It’s one of the hoariest, most misunderstood and now altogether useless clichés in writing: “Write what you know.”
Taken literally, it would seem to make the entire canon of modern science-fiction and fantasy utterly invalid, as well as the vast majority of crime fiction. Nobody has ever set foot upon another world, met an alien or an elf (that we know of, I suppose) or traveled faster than light. Few of us, though still far too many, have experience as either the perpetrator or a victim of crime on the scale of your typical thriller.
Of course, the literal interpretation is wrong. There’s only so much life experience one can put into any book, and the further from that experience you get, the more you’re going to have to wing it. Especially when it comes to genre fiction. To find an interpretation of the maxim that works, I find you have to do a bit too much wordsmithing.
Therefore, unilaterally and without any real authority, I hereby consign “write what you know” to the murky depths, and may God have mercy on its trite soul. In its place, I offer this: “Write what you can figure out.”
This is a lot harder than it sounds, by the way, so don’t get cocky.
Writing is a form of extrapolation based on both emotion and logic. Even stories firmly rooted in modern reality require extrapolation on the part of the author, unless the story is entirely populated by clones of the author. (And even if it were, you’d have to imagine how it would feel to be in a universe populated solely by clones of yourself. That would be…weird. And in my mind, annoying.)
Let’s start with logical extrapolation: You have to figure out how the world works. In The Daedalus Incident, I go into a great deal of detail about what a future Martian mining colony might look like. I did a ton of research on current thinking about Martian exploration and the feasibility of mining on Mars, then extrapolated that out, logically, 120 years from now. Likewise, I then had to extrapolate how such a colony would be staffed, funded, etc., and that led me to try to understand how the politics and economics of our future world might look. That kind of logical extrapolation works well.
Logic meets emotion when it comes to characters, and extrapolating both is key. In my book, one of my major protagonists is a British Royal Navy officer in the year 2132, a woman of Indian descent. She’s a pilot, a warrior, an astronaut and highly educated. So how do you make her more than the tough-smart-scifi-chick with a darker skin tone? There are far too many characters in fiction, genre or otherwise, who have a label slapped on them for no good reason other than alleged diversity, and I wanted to do my best not to go down that road.
First, I did research on current race and gender relations in the U.K. at large and within the British military. I also then looked at the progress of race and gender equality over the past century, then figured out where it might stand over a century from now. (I admit, my result is tinged with optimism, but here’s hoping.) The fact that she’s Indian isn’t just because I wanted someone of color, but because the balance of race within Britain — and the U.S., for that matter — is already changing dramatically. I felt that should be illustrated by the protagonist herself, and thus I needed to figure out how women and Indian immigrants have fared — and could fare — in the U.K. This then informs the character’s background logically, and provides an element that informs her emotions as well.
Then there’s the plot, which provides situations for the writer to extrapolate further. Given that there are two very different settings that come together in the book, I also had to research race and gender relations in the late 18th century…and they were very different. Those disparities greatly informed my characters’ reactions to each other when the plot brought them together. (As you can imagine, words were spoken, weapons were drawn and there was some pretty good dramatic tension.)
I’ve no idea what it’s like to be a female British officer of Indian origin on Mars in the 22nd century, faced with the mores and biases of an 18th century gentleman. Who does? But I figured it out. And her race and gender were just two facets of her overall character — each important facet needs similar attention. So does the setting. So does the plot.
“Write what you can figure out.” That means doing the hard work of both research and imagination, logic and emotion. I think readers can tell when you’ve mailed it in, so make sure you’ve figured everything out before committing the story to print.