I’m not sure how I feel about the famous “Write What You Know” advice. There’s an ugly flip side to it that says, “Hey, if you don’t know it, then you can’t write about it.” I hate being limited like that, and it lights a dark fire in my skull that shrieks, “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!” Fire in your skull can be amusing but unhealthy, so I approach this a few different ways.
There’s the “Back off!” way, where you decide to write about space aliens and zoophycos ichnofacies just to spite the advice. You may not know anything about these subjects, but everybody can go hang.
There’s also the “Well, I do know a lot about slaughter houses/crocheting/restoring furniture, so I could throw that element into my next novel,” approach, which I personally adore. I’ve read a zillion books where people fall in love. Ah, but if she falls in love with a soldier on active duty, that’s very different from the book where she falls in love with a widower with three kids, for example, or a farmer or guitarist. The every day things in your life might be thrilling to somebody else.
There’s also the “I know what loneliness feels like, so even if my story is set in 16th century France, it’s still something that I’m familiar with,” approach. I received some very good advice once. Agent Andrea Brown said that no matter what the genre is, if you focus on the classic things like love, betrayal, and death, almost anybody will be able to understand your book.
And, of course you can go out and learn the thing that you want to write about. My motorcycle scenes fell a little flat until I actually went out there and *gasp!* learned to ride a bike. Suddenly I realized that my main character’s motorcycle maneuver would have actually SNAPPED HER LEG OFF had she performed it as written. Whoops.
There’s another approach as well: tap into your resources. I wanted to write a scene about boxing, and I’m sure this will surprise you, but I’m not a hardcore boxer. I kick box but I’ve never sparred with another person, and I don’t have the time right now to run out and sign up for a class. So what did I do? I ran to K. Allen Wood screaming, “Ken! Ken! You simply have to tell me all about boxing!” He knows all about it. Did it for years. I was saved!
I just received a wonderfully detailed email describing exactly what I needed to know. Ken also included several videos, and that was helpful, too. Not did he tell me what was going on, but he showed me so I could understand it better. Cool? Cool.
So sure, write what you know. Write what your friends know. Go out and learn it so you can write it. But never, ever let somebody tell you that you can’t write something because you don’t know it. You’re just not familiar with it yet.