Today, in the graduate fiction workshop I teach, we’re discussing a story written by a young white woman who grew up somewhere in the middle of the country. The story is told from the point of view of an older black woman in New Orleans. The student told me she’s never been to New Orleans. Still, the story works; in many ways she’s defied the edict “write what you know.” She may not know what it means to be an older black woman in New Orleans, but what this young writer does know is music, and, wisely, she enters the story through music. I always tell my students not to take “write what you know” too literally, not to allow themselves to be constrained by it so much that they confine their writing to the most obvious realms of their knowledge. What we know goes far deeper than details of place or race or age or occupation. Emotional knowledge, or the knowledge of how human beings act and feel, is essential to a good story. Many of the external things that are alien to you can be filled in by research.
For example, I have another student who recently wrote a story about coalminers; the story seemed so true, so detailed, so accurate, that I thought she came from a coal mining family. After we discussed the story, she told me she had never met a coal miner, and had labored for a long time on the internet researching various types of mining, terminology, locations, and so forth.
Miss Snark wrote back in April:
One of the best books of all time is Stewart O’Nan’s The Speed Queen. Stewart O’Nan isn’t a girl, he’s not on Death Row and as far as I know, he’s never worked in a drive in. You’d never know it from reading the book. Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage was written by a man who did not serve in the Civil War. I’m pretty sure Anne McCaffrey as never seen a dragon, JK Rowling has never seen a wizard…That all of these people can imagine a world completely apart from their everyday haunts and suck me in so far that I not only think their worlds are real, I can’t imagine they AREN’T, is a testimony to their writing and imagination. Write well. Imagine deeply. That’s all you need to do.
Write a story in which the external circumstances are something you don’t know. Use what you do know about human nature to give the story emotional resonance. Use research to lend accuracy to the details.