The title of this little post is a command issued to all new writers as they first try their hand at putting clear, compelling words, sentences and paragraphs on paper. “Write what you know,” they’re told over and over At first glance it sounds reasonable, even a little obvious. But it comes back to bite and sting if a person gets careless and tries to “fake” knowledge. If I can put it more broadly: you’ve got to know what you’re talking about.
Suppose you want to write about medicine (to use a field I’m familiar with). Let’s say you’ve got a novel going and one of the characters is a doctor. Whether a main character or secondary, it doesn’t matter. In order to be taken seriously as a writer, all of the details about that doctor, including dialogue, mannerisms, actions, habits, and so forth, have to be realistic and correct. You will have to do some research about doctors and nurses and medicine in general before you can write convincingly enough to keep from having your readers throw your book down as silly and absurd. You have to know what you’re talking about. For example, I can remember seeing some old movies and early television shows where the writers obviously didn’t know what they were talking about, and many of the doctor and medical shows had several really obvious and glaring errors in them. They didn’t do their homework and it showed.
It isn’t all that difficult to find out a few important facts and figures about the subject you’re writing about. A little research goes a long way. Whether you use the internet, the library, one-on-one interviews, e-mail interviews, or whatever, the important thing about doing research is that then you will know what you are talking about. Even knowing a limited amount about a subject is better than going into it blank. You will have the knowledge, you will have the expertise and your stories will be all the better for it. The concept, “Write what you know,” will still be as valid as ever. If you don’t know much about medicine, you’d be really stupid to try to wing it.
In many cases, it may turn out that you don’t use all the knowledge you’ve accumulated, but you should know enough that what you do write will be accurate. Take the time to do the work and it will show.