I attempted to catch up on my magazine reading this past weekend. I came across an interview with Brad Thor, author of The Last Patriot and other thrillers, in the December 2008 issue of Writer's Digest. (Yes, I'm very behind on my reading!) Near the end of the interview, Thor said, "'Write what you know' is the worst piece of advice you'll ever hear as a writer. If people only wrote what they knew, we never would've had a Ray Bradbury; we never would've had a J.K. Rowling."
I see Thor's point. I'm sure Jules Verne never journeyed to the center of the Earth, traveled around the planet in 80 days, dove 20,000 leagues under the sea, or hopped a rocket to the moon. Yet Verne certainly wrote classic novels on each of those topics.
But I also think Thor's statement is too simplistic.
Consider, for example, crime novels with cops as protagonists. Clearly novels by Ed Dee and Joe Wambaugh, both former policemen, demonstrate authenticity--the grittiness of the street, the language, even the pacing tells the reader, "This is about real cops." Yet, Ed McBain, perhaps best known for his police procedurals, never wore a badge.
How did McBain accomplish the verisimilitude in his 87th Precinct novels with no experience like that of Dee or Wambaugh? How could he write realistically about cops if he never served on a police force? Simple. He became knowledgeable. He interviewed cops, spent time with them, read police reports, rode with cops in patrol cars, did his research. I'm sure Ed Dee and Joe Wambaugh could point out sections in McBain's books that don't ring true to a cop's ear, but to the average reader, McBain's work sounds true--and that's really all that McBain needed to accomplish.
So, although I agree with Thor, it's clear to me that it's not so much what you know (or don't know), but what you can learn and, perhaps more important, what you can imagine. Jules Verne certainly mined his imagination. So have Ray Bradbury and J.K. Rowling.
Thor also said in his WD interview, "I tell people to write what they love to read because that's where their passion is, that's where they're going to find their voice and where their talent is going to shine." I totally agree. What better way to become knowledgeable than reading your favorite genres and learning about your favorite topics?
So, definitely write about what you know--but don't be limited by what you don't know. Do your homework. Read, read, read. Refuse to limit your knowledge and never be afraid to use your imagination.