyday life in the Medieval period and take prolific notes. If your characters are going to be riding horses, read up on horses and equestrianism, and understand the differences between riding in Medieval times versus modern times. If there is going to be sword fighting, find some 14th or 15th century swordsmanship manuals or scholarly works that deal with the subject matter.
If you are writing science fiction, a background in science is certainly useful, and you should research the subject matters relevant to your story as well. Unlike fantasy fans, who tend to be a bit more forgiving on anachronistic faux pas, science fiction fans (and especially hard sci-fi fans) will not tolerate sloppy science. After all, science fiction is about extrapolating upon known scientific principles and social developments to devise new worlds of wonder, conflict, exploration, and discovery. To get it right, you must research the relevant fields of science—whether astronomy, astrophysics, AI, genetic engineering, cloning, or plausible alien biology. Even if your story features impossible physics such as wormhole travel, quantum entanglement communications, or spatial compression warp generators, understanding the theoretical physics that make these “almost possible” will allow you to write them into your story convincingly and faithfully, without the sort of broad handwaving or superfluous technobabble that undercuts poorly researched works.
Finally, you may very well have relevant life experiences to lend to your spec-fic story. If you have served time in the military, that experience can translate to any story with a military focus—whether set in the far future, the distant past, or a secondary fantasy world. If you know how to ride a horse, handle a sailboat, fly a plane, conduct forensic investigations, perform laboratory experiments, or catalog an archeological site, then these and many more can find their way into your story. If you have known the pain of loss, the trap of addiction, the dark spiral of depression, the joy of childbirth, or the euphoria of winning in a hard-fought team sport, then these, too, can be convincingly portrayed by the characters in your story.
Writing what you know does not mean limiting yourself to your field of study, your career path, or your own life experience. But it does mean taking the time to research what you do not know before putting fingers to keyboard. Knowing your subject matter in whatever genre you are writing will make your story come to life, carrying a deeper degree of realism and immersion. Your readers will certainly know the difference, and they will appreciate the greater attention to detail, accuracy, and authenticity you have put into your story.