Write what you know. Really?

‘Write what you know’ is one of the commonest and most basic pieces of advice given out to aspiring new writers.  It also has to be one one of the most unhelpful and restrictive, placing a noose around creative thinking and pulling it tight.  There I’ve said it.  And hopefully I’ve finally freed myself from the ‘write what you know’ demon.

Ditching this piece of advice is particularly important for me as I tend to write fantasy, sci-fi, and horror.  I have no personal experience of ghosts, dragons, werewolves or of living in times other than my own, and that little demon knows it and sits on my shoulder whispering in my ear ‘are you sure that’s believable?  What do you know?’  And yes, I’m sure every writer questions themselves but being told to stick to what you know adds unnecessary pressure to the world of self doubt.  Stopping stories before they’ve even been started.

For example: you have a great idea about a story you’d like to write set on a space station but you never start it because you don’t feel you have enough of a science background, or a ghost story in a Gothic mansion but you’ve only ever been in a modern detached house.  These could be great stories.  You’ll never know unless you write them.  Use your imagination and instead ask the more important question ‘what if?’  Tell the us about the characters and check the details later.

I wish more workshops and books began with a few words setting a scene and then asked you to imagine what happened next.  Emphasising the importance of ‘what if?’

I wonder if two of my favourite authors Philip Pullman or Neil Gaiman would have written their books if they had stuck to ‘write what you know’.