"Write what you know" is one of those things writers like to say ad infinitum and like most things writers say ad infinitum it becomes more of a pointless chant than an actual lesson. How does one write what they know? Can you only write well what you know? What does this mean for writing about fighting dragons or stabbing prostitutes? Does this mean we have to go out and do something before we can write it well? As it always is with this kind of one-line writing advice, there's truth but you need to go into detail. Delve. It's never as simple as it sounds.
Right now I'm working on a story that involves a car chase through an American city. It's set in the early 1930s. Now as a 20-something, Australian suburbanite I have not been to America, I have not been in a car chase and I did not live through the 1930s. So how can I possibly write it well if I don't know it?
Well first of all I like to think that I can rest easy knowing that the majority of my audience for this story will also not have been in a car chase or lived through the 1930s. It's also a fictional city so there's no risk of them having been there. But this doesn't mean I can make up any shit and sell it to them and they'll accept it because they don't know better.
So here's where I start to think about what I do know.
I live in a city, I've seen lots of other different kinds of cities both in my own country and around the world. So I think I know enough to write about a city. Thanks to the library and Google I can pretty easily find pictures and information about the 1930s. Populations, fashion, architecture etc are all things I can study and learn. So in fact, not having experienced this fictional 1930s city is no problem because learning what I need to know is cake. But wait, this is also an American city. How do I know what America is like? Well, let's say I set my story in the Autumn (the best season). My fictional American city occupies a similar place, geographically, to Seattle. So again I go to my various founts of wisdom and read about Seattle. Wikipedia tells me that Seattle is temperate and that in October the average temperatures are 15, high and 8, low in October and that Autumn is typically a rainy season for Seattle. Well damn, I've been in 8 - 15 degree weather heaps and I know what rain is like. So even though I've never been to my fictional city - or even Seattle - I can learn about them and find the common ground between the things I do not know and the things I do know. I need to write about a 10 degree autumn night? Bitch, I got this.
But sure, that's the easy stuff. What about the car chases? What do I know about car chases? Well I know my protagonists will be in a convertible with the top down. I know they'll be going fast. I know they'll be taking corners hard, the air will be cold, shit will be getting in their way so they'll be swerving and dodging. Now I go through the same formula. I look at what I do know and find common ground. Going fast with the top down? I've been on roller coasters. That's going fast in an open car. I've been in traffic where people drive poorly and the car I'm in has had to stop suddenly or swerve. I've been on high speed freeways where the world starts to lose clarity because I can't look at anything for long enough to make out the detail.
From my earlier years as a motorcycle and Go-Kart hobbyist I know what it's like to be in control of an engine going faster than any man sensibly should drive. I know what it's like to struggle against a steering wheel, to lose control, to weave around other drivers and take corners hard. I know what it's like to have my vehicle fish tail, spin out completely or crash side on into a wall. This is all on a small scale, full of safety equipment but hey, nothing is perfect.
Now I can reflect on all these relatively safe and domestic experiences of mine and I can mix in big spoon fulls of imagination, scale things up and BAM, there's my scene. I'm writing and I'm writing everything based on what I know.
"Write what you know" is an invitation to cheat. It rests on the idea that there is in fact a finite ways we as people can perceive, process and thus experience the world around us. We all have the same emotions, we all have the same senses. When we're told to write what we know, we're not being told to limit ourselves. We're being told to be conscious of the human condition and apply the experiences we have in life to the experiences of our characters have in the story.
And now you know.