“Bad books on writing tell you to “WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW”, a solemn and totally false adage that is the reason there exist so many mediocre novels about English professors contemplating adultery.”
– Jon Haldeman
In 2009, I moved to China. I was 21 and, as the day got closer, more and more terrified of what I’d gotten myself into. I didn’t speak Chinese, nor had I ever had an inclination to travel to China in my life. In those few months leading up to the move, I gleaned what little bits of Chinese I could from my Chinese friends at work (though not a thing stuck when I got there, I’m sad to say). I was also taught the proper way to hold and use chopsticks. That did stick, fortunately.
China is about as foreign as you can get when traveling. Even in the largest cities, you’ll stumble across things that make you do a double-take. The next year was spent with a lot of miming, getting stared at, and fumbling my way through an entirely different culture with less grace than I would have hoped. I did learn, at some length, how to count, bargain, and order food. The three essential skills in China. The rest can be done with by staring for a prolonged period of time until you understand. Naturally, that means getting to the train station early. But I digress.
Say I had never been to China, though. Would I still write about it? Would I have my characters go to Beijing and eat meat on a stick off a cart on the street?
Writing only what you know can be a trap. It’s easy enough to get caught up in your own life and only write characters from your town, your background, with your goals and dreams, but characters in books are more than you. They have their own dreams and goals and they come from different places. If they don’t, people might find them boring.
Drawing from your past is a great starting point because it gives your characters real life experiences, but it isn’t a book about you (unless it’s a biography, but that’s another fish). You have to expand and write beyond yourself. I’ve been to China but I’ve never been to Greece or Russia or Australia. Does that mean I won’t send characters there someday? Of course not. The only catch here is to do your research. You may not have been there, but readers will certainly know that as well if you don’t do the research first. The same goes for characters of different professions, who live in different locations, who have medically issues. Write outside your box but be authentic. Most of all, don’t be afraid to write what you don’t know.