My personal approach to the "write what you know" philosophy is to plant an idea/thought/question/emotion/experience I've personally had into a story. That way, there's always some measure of credibility to it. Other than that, I research the hell out of every other aspect as much as I can to hopefully have something of an idea of what it is I'm writing about.
I actually agree with it (to an extent), but it took a while to make the idea work for me.
The tendency of most people is to move straight to direct, personal experience, which is maybe related to how we tend to view writers. You know, the romantic alcoholics with insane and messy love lives and tortured psyches. Or the fact that a lot of literature is inspired by personal experience.
But that's only one way of knowing something. Someone who's studied a buttload on a particular subject has another kind of knowing, one that's just as useful for writing fiction.
I've written about lots of stuff I don't know about directly. I try to speculate based on what I do know and research when I don't feel like my base of knowledge if up to the task.
I write what I know... but it becomes a pain when I don't know something. Then I either have to research it, or I find my own solution around it. The advantages of preferring sci-fi and horror as genres.
I think for the most part it is legit, but in other cases it's always a good idea to expand your knowledge. There is always something new that you can apply to your writing that may improve it in the long run.
I think it depends on what you consider to be writing what you 'don't know'—if the definition is anything you haven't personally experienced, it's a different matter than things you've never even researched.
I mean it in all the broadest possible senses; I mean every possible definition of "know". There's more than one way to "know" something.
I think you can write about things you don't know by fumbling and bumbling around and not putting much thought into it and not bothering to research or seek experience or seek the experience of others and not bothering to get to know language or the way things work. I think people who do these things don't write well, and I wouldn't call them writers.
The above list has the only ways I know that you can write what you don't know; I don't include philosophy there because thinking, exploring thought, is a type of knowing and philosophers think a great deal about what they are going to write, at least in my experience. (Kierkegaard might be an exception, I don't know; I've heard he had open books of paper lying all over his house and hundreds of pens everywhere so that at any moment, whenever a thought struck him, he could immediately write it right down.)
"Write what you know" I personally believe does not just refer to things you consciously know to be real, but also things you imagine.
Example: Your writing a story based off a fantasy creature. The creature itself does not exist in real life, and neither does the world it live in or the people it knows, but you can clearly see a picture of this creature in your mind or whenever you write down a description of this creature. Say it has horns and wings in its initial design, therefore when writing about this creature you, as the author, would "know" that this creature has wings and horns. So you are writing what you "know".
Regardless of the design of the creature (maybe scales, or is some two headed alien), without even trying a writer will automatically write what they "know". Just by writing down "scales" or "strange metallic material" (say its a robot), a writer is still drawing from personal experience that they have collected over the coarse of their entire lives (unless they've never seen, touched, or heard of scales or any type of metal). Every descriptive word used can be pinpointed down to something the writer "knows" whether it be consciously or not.
Even if a writer creates an entirely new object in their fantasy world, they will still likely use descriptive words to describe its shape, color, or use, therefore still drawing from their own knowledge and experience, and still "writing what they know".
This does not mean however that a writer can't be "less knowledgeable" about what they're writing. Example: You're writing about a modern city you've never been in, and you know said city exists in the real world. You know it has skyscrapers, modern amentities, lots of taxis and lots of people, but you don't know anything about the layout, local businesses, or actual local culture. Like several have mentioned, a writer can end up writing about a subject they didn't have the right amount of knowledge to write about in the first place.
I may have just turned myself into one of them, but oh well, just thought I would toss my own wall of text into this conversation for the heck of it.
To an extent, yes, more though that you need to have the knowledge.
Nothing irks me more than an author who obviously has no idea what they are talking about. The subject of horses is a particularly sore point- there are plenty of fantasy and even equine authors who have apparently never spent more than a few hours around a horse and get even their basic behavior so wrong I have to put the book down.
Yes, you can make SOME stuff up. But you need to understand how it works in the real world.
Heh. I know what you mean about horses. I have a friend who works with horses for a living, every time we watch a movie where a hero is riding a horse in to battle, or a horse makes a jump or something, she'll be all like, "That breed's a work horse! Not a war horse! It can't make that jump!"
I've started doing it now, too, even though I have no real personal experience with horses.
I think overall, even in sci-fi you need to have some knowledge on the subject. Of course in some things you're making things up, but you still need a touch of realism into it to make it seem just slightly plausible, right?
I think it's not so much "write what you know" as it should be "know what you write". I don't know much of anything about deserts if I were to write about a scene there... but I can do some research and then write.
You can know a lot of things without actually experiencing them firsthand. It's one of those phrases that people take far too literally. I know all kinds of things that I've never, or would never, actually do. And like the comment about fantasy/etc. writers having to 100% know their world to write it... I haven't even really wandered into a completely new world; I just changed this one enough that I had to sit down and figure out all of these things that will never ever be written but it's necessary to give a believable experience. Plus, "realism" isn't real. People like to pretend it is, but it isn't. No one wants to read a real conversation, or go through a real 'day in the life of'. Specialist scenarios - cops, doctors, space people being captured by aliens, or whathaveyou - aren't portrayed realistically because if they were 1. no one but cops, doctors, space people being captured by aliens or whathaveyou would be able to follow it and 2. actually find it interesting.
Reminds me a bit of a friend who went to an open day at one of the universities over here to see about the CW course there. All was well and good until the course leader decreed that "write only what you know," to the extent that female authors should only write female characters, because they couldn't possibly know what it was like to be male, and vice versa. Which could be an interesting socio-poilitical concept to explore, an entire world populated by a single sex/gender, though I'm fairly sure it's been done in Star Trek or something.
I knew a guy once who insisted you could only authentically write about things you experienced firsthand, and that if you'd never done a particular thing there was no way you could write about it in a way that connected with the audience. In the pursuit of research (or so he claimed), he did all manner of things, mostly illegal and with generally unpleasant results, so he could proudly claim he had this huge wealth of firsthand experience and his homeless drug addict would always be more authentic than my homeless drug addict. He didn't, however, spend a whole lot of time writing, and what he did write was generally incomprehensible to anyone but him because, oddly enough, being a homeless drug addict leaves you a little screwy.
You need to have a fairly decent understanding of how people work. If you're going to write something you've never been exposed to before, you should probably do a bit of research (by which I mean a lot). But you don't have to be limited by your own experiences. Your characters shouldn't all resemble your friends. Literature would be so very boring if people only, literally, wrote what they knew.
With a good foundation, can we build a temple? Yes.
That's a huge part of "write what you know." Set the story on a foundation that's solid, one that'll hold your imaginative "temple" and lets you build a world (read "story") on it. The path to a good foundation isn't only "write what you know," in my opinion. It branches out to experimentation once a foundation is set, and includes things a writer doesn't know 100% -- sometimes doesn't even know 25%. Writers OBSERVE and learn. That's a huge part of "write what you know" -- as big as reading a lot, using all five senses and stretching the writer's abilities beyond what even they think they can write.
It's like fledging for young birds, and here I mean falcons, a subject I did some research on for the "foundation," then spun to make a story. The chicks (read "writers") in the story learn to fly one day -- and they do it by "parental" (read "peer") urging and hunger. Some chicks make it (now I mean stories -- they fly from a nest on a cliff) and some don't. That's the way a story is. Any writer at any time needs to stretch their young wings -- experiment with something new. Be sure to apply reading, OBSERVATION and a true writer's hunger (read "need") to write.