It is commonplace advice for writers to “write what you know”.  I disagree.

This may be a good strategy for non-fiction writers, though a random sampling of the field suggests it is advice more honored in the breach.  In fact, some of the very best non-fiction is written by journalists or other professional writers.  I am sure you will immediately think of some counter examples.  If Oliver Sacks doesn’t immediately leap to mind, then for goodness sake get yourself to a bookstore!

But I have most frequently encountered “write what you know” in discussions of writing fiction.  My kneejerk reaction is that, as fiction is an act of creativity, it’s subject is always new, and thus necessarily unknown.

This is, of course, trite, if tautological.  Fiction is essentially new, but so again is every moment we encounter, real or otherwise.  Our minds, fortunately, see the patterns in the burbling surface of experience; we work in metaphor, and see the known in the new.

But given that, it is nonetheless fair to say that we work harder to find the familiar in those experiences that are farther from our daily reality.  When we walk down the street in a foreign country, we see the pattern of shop and house, pedestrians and pigeons, but our eyes flit about faster, and our hearts beat harder, and our minds work over those patterns: we don’t just find the familiar in the new, but in doing so, we find the new in the familiar.

It will come as no surprise that I crave that buzz; that’s why I read Science Fiction and Fantasy and all the related genres that seek out the new and strange.  But what do you do when you sit down to write such stuff?  As a writer of speculative fiction, you are offering your services as a tour guide into the unknown for the reader.

If you live in an interesting place—the fictional version of Paris, say, or the Smithsonian—then you can probably lead the reader around your own block and they will be astounded.

But make sure your spiel is not diminished by your own familiarity with the neighborhood.  Don’t fail to point out that shop on the corner, the one with the hodgepodge of old furniture, or shout over the sound of the kid strumming a guitar on the steps. Whatever you do, don’t forget that the tour group is here to see something wonderful and new; you need to see around you as they do, and take them along a path that best reflects their foreign viewpoint.

If you maintain discipline and a sense of delight, it is absolutely possible that you can make a tour of your own neighborhood interesting, even wondrous.  But if you have developed the alertness and eloquence to do so, why not gather the group, wave your flag overhead, and head out across country, to places you have never been?  What better way to show the reader the unknown, than to journey into it with them, turning to track the same flapping wings, stumbling over the same strange root, staring “with a wild surmise” at the unexpected vista?

That’s all very well, you might say, but “write what you know” is reassuringly prescriptive.  You’re sitting there, staring at a blankly reflective screen: what to write?  Where to start?  “Ah ha!” you say, startling the couple at the next table over, “I will write what I know!”  And maybe that’s a good place to start, with an idea or character or setting than comes from your experience.  The tour has to start somewhere, after all, and it’s a good idea to gather the readers together around a familiar landmark.  But you needn’t stay there long.

Fortunately, “write what you don’t know” can be prescriptive, too.  For me, it means reading.  A lot.  Anything and everything.  The front page of Wikipedia has a rotating assortment of articles on strange topics of little obvious interest:  read them.  There are magazines at the dentists you would never consider buying:  read them.  Fiction magazines insist on including stories from authors you have never heard of:  read them.

Once you’ve discovered something new, hopefully something of unexpected wonder, then you have to plot a path through it.  For me, that involves research, which inevitably leads me off the path; sometimes I find my way back, and sometimes I end up somewhere completely different.  And of course it involves all of the tools of storytelling:  character, plot, description, dialogue.

The idea of story as journey is an old one—the basis, perhaps, of magic and religion and art—and it should be as applicable to the teller as the audience.  So, instead of droning your way through the details of your familiar world, take the strange path down which you will lead your readers, and hope to stay one or two steps ahead of them; hope that they won’t notice that you’ve got the map upside down and that it’s beginning to get dark and that something out there just growled

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