One of the most misunderstood directives new writers get is to “write what you know.”
Do you think H.G. Welles actually went to the moon? Did Steinbeck travel across the dust bowl? Did Melville fight a white whale?
Too many beginning authors get paralyzed by this: “But I don’t know anything about being a spy, so how I can write a good spy novel?”
Come on, if you limit yourself to “writing what you know,” well, your work will probably be very boring. Who wants to read about someone who drinks a lot of coffee and spends hours typing in front of a computer screen?
It would be better to take the negative form of this advice: Don’t write about what you don’t know.
They key, then, is to research. If you’ve never ridden a horse and your character spends days in the saddle, then find out what that’s like. Make it real.
We’ve all been frustrated when we read about something with which we have personal knowledge and found it lacking. As an attorney, I get very frustrated when some courtroom drama doesn’t follow the rules of evidence or otherwise completely misrepresents what a trial is like. Computer programmers hate it when the hero hacks into systems in ways that are impossible, and historians throw away novels full of anachronisms.
You have to write what you don’t know if you want to create believable characters. I am a straight white male in his early 50s; in order to write about people different than me, I have to do some research. I have to observe other people; I have to talk to them; I have to get into their minds and imagine how they would react to the things that are happening to them in my story.
I don’t know everything. I have to learn. I have to be willing to expand my experiences, because I don’t want my readers to roll their eyes and lose their suspension of disbelief when I go so far as to be unreasonable.
While writing BLOODSUCKERS (forthcoming), I interviewed an FBI agent to learn about their procedures, used Google Maps to determine where my characters were traveling so I could describe the area accurately, did research on vampire lore across the world, and otherwise tried my best to make the world in which my fantastic story takes place be real and meaningful. I don’t want a reader to stop and say, “Oh, come on now…” when I wrote about something in their area of expertise.
So go ahead and write that spy novel. Just do some research first so that you don’t place The Louvre in Rome.