Writers, especially new writers, have a few common questions, which are actually questions all writers probably should ask from time to time. I don’t have all the answers, and if you decide to attend writers’ conferences, you will probably get different answers from every “expert” you ask, but for what it’s worth, here’s my take on things.
Must I write only what I know?
We’ve all heard from various writing instructors that you should write only what you know, but if that’s all anyone ever wrote about, then there would be nothing in our libraries but autobiographies. What this question always ignores is the other, to my mind more important, half of the question: How do I know what I know?
The thing is, “write what you know” should never mean “write only what you know at the time you sit down to write.” As a former librarian, with over a quarter-century of research under my belt, I can tell you that you can write about literally anything, if you do the research first.
That being said, when you write fiction, it certainly helps if you stick to places or activities or animals or lifestyles with which you are personally familiar. That doesn’t mean you can’t set your story someplace new to you, but if you do, you’re going to have to do a whole lot of research to make sure you get the details right, because if you don’t, some reader is going to point out to you that your character was driving the wrong way down a one-way street!
In my novel Words To Love By, Kate is the director of a small town public library, and Michael teaches at a small liberal arts college. As I mentioned, I was a librarian, and while I didn’t work at a small public library, I did intern at one, so I had a pretty good idea of how things worked there. I did work at a small Christian liberal arts college for a time, so I know that environment pretty well, too. And when I had a young professor who was engaged to a football coach come into the story, I had her volunteering on the chain gang for home football games—which I actually did for my five years at my last college and loved every minute of it.
If I had not been a librarian, I would have given Kate another profession, because placing her in my old job, meant I could describe her daily activities very easily. My own experience made it possible to create a realistic setting and day-to-day action much more easily than it would have had I not lived it myself.
My own experience is also why my Christian characters end up either Anglo-Catholic or Roman Catholic. I have been an Anglican all my life, so I know the continuing church better than any other—I understand a priest’s relationship with his vestry, with his wardens, with his bishop, and I’ve spent enough time in a church office to know how the day-to-day operations work. I have attended other churches over the years but not long enough to learn the day-to-day operations.
So, it just makes sense to use what you know when you write contemporary stories. I have, however, ghost-written a number of Amish and Oregon Trail stories, both of which required a great deal of research, but they turned out just fine, because I did the thorough research before and during the writing process.