When I started writing fiction one of the first "rules" I heard was to "write what you know." I thought about it and it made sense. Why? Because "what you know" is familiar and when you write about something you have knowledge of, the story will be more believable.
But I soon ran into a problem. Why? Because in the global scheme of things, I don't know an awful lot. Once I've written about being a wife, about motherhood and carpools and life in suburbia, about being a customer service agent on a Space Shuttle support contract, about middle age and life as an empty nest, then what? Does writing come to an abrupt halt because I've run out of "what I know?"
"Write what you know" is a good place to start because it makes those first efforts a bit easier. You're at least working from within a certain comfort zone and there will be some things you don't have to worry about. That leaves you plenty of time to worry about verb tenses, passive voice, point of view, dialogue, show versus tell and all the other "rules" you hear about.
Then there comes the day when you've run out of "what you know." What do you do then?
It's easy. You use your imagination, you do research and you watch and listen to the world around you. Draw on the people you know, the people you meet, the places you've been and want to go to, the books you've read, the movies you've read and every other type of experience you can imagine. Ask the question "What if..." and see what the answer is.
Then sit down and write what you don't know. That's what I've done for the last year because I certainly don't know about:
- Owing back taxes and penalites to the IRS and having my husband commit suicide when he can't pay them
- Taking a honeymoon alone because I found my fiance with another man on my wedding day
- Working as the head of guest services at a ski lodge
- Finding my fiance with another woman just weeks before the wedding
- Single motherhood with a severly handicapped child
- Being a female soldier blinded by a car bomb in Iraq
- Donating eggs for an infertile Jewish couple
- Discovering the girl I suspect is my husband's mistress is in fact his illegitimate daughter
- Having cybersex with a much younger man and finding out he's my best friend's son
- Planning my daughter's wedding and having the plans hijacked by her social-climbing stepmother
I got them from people I knew, articles in newspapers and magazines, and online research liberally mixed with my own imagination. And how do I feed my imagination? I read a lot. I watch and listen a lot. Not all the ideas I jot down end up as stories. Some days I just can't quite weave a story around that juicy bit of gossip I overheard at the mall. But I never discard it because the day may come when the light bulb goes on and it all falls into place.
Keep writing what you know and when you run out of ideas, keep on writing because you actually know a lot more than you think.
P.S. As of Monday I could definitely write about a woman on a diet. While the rest of the Playfriends are on the Weight Watchers program, I'm doing the South Beach Diet. So far I've not killed anyone over sugar -- or more precisely, the lack of it.
P.P.S. Thank you all for the birthday wishes. It made the day even more special knowing you care. :-)