One of the truisms is write what you know. Lately I’ve been seeing a log of people question that idea. They say “I write science fiction, I can’t write what I know.” or something of the sort. I think they are fundamentally misunderstanding the rule. I also write science fiction, and I write zombie survival horror. Of course I haven’t lived any of the worlds I write about, of course I can’t write these things from experience. Then again, that’s never what the rule was about.
I have never survived months of trekking through a zombie infested apocalypse. I have been afraid. I have been hungry. I have been so tired I didn’t think I would survive, that my body was going to fail on me.
The write what you know advice is about that. If you have never known terror, it’s a bitch to write about someone who is terrified. Write what you know is about the characters internal state, not the external world. It’s about capturing what your character is feeling as they flee for their life, what if feels like to try and breathe when you are running as hard as you can for longer than you ever have in your life, what it feels like to hit a wall of despair, when your losses have mounted, and mounted, and mounted, when you can’t see hope in front of you. That’s writing what you know.
If you have depression, you can write depression far better than someone who hasn’t experienced it. If you have been in the depths of poverty you can describe the life circumstances of you character who is on the run and in hiding in poverty. If you have never been in a fight don’t write a fight scene, at least not from the perspective of a participant, maybe write it from the perspective of an observer instead. You’ve probably seen a fight in your life, and you know what that part feels like.
So, writing what you know isn’t limiting you to only things you have experienced, but it is limiting you to only things you have felt, at least things you have felt something close to.