In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
Begin by interpreting ‘write what you know’ as broadly and inclusively as possible. If you’re a plumber, you know plumbing, but that is far from the extent of your knowledge; the heart also knows things, and so does the imagination.
We’ve all heard that advice before. Write what you know. I heard it so often growing up, and I still hear it to this day. And even though it’s kind of a cliche, there is some validity to the saying.
When you write what you know, you ultimately have expertise in something that not everyone else has. You’re able to pull from your experiences and memories to make for fiction that reads truthful from beginning to end.
For example, I’ve been teaching at the college level for six years now. I know that world really, really well. And whenever I set a scene in that kind of setting, I’m able to do it better than someone who might be thirty years removed from college or who’s never taught a day in his or her life.
I’ve also been writing almost every day for the last nine years. Fiction. Essays. Academic writing. Screenplays. So much creative work. I definitely understand the work of the writer, and what he or she goes through on a daily basis. This is probably why Stephen King writes so often about novelists in his books. This is why so many writers love to write about writers.
I also have written and directed short films, more than thirty or so between the years 2001 to 2009. This is why I’ve written a lot about filmmakers in my novels, particularly since not a whole lot of filmmakers end up going on to write novels. It’s a profession that many know about but know little of the ins and outs. My middle grade novel currently on submission to editors is about a young aspiring filmmaker. There’s a documentary filmmaker in my new MFA thesis novel. My most recent adult novel is about a corrupt filmmaker who will go to any lengths to be successful. I LOVE writing about filmmakers. Because I know that world, and understand its highs and lows, the sheer rush that comes with the process but also the high chances of disappointment.
So, yes, it’s important to an extent to write what you know.
If you take on a novel with characters who work in different professions than your own, who are characters wholly unlike yourself, you’re going to need to do some research. You can’t just pull everything you write out of your own imagination. If you’re writing a profession you know little about, it’s probably in your best interest to read about it, even speak to somebody who does it. You don’t have have an excuse as a writer to just make it up and hope that you get it right.
At the same time, though, King is right: the heart and imagination know things, too. So don’t just write book after book only about what you know. Free your imagination, and challenge yourself to write about different professions, different experiences. Use your heart to guide the way, and then also use whatever research you need to make sure the specific details come across as authentic and true.
Try new things, always. Remember to put in whatever research is necessary.
And never forget to listen to your heart and imagination. It’s amazing how far these two things will take you!