“Write what you know” is a confusing and potentially limiting bit of advice for writers.
If all writers wrote only what they knew, the fantasy genre would cease to exist. Which would be a tragedy.
If all writers wrote what they knew, you’d not get books written by a woman, with a narrator who is a man. Or written by a man in his 20s, where the narrator is a man in his 80s.
I started out my last story writing what I knew. The story is about horses and horse therapy, both of which are very familiar to me. But my narrator and main character is a horse. A male horse at that. And, as well as I know horses, I don’t claim to really know what they think.
The current story I am working on has a married couple as main characters. I have no experience being married, and not much even being in a relationship. The fact that they’re married isn’t a major factor in the scheme of the story, but I couldn’t write them like that if I wrote only what I know.
When writing something unfamiliar, however, a writer has the duty to their readers to learn about that topic and write it as well as they are able.
I am basing aspects of this married couple on married couples that I know. I based the horse in my earlier story on horses I have known, and the experiences I’ve had with them, and in doing horse therapy.
I don’t write exactly the stories that I have seen happen, or base characters entirely on one person or animal. That would be non-fiction, and I could get in trouble for writing someone else’s story.
When you write fiction, and especially fantasy, you can tailor the world of your story to fit your needs and the things that you know. But it is still good to add realistic things which your readers will recognize, such as The Hunger Games borrowing from the history of the Appalachians to describe District 12.
Adding details like that, things which your reader can see in their head, will help to draw them in, and will make the story more real to them.
How do you write things that you don’t know, or only know of a little bit? Or do you try to stick with what you know?