Gemi Sasson's blog, My Dog Ate My Manuscript, has a very interesting post today. It's about the idea of "write what you know". This is advice often given to young people who want to write "something", often by earnest teachers of high-school level English. There's a good use for this idea, and I'll get to that shortly, but Ms. Sasson argues, and I agree with her, that if writers stuck only to "what they know", our world would be a lot poorer for it. She gave the example of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and I'll have a little more to say about that, later on. Her point, however, was that if Tolkien, or other writers, too, had stuck to "what they know", then Lord of the Rings and other famous pieces of literature would never have been written. Which is why advice like this, though well-meant, can be absolutely deadly, and often discourages those who might want to write(or do something else that's creative, for that matter), from ever putting pen to paper, or, nowadays, words into a computer. Because what many people know, or think they know, is pretty "mundane". It is true that there are some writers who have a real gift for taking this mundane kind of experience, and turning it into fine writing. E.B. White did this very well. But he was as much an essayist as a "writer", though Charlotte's Web is a classic of children's literature, and there's no doubt that E.B.White was a fine writer.
The majority of us who write, however, don't have this kind of gift, and while doing E.B. White-type essays might be good as exercises, most people probably won't develop this gift, even if they have it. Writing is, after all, is, even when one is writing about something "factual", partly about imagination. The "imagination" part is the ability to write prose that makes people want to read whatever is written, producing images or insights into the facts about which they are writing. I have a nonfiction book I'm just finishing called The Forge of Christendom, whose author is very good at taking historical facts and putting them into colorful and compelling prose(though I'm not entirely sure how reasonable the man's central thesis is, though that's not relevant here).
But unless one is writing certain kinds of literary fiction(and even here, the imagination of the author plays a very important part, in the way the story gets put together), writing "what you know" of "daily life", would be excessively confining for many. So, Ms. Sasson's question "what about writing what you don't know?" is, in my opinion a legitimate one.
Besides, if one truly doesn't know anything much about, say, molecular genetics(i certainly don't, though I refer indirectly to some aspects of this in my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals), there are resources available where one can learn the basics, if one so desires. A writer can learn about almost anything he or she doesn't "know", if they can find the proper research resources. For example, I knew absolutely nothing at all about Neandertals before I started try8ing to write Great Science Fiction Masterpieces, and I still don't know all that much. But then, based on my reading and research, nobody else really does, either. There never were very many of them, and things like culture don't exactly fossilize.
However, there is a sense in which writers always apply "write what you know". Sometimes it's a bit obvious, even crude, in a way. Some authors write their dogs or cats into their stories. I've read at least two authors who quite consistently do this. This is certainly a form of "writing what you know", but the books the authors in question wrote, were about things that never happened in their lives. Some other authors project aspects of themselves onto their characters(e.g., describing lots of their characters as blond if they themselves are blond -- yeah, I've read an author who does that, too), or writing fantasies based on the place they grew up in. Stephen King did this kind of thing)and to some extent, still does), in his early novels; they're all set in a town in Maine very much like the town he grew up in. He just asked "what if ---?" and has made a pile of money from the answers he came up with, yet I doubt if anybody has experienced much of anything in the way of events he came up with. I've never met a Neandertal and never will, but certain characteristics of some of my characters are partly based -- and I"m aware of this at least in retrospect, if not actually when I'm writing about them -- on the personalities of family and friends. The Pacific Northwest and its ecology features in some of the material I haven't yet gotten to, but will probably take up again. sooner or later, because I "know" the ecology so well. After all, I grew up here. But the products of that knowledge is not strictly factual; there aren't, as far as I am aware, any Neandertals living in former timber towns, nor are there any wolves -- yet -- in the forests on the "green" third, which is where I live. I imply use some of these elements as part of the story, to create unique "flavors". How well I succeed doing this is, of course, another question entirely.
So "write what you know" is not an entirely useless piece of advice, though I think it is too often wrongly suggested. "Write what you know", is in other words, something not to be understood absolutely literally. Rather, I think the writer ends up using what he or she knows from his or her own daily life and lifetime of experience, and applying it to characters and situations. Most good writers end up learning how to do this one way or another, but it's a gradual process, and hardly a dictum. So, writers beware! If somebody tells you, "write what you know", you should first refer them to the link I posted above, ignore the advice, start writing, and then see where your writing takes you. I can guarantee you that, in some fashion, you will be "writing what you know", but not in a literal sense. And I can also guarantee you, that if you do this, you will avoid the creativity-killing deadliness of it, and you will actually be able to write(or do something else that is creative).