I’m sure as a writer you have all heard of the old adage, “write what you know”. Frankly, this phrase drives me crazy and while I understand the concept, I think it’s wrong.
Tom Clancy wrote his debut novel while working for an insurance company. In 1983 at the age of 38, he published The Hunt for Red October. He obtained his research through books, interviews and papers and had two submarine officers review his finished manuscript. It was his attention to detail that made him a good writer, not necessarily what he knew.
You could also put Michael Crichton into this category however I’ll enter this one with caution. Prior to his breakout novel The Andromeda Strain, he wrote a lot of crime novels under the pen name, John Lange. We can argue all day about what he “knew” but my point is, knowledge isn’t always the antecedent for interest; in fact, it’s usually the other way around. In his professional career, his foundation was the medical field, not: time travel, paleontology, crime or medieval studies.
Dan Brown had an interest in music long before ever becoming a writer. After college he worked as a musician for a few years before teaching Spanish to 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. In 1993, six years after he graduated from Amherst, he was inspired to write thrillers after reading The Doomsday Conspiracy, by Sidney Sheldon.
What would we do if Tom Clancy limited himself to writing thrillers about working in the insurance field, or if Michael Crichton wrote medical guides, or if Dan Brown just decided to stick to teaching Spanish to middle schoolers while maybe dabbling in music because what he knew wasn’t interesting enough in his mind to churn out number one best sellers? Don’t get me wrong, they all used their instincts and abilities, whether it was Tom Clancy’s incredible investigative skills, or Michael Crichton’s infusion of science and the medical field along with his imagination, or Dan Brown’s early fascination with puzzles and his creative mathematical mind which allowed him to comprise complex thrillers. Those are all important components to their writing but if they stuck to just what they knew, they would have limited themselves in what they could have written.
Curiosity is often the catalyst for knowledge. It’s what drove us as children to discover, it’s the fuel for philosophy, it’s why Einstein challenged the properties of gravity and came up with the theory of relativity and it’s also how we as a nation were able to go to the moon.
If you want to limit yourself to writing only what you know, then go right ahead. It may work for you but some of our best writers are explorers of what is unknown to them, and choose to immerse themselves in a world of fascination so that in turn, they can deliver that world in the form of riveting novels.
So maybe that old adage “write what you know”, should be changed to, “write what you are interested in”.