Beginning writers, and even some of us who’ve been writing for some time, are told to ‘write what you know.’ I have to confess, I’m not at all sure just what that means. If I write only about the things that I’ve experienced directly, fantasy and science fiction are off the table – at least until space travel is within reach of all of us, and magic is commonplace. I’ve never seen an ogre or a fairy, but I know in my mind what one would look and act like. I’ve never been to the Planet Mars, but I think I could do a fairly good piece about a Terran explorer on that planet, and his or her encounter with a native Martian.
Why would I be able to do this? Because, writing fiction, in the first instance, is an exercise in using your imagination. This is not to say that you shouldn’t do some research to make what you make up credible. For instance, knowing the rotational period of Mars might make your imaginary Martian society more believable, and we writers are, after all, asking our readers to suspend disbelief for a while.
I think a better suggestion for a writer would be to ‘write what you can learn.’ I’ll give you a few examples.
In my historical series for young adults, Buffalo Soldiers (now up to three volumes), I write about a fictional small unit of soldiers from the Ninth US Cavalry in Texas a few years after the Civil War. In the first book, Trial by Fire, I introduced the main character, Ben Carter, and the men in his unit. In the story, they had an encounter with a band of renegade Comanche warriors who were raiding ranches in the area. I inserted a few historical references, such as the date the unit was founded and where, and I used the real name of the white colonel who commanded it. Everything else was made up. In book two, Homecoming, I had Ben return home to visit his father. The towns and terrain, an area of East Texas where I spent my childhood, were authentic, but everything and everyone else – pure fiction.
In book three, Incident at Cactus Junction, which was recently released, except for references to the type of weapons the soldiers used, everything and everyone in the story was a figment of my imagination.
Now, I was never in the cavalry; my time in the army was in artillery and subsequently Special Forces; I don’t even ride a horse very well. I lived in the west, mostly Texas, Oklahoma, and Arizona, so I’m relatively familiar with the terrain and some of the towns and cities – but of the twentieth century, not the late 1800s. I use archive photos and descriptions in history books, and my imagination, to set the scene. I sort of make up the dialect my characters use, partly from how I remember people talking when I was a kid, and partly just out of my mind to provide character tags.
I think it works; at least a few of the people who’ve bought and read the first two say they found them entertaining and credible – and, educational.
So there; you don’t necessarily have to restrict yourself to writing ‘what you know.’ If you have a good story to tell, a little research, and a vivid imagination might be enough. In the end, it’s how well you tell the story that really counts. If you can avoid really stupid errors – like having a cavalryman of the late 1800s firing his rifle repeatedly without reloading; the US cavalry used the Springfield single shot because of its accuracy, durability, reliability, and cost, instead of the Winchester repeater that you often see in movie westerns – you just might help your reader suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy your story.